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Georg Lukacs, "Reflections on the Cult of Stalin"

Reflections on the Cult of Stalin
Georg Lukacs

[First published: as “Brief an Alberto Carocci” in the special issues of Nuovi Argomenti, Nos. 57-58, 1962, devoted to the discussion of the Twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; it was subsequently published as “Privatbrief über Stalinismus, Brief an Alberto Carocci” in Forum, Nos. 115-117, 1693; abridged English translation, published 1963; Transcribed: by André Nj.]

Dear Senor Carocci,

I am very tempted to reply at length to the problems which you raise in your “eight questions”: for practically everything that has occupied the minds of many of us for years – past is concentrated in them. Unfortunately, the circumstances in which I find myself compel me to renounce this intention. But since I do not wish to keep from you completely the ideas in my mind, I am writing just a simple private letter, which, of course, does not pretend at all to deal systematically with all the essential questions.

I begin with the expression “cult of the personality.” Of course I regard it as absurd to reduce the substance and the problems of such an important period in the history of the world to the particular character of an individual. ...

My first reaction to the Twentieth Congress concerned not only the personality but the organization: the apparatus which had produced the cult of the personality and which had fixed it in a sort of endless enlarged reproduction. I pictured Stalin to myself as the apex of a pyramid which widened gradually toward the base and was composed of many ‘little Stalins”: they, seen from above, were the objects and, seen from below, the creators and guardians of the “cult of the personality.” Without the regular and unchallenged functioning of this mechanism the “cult of the personality” would have remained a subjective dream, a pathological fact, and would not have attained the social effectiveness which it exercised for decades.

It did not need much reflection to understand that this immediate image, without being false, could give only a fragmentary and superficial idea of the origins, character and effects of an important period. For thinking men who are truly devoted to the cause of progress, the problem inevitably arose out of the social genesis of this evolutionary stage, a problem which Togliatti first formulated precisely, when he said that it was necessary to bring to light the social conditions in which the “cult of the personality” was born and consolidated. ... Togliatti added, equally correctly, that this task was in the first place one for Soviet scholars. ...

This research has remained, to the present day, an undischarged obligation for true Marxism, and you cannot expect me, who am not a specialist in this field, to make even a simple attempt at a solution; certainly not in a letter, which necessarily has an even more subjective and fragmentary character than an essay on the subject would have. In any case, it must be clear to any thinking man that the point of departure can only be the internal and international situation of the Russian proletarian revolution of 1917. From an objective point of view we must think of the devastation caused by the war, of retarded industrial development, of the relative cultural backwardness of Russia (illiteracy, etc.), of the series of civil wars and foreign interventions from Brest-Litovsk to Wrangel, etc. As a subjective element (often neglected) we must add ... Lenin’s possibilities of translating his exact theories into practice. There is today ... a tendency to forget the resistance which he had to overcome inside his own party. Anyone who knows even part of the background to November 7, to the peace of Brest-Litovsk, to NEP, will understand what I mean. (In later years a story went around that Stalin said at the time of the discussions within the Party on the Brest-Litovsk peace: “The most important task is to ensure Lenin a firm majority in the central committee.”)

After Lenin’s death, although the period of civil wars and foreign interventions was at an end, there was not the slightest guarantee that they, especially the interventions, would not begin again from one day to the next. Economic and cultural backwardness appeared to be a hardly superable obstacle to a reconstruction of the country, which would be at once the building of socialism and the assurance of its defense against any attempt to restore capitalism. With the death of Lenin the difficulties inside the Party naturally only got worse. Since the revolutionary wave set in motion in 1917 had subsided without establishing a stable dictatorship of the proletariat in other countries too, it was necessary to confront boldly the problem of building socialism in a single country (a backward one). It is in this period that Stalin showed himself a notable and far-seeing statesman. The vigorous defense of the new Leninist theory on the possibility of a socialist society in a single country, against the attacks of Trotsky in particular, represented ... the salvation of the Soviet form of development. It is impossible to form a historically correct judgment of the Stalin problem unless the factional struggles within the Communist Party are considered from this point of view; Khrushchev dealt with this problem in the proper way at the Twentieth Congress.

