University of Oxford

Within the context of the years 1848 to 1950, to what extent did Stalinism fulfil the aims of Marx?

Often seen as one of the most controversial ideologies of the last century, communism has, on numerous occasions been the underlying causes of many global conflicts. One of the longest communist regimes occurred in Russia, and many critics argue its creation was not the result of Marx and Engles writing ‘The Communist Manifesto’ but due to other factors, ranging from the collapse of the dated feudal system, to the terrible living standards of the peasants. The following essay looks at if any of these factors are responsible for the creation of communism, or whether the various forms which appeared in Russia were an accurate reflection of what Marx had envisioned.

Written in 1848, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ was commissioned by the Communist League, as a way for Marx and Engles to produce a document which stated the aims of communism, and allow the ideas to be spread across Europe. This document described the main aims that the two men thought communism would achieve, and the ways that they thought this should be done. They describe how the natural progression of history meant that communism was a natural move for humans to make, and that they had worked their way though several stages of development, from the Stone Age to the present day. They described how communism would change the strong state into a much weaker, more considerate one. In the manifesto, the two men stated how there should be common ownership among people of land and property and the abolition of inheritance. There should also be state control of transport, communication and banks. Finally, they argue for nationalised and guaranteed jobs, and equality of outcome and opportunity. This is the basis for all communist regimes and both Lenin and Stalin followed these guidelines in an attempt to try and create a utopian, communist state, arguably to varying degrees of success.

In his 1982 book, ‘Aspects of European History; 1789 – 1980′, Stephen J Lee implies that communist ideas were an inevitability even before the publication of Marx’s ideas. During his description of the downfall of the Tsar, he mentions the emancipation of the Russian Serfs, and how Alexander described to the Moscow Nobles:

“It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to  abolish itself from below.”

This shows how the Russian monarchy knew that the peasants were unhappy, and since almost 80% of the population were poor and illiterate, Alexander knew that he had to do something in order to stop them from rebelling. Therefore, in 1861, Alexander announced the emancipation and freeing of the serfs, and created a reparation scheme for them to pay for the land that they were allowed to live on. However, even though there was a slight increase in industrialisation up to the late 1890’s, the Tsar wanted to keep things the same and the revolutions and implementation of a communist system came from the grumblings of the peasantry.

This was also significant, as it showed how not only were communist ideas beginning to spread throughout Russia, but that it was the ‘oppressed’ who wanted the change; the revolution was started by the underclass. This is a reinforced idea of the later Marxist ideas, as he had stated how a revolution had to be the decision of the popular classes, and it was them who had to carry it out. This was a different and much purer form of revolution, and those which occurred after it could be seen as more pragmatic, and were not done for the good of people who were suffering.

Another reason why it is argued by critics that the creation of a communist state was inevitable was because of the creation and influence of the Communist League. Set up in 1847, and made up of people from a variety of European countries who believed in communist ideas, it was members of this group who were responsible for the creation of ‘The Communist Manifesto’, and in turn arguably responsible for bringing communist ideas into mainstream politics. It had different branches all over Europe and at its height there were 25,000 members and this shows how communist ideas had already begun to spread throughout the world. This makes me think that these were the people behind what is seen as “one of the most dangerous books in the world” as described by Professor Rodney Carlisle, and so shows how these ideas had already been present before this book was written.

These ideas show how even before 1905 some communist aims had already been fulfilled even though they had not been done in the way that Marx envisioned.

The Russian revolutions are seen as one of the most iconic events of the Twentieth Century, and their effects lingered on for many years after the actual events. The first revolution, which took place in 1905 allowed the Tsar to remain in power, and he promised the creation of a Duma and an elected parliament, who would have to oversee and agree on all of his political decisions. However, he failed to deliver these promises. These reforms failed to appease the now very vocal peasantry, who eventually pushed for a second revolution which happened in March 1917. This revolution was successful as the army and the police abandoned the Tsar, and with their support the revolutionaries were able to seize power. Lenin led the Bolsheviks and tried to seize power, and this led to a bloody civil war, which lasted until 1920.  This was an early sign of how Lenin was happy and willing to use force in order to achieve his goal, since the prolonged and violent civil war led to many deaths on both sides.

