The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. A Review.
The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. Sussex Academic Press.
“I recently read an interview featuring a cultural commentator of the left. Alongside the interview a photo appeared of this individual against a backdrop which featured an image of Joseph Stalin.” In the Preface to The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine, Tony McKenna observes in this, not uncommon, gesture, a “certain wry sympathy for Stalin’s political endeavours.” The Chair of no less than the Stop the War Coalition, Andrew Murray, has expressed such empathy on many occasions. For these people Stalin’s title of Generalissimo and Hero of the Soviet Union, awarded in June 1945, was due recognition for a leader prepared to “get his hands dirty” in defence of the USSR. This judgement, McKenna states, with appropriate severity, “does a great disservice to the millions Stalin had murdered” (Page xi).
This is a study that attempts to explain the “objective trajectory of Stalinism” in Marxist terms, and the course of a life that is full of “terrible darkness”. Its premise is that the original form of “the Soviet democracy remains the first form of democracy in human history which was not premised on some manner of class exploitation.”(Page 169) This “…fused the economic organs of society, the factories and the workplace with a political decision-making process where power flowed from the bottom-up. (Page vii) That it “abolished the capital-labour relation.” (Page 170) A bold effort, “drowned in blood”. And yet, “Most of all I wanted to challenge the assumption that Stalinist totalitarianism was the automatic and inevitable result of a revolution which mobilised the poorest in society”. (Page x)
McKenna considers, then, that “Stalinism represented the negation of the proletarian revolution”. Lenin stood for the emancipation of the working class “to be an act by the workers themselves” (Page 42) Nothing could be more clearly opposed to Stalin’s “overwhelming distrust – not only for the masses, but for the process of revolution itself” (Page 16) For those who recount the political conflicts of the early Soviet Union as a clash between a growing bureaucracy, and those, siding with Lenin who railed against administrative power and privilege, this is a decisive difference. Leninism was popular creative power; Stalinism was the rules and regulations, backed by repression, of the office.
This guiding contrast in The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is not without problems. There is a different view, expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that this was not, in practice, how Lenin’s ideology worked. To her Lenin had “a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living embodiment of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans.”(1) There is the claim that, under Lenin’s aegis, there were “always various tendencies and groups within the Party, which was considered natural and normal.”(2) There is another picture of less than tolerant Bolshevik, as revealed in his years of exile of “ceaseless polemics with all those he considered philistines, pedants, whiners, sceptics, defeatists. (3) Or, more strongly that when with his hands on the levers of power these were not just arguments, “Lenin, as we have seen time and time again, could not assimilate opposition. It could only be overcome and destroyed. In place of complete creative freedom Lenin turned to a new discourse based on a completely opposite theme – iron proletarian discipline.”(4)
A recent biography of Stalin puts this more sharply, “assertions of a Bolshevik collective leadership predating Stalin’s ring hollow. Lenin’s secretariat took on an essentially limitless range of issues, setting a precedent, and no one did more than Lenin to establish a living example of one-man rule at the top. (When the other ‘collective leaders; disagreed with Lenin he threatened to expel them or, failing that, to quit the party and form a new one.” (5) One may contest this judgement. Others talk of ‘Stalin’s team’, a tightly bound group at the top- broadening some of McKenna’s focus on the General Secretary. In either case the legacy, however reshaped in new hands, from Lenin’s rule cannot be ignored. (6)
McKenna’s book does not however shirk from describing the mechanisms used to enforce this “iron discipline” during, and after, the Civil War. This was, above all, the work of the secret police, the Cheka. He defends, “out of military necessity”, “mass compulsion” “terror” was an absolute requirement in a context where a class or nation state is in the process of fighting for existence goes more or less without saying” (Page 29) But the “generalisation of terror to a social class carte blanche – and specifically the petty bourgeoisie…. the peasantry” “the bureaucracy was beginning to weave their theoretical rationale for its terrorisation for the very group whose surplus produce was integral to its survival..(Ibid) It used “indiscriminate force” against peasant or proletarians who “bridled against the increasingly coercive power and needs of the bureaucracy itself.” (Ibid)
According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Gulag Archipelago could not have built without the early sanction of these measures of compulsion. “In the first months of the October Revolution Lenin was already demanding decisive draconian measures to tighten up discipline” In December 1917, he suggested for consideration, confiscation of all property.. confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labour for all who disobey the existing law.” (6) During the period of War Communism, Trotsky advocated ever tighter punishments, and the militarisation of labour (Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky 1920) He asserted that the dictatorship of the proletariat was able to make use of organized state power by the working class to crush its opponents and to pave the way for social transformation.