Permit me now a brief digression on the significance of the rehabilitations. It goes without saying that all those who in the thirties and later were unjustly persecuted, condemned or murdered by Stalin must be absolved of all the charges invented against them (espionage, sabotage, etc.). But this does not imply that their political errors ... should also be the subject of “rehabilitation..”.. This applies above all to Trotsky, who was the principal theoretical exponent of the thesis that the construction of socialism in a single country is impossible. History has long ago refuted his theory. But if we take ourselves back to the years immediately after the death of Lenin, Trotsky’s point of view inevitably gives rise to the need to choose between enlarging the base of socialism by revolutionary wars” or returning to the social situation before November 7, i.e. the dilemma of adventurism or capitulation. Here history cannot agree at all to the rehabilitation of Trotsky; on the decisive strategic problems of the time Stalin was absolutely right. ...

Equally unjustified in my view is the legend widely disseminated in the West that if Trotsky had come to power there would have been a more democratic development than under Stalin. It suffices to think of the discussion on the trade unions in 1921 to understand that this is a pure legend. ... I don’t want to deal with this problem at length. But it is certain that, in the years that followed, Stalin followed de facto ... Trotsky’s line and not that of Lenin. If Trotsky later on sometimes reproached Stalin for appropriating his program, we can readily concede that he was in many respects right. It follows, according to my judgment of the two personalities, that what we today regard as despotic and undemocratic in the Stalin period has quite close strategic connections with the fundamental ideas of Trotsky. A socialist society under Trotsky’s leadership would have been at least as undemocratic as that of Stalin, but it would have faced the dilemma: a catastrophic policy or capitulation. ... (The personal impressions which I received from my meetings with Trotsky in 1931 aroused in me the conviction that he as an individual was even more inclined to the “cult of the personality” than Stalin.) ...

Let us return to the main subject. With his well-deserved victories in the discussions of the twenties the difficulties in Stalin’s position did not disappear. What was objectively the central problem, that of sharply accelerating the tempo of industrialization, was in all probability hardly to be resolved within the framework of normal proletarian democracy. It would be useless today to ask whether ... Lenin would have found a way out. We can see in retrospect on the one hand the difficulties of the objective situation, and on the other the fact that to overcome them Stalin, as time went by, went farther and farther beyond the limits of what was strictly necessary. It must be the task of ... Soviet science to bring to light the exact proportions. Closely bound up with this problem (but not identical with it) is that of Stalin’s position in the Party. It is certain that he built up little by little during and after the period of the discussions that pyramid of which I spoke at the beginning. But it is not enough to construct such a mechanism—it must be kept in continuous working order; it must always -react in the desired way, without possibility of surprises, to day-to-day problems of every kind. This is the way in which little by little the principle, which today is usually called the “cult of the personality,” must have been elaborated. The history of this too should be radically re-examined by Soviet scholars in command of all the material (including material so far unpublished). What could be observed even from outside was, in the first place, the systematic suppression of discussion within the Party; in the second place, the growing use of organizational measures against opponents; and in the third place, the transition from these measures to procedures of a judicial and administrative character. This last development was naturally received with silent dread. During the second stage the traditional sense of humor of the Russian intelligentsia was still active. “What is the difference between Hegel and Stalin?” people asked. The answer was “in Hegel there are thesis, antithesis and synthesis, in Stalin report, counter-report, and organizational measures..”..

I do not consider myself at all competent to describe this development and its motive forces. From the theoretical point of view too it would be necessary to show how Stalin, who in the twenties defended the legacy of Lenin with skill and intelligence, later found himself more and more frequently in opposition to Lenin on all important problems: a circumstance which is not in the least affected by his verbal attachment to Lenin’s doctrines. Thus, since Stalin succeeded ... in making people regard him as the legitimate heir of Lenin and his only authentic interpreter, since he was recognized as the fourth classic of Marxism, the fatal superstition that Stalin’s theories were identical with the fundamental principles of Marxism gained an ever stronger hold. ... I am not concerned with the question whether and to what extent particular theories can be positively traced to Stalin himself. In the conditions of intellectual centralization which he created it was impossible for any theory to be firmly established unless it was at least authorized by him. ...

I begin with a question of method which may appear extremely abstract: the Stalinist tendency is always to abolish, wherever possible, all intermediate factors, and to establish an immediate connection between the crudest factual data and the most general theoretical propositions. The contrast between Lenin and Stalin is particularly obvious here. Lenin distinguished very scrupulously between theory, strategy and tactics and always examined meticulously and took into account count all the mediating factors between them. ...