Lenin took control of Russia as sole leader in 1920, and as soon as he had power began to make radical changes in order to try and implement his interpretation of Marx’s communism. There are a number of reasons why Leninism could be seen as Marxist, and these are outlined below.

One of his aims was to spread communism outside of Russia and throughout Europe. In an attempt to try and rid Russia of the ‘backwards’ reputation that she had gained during the 1800s Lenin tried to reinvent the country and make it seem more modern.  The most obvious examples of Lenin’s desire to spread communism could be seen in his, and Trotsky’s belief in ‘Permanent Revolution’  and was the idea that revolutions could still be induced in countries that had not yet achieved the advanced stages of capitalism. Another example of his desire to spread communism even when it seemed as though it would not be seen as the practical step was his attack on Poland in 1920. However, this failed and he was forced to admit defeat at the Battle of Warsaw and sign the Treaty of Riga in 1921. Therefore, since Lenin and Trotsky were committed to their ‘Permanent Revolution’ theory, I assume that had Lenin captured Poland, he would have implemented a communist government, and as a result try to further communist ideas across Europe; a fundamental belief in Marxist thinking. 

Another reason why it could be seen as though Leninism did fulfil the criteria set out by Marxist ideas was because of the way that Lenin took complete control over the country, and strengthened the state. Although Lenin was undoubtedly a ‘dictator’, he did use the party and those around him to help run the state. The most effective way that he strengthened the state was through the way that the party began to fill the governmental positions. For example, in 1919, the politburo was created, and this took precedence over the Sovnarkom as the most important policy making board. Between 1919 and 1924, 9 important party members, including Lenin, Stalin, Bukharin and Trotsky all became members. This shows how Lenin only enlisted the help of people who he knew would support him. This makes this area of Leninism seem like an accurate reflection of Marxism as he removed opposition, but did so in a way that would not upset the people – he created an impression of a government, and because this was different to the dictatorship that the country was subjected too under the Tsar the people were happier to accept it. Lenin also used violence to ensure that the opposition was completely stamped out, and this was especially obvious throughout the early period of Lenin’s reign ‘The Red Terror’. During this period, execution became common and legal, and many prisoners and political opponents were shot. Sources in the book ‘Communist Russia under Lenin and Stalin’ describe how official figures for deaths at the hands of the Cheka between 1918-1920 are 13,000 although the estimated deaths are closer to 300,000. Again, this is a stage which Marx describes in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and shows how Lenin tried to remove opposition and strengthen the state, even though he was forced to resort to violence in order to do so.

However, it can also be argued that there were a number of reasons why Lenin’s form of communism was completely different to the type which Marx and Engles described in their book.

Many of the policies which Lenin implemented were criticised by members of the party, who argued that they were capitalist. During the Civil War, Lenin was forced to deal with the near-break down of industry, as well as food shortages for the army and the decline of the economy. In an attempt to solve these problems, Lenin introduced ‘War Communism’ and later, in 1921 the ‘New Economic Policy’. ‘War Communism’ was designed to eradicate the problem of food shortages, and involved taking large factories and placing them under state control. They would then be forced to make food and materials to be sent to the army, alleviating the pressure on the soldiers. However, the peasants and the workers did not send the food to the army but hoarded it for themselves, since they too were starving. The military munitions and materials were also rerouted to the countryside, and this resulted in almost complete economic breakdown. Having abandoned this policy, Lenin then adopted the ‘New Economic Policy’ and this was met with even greater criticism. While Marxist ideology called for the workers to control the production, Lenin’s NEP controlled only the “commanding heights” [coal, steel, the banks and transport] of the economy, while the rest of the industries were allowed to remain under private ownership. Free trade between urban and rural areas was encouraged and was seen as going against everything that communism stood for.

