Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stalin verus Trostky

Now that I’ve renuminated on my favorite Russian historian, I’ll ask a similarly ridiculous question: who is the most interesting revolutionary? In former days, Stalin never seemed to rank very high. Trostky attacked him relentlessly as a mediocrity with little to recommend him except, perhaps, amorality or street smarts. But the book, Young Stalin, puts an end to that myth.

Stalin and Trotsky

In his youth, we learn that Stalin was everything, including successful poet (shades of Mao), singer, underworld boss, student, priest-in-training, revolutionary, bank robber, lover, prisoner, exile, and theoretician. Clearly, Stalin was a talented man. Not for nothing did Lenin keep him on the Bolshevik all-star team, even during the Revolution. So despite Trostky’s brilliant efforts to explain Stalin away as an upstart and a fluke, Stalin had earned his place at the top of the revolutionary command structure.

Beyond his charisma, he was an intelligent and effective organizer. Of course, later Stalin had the opportunity to show other levels of talent. As he gradually earned Lenin’s seat at the heart of the Communist Party during the 1920s, Stalin showed that he could be by turns (and when it served him) cunning, unsentimental, cruel, well-spoken, humorous, machiavellian, and patient. A

nd it’s my opinion that he won out over his opponents for another reason: he was realistic. For instance, his Socialism in One Country seems much more realistic than the brands of internationalism advocated by either Trostky or Bukharin. The strange thing about the term, realism, in the context of Communist Russia in the 1920s or 1930s, is that realism and socialism were almost oxymorons. So realism or even moderation of Stalin’s kind could lead to gulags and five-year plans.

Even so, Stalin was “neither left nor right” in comparison with some of his rivals, especially Trostky on the left, and Bukharin on the right. Now Stalin is justly critiqued for his disastrous misreading of Hitler at the onset of World War II. I wonder what this truly says about the man. He clearly erred, and his error cost the Soviets a great deal. However, Stalin had made a number of previous realistic, if utterly brutal, moves that set the Soviets up to fight the Germans with some chance of success.

The purges were crazy and self-defeating, to be sure. But some of level of political terror, industrial preparation, diplomatic intrigue (at the expense of the West as well as Finland and Poland,) and military build-up, probably helped the Soviets. Moreover, the instinct to avoid conflict with Germany (if taken to the level of dellusion in the weeks leading up to the German invasion) was logical, either in classical balance-of-power terms, or in terms of an encircling capitalist menance.

Man Of Steel

So Stalin makes for an interesting revolutionary, a force of personality, a political genius of the first order. Yet Trostky has a case to be made. His books are wonderful and humane, for the most part. You can’t help but appreciate the man when you read My Life, for example. His role in 1905 as well as 1917 and the Civil War, obviously outpace that of Stalin or any other revolutionary save perhaps Lenin. In the public’s mind, as well as the mind of the Old Guard Bolshevik Party, Trostky was the revolution.

Isaac Deutcher’s three-volume biography leaves one in awe of Trostky’s creativity, courage, intellect, ethical rectitude (however controversial), theoretical acumen, linguistic, and oratory skills, etc. The man was of course beaten by Stalin and his allies in terms of the dynastic struggle that evolved after Lenin’s death. Other historians say his arrogance, Jewish heritage (in an anti-semitic nation), and overconfidence did him in. This is probably right. Yet his time in exile, both internal and external, add to his lustre, although one man’s heroism is another man’s egotism, because Trostky’s family and friends were largely sacrificed in his battle with Stalinism.

Gregory Zinoviev

Okay, this post is longer already than it should be. I’ve not come to Lenin, Plekhorov, Bakhunin, Axelrod, Herzen, Zinoviev, Bukharin, or anybody else for that matter. All subjects for future posts.

Grigory Zinoviev

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