by Erwin Marquit
(Nature, Society, and Thought, All rights reserved.)
A most negative consequence of the forced collectivization was the fear that it generated in Stalin and those closest to him that it would give rise to a challenge to their leadership from those Communists who wanted to continue on Lenin’s course—the Communists who Stalin arbitrarily labeled “Rightists.” In his conversations with Chuev in 1973, Molotov, makes it clear that the executions were not for crimes committed but were preemptive executions to cleanse the Soviet Union from anyone questioning Stalin’s policies: “The confessions seemed artificial and exaggerated. I consider it inconceivable that Rykov, Bukharin, and even Trotsky agreed to cede the Soviet far east, the Ukraine, and even the Caucasus to a foreign power. I rule that out” (1993, 264). But this was precisely the main basis for the execution Bukharin and Rykov in 1938. This nonexistent plot was also the basis for the execution of Tuchachevsky and almost all of the military commanders . It is clear from other comments by Molotov that the only real reason for the executions was that Stalin considered the victims rightists who might challenge his leadership:
“We could have suffered greater losses in the war—perhaps even defeat—if the leadership had flinched and allowed internal disagreements like cracks in a rock. . . .
. . . Had no brutal measures been used, there would surely have been a danger of splits within the party.” (256– 57).
To have done all this smoothly and graciously would have been very bad. After all, it is interesting that we went on living with the oppositionists and oppositionist factions until the events of the late 1930s. After the war there were no oppositionist factions, a relief which enabled us to set a good, correct policy. But if most of these people had remained alive, I don’t know whether we would have been able firmly to stand our ground. It was mainly Stalin who took upon himself this difficult task, but we helped correctly. I do mean correctly. Without a man like Stalin it would have been very, very difficult, especially during the war. There would no longer have been teamwork. We would have had splits in the party. It would have been nothing but one against another. Then what? (258)
In a subsequent interview with Chuev, Molotov states, ” It is indeed sad that so many innocent people perished. But I believe the terror of the late 1930s was necessary. . . . Stalin insisted on making doubly sure: spare no one, but guarantee absolute stability for a long period of time. . . . It was difficult to draw a precise line where to stop” (278).
Nikolai Yezhov was put at the head of the NKVD by Stalin in 1936. Molotov states that Yezhov “set arrest quotas by region, on down to districts. No fewer than two thousand must be liquidated in such and such region, no fewer than fifty in such and such district. . . . He just overdid it because Stalin demanded greater repression” (262–63). After uneasiness over the executions began to surface, Stalin had Yezhov executed for the excesses that he, Stalin, had demanded. Molotov states that Stalin, as head of the party, would sign the lists of people to be arrested, and that he, as head of the government, would sign whatever lists Stalin signed. “I signed lists containing the names of people who could have been straightforward and dedicated citizens. The Central Committee was also to blame for running careless checks on some of the accused. But no one could prove to me that all these actions should never have been undertaken” (297). Other members of the Politburo also signed lists. Davies cites an example of death warrants for 36,000 people countersigned by Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich (Davies et al. 2003, 35).
When one member of a family was shot, it was common practice to send the other family members into exile. “They had to be isolated somehow. Otherwise they would have served as conduits of all kinds of complaints. And a certain amount of demoralization” (Chuev 1993, 277–78).
It again must be stressed, that almost all of the executions were without trials. No material evidence of conspiracy was introduced at any of the trials—only confessions obtained by torture and beatings.
In a personal letter to Stalin just before his trial and kept secret until 1993, Bukharin wrote that he had no intention of recanting to the world at large at his public trial (he still wished to preserve the image of the Party he had served) the confessions he had signed during his interrogations, but that he was in fact innocent of the crimes to which he had confessed (Getty and Naumov, 1999, 556). Defendants were denied defense counsel, the right to cross examine witnesses, and any appeal. Most of those executed did not even have trials, but were executed after being brought before three individuals—the local Party secretary, procurator, and NKVD chief—working from lists often countersigned by Stalin and other members of the Politiburo.
It is beyond the scope of this commentary to go into the extension of the arrests and executions beyond the Party. Suffice it to say that outstanding scientists, scholars, engineers and other technical personnel, artists, and cultural workers were also enmeshed by the terror.
