Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform

Part One
Grover Furr


     1. This article outlines Joseph Stalin's attempts, from the 1930s until his death, to democratize the government of the Soviet Union.

     2. This statement, and the article, will astonish many, and outrage some. In fact my own amazement at the results of the research I'm reporting on led me to write this article. I had suspected for a long time that the Cold War version of Soviet history had serious flaws. Still, I was unprepared for the extent of the falsehoods I had been taught as fact.

     3. This story is well known in Russia, where respect for, even admiration of, Stalin is common. Yuri Zhukov, the main Russian historian who sets forth the paradigm of "Stalin as Democrat" and whose works are the most important single source, though far from the only one, for this article, is a mainstream figure associated with the Academy of Sciences. His works are widely read.

     4. However, this story and the facts that sustain it are virtually unknown outside Russia, where the Cold War paradigm of "Stalin as Villain" so controls what is published that the works cited here are still scarcely noted. Therefore, many of the secondary sources used in this article, as well as all the primary sources of course, are only available in Russian.1

     5. This article does not simply inform readers of new facts about, and interpretations of, the history of the USSR. Rather, it is an attempt to bring to a non-Russian readership the results of new research, based on Soviet archives, on the Stalin period and Stalin himself. The facts discussed herein are compatible with a range of paradigms of Soviet history, just as they help to disprove a number of other interpretations. They will be utterly unacceptable -- in fact, outrageous -- to those whose political and historical perspectives have been based upon erroneous and ideologically motivated "Cold-War" notions of Soviet "totalitarianism" and Stalinist "terror."2

     6. The Khrushchevite interpretation of Stalin as power-hungry dictator, betrayer of Lenin's legacy, was created to fit the needs of the Communist Party's nomenklatura in the 1950s. But it shows close similarities, and shares many assumptions, with the canonical discourse on Stalin inherited from the Cold War, which served the desire of capitalist elites to argue that communist struggles, or indeed any struggles for working-class power, must inevitably lead to some kind of horror.

     7. It also suits the Trotskyists' need to argue that the defeat of Trotsky, the "true revolutionary," could only have come at the hand of a dictator who, it is assumed, violated every principle for which the revolution had been fought. Khrushchevite, Cold-War anti-communist, and Trotskyist paradigms of Soviet history are similar in their dependence on a virtual demonization of Stalin, his leadership, and the USSR during his time.

     8. The view of Stalin outlined in this essay is compatible with a number of otherwise contradictory historical paradigms. Anti-revisionist and post-Maoist communist interpretations of Soviet history see Stalin as a creative and logical, if in some respects flawed, heir to Lenin's legacy. Meanwhile, many Russian nationalists, while hardly approving of Stalin's achievements as a Communist, respect Stalin as the figure most responsible for the establishment of Russia as a major industrial and military world power. Stalin is a foundational figure for both, albeit in very different ways.

     9. This article is no attempt to "rehabilitate" Stalin. I agree with Yuri Zhukov when he writes:

I can honestly tell you that I oppose the rehabilitation of Stalin, because I oppose rehabilitations in general. Nothing and no one in history should be rehabilitated -- but we must uncover the truth and speak the truth. However, since Khrushchev's time the only victims of Stalin's repressions you hear from are those who took part in them themselves, or who facilitated them or who failed to oppose them. (Zhukov, KP Nov. 21 02)

Nor do I wish to suggest that, if only Stalin had had his way, the manifold problems of building socialism or communism in the USSR would have been solved.

     10. During the period with which this essay is concerned, the Stalin leadership was concerned not only to promote democracy in the governance of the state, but to foster inner-party democracy as well. This important and related topic requires a separate study, and this essay does not centrally address it. However the concept of "democracy" is understood, it would have to have a different meaning in the context of a democratic-centralist party of voluntary members than in a huge state of citizens where no basis of political agreement can be presupposed.3

     11. This article draws upon primary sources whenever possible. But it relies most heavily upon scholarly works by Russian historians who have access to unpublished or recently-published documents from Soviet archives. Many Soviet documents of great importance are available only to scholars with privileged access. A great many others remain completely sequestered and "classified," including much of Stalin's personal archive, the pre-trial, investigative materials in the Moscow Trials of 1936-38, the investigative materials relating to the military purges or "Tukhachevskii Affair" of 1937, and many others.

     12. Yuri Zhukov describes the archival situation this way:

With the beginning of perestroika, one of the slogans of which was glasnost' . . . the Kremlin archive, formerly closed to researchers, was liquidated. Its holdings began to be relocated in [various public archives -- GF]. This process began, but was not completed. Without any publicity or explanation of any kind in 1996 the most important, pivotal materials were again reclassified, hidden away in the archive of the President of the Russian Federation. Soon the reasons for this secretive operation became clear; it permitted the resurrection of one of the two old and very shabby myths. (6)

By these myths Zhukov means "Stalin the villain," and "Stalin the great leader." Only the first of these myths is familiar to readers of Western and anti-communist historiography. But both schools are well represented in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

     13. One of Zhukov's books, and the basis of much of this article, is titled Inoy Stalin -- "a different Stalin," "different" from either myth, closer to the truth, based upon recently declassified archival documents. Its cover shows a photograph of Stalin and, facing it, the same photograph in negative: its opposite. Only rarely does Zhukov use secondary sources. For the most part he cites unpublished archival material, or archival documents only recently declassified and published. The picture he draws of Politburo politics from 1934 to 1938 is very "different" from anything consistent with either of the "myths" he rejects.

     14. Zhukov ends his Introduction with these words:

I make no claim to finality or incontrovertibility. I attempt only one task: to avoid both preconceived points of view, both myths; to try to reconstruct the past, once well known, but now intentionally forgotten, deliberately unmentionable, ignored by all.

Following Zhukov, this article also attempts to steer clear of both myths.

     15. Under such conditions all conclusions must remain tentative. I've tried to use all materials judiciously, whether primary or secondary. In order to avoid interrupting the text I have put source references at the end of each paragraph. I have employed traditional numbered footnotes only where I think longer, more explanatory notes are needed.

     16. The research this article summarizes has important consequences for those of us concerned to carry forward a class analysis of history, including of the history of the Soviet Union.

     17. One of the very best American researchers of the Stalin period in the USSR, J. Arch Getty, has called the historical research done during the period of the Cold War "products of propaganda" -- "research" which it makes no sense to criticize or try to correct in its individual parts, but which must be done all over again from the beginning.4 I agree with Getty, but would add that this tendentious, politically-charged, and dishonest "research" is still being produced today.

     18. The Cold War-Khrushchevite paradigm has been the prevailing view of the history of the "Stalin years." The research reported on here can contribute towards a "clearing of the ground," a "beginning all over again from the beginning." The truth that finally emerges will also have great meaning for the Marxist project of understanding the world in order to change it, of building a classless society of social and economic justice.

     19. In the concluding section of the essay I have outlined some areas for further research that are suggested by the results of this article.

A New Constitution

Anti Bureaucracy Struggle

Stalin's Defeat

Trials, conspiracies, Repression

Notes, Bibliograpy part One