Dialogue on Stalin | The editors’ journal

By | April 29, 2023

Before he died, Lenin managed to identify some negative features of the Soviet system and spread the danger that Stalin represented.

Excerpt from an interview with Luciano Canfora and Ettore Cinella published in Corriere della Sera

Seventy years have passed since the death of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and only recently was a new monument in his honor unveiled in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). How do you interpret this fact?

Ettore Chinella: A reassessment of Stalin has been going on in Russia for some time. Russian President Vladimir Putin loathes Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution, which he blames for destroying pre-revolutionary Russia, while admiring Stalin’s foreign policy, the way he consolidated and expanded Tsarist Russia’s possessions, winning the conflict against Nazi Germany.

Luciano Canfora: On September 7, 2008, Sergio Romano wrote in Corriere della Sera that for the Russians, Stalin is the creator of industry, the great instigator of liberation during the world war, the leader who gave Russia the status of great power. Putin, Romano noted, “cannot confront the Soviet dictator as a black hole.” I share this appreciation and add that the Corriere had already expressed itself in this way on March 6, 1953, when Stalin died, with an article by its director Mario Misiroli, in which we read that “when the hour of the greatest test arrived, the man he rose to the occasion and lived up to the tasks that history had assigned him”.

The biggest test was the clash with Germany?

Camphor:In the 20th century, Russia was defeated in every war except this one. Defeated by Japan, then defeated in World War I and then the Cold War. The only victory was achieved in World War II, which the Russians call the “Great Patriotic War.” The turn of the Soviet experience towards Russian patriotism is due to Stalin. History consists of continuous transformations. Mussolini even went so far as to write that Stalin had become a fascist and did not want to admit it. Beyond the propaganda motive, the Italian dictator understood the national direction in which the USSR was already headed with the option of “socialism in one country.” All this explains the revaluation of the figure of Stalin in today’s Russia which, after all, is at war and therefore tends to exclude the symbol of past victories.

Between Lenin and Stalin do we find more evidence of continuity or change?

Sneakers: It was Lenin who laid the foundations for Soviet tyranny, establishing a cruel and unpopular regime. However, he did not get to stain himself with the terrible atrocities committed by his successor. Unlike Stalin, Lenin retained a vague idea of ​​morality, at least in his relations with his party comrades. Before he died, Lenin managed to identify some negative aspects of the Soviet system, suggested a different approach to the peasant world and spread the danger that Stalin represented, but he did not have the courage to reflect on his own political responsibilities. After all, he overthrew the dictatorship and continued to persecute the socialist parties. Relations between Lenin and Stalin were very close at least until 1922. But in his famous “political testament”, that is, the notes of 1922-1923 written during his serious illness, Lenin expressed a rather negative judgment of Stalin.

So do differences prevail?

Sneakers: I would like to remind you of a very profound difference. In the early 1920s, Stalin had an extraordinary insight: he realized the nature of mass society. When Lenin created the Bolshevik party, he envisioned an elitist organization (the party of professional revolutionaries). Stalin, on the contrary, although he was convinced that the party should be a kind of chivalrous order, realized that in the foreground of modern society the masses move and that these masses had to be tamed, organized, guided , manipulated. Lenin remained a Jacobin revolutionary, a devotee of the Enlightenment and rationalism. The understanding of the fundamental features of modern mass society links Stalin with Hitler and Mussolini, on the contrary. Therefore, we must distinguish Lenin’s Jacobin communism from Stalin’s totalitarian communism.

Camphor: An essential change of line is already carried out by Lenin with the New Economic Policy (NEP), the opening to the peasant world that succeeds the radical options of war communism. His attitude is often empirical, pragmatic: think of the relationship he establishes with imperial Germany, the only state that recognized Soviet Russia as early as 1918 after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Stalin, in turn, changes lines too many times. Isaac Deutscher, very critical of Stalin, published a book shortly after his death entitled Russia after Stalin, in which he wrote that if Lenin had survived, he would have been forced to choose and would probably have behaved as the successor. of the.

Does continuity then prevail?

Camphor: At least this is the opinion of Deutscher, who was a very astute analyst. At first, Stalin has a soft approach towards the peasant world, unlike Trotsky. But then Stalin, with the collectivization of agriculture, applied in a certain sense Trotsky’s policy with terrible consequences. The same goes for foreign policy. There is a huge difference between the intervention in Spain in favor of democracy and the pact with the Third Reich. Stalin’s last speech at the XIX Congress of the CPSU, in 1952, is an exhortation to the communist parties to raise the banner of democratic freedoms, abandoned by the bourgeoisie. Between this discourse and the line of the early 1930s, which stigmatized socialists as “social fascists”, there is a gulf. In other words, political maneuvering is inherent to the management of power. […]

️ ️ Luciano Canfora is emeritus professor of Greek and Latin Philology at the University of Bari. He is known to the Greek reader, since some of the many books he has written on the history of the ancient world, but also on the history and ideology of democracy, have been translated into our language. Ettore Cinella is Professor of Modern and Eastern European History at the University of Pisa. A deep connoisseur of Soviet history, he has dedicated many of his works to it. His book “The Other Marx” is published in our language (translation: Anna Griva, Colleagues Publications 2019)

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