This could be seen as un-Marxist because Lenin had intended to use the NEP as a temporary measure, and referred to it as:

 “A retreat from socialism made necessary by the need to rebuild the soviet economy”

Since Lenin himself admitted that this policy was not a completely communist one, this mirrored his own pragmatic beliefs and because of this the party was forced to compromise with its Marxist values. Also, this policy led to a new type of richer class, who were able to make profits from the newly encouraged trade, and this was something that Marxism had wanted to remove. It also led to the rise of the kulak peasants, independent farmers, who took advantage of the new free markets and trade to gain more land and money. Critics such as Rodney Carlisle describes how

“To many devoted communists, it appeared as though the NEP had allowed capitalism to return to Russia”

and I think that this reinforces the idea that Marx and Lenin’s ideas were different, and were put into practice in different ways, perhaps because Marx was never given the opportunity to put his beliefs into practice himself.

 Lenin’s form of communism could also be seen as though it was not a true reflection of Marxism because of the way that he reorganised and replaced sections of the government. Since he started to do this, it is a reflection of Marx– that the state should be run for and by the workers. However, although Lenin did replace sections, he did so with the same people who had been in place under the Tsar. He also surrounded himself with bourgeois intellectuals, and idea that has been discussed by Robert Service. He argues, and I agree that this was not Marxist, and these were the people who communism was supposed to be eliminating and since Marx had called for the state to be run by and for the people, this was not being achieved as those in the government were unwilling to give up the perks that were associated with their position. 

 Stalin was appointed as General Secretary in 1922, and after Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin became head of the Soviet Government. Like his ideology, he is seen as one of the most controversial, provocative and dangerous political figures of the last century, and like Lenin, his interpretation of Marxism has prompted large amounts of debate between historians.

 Some critics argue that Stalinism and the type of communism which came with it was a natural evolution of the underdeveloped policies and communism which were present under Lenin.  People such as Edvard Radzinsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both of whom lived under both regimes, argue that Stalinism was simply an excuse to hide the inevitable failings of communism and Marxism, and the problems that had been inflicted on Russia as a result of them.                                                                

A reason why it can be argued that Stalin successfully followed Marxist ideas was because he began to reverse the NEP implemented in 1921. When Lenin was alive, Stalin had openly criticised these reforms, and saw them, like many of the extreme left-wing members of the party as capitalist and “Anti-Russian”. Instead, he began to replace them with the 5 year plans, each centring on repairing the tattered economy and uniting the people in a more communist way. The first plan, which began in 1928, achieved its goal in 1932. The main aim of this first 5 year plan was to reverse the backwards attitude towards Russia, and to prepare the county for “future industrial growth”. As a result of this, I agree with historians such as Archie Brown who argue that;

“This clearly shows how Stalin was willing to take drastic measures in order to prepare the country for future expansion. This is unarguably the most important 5 year plan, since it showed both Russia and that world that Stalin meant business, and was determined to make communism work

“This was the first serious example of Stalinist communism”

This makes me think that Stalin was more Marxist than Lenin, and he was much more committed to achieving his aims, possibly because he had more political stability and time than Lenin did.

Another reason why it was possible to argue that Stalin followed the ideas of Marx was the way that, he ensured that his was the only regime, and that all opposition was removed. The Great Terror began in 1933, and was one of the most defining and lasting effects of Stalin’s reign. During this time, Stalin killed people who could have been opposition for him, in his quest to consolidate his power and his regime. Most prominent of these were the Show Trials that Stalin out his political opponents on, and the very public way that he embarrassed them. This was an attempt to try and deter other opponents who were inclined to conform having seen Zinoviev and Tomsky and other important party members and military generals tried publicly as traitors.  This shows how Stalin was a true Marxist unlike Stalin he used the violence that Marx had described as being “necessary to ensure a communist rule”. This is similar to the show trials that Lenin used but because he did not use violence in the same way, he focused mainly on embarrassing potential rivals. Marx had said that violence would be necessary to ensure that the potential rivals would be completely stamped out, paving the way for a cemented one party state.

However, I believe that Stalinism could be seen as a distortion of Marxist thinking, and not what ‘The Communist Manifesto’ described at all.

