Chapter 2. Inventor of the personality cult
From disputes about the Party line to a bloody Party purge
Stalin had a mausoleum built for Lenin very soon after Lenin’s death. This should not be criticized by democrats, who know and appreciate that posters with full-color portraits count as electoral arguments in the West. But this was strange for a party that had cleared away all the religious and moral rubbish that went along with czarist rule.
One cannot object at all to the fact that Stalin — and the whole Bolshevist Party — thought highly of Lenin as an authority in political matters. But it is not the same thing whether a group of revolutionaries have experienced the soundness of a member’s power of judgment often enough to trust him even when there is no irrefutable argument to decide the matter — or whether an embalmed body is put on display in solemn surroundings. The latter derives from the intention to establish a relationship of loyalty, thereby fundamentally replacing the standpoint of joint deliberation — “soviet” does mean “council” after all — by that of submission. This loyalty cannot be intended for the deceased person — he is dead. It relates to the cause the preserved body was committed to during its lifetime. And this cause is totally incompatible with a relationship of authority or submission. After all, it is a matter of the common revolutionary purpose the Party members must in any case set themselves. And this purpose happens to be such that it has nothing to gain by remembering people who also once shared it. That does not help anyone understand the critique of capitalism and how to abolish it one bit better.
Stalin himself certainly did not think a mausoleum and monuments to Lenin would win anyone over to communism. Conversely, the allocation of tight building material for such statues shows what kind of impression the General Secretary of this CP wanted to give people in general and his comrades in particular.
From the people, Stalin was demanding respect, namely for the ruling power which built such luxurious structures to honor its founder, so that by celebrating him it was honoring itself. Such respect is inevitably only as effective as the power the impressed subject must obey anyway. But respecting the great dead man involves the consolation that one is obeying not simply the power, but its founder’s ideals and his engaging personality. In launching a national veneration of Lenin, Stalin was thus speculating on continuing the tradition of an antirevolutionary mentality of submission.
For the Party, the introduction of an ideological relationship of loyalty to the chief of the revolution represented a means of discipline, in which the monuments played a far less important part than the technique which not only Stalin mastered — of using quotations from Lenin as an argument. The discipline in question had nothing to do with the indispensable functional virtue of (revolutionary) struggle based on the activists’ own standpoint that their success must not be contingent on moods. This standpoint also has nothing to gain by living or dead examples. Whenever examples (are to) have any effect it is a matter of something else, namely, identification with the cause the example personifies, which means that this cause has ceased to be dependent on whether people approve of it or not on the basis of their knowledge and will.
The fact that Stalin in this way institutionalized submission as a Party virtue among the Bolsheviks is often held against him in retrospect as a machination based on his aspiration for power. Significantly enough, this most respectable accusation disregards the fact that Stalin could only do this because he had a Party which agreed that such an attitude is a virtue. This indicates what the accusers really mean: basically they always mean that the wrong person gained control of the Party. Yet for the Bolshevist Party — unlike a democratic vote-catching club or a fascist movement which, each in its own way, demands nothing but successful leadership — it was in fact a contradiction to demand blind allegiance in order to replace the power of class society, put up with out of opportunism and morality, by something decent. This contradiction could never have been managed by Stalin if it had not already belonged to the Party’s own self-awareness — as well as his!
Indeed, the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary standpoint did not involve a rejection of bourgeois morality, which idealizes the dedication to binding values, to “higher” goals which one has by no means simply set oneself. Although this Party saw through the falseness of bourgeois phrases about equality, liberty and fraternity, it stood up uncompromisingly for these very ideals, regarding the revolution as the way to make these bourgeois values come true at last. And the idea of taking a historically necessary step forward for humanity — this being the “materialistic” base for the idealistic project of improving the world — is per se of a moralistic nature as it transforms the abolition of capitalist conditions from being the purpose the Party sets for itself and realizes as best it can, to being a kind of mission this Party serves.
Consequently, the discussions the Bolsheviks carried on about political and tactical decisions never consisted entirely in identifying obstacles and enemies and developing the best methods of realizing their goals. At the same time the Bolsheviks were animated by the idea that they were waging a just battle against forces which were both evil and doomed to ruin. They fought their revolutionary battle, paradoxically enough, in accordance with the idea that their plan was infinitely good, but that its practical validity was dictated and justified by the historical situation, so that it was dependent on its conditions of success.
From the point of view of this morality and teleology of history, the Party’s victories and defeats were never merely victories and defeats — which did in fact teach the Bolsheviks quite a bit about their tactics — but always an occasion to bring up ideological questions. Successes ‘‘proved,’’ in all seriousness, the historical justice of the revolutionary cause and gave the Party good marks for its prognostic abilities and its leadership. Failures raised doubts as to whether those in charge had not violated the historical “agenda.” This was cleared up either by revising the official Party “assessment” of the historical situation — or one had to conclude that a sin had been committed against the absolutely correct Party line.
