By Chet Yarbrough
Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928
Written by: Stephen Kotkin
Narration by: Paul Hecht
Stephen Kotkin offers a remarkable and comprehensive view of Russia’s 1917 Revolution in “Stalin, Volume I”. Kotkin succinctly describes how power in the hands of one may advance a nation’s wealth, but at a cost that exceeds its benefit.
Kotkin’s first volume about Stalin’s rise to power offers lessons to modern American and Chinese governments. China seems on one path; America another. The formation of “checks and balances” sustains America’s economic growth; even in the face of leadership change. In contrast, a “rule of one” has moved China’s economic wealth to new heights, but “rule of one” threatens its future success; particularly if it follows Stalin’s mistaken path.
In historical context, Kotkin profiles the three most important characters of the Russian revolution; e.g. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Leon Trotsky. Kotkin documents the personalities and circumstances of the pre-U.S.S.R.’ economy; i.e. an economy based on the disparity between wealth and poverty, federalization and centralization, political idealism and pragmatism.
Three leaders in the Chinese revolution were Mao Zedong , Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. Zhou Enlai is the moderate of the three in trying to preserve traditional Chinese customs. Mao is by some measures an idealist who attempts to expand the theory of communism. His idealism creates a bureaucracy that nearly derails China’s economy. “The Gang of Four” radicalized Mao’s idealism into a more Stalinist view of communism. “The Gang of Four”s radicalization of Chinese communism is eventually reversed with the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, but not until after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
After Tiananmen Square, Deng recognizes the power of public dissent. Rather than increasing suppression, Deng opens the Chinese economy to a degree of self-determination. Deng does not abandon communist ideology. However, he recognizes the importance of economic growth and how less doctrinal communist policy would unleash the power of people as demonstrated at Tienanmen Square. Deng dies in 1987 and the government of China is reshuffled. Deng’s eventual successor, President Xi, emphasizes the idealism of communism that threatens return to a Stalinist-like terror in China; i.e. a terror enhanced by technological invasion of privacy, and “big brother” control.
President Xi returns to Mao’s authoritarian belief in enforced collectivism with the idea of expanding China’s new-found wealth through government subsidization of industry. Xi renews emphasis on rule by the Communist party, headed by himself.
The growing disparity between rich and poor in both China and America is widely seen in the internet, and with increased international travel. China’s rapid rise in economic wealth is unevenly spread, just as it is in the United States. The difference is in how that economic disparity is addressed.
In America, private dissent is an inherent part of its history which lauds individualism, self-determination, and freedom (within the boundary of “rule of law”). But, these characteristics denigrate American citizens who are unable or unwilling to reap the rewards of individualism, self-determination, and freedom. These are the Americans sleeping on America’s streets and living in their cars. America’s system of governance allows this rift between the rich and poor because it is based on a system of “checks and balances”. America’s system demands debate, and more broadly considered human consequence, before government action is taken.
In China, dissent is discouraged and freedom is highly restricted, but homelessness is addressed with housing for the poor at subsidized prices. The homeless are compelled to work at jobs created by the Chinese government. China’s system of governance is driven from the top, with limited debate, and more singularly determined public consequence. Government action is autocratically determined.
In ancient China, singular autocratic rule offered a mixed blessing. Some of the world’s wealthiest and most cultured governments were created in China. These ancient dynasties successfully expanded their economies to make China a world leader in science and industry. At the same time, with few checks and balances, the history of China’s “rule of one” resulted in periodic social and economic collapse.
In some ways, China’s ancient civilization’s rise and fall is reminiscent of the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. after 1917. Kotkin describes the turmoil surrounding Russia in 1917. The beginning of WWI and Germany’s invasion exaggerate the paradox of power in Russia. Modern European, Asian, North American, Middle Eastern, and African countries are experiencing some of the same economic, and political disruption.
In 1917, the Czar and wealthy aristocracy depend on a population of the poor to defend the government. Russian peasants are faced with defending a government system that recognizes them as serfs, agricultural laborers indentured to wealthy landowners. (A similar system existed in China prior to 1949.) On the one hand, the peasant is a proud Russian; on the other hand, he is a slave of the landed gentry; indentured to preserve the wealth of others at the cost of his/her life.