The first reason why this can be argued was because of the way Stalin only strengthened the ruling class, and made little attempt to bridge the gap between the rich and poor. Marx had described how the state was only to be strengthened temporarily, and was to melt away once communist power was consolidated. However, despite there being no serious threats to Stalin from the opposition after his purges, he made no attempt to allow the state to begin to wither away, instead only strengthening his dictatorship. This was reinforced through books at the time, the most famous being George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, in which the farmyard represents Russian society at the time. This book epitomised exactly what communism was not meant to be, and so for this reason it shows how Stalinism was not Marxist communism, it was an oppressive dictatorship. 

Another reason why it can be argued that Stalin did not follow Marxist principles was because of the way that shut Russia away from the west. It could be argued that this shows how he was not interested in spreading communism throughout Europe and the world, which was the ultimate goal for communism. Instead, although he made the ‘Eastern Block’ and interfered in elections to ensure the communist governments were created, Historians such as Arnold J. Toynee  argues that he did so for his own protectionist policies, and not for any ideological reason. He argues that had these countries been left as capitalist, then they would have been a continuous threat to Russia, and so Stalin only enforced communism on them for selfish reasons, and not to spread of his ideological beliefs.

 The final reason why it can be argued that Stalin did not follow Marxist principles was because the communist polices that he introduced did not deal with the lack of resources in the county, and so lead to an increase in competition. For example, because the 5 year plans revolved round targets, and there was a great deal of importance and pressure put upon people to ensure that these targets were met, this automatically triggered competition; the exact thing which Marxism aimed to avoid. Stalin made things worse by setting unrealistic targets but still expecting these to be met without an increase in resources. This unbalance was also present in the inequality between the resources that the Politburo members had, compared to those in the ordinary shops. For example, in his book, Simon Sebag Montifore describes:

“There was a definite difference in what the Politburo had access too, and what the ordinary Russians had, and this did nothing to alleviate the tension between the two groups.”

 This shows how people were being forced to compete with each other due to the actions of Stalin and the government and how it is possible to argue that Marxist policies were not followed properly under Stalin, and that he was more interested in exerting his role as Dictator. However, I disagree with Montefiore, as I believe that although the Politburo did have better facilities, this did not have a huge impact on the general public since I believe that the distance between them was not a result of the actions of the party. Instead, I believe that they were not fully aware of what was happening within their own government, and instead were more concerned about their own lives and the problems that had come with them because of the communist regime.

 Despite the arguments that Stalinism was still flawed, it is still seen as a more complete form of communism. The evidence has also suggested that Stalinism was much more progressive and it had moved naturally from Leninism, evolving into a more adaptive form of the ideology.

In conclusion, I believe that communist ideas had been present in Russia since the 1840s, and because of events such as the emancipation of the serfs, a communist society and government were inevitable. The evidence above suggests that Stalinism, despite its numerous flaws did partially fulfil the aims of Marx. Since Stalin evolved the pragmatic Leninist approach to Marxist ideas into a more ideological basis for the Soviet Union, Stain came close to creating a workable form of Marxism with the removal of the trappings of capitalism. Despite its extreme cost, common ownership was achieved in the forms of collective farms, all transport was owned and run by the state and the new 5 year plans ensured that all Russians were guaranteed a job. The failure to evolve the state to a truly Marxist regime could not be seen as modelling itself on the ideas of Marx and Engles. Stalin’s use of a personality cult to maintain his leadership and control meant that Stalinism could never completely fulfil the aims of Marx, but his rule was the closet to fulfilling Marxist ideas within the years 1848 to 1950.

Further Reading:

‘A Study of History’ – Arnold J. Toynee – Oxford University Press – 1946

‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ – Simon Sebag Montifore – Weiden & Nicolson – 2003 – P638‘The Rise and Fall of Communism’ – Archie Brown – The Bodley Head – 2009

 ‘The Communist Manifesto’ – Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels – Penguin Books – First Published 1848 – Edition Used 1973

‘A Study of History’ – Arnold J. Toynee – Oxford University Press – 1946 – P59

‘Comrades: Communism, A World History’ – Robert Service Macmillan – 2008

 Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ – Simon Sebag Montifore – Weiden & Nicolson – 2003 – P638

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