Stalin was nevertheless able to convince the bulk of the urban population that these measures were necessary to protect the Soviet Union from the domestic enemies of the people that had been corrupted and bribed by imperialism to destroy the achievements of
the October revolution, the benefits of which the population was just beginning to enjoy as the industrialization began to improve the living conditions of the urban population toward the end of the thirties.
Had a Leninist course been pursued in agriculture and in Party governance, industrialization could have moved ahead at a faster pace, the military forces would have been better equipped and better commanded so that the Nazi blitzkrieg could have stopped well before it reached the outskirts of Moscow.
Stalin’s great skill in political intrigue and his brutality of character enabled him to use the political and economic problems unavoidable in the creation of a new socioeconomic system to ascend to a level of state and Party leadership with unchallenged personal power. The socialization of agriculture is, of course, a necessary step on the path to a communist society. Experience in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba has shown that it is worth experimenting with a variety of organizational structures on the basis of a substantial level of mechanization. Premature attempts at socialization amount to a form of voluntarism that borders on utopian socialism.
Stalin used the victory of the proletariat in the October Revolution as a vehicle to satisfy his desire to go down in history as an adulated god-like figure. He was determined that the benefits anticipated by the working class from social ownership of the means of production be attributed to his great genius. In doing so, he abrogated the political function of the Communist Party. The, Party, instead of fulfilling its historic task of guiding the course of socialist transformation, was turned into an appendage of the state and an administrative organ of his personal power. During the second five-year plan, the Soviet media consistently credited Stalin’s masterful leadership for the rise in living standards and social welfare resulting from the progress of industrialization. The gains were indeed impressive, but they could have been far greater had the Leninist collective leadership of the Party and the principle of “All Power to the Soviets” not been abrogated by Stalin’s unbridled lust for personal power.
Far more severe in its consequences was Stalin’s destruction of two of the main precepts of the Leninist concept of democratic centralism as the organizational basis of the Communist Party:
the leadership of the higher bodies being elected by lower bodies, and accountability of the leadership to the bodies that elected it. With the terror that he unleashed, Stalin succeeded in institutionalizing a self-perpetuating Party leadership not accountable to the Central Committee that had supposedly elected it This distortion of Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism continued in the decades after Stalin’s death, with no criticism from below tolerated. A consequence of this was the lack of internal mechanisms to force timely corrections to the faulty model of economic planning that ultimately led to economic implosion, the signs of which began to manifest themselves in all of the socialist economies already in the mid 1970s.
1. The draft of the first edition of Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, in most respects a Marxist-Leninist critique of the Stalin period by Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, then a member of the CPSU, began circulating informally in the USSR in 1964. After Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as leader of the CPSU in 1964, criticism of Stalin was limited to the phrase cult of the individual; no details about the terror of the 1930s were permitted, nor criticism of forced collectivization other than what had been allowed in Stalin’s time. Stalin was, in effect, rehabilitated. Soviet publications such as History of the USSR, written in 1974, again justified the excesses—for example, the 1928 Shakhty frame-up trials in the course of which confessions were beaten out of members of fictitious organizations of wreckers and saboteurs “in the service of Russian and foreign capitalists and foreign intelligence;” Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky were again referred to as leaders of the Right Opposition, who “expressed the interests of the kulaks and other well-off elements in the villages that were opposed to the socialist reconstruction of agriculture” (Kim et al. 1982, 252, 259). Medvedev was expelled from the CPSU in 1969 after his book was published in the West. His Party membership was restored in 1988.
2. The Impossible Fact
Palmstroem, old, an aimless rover,
walking in the wrong direction
at a busy intersection
is run over.
“How,” he says, his life restoring
and with pluck his death ignoring,
“can an accident like this
ever happen? What’s amiss?"
"Did the state administration
fail in motor transportation?
Did police ignore the need
for reducing driving speed?"
"Isn’t there a prohibition,
barring motorized transmission
of the living to the dead?
Was the driver right who sped . . . ?”
Tightly swathed in dampened tissues
he explores the legal issues,
and it soon is clear as air:
Cars were not permitted there!
And he comes to the conclusion:
His mishap was an illusion,
for, he reasons pointedly,
that which must not, cannot be.
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