Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

To write a biography of Stalin must be a daunting task. It is difficult to write impartially about any revolutionary leader. Revolutions generate myths, and any historian is likely to take an attitude, favorable or hostile, to the achievements of the revolution in which his hero participated. In the case of very recent history, it is difficult not to have prejudices of one’s own—about Hitler or Mussolini, Roosevelt or Churchill—quite apart from the prejudiced nature of some of the evidence. But these are problems which normally face the historian—sifting the evidence, discounting personal distortions. Most of the evidence is available: all that remains is to check and interpret it.

In the case of Stalin the evidence itself is elusive. It has been subject not to one mythmaking process but to several. There is what Professor Tucker calls “the politics of revolutionary biography”: from at least the 1920s the prerevolutionary careers of Lenin’s potential successors—Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Stalin—were already the subject of controversy. With Lenin deified, the deviation of any of his followers from his line, at any time of their careers, became the cause of reproach. Two myths—at least—emerged: the Stalinist myth of the lives of Stalin and Trotsky, and the Trotskyist myth. Both myths were rewritten as political circumstances changed.

Then after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the decision to end “the cult of personality” there came the Khrushchev myth of Stalin. To this we owe a great deal of information previously unavailable, but it has to be used with caution. Khrushchev had his own political axe to grind, his own skeletons to keep locked up in cupboards. The infallibility of Lenin was still an article of faith, so that exaggerated significance was attached to relations with him. In consequence of all this the revelations were incomplete, one-sided, and need almost as much interpretation as the Stalinist and Trotskyist myths. Finally, in the last few years the Soviet regime, recognizing the difficulties of letting half a cat out of a bag, has tried to discourage further discussion. A great many essential facts about Stalin’s life (and death) are still totally unknown.

So the biographer of Stalin has to evaluate myths and countermyths as well as to sift evidence. It is one degree less exacting than writing a life of Christ, for at least in Stalin’s case orthodoxy did not succeed in suppressing the heretical tradition altogether. But the sheer bulk of the material, in addition to its shifting and treacherous nature, makes the biographer’s task an unenviable one. So far the best life in English is that by Isaac Deutscher. But that was published in 1949, though revised in the 1960s. In 1949 the only alternative to the Stalinist myth was the Trotskyist myth, on which Deutscher perforce had to rely. Now that so much more material is available, there is a case for a fresh assessment. Here, published almost simultaneously, are two big books which aspire to give us just that.

Mr. Ulam takes nearly 750 pages to study “the man and his era.” Professor Tucker’s 500 smaller pages bring Stalin’s career down only to 1929; two more volumes are promised. So neither author is cramped for space. Both books represent a considerable achievement. Both authors are extremely well versed in the material available, and they bring before English-speaking readers a mass of facts which have hitherto lurked in obscure Russian journals.

Both books reject the Trotskyite myth. Neither author regards Trotsky as any more intrinsically reliable than Stalin himself as an unsupported authority. Trotsky completely misrepresented his own role in the immediate aftermath of Lenin’s death (Ulam, pp. 223-224, 330); Professor Tucker suggests that Trotsky’s whole theory of Thermidor is a rationalization of his inability to recognize that “Stalin had bested him in the political struggle” (p. 393).

Part of Trotsky’s myth was that Stalin was a mere “organization man,” “a nonintellectual who differed from the brilliant revolutionary literati of Bolshevism in his bent for plodding practical work” (Tucker, p. 210; cf. p. 292). But as early as 1906, Stalin at the age of twenty-six was making an independent contribution to the formation of party policy on the peasant problem (Ulam, p. 81). Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question, his main theoretical work before 1917, was largely his own and not—as Trotsky suggested—Lenin’s (Tucker, p. 155; Ulam, pp. 119-120). Professor Tucker stresses the importance of The Foundations of Leninism (1924) in augmenting Stalin’s reputation after Lenin’s death: Stalin succeeded, where Zinoviev and Bukharin failed, in producing a simple systematization of Lenin’s views for the education and guidance of the party (pp. 316, 322). Mr. Ulam even defends—on military grounds—Stalin’s failure to cooperate with Tukhachevsky in the attack on Warsaw in 1921, which is often represented as insubordination based on envy (Ulam, p. 189).


