Suny: Stalin as True Believer

This essay was written by Ronald Grigor Suny (The University of Michigan) for the 2019 Presidential Plenary on the topic "Belief".

Stalin as True Believer, or: So, What is Socialism, Anyway?  

For 32 years I have been working, off and on, on a biography of the young Stalin, and just this past Friday morning I finally sent off the copyedited manuscript to Princeton University Press.  I thought it might be interesting to explore with you today the young Stalin’s belief, first in Georgian Orthodoxy and his commitment to Georgian nationalism, and his conversion to Marxism, the revolutionary movement, and a life as an outlaw.  But I was torn, because I also wanted to talk about alternatives to the politics of the present, a perhaps utopian challenge to the impasse to which neo-liberal capitalism and bourgeois democracy have brought us.  Which one should I present?  Could I do both somehow? 

I then had to come up with a title:  Stalin as True Believer, or: So, What is Socialism, Anyway?  

I am going to start with Stalin. 

What did I come up with after investigating what I call his “passage to revolution?” 

Like most successful politicians Stalin was a practiced performer.  He learned to play numerous roles as he moved from provincial poverty to state power.  The journey he traveled was a painful educational odyssey.  Skills were acquired as the hard experiences of an outlaw life toughened him.  Knowing his beginnings, Stalin grew up with models of a weak, irresponsible father and a strong, principled mother.  Beso Jughashvili failed in all aspects, while Keke took over the role of the man of the family, became the head of the household, protected and promoted her son, and provided an example of hardness, strength, stubborn insistence on and faith in her chosen ideals.  Already in the Gori church school, Soso Jughashvili showed devotion, even fanatical dedication, to his system of belief, at the time the Orthodoxy of his mother’s church.  Once committed to a faith, he did not easily display doubt.  When he shifted beliefs, he did so abruptly, radically, decisively, as when he gave up Christianity for Marxism.  From his school and seminary he picked up the elements of his own pedagogy:  explanations could be, should be, conveyed in plain language.  He sought clarity, simplicity, not complication in theory.  With Marxism, particularly in its Leninist version, he believed he had discovered how the world works.  More than that, he had acquired the means to change it.   

The young Soso did not have the full, extended support of a close and loving family, as did Lenin, but he acquired successive circles of friends, comrades, and subordinates on whom he depended for help as he made his way through two precarious decades of outlaw life.  He was able to evince devotion from others, like the fanatical Kamo.  Yet his relationship with friends was instrumental, based on a calculation as to their usefulness.  He could feel deeply about those whom he needed, like the Alliluevs, and had a soft side that he showed to the many women who passed through his life.  But he could turn hostile quickly, hold grudges, and callously dismiss those whom he considered enemies.  Many people remarked on his sense of humor, his love of jokes, but many more noted how he stood apart or sat silently to the side, watching, observing, and sizing up the situation.  He governed his emotions carefully.  What passion he had was reserved for his work and the cause to which he had given his life.   

Revolution was his profession, and through his work in the party underground and with workers in Baku and St. Petersburg, hardened by the violence of 1905-1907 and his suffering in prison and exile, he arrived in 1917 a man who had preserved his own ideals and was prepared as a pragmatic Marxist to use the means necessary to further the Bolshevik cause.  Sentimentality had largely been suppressed.  Empathy had eroded.1  In their place was a Machiavellian calculus – discipline, toughness, violence, even cruelty were requirements in this bitter political battle.  

In the Georgia in which he grew up violence was an everyday occurrence, in the family, from the state, against the state.  There was arbitrary, unjustified violence, like that suffered from his father, and violence sanctioned by tradition, by the great epics of Georgian literature and the stories of modern writers like Qazbegi.  Revenge could be a necessary, even ennobling, pursuit, the effecting of a rough justice, righting of an unbearable wrong.  For a revolutionary, violence was simply a basic tool of the trade.  Without it came defeat, with it victory.  

In the years leading up the revolution he was willing to work with those he admired and respected, like Lenin, but he was contemptuous of those elders like Zhordania or Plekhanov or movement veterans like Trotsky with whom he disagreed.  Stalin was endowed with self-confidence that passed beyond the boundary into arrogance.  His disdain for those with whom he disagreed extended even to Friedrich Engels, whom in post-revolutionary years he would refer to privately as incorrect or “foolish.”2  While Lenin was flexible and changed his mind about people, able to ally with Trotsky or contemplate working with Martov, whom he valued even though they had fought against one another for over a decade, Stalin found that kind of compromise difficult.  Whether it was resentment, jealousy, or disgust, he was unable to subordinate his affective disposition toward such people to what might better serve the movement.  He did not appreciate refinement or gentility but preferred a rougher manner, affecting what he took to be a proletarian toughness.  He operated best with acolytes like Suren Spandarian or Kamo, but was less able to get along with more independent people like the genteel Stepan Shahumian or the punctilious Iakov Sverdlov.  His relationship with long-time comrades like Kamenev or Orjonikidze was even more complicated, as the power and position of each of these men shifted within the Bolshevik hierarchy.  Like Lenin he could be contemptuous of intellectuals, even though in the scheme of things he was an intelligent.  His intellectual interests, however, were directed toward confirmation rather than questioning.  He was not introspective like Sverdlov.  He appreciated the plainness of ordinary people.  His nature was narrow, not as open and generous as Lenin’s. 