If every Cook could run the State, as envisaged in the State and Revolution, those who broke the rules risked more than admonishing in an acidic polemical article. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was the end of ‘formal’ democracy and its replacement by the ‘superior’ form of workplace rule. As experience rapidly showed, adversaries of ‘Soviet power’ from the right, the dissident left, and not all because of the violent opposition of the left Social Revolutionaries (Uprising 1918. Exclusion: Fifth Soviet Congress, 1918), the right and then the left Mensheviks and Anarchists, particularly those with suspect “class origins” (which began to be treated as a hereditary taint) were progressively excluded from the ‘democracy’ of the Soviets. The system was designed to be the opposite of ‘agonistic’ politics where open clashes between opposed views would be freely expressed.
Lenin’s Last Struggle.
Was Stalin’s hold on these reins of power inevitable? During Lenin’s later lifetime and following his death, disputes between bureaucrats – that is state employees – Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Stalin, to cite some well-known names, continued. But already the shrinking of political freedom had caught up with the Party itself, as factions had been banned, and all dissent was suspect. There seemed to be an inevitability about further moves towards enforced unity – “discipline” – around One line One leader, on every single issue, economic, cultural, political, and ideological. Yet Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle (1975) underlines the view that his Testament explicitly called for Stalin’s removal from office. Lewin claimed, “the use of constraint – let alone terror – is ostensibly excluded in establishing the foundations of a new society”. (8) This ‘tolerance’, at best putting up with people, was, as we seen, very limited. As McKenna narrates, not only was the Testament suppressed, and Stalin’s office confirmed, not to be, but also the range of forces allied with him, and the hesitations of his opponents, prevented even the document being discussed.
The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is a passionate intervention into debates on these issues. The description of the full “shadow of totalitarianism”, Stalin’s 1930s Great Terror, and a thorough, searing, look at the Gulag, is outstanding. McKenna’s concluding hopes for a direct ‘utopian’ democracy that takes collective control of a socialised economy takes inspiration from the best side of the Soviet ideal. This review has argued that we cannot ignore, with Claude Lefort, and many others, the other side, the ‘temporary’ limitations on democratic expression sketched above. They cannot be ignored. They turned out to be the permanent basis for a totalitarian regime, and whatever form of erratic command economy one cares to call it. Perhaps truly universal – unblemished – inspiration cannot be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution. The all-too-ready use of force to resolve political issues played some part in the emergence of Stalinism. The means, exile, imprisonment, forced labour and killing, by which the “Pouvoir soviétique se déliverent des enemies”, (how Soviet power got rid of its enemies) are not foreign to the emergence of Stalin’s system of rule, warped by his own personality though it may have been. (9) We should also ensure that this blood-drenched tyranny is never repeated.
- Page 85. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by George Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. 2011.
- Page 385. Let History Judge. Roy Medvedev. Spokesman. 1971.
- Page 110. Lars T. Lih. Rekation Books. 2011.
- Page 212. Christopher Read. Routledge 2005.
- Page 419. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephan Kotin. Allen Lane. 2014.
- On Stalin’s team. Sheila Fitzpatrick. Princeton University Press. 2015.Pages 19 – 10. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol.2. Colins/Fontana. 1976.
- Page 134. Lenin’s Last Struggle. 1975.Un homme en trop. Réflexions sur l’Archipel du Gulag. Claude Lefort. New Edition. 2015 (1976)
The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin.
Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.
Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)
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