Classic Pamphlet

By Alec Nove, published 31st August 2010

Interpetations of Stalin and his Career

Stalin's remarkable career raises quite fundamental questions for anyone interested in history. Marxists, whose philosophy should cause them to downgrade the role of ‘great men' as an explanation of great events, have problems in fitting Stalin into the materialist interpretation of history: did not this man ride rough-shod over the circumstances of his time? Did he not shape these circumstances to his demands, killing many millions in the process - including a high proportion of Marxist intellectuals? Or can we say that his demands were shaped by the material circumstances of his time? Marxists and non-Marxists alike can and should ask the question: what difference did it make to Russian history that it was Stalin who became an absolute ruler? What was the role antecedent events, institutions, economic policies, political culture? The issue of determinism versus free will also arises. The American historian Randall wrote that, in a sense, ‘the cause of human freedom rides with Stalin': if even his actions were shaped and determined by circumstances, then none of us are free!

Can we explain Stalin's rise to supreme power by stressing his political skills, or should we concentrate our attention on the ineffective futility of the opponents whom he so easily routed? Who could have replaced Stalin, and with what consequences, had he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1929? These, and many other questions, will be argued about for as long as people discuss the history of Russia or of Socialism.

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