Stalin’s conception of socialism in one country also gave the party what it needed in 1925. “He was declaring the national independence of Russian Communism, its ability to carry through the post-revolutionary social transformation to a finish regardless of delay in the further progress of world Communist revolution.” The opposition’s position was “politically hopeless from the outset, no matter how capably it might be argued” (Tucker, pp. 387-388). Stalin was right to claim that majority opinion in the party was happier with an anti-kulak policy than with Bukharin’s “enrichissez-vous” (Tucker, pp. 403, 413). Nor did Stalin simply take over Trotsky’s industrialization program: as early as 1926 he was putting collectivization and expansion of heavy industry on the agenda. Even if this was only keeping his options open, that was more than either Trotsky or Bukharin managed to do (Tucker, pp. 406-407). Down to 1929 Stalin “was accepted as the leader not by virtue of extraordinary personal qualities but because a great many agreed with the policies he advocated and were confident of his ability to supervise their implementation” (Tucker, p. 464).

Professor Tucker proclaims himself a psychohistorian, a disciple of Erik Erickson (pp. xvi, xviii). Stalin

did not become an ardent Leninist solely because of the persuasive force of Lenin’s political arguments. Becoming a Leninist also involved, in this case, a rebellious young man’s emotional needs for psychosocial identity. Not only did he derive from Lenin a community-concept that helped him to live his lonely life of an underground worker and outlaw; he acquired at the same time a self-concept that accorded both with his need to idealize himself and with his antisocial role as a revolutionary. [Page 137]

“Stalin’s own self-esteem was thus bound up with his veneration of Lenin” (p. 285).

This accounts, among other things, for Stalin’s “conversion to Russian identity.” He “did not simply drop his self-identification with Georgia, he actively rejected it” (p. 142). Erikson’s concept of psychosocial identity is also used to explain Stalin’s hostility to Trotsky when the latter’s eminence in 1917 interfered with Stalin’s dream “of becoming the leader’s alter ego and closest companion-in-arms…. He was trying to cheat Stalin of his just deserts, to rob him of his hard-won role as Lenin II of the revolutionary movement” (pp. 197-198). For Stalin totally lacked the charismatic qualities which led to Lenin’s acceptance as leader.

This all seems to me a trifle speculative, and to raise as many problems as it solves. Within twelve pages of describing the young Georgian’s need for “a leader to revere,” Professor Tucker quotes letters of 1908-1911 in which Stalin criticizes Lenin with some vigor (p. 149). Soon after the revolution Stalin and Lenin were “antagonists” over the question of Russian nationalism (pp. 246, 284-285). The aim of Stalin’s life, according to Professor Tucker,

was to be—and be recognized as—Russian Communism’s second Lenin…. To gain the supreme prize he was prepared to fight with Lenin himself if necessary. If Lenin failed to see Stalin as his rightful successor this could only be—in Stalin’s mind—because he was ill and no longer the Lenin of old. [Page 489]

So Lenin’s criticisms, in his “Political Testament,” of Stalin’s rudeness were repressed in Stalin’s mind. “The hero-image of himself was in symbiosis with a villain-image of the enemy. Counterposed to the picture of himself as a great revolutionary and Marxist, the truest of Lenin’s disciples,…was a picture of the enemy inside the party as would-be betrayer of it and the Revolution” (p. 454). Professor Tucker sees here a clue to the later purges, after Stalin’s decision to drive collectivization through by violence had given rise to a spiral of resistance and repression (p. 409). We shall have to wait for the next two volumes before we can decide whether the explanation is adequate.

Mr. Ulam is no psychohistorian. He is a plain, no-damn-nonsense man. “It can be stated categorically,” he tells us, “that until April 1917 there were no major ideological differences between the two factions [Bolsheviks and Mensheviks], and whatever minor ones arose were temporary and unstable.” “The almost universal belief that the two factions represented two different breeds of men” is a myth created by the Bolsheviks (p. 50). The reader will regard that as refreshing or philistine according to his own prejudices. AT least it avoids the necessity of analysis. Similarly Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR is dismissed as “senile outpourings,” though it was published on the eve of a Congress at which Stalin made a speech which was “a star performance” (pp. 729-730, 733).

Mr. Ulam explains Stalin’s rise partly by his genuine reputation as a theorist, partly by his usefulness to Lenin as a fixer. It was Lenin who made him General Secretary of the party in 1922.


Stalin would free him from those humiliating and exhausting combats with the opposition. He would take the local Party organization in hand, make sure that they did not send to the Congresses so many people ready to applaud…those impudent speakers [who] called him “oligarch” or “bureaucrat-in-chief.” [Page 208]

(Mr. Ulam is summarizing here what he believes Lenin’s motives to have been. I shall return later to this technique of historical writing.) In 1923 “the Old Bolsheviks in the oligarchy clung to Stalin. They looked to him for salvation from the Party ‘masses,’ barely repulsed at the Eleventh Congress and now with Lenin incapacitated looming all the more dangerous” (pp. 215-216). The suppression of “Lenin’s Testament,” in which he urged that Stalin should be sacked from his General Secretaryship of the Party, was acceptable to a majority in the Central Committee, who regarded the Testament as an expression of Lenin’s sickness and resentment of his enforced inactivity rather than as a serious political document (p. 239).

