Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Reading :: History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course

History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course
By Joseph Stalin

I finished this book in March. It was on a flight back from Europe. There I was, flying somewhere over the Atlantic, reading Stalin on my Kindle app on my tablet while listening to J-Pop. Welcome to 2016.

Of course, it's not entirely accurate to say that Stalin "authored" this book, although he oversaw it and his name is on it. Stalin commissioned the book, wrote the chapter on dialectical materialism, and oversaw the rest. Published in 1938, this book was made mandatory reading in all schools and universities in the USSR.

One might think that this piece of propaganda would be more exciting. To be sure, the authors did try to introduce a plot, but that plot is one of good (the Bolsheviks) vs. evil (global capitalism in many guises, including those of seemingly dedicated Communists who turn out to be in pay of their capitalist taskmasters). The plot spans the 55 years from 1883, the creation of the Social-Democratic Labor Party in Russia, to the time of publication (1938).

But the plot does not serve anyone well. If it is taken at face value, the Bolsheviks—including Lenin and Stalin—seem like complete chumps, ignorant of the obvious machinations of Trotsky and his henchmen. If it is not taken at face value, the Party seems frequently disunified.

I'll just note some interesting points:

As early as p.7, Stalin is blaming the "rich" kulaks for the misery of the rural poor.

By p.11, Stalin is touting the dictatorship of the proletariat as the discovery of Marx and Engels.

On p.15, he contrasts Marx and Engels' "scientific" understanding of history with that of the Narodniks, who "neither knew nor understood the laws of the economic and political development of society."

On p.48, Stalin notes that the "Economists" argued that "a Socialist ideology could arise from the spontaneous movement of the working class"—but Lenin showed that "the Socialist ideology arises not from the spontaneous movement, but from science." One can be forgiven for being confused by the narrative: is socialism an inevitable development governed by the laws of history and economics, or is it dependent on human agency and intervention? Compare also p.248, in which the shift from capitalism to socialism to communism was again portrayed as historically inevitable.

On p.60, Stalin explains and justifies the separation of the Party from all workers: the Party is the vanguard, tasked with leading the people, although it comes from the people and puts their interests first. As he argues on p.62, the people can only thrive if they are "welded" together in one unified purpose. This leads to his claim on pp.63-64 that "the Party must be organized on the principle of centralism" in which "the minority must submit to the majority, the various organizations must submit to the centre." In fact, on p.188, Stalin argues that "The Party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunistic elements" (his emphasis).

On p.137, Stalin begins his discussion of dialectical and historical materialism, supposedly the one part that Stalin wrote himself. It was also published separately; see my review of it.

On p.163, Stalin reviews Marx and Engels' claims about the five main types of relations of production: primitive communal, slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist.

Interestingly, on pp.224-225, Stalin chronicles Lenin's claims that Socialism could be victorious in separate countries—it did not have to take place simultaneously in all "civilized" countries. This "new" theory, Stalin says, was grounded in Lenin's 1905 pamphlet. (Compare this claim with a contemporaneous account of the Bolsheviks' belief in the latter during the Bolshevik Revolution.)

On p.357, the authors claim that Trotskyism was defeated in part because of the "masterly exposition" of "Comrade Stalin's theoretical work, Foundations of Leninism"; notice that here and in some other places, Stalin is discussed in third person, perhaps to avoid giving the impression that he was bragging.

On p.367, the authors note that the formation of the USSR was not a final victory; communism would still be in danger until the capitalist "encirclement" was destroyed. Thus the people of the USSR were vitally concerned with proletarian revolution in those countries.

On pp.475-476, Stalin "explains" that Marxist ideology is not dogmatic, it's an evolving science. This walkback from previous discussion (e.g., p.15) is a tell—Stalin eventually "explains" why the USSR structured its dictatorship of the proletariat as a republic of Soviets rather than as a political organization such as the Paris Commune (which was what Marx had suggested).

The above notes are more fragmentary than my normal review, but I wanted to identify some of the more interesting parts of this generally dull book. These parts tend to involve justifying the Bolsheviks' actions as being in accordance with the "science" of Marx and Engels. Stalin was essentially trying to write a Bible, from the simplified good-vs-evil narrative to the complicated theology.

If you're interested in Soviet history—and you have the stomach for propaganda—check it out.

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