Stalin’s unscrupulousness in this matter reached the point of altering the theory itself if necessary. ... I refer to the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939. Here, too, in my opinion, Stalin took a decision which from a tactical point of view was substantially correct, but which nonetheless had tragic consequences because once again instead of treating a tactical retreat, made necessary by concrete circumstances, as such, he made his measures ... a criterion of correctness in principle for the international strategy of the proletariat. ... The immediate purpose [of the pact] was to repel the threat of an imminent attack by Hitler ... which would probably have been supported openly or covertly by Chamberlain and Daladier. The long-term tactical calculation was that if Hitler—as in fact happened—took advantage of the pact with the Soviet Union as a favorable opportunity for an offensive against the West, then later on, in case of a war between Germany and the Soviet Union, an alliance between the Soviet Union and Western democracies ... would have become extremely probable; here too the facts confirmed Stalin’s tactical foresight.

But the theoretical strategic consequences which Stalin drew from the pact were fatal to the whole revolutionary workers’ movement. The war between Hitler Germany and the European powers was declared an imperialist war, like the first World War. This meant that the strategic formulas of Lenin, correct in their time (“the real enemy is in your own country,” “transformation of imperialist war into civil war,” etc.) had to remain in force unchanged for countries which wanted and had to defend themselves against Hitlerite fascism. It is enough to read the first volume of Les Communistes, by an orthodox writer like Aragon, to see clearly the disastrous international consequences of this “Stalinist generalization” from a practical viewpoint. But the most unfortunate consequences go beyond particular cases. ... The great authority of Marxism in Lenin’s time rested on the fact that the dialectical unity of theoretical soundness, stability of principles and tactical elasticity was recognized by all. This new “methodology” of Stalin made it possible for wide circles, not always hostile in advance to Marxism, henceforward to see in Stalin’s theoretical utterances no more than “justifications.” ... of purely tactical measures. ... Thus Stalin played into the hands of the many bourgeois thinkers for whom Marxism was merely a political “ideology” like any other. If today the profound and precise formulations of Khrushchev (on the avoidability of imperialist war, coexistence, etc.) are often treated in the same way, this too is the fruit of Stalin’s heritage. ...

We must not forget, besides the motives so far mentioned, that a considerable part of the old intelligentsia in the Party was in opposition to Stalin. ... Stalin needed the precise execution of his decisions on the part of the apparatus and also if possible the approval of the broad masses; for this reason too he radically simplified his theoretical utterances. The suppression of intermediate factors, the direct linking of the most general principles with the concrete exigencies of daily practice, seemed a suitable means to this end too. Here, too, theory was not concretized by applying it to practice, but, on the contrary, principles were simplified and vulgarized according to the exigencies (often purely notional) of practice. Here, too, I confine myself to one particularly typical example (but I could mention an infinite number of others). In his last work on economics Stalin “discovered” something that had “escaped” Marx, Engels and Lenin, that every economic formation has a “fundamental law” which can be synthesized in a short proposition. It is so simple that even the most limited and uneducated official can understand it at once; and so he is in a position ... to condemn out of hand for its deviation “to the right” or “to the left” any work of scientific economics of which objectively he understands nothing. ...

Because Stalin wanted to maintain at any cost a continuity “in quotation” with Lenin’s work, not only facts but Leninist texts also were distorted. The most obvious example is the article which Lenin wrote in 1905 with the object of bringing order into the Party press and Party publications in the new conditions of legality. Under Stalin this article gradually became the Bible of partiinost in the whole field of culture and especially of literature ... and although Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife and closest collaborator, had drawn attention ... to the fact that this article has absolutely no reference to literature, even today there is no lack of people who would like to let the Bible remain a Bible. ...

This tendency reaches its highest point in the Short History of the CPSU, which was circulated in many millions of copies. Here the partiinost of the supreme functionary is the demiurge which creates or abolishes facts, and, according to need, confers existence and significance on men and events or else annuls them. It is a history of struggle between different trends which are not, however, represented or kept going by men, of anonymous oppositions, a history in which, apart of course from Lenin, only Stalin has an existence of his own. (In the first edition, there was, it is true, one exception: Yezhov, “our Marat,” the prime organizer of the great trials, also appeared there; after his fall his name, too, was omitted.)