In 1949, Mao recognizes the same inequity and judiciously separates landlords from their vast estates and re-distributes it to tenant farmers who worked for them. Ownership restructuring improved agricultural production until Mao tried to make small collectives into large collectives with Communist party oversight. Formation of a Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy distorted actual production and de-motivated farmers that did the real work of farming. The result of production over-estimation caused a nation-wide famine.
Kotkin notes Russian social and economic inequity is a breeding ground for a Leninist/Marxist revolution. Marx’s dialectic view of the wealth of nations suggests that governments will change based on the growing recognition of the value of labor; i.e. beginning with agrarian feudalism, growing through industrialized capitalism, and socialism; reaching to a state of equilibrium in communism (a needs-based and communal sharing of wealth). Marx suggests all nations will go through this dialectic process.
Lenin bastardizes Marx’s dialectic idealization. Lenin believes the process can be accelerated through revolution and centralized control of the means of production. This idea is adopted by Mao Zedong in China in 1949 with early success. However, Mao expands the collectivist policy with “The Great Leap Forward” in 1958. Mao’s broader collectivist policy collapses the Chinese economy in 1962. Thousands of Chinese die from starvation as communist overseers exaggerate food production quotas.
Returning to Kotkin’s book, collectivist expansion is an oversimplification of Kotkin’s explanation of Lenin’s form of communism but it shows the risk of “rule of one” governance. Even Lenin is conflicted about how Russia will grow into a communist society. Lenin recognizes the social and economic distance that Russian peasants must travel to gain an appreciation of a new form of government.
Much of the Russian population, like the Chinese in 1949, were illiterate and living at a subsistence level; bounded by a non-mechanized agrarian economy. Lenin vacillates between growth through education and growth through autocratic command. Kotkin suggests that Lenin gravitates toward centralized command because of the need to consolidate power within the revolution.
What Lenin needed in 1917 were followers that could get things done. Before being felled by brain disease and stroke, Lenin relies on the abilities of men like Joseph Stalin. Mao relies on his revolutionary Red Guard. Kotkin argues that Stalin became close to Lenin as a result of his organizational skill and his penchant for getting things done without regard to societal norms. For Mao, close associates like Deng Xiaoping, were his enforcers. Stalin becomes the most powerful enforcer in Lenin’s revolution. Deng eventually becomes the leader of Communist China.
Though Stalin wields great enforcement powers, Kotkin infers Trotsky is the intellectual successor to Lenin. Stalin and Trotsky are shown to be at odds on the fundamental direction of the Bolshevik party, the successor party of Russian communism. However, the exigency of getting things done, as opposed to understanding the goals of creating a Leninist/Marxist government, were paramount goals for consolidating power after the revolution. Kotkin explains how Stalin became a defender of Leninist doctrine while Trotsky became an antagonist and eventual apostate because of Stalin’s manipulation of events.
China waits and observes Stalin’s method for rapid industrialization of Russia. Kotkin explains that Stalin gains an intimate understanding of Lenin’s doctrines while Trotsky chooses to compete with Lenin’s philosophical positions. The threat of factionalism accompanies Trotsky’s doctrinal departures.
The irony of the differences between Stalin and Trotsky are crystallized by Kotkin. Stalin’s intelligence is underestimated by both Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin carefully catalogs and memorizes Lenin’s communist beliefs. In contrast, Trotsky chooses his own communist doctrinal path based, in part, on Lenin’s writing. Here, another similarity is drawn with the near religious following of Mao’s Red Book with aphorisms about governing oneself and China.
Kotkin suggests Lenin views Trotsky as a more likely successor than Stalin as leader of the country. Lenin appreciates Stalin’s organizational ability but views Stalin’s temperament as too volatile for long-term government control. In 1922, Lenin is said to have dictated a “testament” saying that Stalin should be removed from his position as General Secretary. Lenin’s “testament” critiqued the ruling triumvirate of the party (Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev) and others like Bukharin, Trotsky and Pyatakov but the pointed suggestion of removal for Stalin is subverted.