Now, the reason why Lenin had been successful was certainly not that he had relied on an insight into objective laws governing the course of history — but, if anything, that he did not care about such theories at the critical moment. For the Party, however, the victorious revolution made its leaders the personification of the revolutionary science of history and of the only correct Party line. That is precisely what Stalin took note of. Conversely, a lot went wrong when the Party was building up its rule over Russia, but the reason was certainly never that the Party’s deductions about historical necessities were disregarded — it was rather out of respect for such imaginary laws. The Party inevitably regarded errors or failures as deviations from the objectively prescribed way to success — deviations which no amount of good will could excuse in the presence of the Party’s teaching about the inevitable. Stalin found this especially convincing. In this good Bolshevist spirit he wanted to lead Lenin’s Party onward.
Stalin thus went out of his way to grow into Lenin’s part. Although he had anything but a good head, he took great pains to demonstrate that everything he considered politically necessary for saving and securing Soviet power was historically necessary as well. Instead of simply trying to persuade the Party to make up its mind to build socialism in its own country, he used quotes from Lenin to convince people that “socialism in one country” was possible even in Russia in 1926 in view of all iron laws of history and its timetable. In 1927 he launched an attack on the kulaks, the “rich peasants,” because he wanted to counteract the danger represented by the private power of landed property and food-trading capital, which was once again gaining strength. However, he did not simply mobilize his Party for this goal. He wanted to gain support for the “theory” that an “aggravation of class struggle” was necessary according to the laws of history, especially with the increasing economic successes of socialist construction, and so the Party had to face this “simple and obvious truth.” And so on.
The fact that these “further developments of Leninist theory” clearly revealed their nature as ad hoc ideologies on political decisions gives Stalin good marks for his political judgment. He relied as little as Lenin did on the fetishism of an historical “agenda” in realizing his socialist construction program. But that is only one side of it. At the same time Stalin was very serious about this manner of proving the truth of his politics, mainly by using the suitably gilded words of dead Lenin, and knew that on this point his Party was in full agreement.
It was for this reason, and not out of cynical calculation, that he perfected this technique to the point of dominating the debates on the most important decisions in the Central Committee and at Party congresses, not so much with assessments of the political situation, as with breathtaking sophisms and know-it-all feats of interpretation. Again, it was hardly due to the persuasive power of his laborious derivations that the Party followed him in the most important decisions, and even less that it got its way in society and against the “classes” it attacked. But in the light of his Party’s view of history, Stalin’s successes automatically became proof that he was a firsthand authority on the dictates of “reality,” that he literally personified the identity of the Party line with the conditions and guarantees for its success, that the Party had thus found its new Lenin — the “Lenin of our time.”
Stalin conducted the dispute with representatives of a deviant Party line in the same spirit. The General Secretary was not at all content to make the alternatives clear, criticize false radicalism and compromisers, analyze the hurdles to be overcome, and bring about common insights and a consensus on a chosen course of action. He always fought for a majority for his line using the weapons of the historical moralism that held in his Party as “Marxism-Leninism.” Adversaries were made out to be deviationists from the revolutionary mission of world history in its momentary phase — at first, the proof consisted of real or supposed discrepancies between their views and quotations from Lenin — and suspected of not really endorsing the Party’s good cause.
Here is an example chosen at random. Zinoviev raised doubts about whether the motto that socialism should be built only in Russia was “a Leninist question” and did not smell of “national narrow-mindedness” (which was not exactly a brilliant contribution to the discussion). Stalin attacked him in the 1926 essay “Problems of Leninism” with the following deduction:
“Thus, according to Zinoviev, to recognize the possibility of completely building socialism in one country means adopting the point of view of national narrow-mindedness, while to deny such a possibility means adopting the point of view of internationalism.
“But if that is true, is it at all worthwhile fighting for victory over the capitalist elements in our economy? Does it not follow from this that such a victory is impossible?
“Capitulation to the capitalist elements in our economy — that is what the inherent logic of Zinoviev’s line of argument leads us to.
“And this absurdity, which has nothing in common with Leninism, is presented to us by Zinoviev as ‘internationalism,’ as ‘100 percent Leninism’!
“I assert that on this most important question of building socialism Zinoviev is deserting Leninism and slipping to the standpoint of the Menshevik Sukhanov.” (p. l77)
The Party’s decision did not simply put an end to such a dispute; it put the defeated adversary historically in the wrong and found him guilty of a standpoint conflicting with the Party line, i.e., detrimental to the Party. The devastating thing about this verdict was that, in the great majority of cases, it did not fall on anyone really “evil”-minded who was out to sabotage the building of socialism, but just on good Leninists who, exactly like Stalin, were searching for the only correct answer to history’s orders — and actually did think Stalin’s success put them in the wrong. They themselves, again like their General Secretary, were not in a position to distinguish between error (if it was ultimately a matter of having a false view of history) and an offence (i.e., against the Party’s correct view). That a dissenter had to renounce his anti-Party standpoint with much self-accusation or was ostracized as an enemy of the Party and expelled, was thus part of the moral culture of Bolshevism, which no adversary of Stalin ever criticized.
