The right wing has attacked historian Moshe Lewin’s new book, “The Soviet Century,” which covers the Soviet Union from the early 1920s through its implosion in 1991, for its sympathetic treatment of Lenin. His principal conclusion, backed by newly available archival materials, is that Stalin subverted the Bolshevik Party’s Leninist tradition of democratic centralism and assumed Czar-like dictatorial powers. The Communist Party (CPSU) consequently lost its character as a political party. It became an administrative appendage of the unwieldy bureaucratic state structures created by Stalin’s precipitous and premature introduction of an overcentralized planned economy.
Lewin stresses the system’s industrial and scientific achievements and the tremendous rise in living standards, education and culture. Soviet leaders after Stalin never acquired, however, the ideological unity necessary to restore the damage done by Stalin to the CPSU’s political guiding role. Thus the party remained powerless to cope with the imbalances of the over-bureaucratized centralized state structures. These imbalances led to an increasing technological gap in relation to the capitalist economies, crises in industrial supply, and inability to meet the growing needs of its people as their skill, culture and education developed.
Lewin begins his history with Stalin’s clash with Lenin on the national question shortly after Lenin suffered a stroke in 1922. Lenin envisaged the Soviet Union as a federation of independent republics. Stalin proposed instead semi-autonomous republics under which political and economic policies would be determined by Moscow-based, Russian-dominated commissariats. Lenin disagreed sharply, but Stalin prevented his written criticism from reaching the Central Committee.
Instead of winning support for his positions by convincing arguments, as Lenin had done, Stalin increasingly resorted to strong-arm measures to defeat ultra-leftist attacks on the worker-peasant alliance that formed the basis of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) for the advance to socialism.
Under NEP, the initial industrialization occurred in a mixed economy with state and private sectors. Peasants were taxed in kind reasonably to provide grain and industrial crops for domestic use and for foreign exchange. The left opposition led by Trotsky and Zinoviev argued for rapid industrialization funded by maximal expropriation of grain from the peasantry.
In fact, when the peasants did not get the needed affordable tools, fertilizer, textiles, and leather, a severe shortage of grain developed suddenly in December 1927. Stalin’s reaction was a 180-degree reversal of course. He abruptly destroyed the worker-peasant alliance and adopted Trotsky’s solution for setting the peasants back into serf-like status. He sent out party leaders to seize grain from the peasants. The peasants resisted, and he forcibly imposed collectivization to prevent concealment of grain.
Molotov, in post-retirement interviews (not referred to by Lewin), recounts with pride how he went out for the next five years to seize grain from the peasants, not just the wealthy but all the peasants (including the collectives), “at miserably low prices — they gained nothing.” Molotov quotes Stalin’s praise: “I will cover you with kisses.”
Without adequate organizational preparation, Stalin also adopted Trotsky’s previous demand for precipitous industrialization. Economic experts now agree that had the NEP worker-peasant alliance been continued, increased agricultural production would have led to a higher level of industrialization than was achieved, even according to the figures released about the first Five Year Plan (now known to be falsified).
Lewin describes how the growing alarm of “Old Bolsheviks” at Stalin’s breach with Lenin’s policies led to their mass execution. Quotas for arrests were fixed in advance. In most cases neither the accused nor attorneys were present at the “trials,” which could be as short as 10 minutes. The archives disclose that 681,692 persons were executed in 1937-38. In the few show trials, the only evidence presented was confessions obtained by beatings and torture personally authorized by Stalin.
Lewin might have referred to Molotov’s later admission that he never believed in the charge of conspiracy to turn over Soviet land to Germany, Japan and Poland in exchange for support for a coup, for which Bukharin and other former political leaders and Marshal Tukhachevsky and most of the officer corps were executed. Molotov still justified the killings as preventive executions on the grounds that these were rightists and that there was no telling which way they would turn in the case of a crisis.
Lewin maintains that although the party never did, it could have recovered its political function to the point that it could have introduced changes in the economic system needed for successful socialist construction. Without its Communist Party, the socialist Soviet Union could not survive.