One question anyone in the United States who is concerned with building socialism in the real world inevitably confronts is the question of the purges within the party under Stalin. What especially comes under discussion are the purges of the “Old Bolsheviks”—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev and a large number of the other people who held high positions in the communist party at the time of the revolution.
When I see this come under discussion, I very often see it being discussed in a way that I think is completely counterproductive. I saw a thread on the MLM Communism 101 Facebook group where the question was being discussed in a way that was completely unsystematic–it seemed to be Stalin’s character under discussion. So, here was a response I wrote. Below that, at the bottom of this post are some links to resources that I think do discuss the purges from what I think is a productive perspective.
I have to say, I don’t think trying to convince other people about Stalin’s motives here is that productive.
I think it would be more productive, for those who want to dwell on this moment in history, to do this instead: assume a number of possibilities, look at them all in light of the broader social-political-economic context, and then see what lessons we as Marxists could draw assuming each is case.
Something like this. Assume that he:
1. Did it to consolidate power, but he did it because he believed the USSR could not afford a power struggle.
–> Q. Is there a way to build our party and our movement to avoid putting someone in a position where they’ll have to dishonestly kill cadre because they believe it will save the socialism that was won?
2. Did it to consolidate power, but because he was a pure egotist who loved power.
–> Q. Is there a way to build our party and our movement to avoid putting pure egotists at the helm?
3. Did it to consolidate power, but he did it because he believed that if the USSR adopted their vision, that would be fatal to the socialism that was won.
–> Q. Is there a way to build our party and our movement in a way that such deep disagreements are unlikely to end up being resolved in this manner?
4. Did it because he thought they were guilty.
–> Q. Was it right to sentence them to death? What principles should govern whom if anyone receives the death penalty?
5. Did it because he thought they were probably guilty, but not necessarily so.
–> Q. How can we think about this problem where we know that internal and external enemies to socialism will very likely be trying implant and elevate spies in the party. How should we handle the problem of not always being able to be sure whether those pushing competing polices in the party are a) spies, b) genuine socialists trying to advance communism with a policy we believe is mistaken, c) power-hungry egotists? What policies should we have understanding that there may always be a certain amount of uncertainty around a given person?
6. Was committed to building socialism, but was also somewhat of an egotist, and didn’t care what their vision was, but wanted to both revel in being top dog while also building socialism, which he genuinely believed in?
–> Q. How can we develop cadre in such a way that they will always think of the overall benefit to socialism, even at the cost of their own personal advancement within the party?
7. [Note: Someone on the thread pointed out to me that this is many people’s analysis, so it should also be included.] Was not wrong either in his assumptions or his methods.
–> Q. Since this is a question of so much controversy, it still warrants discussion and examination. Would this have been a mistake in different circumstances? Will this way of handling the problem always be the best way? In this case, what prevented the problem from being resolved in a less destructive way?
A further thing I would like to urge is to drop the moralizing. Let’s assume that Stalin had the Old Bolsheviks executed not because he thought that they were guilty but because he thought their vision was harmful or that a power struggle would have destroyed the USSR. It seems like some people here want to push the perspective of, “That was just too wicked! I can’t support a government headed by someone so wicked!” On the other hand, some people seem to be trying to vindicate Stalin’s character, showing him to be a good guy.
Either way, that is a liberal, nonmarxist way of examining the question. The questions we have to ask are, how did that impact the socialist project? If that was the reason he did it, what lessons can we learn from the way things played out? How can we build our party and our movement in such a way that these methods never seem the best option?
Mao’s Evaluations of Stalin: A Collection and Summary, which quotes many different times Mao evaluated and analyzed Stalin’s leadership.
There are also this post and this post on the communism subreddit that discuss the purges.