By the time he was Koba, he had a reputation within Georgian Social Democracy both as a talented organizer and an untrustworthy intriguer.  He acted on his impulses, personal and political, and was ready without much reflection to deceive or lie or turn on his comrades without consideration of what he may have promised or committed to earlier.  His self-assuredness led him to dogmatism.  In contrast to Marx or Lenin, doubt was foreign to him.3  At age twenty-five he had strong opinions that were resistant to change.  Yet when faced by strong opposition to his convictions, he was able for practical reasons to shift quickly and decisively as the incident over his “Credo” demonstrated.  To rejoin the movement and win over Tskhakaia, his patron, Koba abandoned his “Georgian Bundism” and accepted with little hesitation the party’s position on autonomous national political units.   

Russia became more important to him than Georgia.  His conviction that Russian culture and society were more modern, more proletarian, and therefore superior to the cultures of the peoples of the periphery, particularly those of the southern and eastern borderlands, grew stronger in the post-revolutionary years of civil war.  Nation was subordinated to what was thought to be internationalism but would in time evolve into empire, the inequitable rule of some over others.  In a variation of the theme proposed long before by Marx and Engels that some small nations were geschichtslose, Stalin accepted the imperial notion that selected nations were on the right side of history and others were fated to be pulled into the light of modernity.4   

Stalin’s political education took place largely in the bowels of the party underground, in the intense partisan infighting between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.  Here he sharpened his polemical tools, deploying what minor oratorical skills he had, but largely relying instead on simple exposition of fundamentals.  His own lack of conceptual facility actually aided him in presenting a reduced message plainly to plain folk, and he gained a following that appreciated this quality.   Stalin was able to tell a comprehensible story, a clear narrative, repeating themes or words over and over again that made them intelligible to his audience.  He instinctively grasped what political psychologists have noted:  that a simple idea repeated, no matter how absurd or untruthful, has a greater impact than a more sophisticated but complicated conception.   

More than any other episode, the crucible that forged him as a revolutionary was the first revolution, the one that ultimately failed, 1905-1907.  Talk of violence gave way to the actual exercise of terrorism.  

Revolution was not normal politics.  It quickly became something beyond compromise and negotiation.  Revolution was war, in fact the most devastating of wars, civil war, war within society and against the state, in many ways war without mercy.   Such a war carried its own imperatives:  the clear defining of enemies; the willingness to kill so as not to be killed; the subordination of feeling to what was needed to achieve victory.  This logic of war – we versus them, destroying the enemy while preserving your own – became fundamental to his thinking.  Once politics or any conflict is reconceived as war, the most extreme means, including killing ones’ enemies and those who might support them even in the future, is legitimized and normalized. 

Before coming to power, Russian revolutionaries were motivated very differently from those victorious after October.  Before 1917 Stalin was animated by a complex of ideas and emotions, from resentment and hatred to utopian hopes for justice and empowerment of the disenfranchised.  Social Democracy universally was about democracy, the empowerment of ordinary working people and the end of unearned privilege of the well-born.  The revolution at hand was a bourgeois-democratic one until the imperialist war of 1914 opened the way to a more rapid transition to a proletarian-socialist revolution.  That project of democracy, revolution, and socialism empowered a poor young man from the borderlands of the empire, and combined with the anti-nationalist, anti-imperialist program embedded in Marxism erased the disadvantages of an ethnic Georgian or Jew or Tatar.  Soso Jughashvili imbibed the democratic and socialist humanism that he discovered in both the Russian intelligentsia and the heroes and values in Georgian and Russian literature, while Koba came to appreciate how cruel the struggle to change the world would be.   