What explanation then has Mr. Ulam for Stalinism? It is embarrassingly simple. There is a thing called “the Communist mind.” “What begins in the Communist mind as a coldly calculated gambit not infrequently turns into hysteria” (p. 282; cf. p. 288). “The Communist mind (and not only Stalin’s) has always been schizophrenic.” Stalin “epitomized the Communist mind at its most realistic and its most suspicious” (pp. 361-362). “The Bolshevik mind” could not “distinguish between theoretical and factual reality, between the world of ideologically inspired dreams or suspicions and the world of hard facts.” “How prone is the Marxist mind, even the enlightened democratic variety, to suspicion!” says Mr. Ulam, quoting a Menshevik view of Stalin’s relation to the Red Army which Winston Churchill (“to be fair”) also shared (p. 446).

There is also “the military mind, whether collective or of an individual,” which “tends to be politically inert if not indolent”; this explains the Red Army’s failure to intervene in politics in the 1930s. In a footnote Mr. Ulam mentions Julius Caesar and Napoleon as apparent exceptions: he says nothing of Oliver Cromwell, or of Spain, Greece, Latin America, and a few other countries where military minds do not always seem too indolent for politics (p. 448). It is difficult to take all this seriously except as the product of a certain kind of “academic mind.” Mr. Ulam has nothing to contribute to a theoretical understanding of Stalinism.

This does not prevent him from making a number of useful points. “In foreign affairs until well after World War II, Stalin continued being what he had been in domestic politics until the late 1920s—a ruthless realist, unaffected by ideology or sentiment, unmoved by vanity” (p. 466). “His greatness as a diplomat,” his “dazzling” performance vis-à-vis Roosevelt and Churchill, “was rooted in a shrewd appreciation of elements of strength and weakness (psychological as well as material) in Russia’s partners and enemies” (p. 559). “Stalin’s knowledge of the facts and complexities of the Polish problem…compared favorably with that of the holder of the Polish desk in the Foreign Office or the State Department” (p. 622). “Even during the last phase we find a sense of realism” in foreign relations, notably in relations with Mao (p. 685; cf. pp. 719-720). Stalin might indeed have claimed more credit than Mr. Ulam gives him for frustrating the Marshall Plan, whose anticommunist objectives, in Mr. Ulam’s delicate words, were “not an example of unalloyed altruism” (pp.657, 720).

Another valuable point is to show how retrospectively useful the trials of the late 1930s were. They enabled the regime to blame wrecking rather than government mistakes for the famine and hardship caused by collectivization and industrialization (p. 481). “It was not only sadism that dictated that children of his victims, on reaching young adulthood, were themselves sent to the camps: no tellers of tales thus” (p. 491). The postwar campaign against “cosmopolitanism” was not “something merely imposed from above which did not find a largely genuine response among the masses of the people. The theme—’What is so wonderful about foreigners? Could they have endured what we endured?’—was undoubtedly very effective” (p. 649).

In classical and Renaissance historical writing it was an accepted technique to put into the mouths of historical characters speeches invented for them by the historian. This agreeable literary habit was abandoned some centuries ago as historians began to recognize that what they wrote must be based as far as possible on evidence; and that they should not invent when evidence was lacking. Mr. Ulam reverts to the Renaissance-humanist pattern. He employs a novelist’s technique of interior monologue, or stream of consciousness, to convey what he believes to have been Stalin’s thoughts on any given occasion.

Stalin had perhaps neglected his role as the educator of the new generation. Now he would have to make up for this neglect. The youthful propensity toward rebelliousness against established authority would be combated by capitalizing on youth’s need to believe, to see the world in terms of heroes and villains…. There would be the realm of darkness, with the famous revolutionaries revealed as politically bankrupt, dissimulators, people who had plotted against Lenin or worked for foreign powers. Even the most sceptical and sophisticated among the young would come to despise them: even if not guilty, why did they confess, how could a real revolutionary behave in such a craven and cowardly fashion? [Pages 388-389]

The possibility is not excluded that Stalin did think like that; but there is no evidence that he did. Such passages are scattered throughout the book. “Stalin’s inhumanity fed on the idea of his own historic mission. He was the embodiment of the Revolution, the foundation on which Soviet power rested” (p. 409). After 1945 “the democracies…would envy and fear Russia’s new power. Their governments, especially that of Churchill, would spare no tricks to deprive him of some of the fruits of the victory, but they always reacted so sluggishly…. Their people lacked a sense of discipline” (p. 618). Again there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate such speculations (cf. pp. 208, 233, 405, 623, 663, 709).

