George Walford: Not Stalin Alone

REVIEWING a new life of Stalin [1] Robert Service remarks that Trotsky’s contempt, for him as a mediocrity “never explained how such a man could hoodwink and kill millions.” Nobody ever has explained this, and nobody ever will, for it didn’t happen; one only has to envisage those millions lining up for treatment and Stalin with his sleeves rolled up, ready to start work on them, to see the absurdity. Not until we bring into the picture the huge organisation at his disposal, and the hundreds of millions behind that, ready to support him if he needs it, do things fall into place. Hints of this appear in Service’s review, which speaks of Stalin’s “henchmen,” does not say that he killed Trotsky but that he had him killed, and notes that the kind of society Stalin presided over can be traced back at least to the Russian Civil War of 1917 – 20, while Stalin to power only after Lenin’s death in 1924.

The review reports Stalin’s own account of his rise: “He told Dmitrov that he had merely been a practically minded man who happened to reflect the mood and opinions of the middle-ranking party officials in the provinces; this accounted for his rise to supremacy after Lenin’s death.” This hardly meets the case, since not all people with those qualities became dictators, but it makes better sense than blaming it all on the one man. It also goes far to account for his success in holding on to power. And if Conquest had good ground for saying (in his book on the Great Purge) that Stalin had his own bureaucrats murdered, sometimes down to the fifth replacement, that also fitted their moods and opinions, for they too had engaged in using terror to force communism down the throats of a resistant people.

Stalin may well have aimed to kill millions, but he didn’t do it. Neither did he (or Lenin either) carry sole responsibility for having it done, and to say he did makes nonsense of much that happened then and later.

[1] TLS 3 May.

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.