Soviet Historiography – Chris Ward

When approaching the Soviet era in Russian history, one of the biggest and most contentious debates starts at the beginning of Stalin’s consolidated power – how did he rise to power?  Was he truly Lenin’s chosen heir?  Was his rise to power accidental or carefully manipulated?  These questions, as well as the competing theories over them, are addressed in Chris Ward’s first chapter.  In his introduction, Ward makes the point that history exists in the minds and interpretations of historians, and that it’s truly impossible to know with certainty what it was like to have lived in past eras.[1]  It is therefore the historian’s job to interpret history, and to do so they are constrained by available evidence.[2]

Stalin’s rise to power seems hardly coincidental, though it was not certain in the tumultuous years after the revolution and as Lenin became increasingly ill.  Ward, like Kurominya last week, points out that Lenin carefully maneuvered Stalin into many of the prominent positions that he held, making Stalin the only leader in the party who simultaneously held positions in the Secretariat, the Orgburo, the Politburo and the Central Committee.[3]  Under increasing strain and factionalism, Lenin pushed through two resolutions that made dissent intolerable.[4]  His resolution “on party unity” especially made it clear that factionalism would be punished, making it clear to Stalin that repression and even terror within the framework of the party itself – even on other party members and leaders – was not only tolerated, but it was necessary.[5]

Ward identifies six clear interpretations on how Stalin eventually gained exclusive control of the party after Lenin’s death.[6]

The Heroic Approach shows Stalin as ruthless and manipulative, using people to his own political ends and then discarding them when they had outlived their usefulness in his rise to absolute power.[7]  This approach intends to see into Stalin’s mind to understand that his ultimate objective was to seize absolute power for himself, regardless of the obstacles or costs.[8]  Not only was grossly underestimated by his political rivals, his true nature wasn’t recognized by Lenin until it was far too late, and he was already in a position to take on the mantle of leadership after Lenin’s death.[9]

The Administrative Approach focuses on Stalin’s ability to position himself (with Lenin’s sponsorship and support) in key positions that seemed trivial at first until they combined into the ability to take power over the party and thereby over the country.[10]  In his numerous administrative roles, Stalin was able to keep his allies close while demoting or removing his rivals.[11]  Continual party insecurity over economic and social issues allowed the regime to become more and more totalitarian, and with Stalin already in prominent party leadership positions, his rise to absolute power, fostered by the exclusive flow of information and loyalty from personally placed underlings allowed him to ultimately gain control[12]

The Party History Approach focuses on Lenin’s necessities for effective leadership – namely organization, discipline and governmental centralization.[13]  Given these three requisites dictated by Lenin and inherited by Stalin, it is hardly surprising that the regime moved towards totalitarianism and absolute power.  Lenin’s insistence on party cohesion further allowed Stalin the ability and the freedom to see disagreement as treasonous, giving him methods by which he could eliminate his rivals as not only personal enemies, but enemies of the state/party as well.[14]

The Ideological Approach makes Stalin a moderate caught between two extremes.  The problem with the implementation of Socialism in the Russian landscape was the almost non-existence of the working-class proletariat idealized by Marx and Engels.[15]  In order to create the proletariat necessary for Lenin’s revolution, free-enterprise had to be introduced in rural communities which was enacted by the NEP.[16]  The left, however, saw this trend continuing too far, and pictured a working class pitted against the rural peasant class, potentially sparking a second civil war that the party would most likely not survive.[17]  Conversely, the right insisted on the cooperation of the rural areas and the cities, leading potentially to a revival of capitalism which would be moving backwards from the revolution.[18]  Stalin stood at the crossroads of these polar opposite camps and sought a middle ground, making him appear manipulative and indecisive rather than merely moderate.  Ultimately this approach places Stalin with the necessary task of denying a military dictatorship to his most prominent rival – Trotsky.[19]

The Socio-Cultural Approach points to the necessity of party allies after both the revolution and the civil war, making the majority of their supporters peasants and workers who appreciated the idea of a revolution, but had no real concept of what it stood for or what the party intended.[20]  This allowed party leadership to frame the revolution in terms of military strategy and terminology, creating a continual sense of conflict.[21]  Since party leadership was removed from the masses which they claimed to support, the ideology of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ became the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party instead.[22]

Finally, the Trotskyist Approach concludes that given the fact that the working class was miniscule compared to the peasant class, achieving a proletariat dictatorship and then a party democracy was simply not feasible.   Since the proletariat was therefore not a majority, a totalitarian regime was able to seize absolute power for itself, overthrowing the ideologies that had originally sparked the revolution.[23]

Ward points out in his conclusion that none of these approaches are without flaw, and that none of them truly stand on their own under scrutiny.  Most likely all of them played a role in Stalin’s rise to absolute power over the country and the party.  Given the state of the emergency of party government due to the civil war, the ends of maintaining control justified the means to party leaders, and control was most easily kept through authority, making dissent treason and allowing for the rise of a single, absolute leader in Stalin.

[1] Chris Ward, Stalin’s Russia, London: Arnold, 1999, 2.

[2] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 2.

[3] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 9.

[4] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 10.

[5][5] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 10.

[6] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 19.

[7] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 20.

[8] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 20.

[9] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 20.

[10] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 21.

[11] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 21.

[12] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 22.

[13] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 24.

[14] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 24.

[15] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 26.

[16] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 26.

[17] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 26.

[18] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 26.

[19] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 27.

[20] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 28.

[21] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 28.

[22] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 28.

[23] Ward, Stalin’s Russia, 29.

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