In all this another methodological aspect can be discerned. For the classics of Marxism it was obvious that science furnishes the materials ... on the basis of which political decisions are taken. Propaganda and agitation receive their material from science, from practice scientifically elaborated. Stalin reversed this relationship. For him, in the name of partiinost, agitation is primary. Its needs determine ... what science must say and how it must say it. One example will make this clearer. In the famous Chapter IV of the Short History, Stalin defines the essence of dialectical and historical materialism. Since we have to do with a popular work written for the masses, no one could find fault with Stalin for reducing the quite subtle and complex arguments of the classics on this theme to a few definitions enumerated in schematic textbook form. But the fate of the philosophical sciences since the publication of this work shows that this is a matter of conscious methodology and of a deliberate cultural policy. ... Stalin’s propagandistic simplifications (often vulgarizations) at once became the unique and absolutely binding norm and the utmost limit of philosophical investigation. If anyone ventured, appealing for instance to Lenin’s philosophical notes, to go beyond the definitions of Chapter IV or simply to supplement them, he was courting ideological condemnation and could not publish his researches. Ilychev at the Twentieth Congress said with good reason that philosophy, economics and history had stagnated in recent decades. ...

All science and all literature had to serve exclusively the propagandistic demands formulated above, by Stalin himself. The understanding and spontaneous elaboration of reality by means of literature, was more and more strictly prohibited. “Party” literature must no longer creatively reflect objective reality, but must illustrate in literary form the decisions of the Party. It is to the honor of the literary critic Helena Usievich that she made a stand in the thirties against the demand that literature should be illustrative. The poet Tvardovsky, in his speech at the Twenty-second Congress, continued this struggle which is still necessary. ... The insistence on illustration makes a general abstract truth (if indeed it is the truth) the base of the work ... and men and their destinies have to be adapted at any cost to this thesis.

All this of course was not an end in itself. It arose from Stalin’s position, from his need for an authority not subject to discussion. I must repeat once again that only thorough investigation by competent scholars can establish what part was played by objective difficulties and what part by Stalin’s excessive reactions to them. There was without doubt in the thirties an objective sharpening of the situation: internally, apart from the acceleration of industrialization, as the result of collectivization of agriculture; in foreign relations as the result of Hitler’s accession to power and the threat of an attack on the USSR by Nazi Germany. Whether the class struggle in the country ... really became more acute ... is a problem on which only detailed investigation by scholars can give a competent answer. Stalin, however, found quickly the necessary, simplifying generalization: the continual sharpening of the class struggle is inevitable under the dictatorship, of the proletariat, is its “fundamental law.”

This thesis ... aims at creating an atmosphere of perpetual mutual distrust, in which everyone is on his guard against everyone else, the atmosphere of a permanent state of siege. I can only refer in a brief and fragmentary form to the secondary consequences: the fear of enemies, spies and saboteurs aggravated beyond all measure and a system of obsessive secrecy in everything that has anything at all to do with policy. Thus statistics, for example, became a “strictly secret” science, whose findings were accessible only to absolutely reliable persons. ...

Thus the picture of the Stalinist method acquires a complementary trait which hitherto was missing: everything that is objectively inevitable in an acute revolutionary situation, where the existence of a society is in effect at stake, was arbitrarily made by Stalin the foundation of ordinary Soviet practice. I don’t want to dwell here on the great trials. This is the subject which has hitherto been dealt with most fully’ and Shelepin in his speech to the Twenty-second Congress gave a detailed analysis of their consequences for Soviet law and jurisprudence. I should like only to draw attention briefly to some consequences of a cultural nature. The suppression of mediate factors carries with it a tendency to treat all the phenomena of life as monolithic blocks. The permanence of the acute revolutionary situation intensifies this tendency. Everyone is dissolved without residue ... into the function which he fulfils (or which it is claimed that he fulfils) at a particular moment. ... Thus, to take an example, from the logic of the trials: because Bukharin in 1928 opposed Stalin’s plan for collectivization, it is certain that in 1918 he took part in a conspiracy to kill Lenin. This is the method of Vyshinsky in the great trials. But this methodology extends also to judgments in history, science and art. Here, too, it is instructive to compare Lenin’s method with that of Stalin. Lenin, for example, harshly criticized Plekhanov’s policy in 1905 and 1917. But at the same time—and this implies no contradiction for Lenin—he insists that it is necessary to make use of Plekhanov’s theoretical work for the propagation and the further study of Marxist culture.