Neither “the Communist mind” nor Stalin’s quest for “psychosocial identity” seems a sufficient explanation of Stalinism. I prefer Deutscher’s approach, epitomized in his subtitle, “a political biography.” Far more important than “the Communist mind” is the Russian tradition, and the fact that there were too few Communist minds for the gigantic task of remolding it; and that after the holocaust of civil war the old Bolsheviks were a tiny minority even in the Communist Party. Stalin’s purges only completed a process already well under way. The cult of Lenin cannot be explained by Stalin’s ecclesiastical training, or indeed attributed to him alone. It was “a collective manifestation of the party’s feeling for its leader” (Tucker, p. 287), and a response to deep-rooted popular sentiments. The idea that the head of the state is on your side against local bosses and exploiters is almost universal in peasant societies, especially at times of social tension (cf. Tucker, p. 312). “Many, even some in concentration camps, wept when they heard the news” of Stalin’s death (Ulam, p. 739). That has to be explained too.

What Stalin said often seemed plausible at the time. Mr. Ulam treats the accusation of treasonable activities in the Red Army in the 1930s as wholly fictitious, and so no doubt it was. But the evidence for it came from German sources, and Mr. Ulam does not tell us how he can be sure that Stalin knew it was faked (pp. 452-453). He does tell us that Hitler had a “confidential agent working in the Soviet Russian Embassy” in Berlin (p. 528). (Perhaps Mr. Ulam is not quite so surprised now as when he wrote at the news that Voroshilov’s house was bugged by Stalin [p. 726]; he may have learned that such things happen in other countries.)

These books, valuable in many ways, do not fully answer the questions they pose. They emphasize, rightly, the horrifying aspects of Stalin’s rule, the suffering, the sacrifices of human life in collectivization, in the purges, in the war. But there are other points to make. In Mr. Ulam’s account the defeat of the German armies is totally inexplicable. Despite a government which had for a decade been “at war with the nation,” despite economic breakdown and military unpreparedness, despite incompetent generals, bungling interference by Stalin, appalling losses—nevertheless the Red Army ultimately defeated, virtually single-handed, what had hitherto seemed the most efficient fighting machine in the world.

Mr. Ulam appears to attribute this to German miscalculations, to Hitler’s being even more incompetent than Stalin. But the reallocation of Soviet resources after the initial ghastly retreats, the sheer logistic and administrative achievements of the Red Army’s counterattack, suggest that the morale of the Soviet people must have been quite different from what Mr. Ulam’s account would lead us to expect. How unlike 1914-1917—the only standard of comparison most Russians had. This is in no sense to justify Stalin. In so far as Soviet morale was based on confidence in him it was no doubt an illusion; but illusions too can be a force in history.

How was it that people not only endured Stalinism but continued to hail Comrade Stalin as their savior? Perhaps the biographical approach cannot answer this question. “If these the times, then this must be the man,” wrote Andrew Marvell about Oliver Cromwell—another revolutionary dictator of whom it is very difficult to decide when he was deceiving others and when he deceived himself (cf. Tucker, p. 435). To understand the man we must understand the times. The approach to Stalin through comparisons with other great revolutions, which Deutscher so admirably practiced, may contribute something here. In the following passage, is Lucy Hutchinson describing Oliver Cromwell or Joseph Stalin?

Now had the poison of ambition so ulcerated [his] heart that…he was molding the Army to his mind, weeding out the godly and upright men, both officers and soldiers, and filling up their rooms with rascally turncoat Cavaliers and pitiful sottish beasts of his own alliances, and others such as would swallow all things and make no question for conscience’ sake. Yet this he did not directly nor in tumult, but by such degrees that it was unperceived by all that were not of very penetrating eyes; and those that made the loudest out-cries against him lifted up their voices with such apparent envy and malice that in that mist they rather hid than discovered his ambitious minings.

Revolutions produce recurrent situations, to which a Cromwell, a Napoleon, a Stalin react; the ways in which they react derive from the national political tradition. One aspect of the Soviet tradition was that in Russia—and a fortiori in Georgia—there was no popularly respected tradition of the rule of law. Yet Russia’s was one of the very few great revolutions in which the Army was always kept under civilian control—as Oliver Cromwell’s was not. Professor Tucker might take that paradox as the starting point of his second volume.

This Issue

January 24, 1974