The former head of the US Communist Party assesses the career of Joseph Stalin.
In death as in life Stalin was unique, there is no gauge by which he can be assessed, no label under which he can be pigeonholed. And just as the power concentrated in Stalin’s hands during his life grew to unparalleled proportions, so his passing will have unprecedented repercussions.
There can be no successor to Stalin; his shoes must forever remain empty. This is true because his power had a single historical function which has been completed. It developed from his role in lifting Russia out of medieval conditions into those of a modern industrial society, compressing into three decades a process which in Western Europe and America was spread over three hundred years. This tenfold speeding up of history, this forced march of the Russian people out of the seventeenth century into the twentieth, was led and organized by Stalin. He alone of all Russian leaders held to this goal with ferocious tenacity, overcoming all obstacles whatever the cost, driving the entire nation along the marked path, imbuing it with his will, mercilessly sacrificing the laggards. The nation responded, and as it gathered momentum on its course, it built the personal power of its commander to greater and greater heights. With Russia’s victory in World War II and with the reconstruction of its economy after the war, the purpose which had energized this superhuman effort was accomplished. For the first time in its history Russia was invincible, it had a modern economy second only to that of America, it was a first-class power.
Most Americans fail to realize that with Stalin’s historical task accomplished, the Russian leadership that will follow him will necessarily be entirely different. The new leadership will inherit an industrialized Russia, it will have different tasks and therefore play a different role Thus Stalin can have no successor in the ordinary sense of the word.
The Stalin Era in Russia might be compared with the period of the “Robber Barons” in our industrial history. But the American industrial barons were limited in their scope to single regions and industries, whereas their Stalinist counterparts were organized into a homogeneous national machine, a sort of gigantic “trust” in which the traditional profit motive was replaced by socialist slogans. The rule of the Robber Barons in this country had to give way to a regime of law and orderly progress when the economy had been developed to a high level, and an analogous change will take place in the technique of Russian leadership.
Unfortunately for world peace, however, neither Soviet nor American political thought recognizes the meaning of the approaching change in Russia. Soviet thinking is still dominated by the concept of hostile encirclement, which in the world of physical reality has been breached beyond possible reconstruction. The heartland of the capitalist world, America, has today fully as sound reasons to consider itself the victim of “socialist encirclement,” though in this case too the encirclement is more psychological than physical.
The danger of war will be accentuated by the passing of Stalin. For it was characteristic of him that while his iron nerves did not know the meaning of fear, he always avoided adventurous international policies and restrained his more reckless colleagues. He consistently opposed the post-war revolutionary adventures in Greece, and continued to support the project of a modus vivendi in China right up to the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s collapse before the rising armies under Mao Tse-tung.
Stalin valued America highly and wanted friendly relations with America. His latest published utterance, reported by India’s Dr Saiffudin Kitchlew in The New York Times of February 25, reflects this long-standing attitude, which was widely at variance with official Russian propaganda against America. The second rank of leaders, perhaps from too long reliance upon Stalin to do all the original thinking, seem to be unable to deal with America except in terms of hysterical abuse. They who must form the post-Stalin leadership of the Soviet Union seem much less well prepared than Stalin was to define and solve the historical problem of “coexistence.”
Thus it would be utopian to expect that the new leadership in Russia, in its first phase, will pursue a more enlightened policy in either domestic or foreign affairs. On the contrary, it may for a time be even more intolerant and aggressive in its attitude and mood.
In 1926 I attended the Sixth and Seventh Enlarged Plenum meetings of the Comintern Executive and the fifteenth Russian Communist Party Conference at Moscow. At these gatherings I saw Stalin rise to undisputed primacy in the leadership of Russian and international communism by winning a rigorous intellectual battle without precedent in the records of politics. I studied Stalin’s thought, and while I was never close to him personally, it was my feeling during fifteen years as the head of the American Communist Party that it was Stalin’s influence that kept hostile critics from demolishing my policies for the American party, which were always adjusted to America’s unique features and were often unorthodox. When from 1945 on I found myself in deep and growing disagreement with the international line of the Communist movement, so much so that I no longer call myself a Communist, I believed and still believe that the 1945 collapse of the American Communist Party was one of the by-products of Stalin’s retirement from active operational leadership.
With the end of the Stalin era Soviet hegemony over the world socialist movement also comes to an end. It is now clear that the Soviet type of socialism, though attractive to the economically backward countries, is not acceptable to the working classes of the industrially advanced Western countries with long experience in democratic self-government. For a whole period to come, different types of socialism will develop in different regions.
Stalin had come to occupy so much “political space” in his own personal right, space which can never again be occupied by any one leader, that his incapacity or death creates a tremendous vacuum. How this vacuum will gradually be filled, and an equilibrium again be reached in world politics, is perhaps the most serious problem facing the world.