After Lenin dies, the triumvirate chooses to ignore Lenin’s “testament” for Stalin’s removal. After all, Stalin is a doer; i.e. he gets things done. Just as Stalin suppresses opposition to his interpretation of Lenin, China suppresses opposition to the Communist Party’s doctrines. Doctrinal differences are successfully suppressed in China until the the failure of “The Great Leap Forward” in the 1950’s. The consequence of “The Great Leap Forward”s failure is the cultural revolution in the 1960’s.
In America’s history the economy slugs along with setbacks and successes. Though 1929 sees the collapse of the American economy, it recovers with government intervention, the advent of WWII, and the push and pull of a decision-making process designed by the framers of the Constitution. That push and pull is from leadership that is influenced by the checks and balances of three branches of government. That same process saves the American economy in 2008. The power and economy of America has grown to become the strongest in the world.
Kotkin’s research suggests young Stalin is something different from what is portrayed in earlier histories. Stalin grows close to Lenin because he is the acting arm of Lenin’s centralized command. Lenin relies on Stalin to get things done. He is Lenin’s executor. At the same time, Lenin turns to Trotsky as an economic adviser to ensure a more comprehensive understanding of what needs to be done to stabilize the revolution. Trotsky believes in the importance of centralized control of the economy.
Both Lenin and Stalin believed in communism but the first acts on a vision of the future; the second acts on the “now”. China’s Deng and Xi seem to reverse Lenin’s and Stalin’s reasoning. Rather than Deng being like Lenin, he acts on China in the “now”. Xi seems more like Lenin and looks at China’s future based on the ideals of communism. However, from an American perspective, all autocrats common failing is belief in “rule of one”.
Kotkin puts an end to any speculation about Lenin being poisoned by Stalin. Kotkin argues that Lenin died of natural causes, strokes from a brain disease. What Kotkin reveals is the internecine war that is waged between Stalin and Trotsky while Lenin is dying. The strokes steadily debilitate Lenin and suspicious written pronouncements are made that may or may not have originated with Lenin. Lenin’s secretary is his wife. Some evidence suggests a missive from Lenin saying Stalin should not be his successor, noting Trotsky as a better choice. Kotkin suggests such a missive is unlikely. Lenin seems to have had his doubts about both men.
Succession in modern China seems less filled with intrigue than communist Russia but the opaqueness of China’s politics makes the rise of Xi a mystery to most political pundits. What seems clear is that China’s rise and fall has always been in the hands of the “…one”.
History will be the arbiter for President Xi’s success or failure with a road and belt plan for China’s economic future. The same may be said for President Trump’s focus on the virtue of selfishness for America’s economic future. The fundamental difference is Xi has no “checks and balances”; Trump has the Supreme Court, Congress, and a 4-year-election-cycle to assuage arbitrary government action.
In Russia, Trotsky is characterized as an intellectual while Stalin is a pragmatist. In China, Deng is characterized as a pragmatist while Xi seems a doctrinal theorist. In America, Trump is no intellectual but carries the torch of pragmatic materialism (in what might be called a “moneyocracy”–a government focused on dollars, cents, and self-interest; without regard to morality or common good).
In history, Trotsky is highly opinionated and arrogant. Stalin is street smart and highly Machiavellian. Trotsky thinks right and wrong while Stalin thinks in terms of what works. In China, Deng is Stalin and Xi is Trotsky. In America, Trump is Stalin and his opposition is Trotsky-like do-nothings.
Stalin is reputed to be temperamental while Trotsky is aloof. Though Trotsky insists on centralized control, Stalin argues for federalization. Stalin paradoxically argues for federalization because he knows Russian satellite countries want independence but he will act in the short-term for centralization to get things done. And of course, Stalin clearly adopts centralized economic planning for the U.S.S.R.; i.e. another of Kotkin’s paradoxes of power.
There is much more in Kotkin’s powerful first volume about Stalin and the Russian revolution. Germany’s role in the revolution is a case in point. The writing is crisp and informative. The narration is excellent. After listening to “…Volume I”, one looks forward to Kokin’s next which is published this year.
The past is present in Kotkin’s excellent biography of Joseph Stalin.