The Nature of Early Soviet History: From Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism

For generations, historians have grappled with the various difficulties which the evolution of communism in the Soviet Union have engendered. In a word, history is chaotic; an historian will find him or herself at a loss if they approach their discipline with an obstinate determinism. While nothing in the course of history is entirely accidental, neither is it wholly an inevitability. An historical development at once reinforces and contradicts the course of human affairs. To fully comprehend the nature of Soviet history, one must interpret it as having been both inevitable and anomalous.

An historical event is an anomaly in that it could conceivably have never took place, it is an inevitability simply because it did. In accepting the chaotic nature of history, we can thus come closer than ever to identifying the causes of an historical occurrence. Any moment in history is simultaneously determined as much by its past and present context as it is by sheer happenstance. While one may believe any event to be the inevitable culmination of its various causes, they cannot deny that its actual character could never have been entirely evident beforehand.

As we have previously discussed in this course, while the First World War was probably inevitable, its content and character were not. Before the outbreak of war, an entire genre of “invasion literature” imagined a number of possible scenarios for how such an international war could turn out. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) envisioned a German invasion of Great Britain, while William Le Queux’s The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) predicted a joint Franco-Russian invasion of England. The proliferation of this genre following the Franco-Prussian War illustrates a growing unease among Europeans that a wider war would be the inevitable result of a new “culture of violence.” The course of history can only be vaguely anticipated. What cannot be foretold with even some degree of certainty are the results of the coalescence of manifold, complex historical developments.

The Russian Revolution certainly began as an organic movement, a rejection of Czarism and autocracy which many Russians began to believe had brought their nation to the brink of collapse. That the Bolsheviks were able to capture the spirit of the Revolution and position themselves at its forefront, is a result both of historical and accidental circumstance.

In having been the sole socialist political organization in Europe to come out against the war, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party was a victim (initially) of historical circumstance. In Germany’s provision of safe passage to St. Petersburg and the growing opposition to war in Russia, Lenin was a beneficiary of accidental circumstance. This same duality of human affairs affected the prospects of the Mensheviks, the socialist faction which initially appeared the heir to political authority in post-Revolution Russia. In rejecting outright revolution (as the prerequisite capitalist phase was supposedly incomplete), the more orthodox Marxists of the Menshevik party were victims of history (in this case, their own). In their disparate, fractured alliance with other anti-Bolshevik forces and their mismanagement of military campaigns, they were victims of coincidence.

With this duality of history in mind, what explains the metamorphosis of Soviet history from idealized proletariat utopia and worldwide revolution to harsh totalitarianism and “socialism in one country” (as early Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky put it)?

That the ideals of the revolution were in a decade’s time subsumed and replaced by Stalinism does not mean that the latter was the inevitable result of the former. Neither does it mean that it was a wholly avoidable development. In order to fully understand how in Russia, from 1917 to 1927, Marxism was gradually replaced by Stalinism, we must look both at the predictable and unpredictable elements of Russian and Soviet history.

In “Was there an Alternative to Stalinism,” socialist David North argues that the totalitarianism of Stalin was hardly an inevitability. North claims “the growth of the bureaucracy and its usurpation of political power,” through which Stalin was eventually able to rise to power “were consciously and systematically opposed from within the Bolshevik Party.” (North, 1995) Furthermore, Leon Trotsky, the quintessential anti-Stalinist argued:


“after an unexampled tension of forces, hopes and illusions, there came a long period of weariness, decline and sheer disappointment in the results of the revolution. The ebb of the ‘plebian pride’ made room for a flood of pusillanimity and careerism. The new commanding caste rose to its place upon this wave.” (The Revolution Betrayed, Ch. V.)


For the anti-Stalinist, the rise of Josef Stalin must necessarily have been an accident of history, a reaction to rather than a result of the revolution. But it is difficult to ignore those elements of the revolution’s context which enabled and even encouraged the ascendancy of an autocrat. To what degree the nature of Russian society is to blame for the emergence of an autocrat in such an egalitarian atmosphere remains a matter of debate.

North argues that the Bolshevik party, despite the authority and influence it came to achieve “could not abolish a thousand years of Russian history. It could not abolish all the different forms of social, economic, cultural and political backwardness that were the legacy of Russia’s historical development over those many years… Even in the consideration of the roles played by the most crucial individuals, it is necessary to recognize the primacy of objective conditions and circumstances…” (North, 1995)

North therefore identifies Stalinism to have been not the natural result of Marxism, but rather the result of various historical and contemporary pressures beyond anyone’s control. The legacy of autocracy, the trials of the First World War and the Civil War, the loss of much of the original cadre of Bolsheviks and their supporters to war, hunger, disease and displacement… These environmental circumstances came to define the history of communism and Bolshevism in Russia as much as these ideologies had defined that same environment.

Leninism, with its emphasis on the necessity of a “vanguard” of elites to lead the workers to a “dictatorship of the proletariat” illustrates how the patriarchal legacy of Russian society came to influence even its greatest opponents. Furthermore, that Stalin and his underlings employed similar tactics of repression as had their Czarist predecessors (secret police, political exile…) illustrates that no matter how revolutionary its character, any political or social movement cannot fully divorce itself from the atmosphere in which it developed. Thus it is evident how historical circumstance influences even its harshest revisionists.

Leon Trotsky, the charismatic Bolshevik leader who was perhaps the most realistic alternative to Stalin, identified a number of circumstances which enabled Stalin’s rise to power in his magnum opus, The Revolution Betrayed (1937). As (by then) the last living major opponent to Stalin’s regime, it was in Trotsky’s best interest, for his own legacy and his ideology, to recognize those elements of Stalinism which were a flagrant perversion of orthodox Marxist-Leninism.

Trotsky’s critique of Stalin’s rule had the luxury of retrospect. Those who either purposefully or inadvertently enabled the “betrayal” of the revolution could not have possibly foreseen the complete results of their actions or inaction. Even Stalin, the individual actor most responsible for the crucial shift in the course of Soviet history, was at the mercy of historical and accidental circumstance. According to North “one of Stalin’s principal political strengths in the struggle against his opponents was that he foresaw so little.”

Upon deeper investigation, the dual nature of history is as much applicable to the evolution of Soviet history as it is to any other number of exceptional historical occurrences. What sets the Russian Revolution and Civil War apart from all but a few “turning points” in human history is that it appears chaotic and unprecedented in its relative brevity and intensity. While the specific character and chronological location of such extraordinary historical developments are chaotic and cannot be entirely foreseen, both its causes and results are far from anomalous. Early Soviet history is no exception. North asserts that there was an alternative to Stalinism, evident in the Left Opposition and Trotsky’s decades-long struggle to delegitimize Stalin’s regime. Others, such as Thomas G. West argue that “the despotism and wholesale violence of Marxism in practice arise not in spite of but because of the high ideals of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.” (West, “Marx and Lenin”) There is no such thing as a definitive answer in the study of history. We must appreciate a host of perspectives, and never refine our own to such a degree as to exclude other plausible alternatives.

There is no concrete explanation as to why the course of history progresses as it does. Rather, the proper historian must appreciate both historical and circumstantial context. In this way the evolution of Soviet history from Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism can be properly assessed as a result of both organic and artificial developments.


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