You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet Power.
Joseph Stalin to his son
One of Stalin’s more remarkable achievements was his turning of the Leninist view of modern history with its underlying theme of the triumphal ascendency of the Socialist Man into an elaborate yet flexible explanation that was an amalgam of morality play and melodrama. In the Stalinist script, the arch enemy, the capitalist order, was emitting its dying gasps, yet in its final throws it resembled in its behavior a wounded and dangerously powerful animal. To be complacent with regard to the capitalist enemy was equivalent to being complicit with the enemy. So while the ending to the human story was soon going to be a very happy one with Communism achieved and the imperialists vanquished, the capitalists were now unleashing every possible element of treachery and cunning in a desperate attempt to hold on to their exploitative order and to undo the revolution and deny its promise. The Soviet people were under extreme compulsion to believe and act on this invention since it was the legitimizing rationale for the entire Bolshevik enterprise. It amounted to no less than their writ for the complete dismantlement of the old order, with all of its messiness and dislocation, and the creation of the new one.
With the treachery-of-capitalism as the controlling motif, Stalin elevated his routine mendacity and manipulation into a theatrical art form. He invented one of the twentieth-century’s unique and spectacular genres of farce and fraud, the “show trial.” This he unrolled in the late 1920s. The most notorious of these spectacles were performed in the middle 1930s. With these he personally stage managed the infamous railroading of his old Bolshevik comrades-in-arms: Bukharin, Zinoviev and Radek and others. These “trials” with no material evidence, no independent defense council, no independent judiciary, were elaborate, choreographed lies – implausible confessions of treason, conspiracy and industrial wreckage from life-long dedicated Bolsheviks – that were swallowed by Western observers like U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies, appointed by FDR, who in spite of being a lawyer himself failed to see through Stalin’s charade in spite of all the inconsistencies and incongruities. These elaborate deceptions fooled many observers in the West including the New York Times ace reporter Walter Duranty.
Stalin’s first show-trial victims were fifty-three engineers and technicians (“bourgeois specialists” in Stalinist parlance) from Shakthy in the Donbas coal and steel region who in 1928, early in Stalin’s power-consolidation were tried on entirely trumped up charges of “wrecking” i.e., “economic counter-revolution.” The Shakthy technicians were supposedly sabotaging the mining industry in collusion with foreign capitalists and financiers who were trying to thwart the advance of Soviet Communism. [Hiroaki Kuromiya, Stalin, 2005, 79-80; Black Book of Communism, 143, 169, 172] This show-trial as did all of the subsequent ones up until Stalin’s death served a triple purpose. First, the pre-determined outcome of guilt guaranteed the elimination of individuals who were either no longer of use to Stalin – perceived rivals, or potential obstacles to his plans. The Shakthy technicians were selected victims of Stalin’s frustration with the Soviet dependence on experts from a social-political class whose loyalties to the regime might be questioned and good targets for scapegoating. [Kuromiya, Stalin, 78-79]
Second, the alleged misconduct of the defendants elaborately scripted for public consumption at the trials was Stalin’s opportunity to reinforce the legitimizing eschatological narrative with particular dramatic instances that would indeed demonstrate the occult existence of the ever-threatening conspirators who were now attempting to destroy (engaged in “wrecking,”) the regime from the inside. The Shakthy technicians were “unmasked” (a favorite Stalinist participle) as fifth-columnists, “[s]aboteurs in the pay of foreign powers.” [Black Book of Communism, 143] Thus, blame for the persistent and inevitable economic failures of the regime could now be shifted to hidden traitors, conspiratorial forces in the pay of the capitalists, keeping the system and the Party that ran it blameless and vigilant.