It was Stalin’s very own achievement to go through the dialectics of moral suspicion right to the end. Being the consistent guardian of the Party line, he sooner or later had to start thinking that the disputes within the Party had not yet come to a satisfactory end when the loser declared his submission. Once a comrade was suspected of not really and honestly sharing the Party’s objectives, his belated consent to the prevailing policy inevitably met with doubts as to whether it was honest or just based on opportunism, so that the next deviation was just a matter of time, or whether it was even based on the calculation of being able to continue damaging the Party from within. The boss sensed treason everywhere. After the accusation “double dealer” had been introduced into Party life, not a single act of submission could be morally maintained any more: the more exhaustive it was, the more certain it was to be suspected of hypocrisy.
In this way, the examination of a Party member’s reliability was completely divorced from the dispute over alternative ways of building socialism. It was up to Stalin, as the incarnation of the correct line, to perform the unpleasant task of finally deciding when a suspicion of unreliability was correct or not on the basis of the comrade’s attitude to him. Logically enough then, the antirevolutionary compulsion to measure the Party’s actions by imaginary objective laws of history thus finally changed into the personal arbitrariness of the person whom the Party’s obedience and successes proved to be the “brilliant” authority on these laws. His moral judgment was then inflated enthusiastically into complete conspiracy theories, in which imperialist states regularly appeared as the sponsors. Many of the accused even ended up believing in such explanations themselves. At times they confessed to such things in public even without any personal conviction, in order to do their Party a (last) service.
This progress from morally waged disputes about the Party line to an increasingly uncontrolled Party purge was definitely promoted by the fact that the practical problems of rapidly building socialism “in one country” were by no means over, but became downright painful as the Party was otherwise rallying, completely and with standing ovations, around its General Secretary. No more doubts were heard about the absurdity of subordinating socialist planning to the dictate of finances and their accumulation. It appeared all the more obvious that sabotage must be the reason why cooperation between the firms and branches of industry was not going smoothly. The heads of the antisocialist conspiracy were clearly those comrades who had, at some time or other, expressed doubts about “socialism in one country,” the “necessary aggravation of class struggle” or some other doctrine and had -”evidently”! — never abandoned them. Since submission could no longer restore trust, there was nothing left for a consistent moralist to do but to liquidate the treacherous comrades — this too was a “historically necessary” development of the Party line, a new standard for measuring the required loyalty to the Party …
Inevitably, even those comrades who had never showed any real deviation at all were condemned. Out of 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress, who had unanimously cheered the total victory of Stalin’s line in 1934 —
“At the Fifteenth Party Congress it was still necessary to prove the correctness of the Party line and struggle against certain anti-Leninist factions; at the Sixteenth Party Congress a clean sweep of the last supporters of these factions was made; at this Congress we do not need to prove anything, and presumably there is no one who has to be defeated. Everyone sees that the Party line has been victorious. (Thunderous applause)” (from “Report and Accounts to the Seventeenth Party Congress”) —
1,106 had been arrested by the Eighteenth Party Congress in 1938, according to Khrushchev, and out of 139 members and candidates elected to the Central Committee in 1934, 98 had been liquidated.
The culture of suspicion did not stop at the non-Party masses. Stalin committed the contradiction of demanding even of people whom his Party had not won for communism that they unconditionally recognize the Party and its leader as guarantors for unfailing progress to communism. He was thereby following the highly moral self-awareness of his Party, which considered its cause the objectively highest duty for all decent people, even without them having to understand anything about it, simply because it was time for the transition to socialism as guaranteed by “history.” Everyone was measured by the standard of unreserved loyalty to Lenin’s Party and to the “Lenin of our time,” even if he had never thought about whether he agreed with their aim at all. Fairly enough, such people were not measured as strictly as Party cadres; account was always taken of an individual’s personal responsibility for social progress.
The chance of one day making the relationship between the Party and the masses dissolve in the identity of the aim pursued by society as a whole was regarded from a moral point of view as a situation that already existed — so that this chance was buried once and for all. Stalin thus established the Bolshevist morality of revolution as the ideology of a state power, which this communist ended up not wanting to see “gradually wither away” any more.
Instead, the General Secretary began to embody the only correct Party line even in questions somewhat remote from the building of socialism, such as the theory of heredity and a dialectical materialist brand of linguistics. Even in these rather ridiculous efforts, the man was only pursuing to its consistent end what the concept of an example entails: the ultra-bourgeois ideal of a “personal authority” never to be justified by reason.
When Stalin’s successors discovered that his example turned out not to be good enough for his body to be exhibited next to Lenin’s in that mausoleum, they were not disassociating themselves from his mistake but only from its radicalness, that no longer fit in with the socialist world power which had been built up to a certain extent in the meantime. Thanks to Stalin’s successes, his economic miracle can manage today without forced labor, and his morality of history without show trials — in fact they manage far better than bourgeois agitation does without a Stalinist image of the enemy.