Over time the humane sensibilities of the romantic poet gave way to hard strategic choices.  Feelings for others were displaced or suspended and were trumped by personal and political interests.  What originated as empathy for the plight of one’s people (the Georgians), a social class (the proletariat), or humanity more broadly, was converted into a rational choice of instruments to reach a preferred end.  Empathy was replaced by an instrumental cruelty.  Once in power those earlier emotions and ideals were subordinated to the desire to hold on to the power so arduously and painfully acquired.  Power became a key motivator as the imperatives of the new conditions in which Bolsheviks found themselves forced them to make unanticipated choices.  “Possession of power,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “debases the free judgment of reason.”5  But power was seldom simply about personal aggrandizement or advancement.  Based on convictions derived from experience, history, and Marxism, power also served the commitment to a certain vision of the future.6   

With Marxism and the Social Democratic party he found the way to change his world.  Whether it was fate or luck, he had survived the trials of the revolutionary outlaw and emerged a tempered leader.  The trials ahead – civil war, an unexpected political rise to unchallenged autocrat, a revolution initiated by the state against the bulk of the population, and another world war – damaged and destroyed others, but Stalin survived.  History had hooked him and lifted him high.  A revolutionary made by revolutions, for the remainder of his life he became the maker and breaker of revolutions.  


If I go on with the biography, past October, which I may do if I live long enough, I will need to explain how a revolution that began with democratic, egalitarian, and participatory impulses and aspirations turned into dictatorship and repression of the various people who had overturned tsarism.  That could be a story of misplaced belief, a tragedy of ambition to change human beings when such radical change is impossible.  Or it could be a story of stolen fruits, of elites betraying ordinary people, not of the impossibility but of the enormous difficulties of creating a new way of living and governing. 


So, I ask myself, what is socialism, anyway?  And is it worth the effort? 


A quarter century after socialism’s supposed demise, the word has been revived as an epithet readily hurled at left Democrats, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as it was earlier at President Obama for his bailouts, stimulus packages, and health care proposals.  Before the fall of the Soviet Union, both old-style Communists and Social Democratic reformers appropriated the term socialism for their quite contradictory forms of social organization.  How does one word sustain such diverse meanings?  Might it have a place once more in the discourse of current politics?  Is it possible any longer to separate the burden of the Stalinist legacy and socialism’s humanist values that inspired so many in the past?  From the perspective of a student of the USSR and of international socialism, it is clear that concepts like socialism and capitalism that look at first like opposing economic systems and ways of thinking are, in fact, intimately, even fatally, connected. 

While the Right gleefully and without much reflection deploys socialism to denounce everything from social security to the jerry-built health insurance system known as Obamacare, the Democratic Party, having fled from “liberal and reluctantly embraced “progressive,” fears another terminological albatross around its electoral neck.  So, what is socialism, anyway?  Like liberal and conservative, it works, as literary critics would put it, as a “floating” or “empty signifier,” that is a word with multiple, indeterminate, and contested meanings.  Yet it has a history, and despite its frequent misuse – after all, even the Nazis called themselves “national socialists” – the word retains a cluster of core meanings that possess a power to animate and mobilize millions almost everywhere outside the United States. 

At its most fundamental level socialism is the political philosophy that believes that public policy ought to promote primarily the common good rather than simply individual or particular interests.  Until 1917 this involved democratic politics – the empowerment of all the people, social justice for all, and equality (not only of opportunity as liberals believe, but of reward as much as is practically possible).  Socialism, then, stood (and for many still stands) opposed to the proposition so central to classical liberal (now conservative) economic ideology that individual greed will magically produce the greatest good for the greatest number. 

The indispensable critic of modern market economics, Karl Marx, argued that capitalism, with its enormous productive capacities as well as its fatal contradictions between the abundance and poverty it engendered, would eventually give way through revolution or evolution to the collectivist egalitarianism of socialism.  Here his optimism and idealism may have gotten the better of his usually sober realism about the social world.  More perceptively, he warned that social environments – in his words, modes of production – shape human ambitions and possibilities.  Along with the society of competition and greed that capitalism fostered, it also created a corresponding “human nature” that demanded ever increasing accumulation, exploitation of the natural world, and the separation of individuals from their common purpose.  While it nurtured the possibility of a more socially connected economy, capitalism daily tore asunder the empathetic bonds of men and women, rendering them egoistic atoms in a state of Darwinian competition.  The material world and the moral world moved in opposite directions. 

For those who embrace its positive meaning, socialism is a utopia – not in the sense of an unattainable goal but rather in the sense of a direction in which people might point their political desires.  