Third and perhaps most important, each and every show-trial, at its conclusion, constituted a personal vindication of Stalin himself, a confirmation of his resolution, perspicacity, sound judgment and courageous leadership in an unpredictable world of endless danger and intrigue. The Shakthy show-trial was intended to demonstrate to the Soviet citizenry yet another dimension of Stalin’s genius: he was able to recognize danger and treachery where others around him were naïve, confused or relaxed. He, thus, was the man most fit to lead the besieged players into the end-game against the capitalists. The show trials and their predetermined outcome were designed to be dramatic vindications of Stalin’s leadership and authority. This in itself is a huge irony, since these events enabled Stalin to cover up the blame for his own massive failings. [“Part of the reasons for the show trials of the 1930s was to cover up his [Stalin’s] appalling mistakes.” Michael Curtis, Totalitarianism, New Jersey, Transaction, 1979, 46]
Stalin’s address to the Central Committee Plenum in January 1933 contains a multi-faceted message that points to successfully vanquished enemies, their insidious persistence and ubiquity, and the Manichean-like structure of good and evil that underlies his struggle. “[T]he last remnants of the moribund classes – private manufactures and their servitors, private traders and their henchmen, former nobles and priests, kulaks and kulak agents, former White Guard officers and police officials, policemen and gendarmes, all sorts of bourgeois intellectuals of a chauvinist type, and all other anti-Soviet – have been tossed out.” Here then is an exhaustive enumeration from the old and defeated order of the Bolshevik enemies, the entire range, from money grubbing capitalists to kulaks and priests. [Kuromiya, Stalin, 110] And, while we know that Stalin has been as he always is, tough – has “tossed out” all of these anti-Soviet types – he now builds to the high point of his message, the theme of the ever-present enemies, their persistence and insidiousness. “But tossed out and scattered over the whole face of the U.S.S.R., these ‘have-beens’ have wormed their way into our plants and factories, into our government offices and trading organizations, into our railway and water transportation enterprises, and, principally, into the collective farms and state farms.” What then, having been routed by the superior and inevitable forces of advancing Socialism, could possibly motivate these scourges of the old order to persist? “What did they carry with them into these places? They carried with them hatred for the Soviet regime, of course, burning enmity toward new forms of economy, life and culture.” [FN, Kuromiya, Stalin, 110] Envy and hatred were the driving motivation of the dying capitalists and explained to the Soviet people and whoever in the outside world may have wondered why these people were doing what they were doing. This was a unique Stalinist contribution to Marxian eschatology, comparable as a theoretical move to the Ptolemaic epicycles. Into this philippic with its own clinical pyscho-pathological self-projection the General Secretary had compressed the entire Stalin-invented world drama with the capstone of his own heroism.
The infamous Soviet show-trials of the mid-1930s gained world attention and proceeded with this same template – a morally, economically superior system assailed by the bitter losers from the old order who were badly wounded but still dangerous. The individuals Stalin selected for elimination were his old Bolshevik comrades whom he had come to perceive as political rivals and as obstacles to the consolidation of his power. The most notable was Nicolai Bukharin, casted by Arthur Koestler as the main character, N. S. Rubashov, in his magnificent novel, Darkness at Noon. This was a good opportunity for Stalin, always a great nurturer of personal resentments and private grudges, to take revenge and settle old scores. Once Stalin had reached his summit of power, those unfortunate Bolshevik Party colleagues from the early years who had teased, slighted or mocked Stalin, would likely find themselves quickly accused, confessed and sent off to the Gulag or the Lubianka prison to wait for a bullet in the back of the neck.
The pragmatics of Party mobility was always a consideration for Stalin as well. Shooting and jailing his senior colleagues also enabled him to clear out the upper ranks of the party and make organizational room to advance younger and more personally loyal Bolsheviks. [“The February—March 1937 plenum of the Central Committee was surely one of the most grotesque meetings in the history of humanity. Two thirds of the 1,200 delegates would be dead within the next two years, yet in a frenzy they called for terror against more enemies.” Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen, New York, Random House, 2004, 318]
The center stage antagonist in this amazing unfolding of mid-1930s theater was Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s long-time hated rival. Trotsky, though thoroughly vanquished, pursued across the globe and hounded by Stalin’s assassins, was cast into the large and mythic role of the treacherous Bolshevik betrayer. In keeping with Stalin’s master narrative, Trotsky, tried in abstensia, was now a Nazi hireling, colluding and scheming along with the pinnacle of Soviet leadership to bring down the regime. His accomplices were Karl Radek, Grigory Piatakov, and Grigory Sokolnikov, life-long Bolsheviks whose entire lives were completely antithetical to the charges. The 1930s show-trials produced, once more, Stalin’s desired story-line, one completely consistent with the triumphal narrative: with the forces of dying, but desperate capitalism working their treachery against the successful workers state; Stalin, steadfast and resolute, pushing the banner of Communism forward while his old comrades opted for betrayal.
Trotsky, however, was to play for international Communism two diametrically opposed roles. He was for Stalin, as noted above, the consummate betrayer of Bolshevism. For the Leftists outside the Soviet Union who came to loathe the Georgian General Secretary as he turned the first successful Communist Revolution into his personal satrapy, Trotsky was the anodyne for the disillusion of the Communism that Stalin had put into place. For decades, Trotsky alive then dead became a portion of the Left’s counterfactual defense of the Bolshevik Revolution. If, the argument went, Trotsky rather than Stalin would have succeeded Lenin, then the Soviet Union would have avoided the personalized tyranny of Stalin and his “Bonapartist” perversion of the October revolution. Trotsky’s Soviet Union presumably would have been “Socialism with a Human Face.” But given Trotsky’s Lenin-like conviction of his theoretical infallibility, his unshakable confidence in the future of Bolshevism and his actual impressive record of brutal repression of dissent, experienced for example by the sailors in the Kronstadt Naval Yard in 1921 who had revolted against the Bolshevik’s suppression of free speech and repression of the trade unions. The “Trotsky-alternative” is one more of many variants of second-guessing and rationalizing that followed the failures of Bolshevism throughout its dismal career.