What is Stalinism? It is not the same as Communism. For if all Communist regimes were Stalinistic, how could one distinguish between Joseph Stalin’s (1879–1953) mass terror, his annihilation policy, and the authoritarian Communist dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after 1953? It is important to define the concept of Stalinism precisely, so that it can be clearly demarcated from other terms.
Several contemporaries observed that the Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s was different from other authoritarian dictatorships. Rather, it resembled the National Socialist regime in Germany, for it was characteristic of Bolshevik rule in the Stalin era to assert its claims to subdue the societies of the multiethnic empire, to dominate and control them. The Bolsheviks were trying to create new people and new orders from nothing, annihilating those they perceived as enemies of their new social order. The Bolsheviks allocated their enemies into social and ethnic groups, which were later to be isolated and annihilated. Already in the course of the civil war between 1918 and 1924, the Bolsheviks tried to stigmatize and annihilate ostensible class enemies. From 1929 to 1933 more than two million peasants were registered as kulaks (better-off farmers) and deported to Siberia, and more than ten thousand of them were killed. Former czarist elites and members of national minority groups suffered a similar fate. In 1937 and 1938 over a million people were arrested on Stalin’s order; some of them were shot according to quotas. More than 680,000 people found their death simply because they belonged to a social or a national group that the leadership imagined to be on the side of its enemies.
The terror was not only directed against the subjects of the regime; it also destroyed the party and the political elites of the Soviet state. After the end of World War II (1939–1945), the violence and terror were directed primarily against ethnic minorities, collaborators, and former Soviet soldiers who had been in German captivity. Therefore, one can say that Stalinism was a regime of terror, violence, and annihilation. It started with the rise of Stalin as an autocrat and ended with his death in 1953.
The first people to speak about Stalinism were its contemporaries. Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), who lost the struggle for power to Stalin in the 1920s, interpreted Stalinism as the rule of a bureaucratic caste that had replaced the proletariat. In this view, Stalinism was a betrayal of the principles of “true” socialism, allegedly represented by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924). This interpretation, however, could not explain why the party and the state apparatus would destroy themselves in the late 1930s; furthermore, it offered no explanation for the role of Stalin in Stalinism.
Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and Carl J. Friedrich (1901–1984) were also influenced by the idea of the modern dictatorship of the twentieth century. They claimed that Stalinism was a form of totalitarian dictatorship, thus differentiating it from other traditional authoritarian dictatorships. According to this theory, Stalinism was a totalitarian dictatorship because it claimed total dominance, led to the disintegration and transformation of the society, subjected the society to total control, and atomized and effaced the individual as a subject. It has been argued that this interpretation mistook the claims of the regime for reality and assumed that the Stalinist state was capable of exercising total control over the society. Revisionists in American historiography claimed, in their turn, that the destructive potential of Stalinism resulted from the dynamics of a “society in motion.” According to this concept, Stalinism was a result of the activity “from below” of competing groups within the power apparatus, which created social pressures to which the leadership had to respond.
After the opening of the Russian archives in the 1990s, the discussion about Stalinism took a new turn. There can be no further doubt that it was Stalin and his retinue who designed the strategies of mass terror and annihilation, although they could not consistently control the execution of those “policies.” The origin of Stalinism was the desire of the leadership to transform the society and subject it to total control. In this respect, Stalinism was totalitarian in its claim. But the Bolsheviks only disposed of a weak state and thus were not capable of realizing their demands in a heterogeneous multinational empire. This was the reason they exercised violence to break resistance. Terror and annihilation occurred, however, under the conditions of premodern, personified power structures. Not only did these power structures make possible the rise of Stalin to the head of the party, they were also a prerequisite for a system in which a despot like Stalin could realize his violent fantasies. Stalinism bears the name of Stalin, who was the embodiment of the system; it is not possible to discuss Stalinism without considering Stalin himself.
SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Bolshevism; Bureaucracy; Communism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Leninism; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Oligarchy; Power; Russian Revolution; Socialism; Stalin, Joseph; Terrorism; Totalitarianism; Trotsky, Leon; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; World War II
Baberowski, Jörg. 2004. Der rote Terror: Die Geschichte des Stalinismus. 2nd ed. Munich: DVA.
Davies, Sarah, and James Harris, eds. 2005. Stalin: A New History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Fitzpatrick, Sheila, ed. 2000. Stalinism: New Directions. London: Routledge.
Service, Robert. 2004. Stalin: A Biography. London: Macmillan.
Ideologically, the system was underpinned by dialectical materialism of the most mechanical kind, as rooted in MELS—the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin—with the first three used to elaborate Stalin's own ‘cult of personality’. Socialist realism stunted the arts and culture. It is even questionable as to whether Stalinism helped the Soviet Union to survive the Nazi invasion in 1941, since not only was Stalin shown to be in gross error over the intentions of his partner in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but the depredations of the purges (particularly within the Officer Corps) had left the army leaderless.
Stalinism was not just the personal construct of one man. It was rooted in the Bolshevik seizure of power and the closure of the Constituent Assembly in 1918, after unfavourable elections. It was presaged by the practices adopted during War Communism and its aftermath the Kronstadt Revolt, The Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 and banning of factions within the Party, as well as the defeat of the opposition from the Left ( Leon Trotsky) and Right ( Nikolai Bukharin)—all of which created the blueprint and the practical means for Stalin's subsequent policies. Stalinism as terror was always associated with Yezhov, Yadov, Beria, and the security apparatus, allowing Stalin to distance himself from the atrocities. This enabled him to foster the image of Popular Hero of the Motherland War, Father of the Nations, and Great Strategist, and evade responsibility for the 20 million war dead and the equal number lost through the terror. By the time of Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet society was permeated with suspicion, corruption, inefficiency, and waste, ruled over by the KGB and a demoralized Party. However, the USSR was a major world nuclear power with surrounding nations in thrall, and this sense of superpower status was to keep the neo-Stalinist system which he bequeathed functioning at least until 1991. See also COLLECTIVISM; MARXISM.