To most Americans, who by world standards are extraordinarily affluent, this stark statement of one understanding of capitalism may seem exaggerated.  To the global poor it reflects the lives they know.  Yet the socialist critique of capitalism has always been more potent and persuasive than the presentation of alternatives to the way economies work in our own time.  But equally potent is the normative assertion that economy and society ought to work for the many, not only the few.  The intermediate solution outside of the Soviet-style Communist systems has been the welfare state:  capitalist market economies but with state regulation and provision for the sick and less able in a democratic polity.  Social Democracy, or what Bernie Sanders calls “democratic socialism,” which runs from the New Deal to Swedish socialism, preserves the market but directs state policy toward the public good with the conviction that individuals and markets may operate with a far different logic when left to their own.  As Lichtheim understood, “Taken by itself this is a democratic rather than a socialist line of reasoning” for it “leaves the wage relationship unaltered” and the means of production in the hands of capitalists.  Certainly an advance on unfettered neo-liberal capitalism, Social Democracy, nevertheless, must be distinguished from socialism in which profits would go, not to the owners of capital, but to society at large. 

Today it is unlikely that popular ownership of the means of production is attainable.  In a more limited sense socialism might be seen as the democratic intervention into the economic as well as the political sphere to reorient production and consumption toward public ends.  Perhaps the critics of the Democratic left and Obama have a point.  A health care system that eliminated fee for service medicine (which Obama did not propose) and provided guaranteed health care for all (which he did) would be a kind of socialism, whether administered by government or, as in Switzerland, by regulated non-profit private insurers.  Municipal services such as fire departments and public schools would be socialist, as are the national parks and the post office.  Imagine if entry into the grandeur of Yosemite were calculated on a monetary basis.  What would it cost to view El Capitan if we calculated a rare resource and high demand?  And, by the way, can Fedex deliver a first-class letter from Ann Arbor to California for fifty cents and make a profit?   

Socialism is defined both by its ends and its means.  Its ends are policies defined by the public good, a movement toward greater democracy, well-informed participation in politics and economics by its citizenry, and programs, both governmental and in the private sector, that aim toward greater equality and material security for all.  Inequality and unearned advantages and privileges conferred by the ownership of property are the enemies of socialism, and therefore policies aimed at the common good are in tension with the power of the propertied who shortsightedly look to the profit of corporations and individual owners of capital.  The means to socialism, as the bitter experience of the Soviet experiment perversely demonstrated, must be democratic.  Socialism cannot be imposed; it has to be acceptable and accepted.  That, of course, may be the greatest obstacle to a socialist future, given the naturalized hegemony of bourgeois normality. 

Utopian or realist, socialists have to be frank that the socialist values of equality and social justice run up against the desires of people already shaped by centuries of capitalism.  The regulated economy of socialism would likely compel people to give up the search for ever greater output, ever higher standards of living, and increasing consumption of goods and exploitation of the natural world. And what about the majority of people around the world who have not attained even minimal standards of comfort, health, or even survival?  Both in the statist economies that imploded by 1989 and in democratic capitalist societies like Trump’s America, there was and is (as Lichtheim reminded us) an “inherent conflict between two quite different and possibly irreconcilable goals:  economic growth and social equality.” 

It has been said that capitalism is intolerable and socialism impossible.  That may be the inescapable dilemma of our age.  But as historians continually remind us, nothing is fatally determined or inevitable.  We should not mistake the present for the future.  There is always a degree of choice.  Realistically, in a world dominated by market fundamentalism, in which inequality between the top and bottom of society grows daily, socialism is what will make capitalism work for most people.  There is a radical middle road to a better future.  Looking at the past of failures and the present of confusion, socialism offers the possibility of a different logic to be applied to public policy, a democratic intervention into the economy redirecting it toward a public good.  We have learned from the Soviet experiment that there is no real socialism without democracy, and we are daily coming to the realization that there can be no real democracy – the empowerment of all the people  without socialism.   

Ronald Grigor Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of Red Flag Unfurled:  Historians, the Russian Revolution, and the Soviet Experiment (2017) and Stalin:  Passage to Revolution (forthcoming). 

1 “Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking and feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.”  [Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil:  On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York:  Basic Books, 2011), p. 16] 

2 Van ReeThe Political Thought of Joseph Stalin, p. 107. 

3 In 1865 in answer to a questionnaire Karl Marx wrote that his motto was Descartes’De omnibus >dubitandum (Doubt everything). [Karl Marx’s “Confession,” April 1, 1865, Zalt-Bommel, The Netherlands;]

4 Adopting a term coined by Robert Tucker, Erik van  believes that “Stalin was indeed a Russian red patriot, if this term refers to his insistence on Russian leadership as the most advanced nation of the multinational state.  He used a purely Marxist argument, proceeding from the progressive socio-economic and state development of Russia compared with the border lands, which at the same time harmonised perfectly with the traditional centralism of the Russian state.” [The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin, p. 82] 

5 “Der Besitz der Gewalt das Frie Urteil der Vernunft unvermeidlich verdibt.” [Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Freiden:  Ein Philosphischer Entwurf  [On Eternal Peace] (1795). 

6 Van Ree, The Political Thought of Joseph Stalin, pp. 1-17.