7 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 7 2003

Fifty years ago this week – at 9.50am Moscow time on March 5 1953, to be precise – Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, breathed his last.

His death was a squalid affair, entirely befitting his regime. The Soviet dictator, probably by this point clinically paranoid, had suffered a brain haemorrhage on March 2 – but medical help was delayed by Lavrenti Beria, his scheming secret police chief, who hoped to succeed him. For more than two days, Stalin lay in bed motionless, surrounded by his family and the leading figures of the Soviet Politburo, many of them drunk and all of them terrified for their futures. No one admitted that his condition could be terminal. On one occasion Beria famously demanded of the as-good-as-dead Stalin in a loud voice: "Comrade Stalin, all the members of the Politburo are here! Say something to us!"

It would be comforting to relate that Stalin's death was greeted by a universal sense of relief, but it was not. The man who turned the already-extant Bolshevik police-state into a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, killing millions in the forced collectivisation of agriculture and committing hundreds of thousands more to slave labour, was mourned in the Soviet Union as the heroic war leader who saved the world from Nazi Germany. (Never mind that the business was done by the poor bloody infantry.) Abroad, he was given a send-off that was at least respectful and at worst obsequious – particularly on the left.

No one was more gushing than Rajani Palme Dutt, the chief ideologist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, writing in Labour Monthly: "The genius and will of Stalin, the architect of the rising world of free humanity, lives on forever in the imperishable monument of his creation – the soaring triumph of socialist and communist construction; the invincible array of states and peoples who have thrown off the bonds of the exploiters and are marching forward in the light of the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin."

In similar vein, the CPGB’s leader, Harry Pollitt – whose apologists say was sceptical about Stalinism – paid tribute to Stalin as someone whose "miracles of communist construction are of a character that even Marx would never have dared to believe possible".

Tribune, to its credit, was more sceptical. In a piece headlined "Now let's bury the Stalin myth", Michael Foot wrote: "The Nazi-Soviet pact and the frightened sycophancy towards Hitler which Stalin displayed in the two subsequent years still stand out as probably the most grievous and colossal blunder of the century . . . He sent to their deaths almost all the leaders of the revolution. He distorted the socialist aim in a manner which would have horrified both Lenin and Marx. He then falsified the history of the revolution itself."

The deflation of Stalin's reputation was not long in coming. The Berlin workers' uprising of June 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Nikita Khruschev's "secret speech" the same year to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he (selectively) denounced Stalin's crimes, all saw to that. And within 15 years of his death there was a substantial scholarly literature available – at least in the affluent western democracies – that gave chapter and verse on collectivisation, the Great Terror and just about every other aspect of his years of despotic misrule.

But the Stalin myth was never entirely buried. The Soviet tyrant remains an official hero in communist China to this day – and his memory is still revered by Russian nationalists and many leftists in the Third World. Tribune readers might take with a pinch of salt recent reports that Saddam Hussein has a library of books on Stalin and sees him as his role model: but the similarities between the two go further than their moustaches.

And even in Britain it's remarkable how Stalinism persists – albeit in a small way. The Communist Party of Britain is a pale shadow of the CPGB even of the early 1950s, but it is still able – just – to sustain a daily newspaper, the Morning Star, that retains the respect of a large swathe of the left in spite of its unthinking Stalinism. As the Independent on Sunday reminded us last weekend, Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers and Socialist Labour Party remains an unabashed admirer of Stalin, as does Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition (whom I remember in the 1980s working for the official Soviet news agency Novosti, buying full page ads in left newspapers to publish dull speeches by Konstantin Chernenko).

Which is not to claim that contemporary Stalinism poses a massive threat to civilisation as we know it: far from it. The Stalinists of 2003 are, at least in Britain, a sick joke. I just can't work out why so many on the left tolerate them. Can anyone enlighten me?

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