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New Communist Party of Britain

Stalin: architect of the first workers state

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Stalin, Alf Browne makes the following appraisal

THERE is one sure test of a political leader’s success: how he or she is vilified by those opposed to their success. Judged on that, Iosif Vissarionovitch Djugashvili - Joseph Stalin, the architect of the first workers’ state - stands on his own.

At the end of World War Two he was lauded worldwide. A few years later, by the time of his death 50 years ago, those fearful of the spread of socialism had coined the words Stalinist as an expression of utter, if unthinking, condemnation.

That was and remains a measure of their fear of socialism but also of his success in its cause.

That success should be measured not just by the heights reached but the depths from which they were achieved. His origins were probably the humblest of any of the great men of history: his father worked in a boot factory, his mother was a washerwoman. They were members of a subject people, a Georgian in the 19th century Russian Empire.

His parents were poor peasants. Released from serfdom, his father had an ambition: to succeed as a shoemaker. His mother had one too, to see her son, born on 21 December 1879 and he only survivor of her four children, educated as a priest.

Stalin’s father failed in his. His mother devoted her earnings as a washerwoman to see hers fulfilled in part. When he was nine, she secured his entry to the Russian Orthodox church school in his birthplace, Gori, just opened to the sons of peasants.

Iosif, “Soso” to his friends, was at an immediate disadvantage. Lessons were not in his native Georgian but a foreign language: Russian, which he had to learn alongside Latin and Greek - standard subjects in an Orthodox school.

Soon he was seen to be outstandingly bright, the cleverest of his year. He matriculated at 15 and the headmaster and local priest secured him a scholarship to the Georgian university, the Theological Seminary of Tiflis, far beyond his mother’s means.

Influences there were not just educational but also national and economic.

These were not unfamiliar to him. Georgia had a rich folklore of Robin Hood-like patriots, fighting against the oppressors of the poor. Soon after reaching university, aged 15, he had patriotic poems published in the Georgian periodicals.

A clandestine library ticket enabled him to read widely in such matters as Darwinian biology and economic history. His monkish teachers would not have approved. He got away with it for three years but then joined a socialist organisation, Messame Dassy. A close watch was kept on him and he was expelled in May 1899, when he was 19.

For some months he depended on earnings from giving lessons but then he got a job at the Tiflis Observatory. Officially he was described as a clerk but it is known he carried out scientific studies on magnetism. Whatever his work, it gave him an office, away from police eyes, for his political work.

Messame Dessy, like the Russian Social Democratic Party, was split into two groups, both claiming to be Marxist. One believed a bourgeois capitalist epoch must precede a true workers’ socialist state. They, the Economists, held that improvements in workers’ pay and conditions were all that could be done.

Soso, like Lenin in the Russian party, believed in the possibility of a true socialist revolution and fought for it.

struggle in the Caucasus

In the Russian party the Economists, including Trotsky, were the Mensheviks - Lenin and his supporters, the Bolsheviks.

In Georgia, the Economists had a large majority. Soso, barely out of his teens, put the real socialist view in articles of remarkable maturity in the workers’ newspaper.

His was to be an important role as a journalist until the revolution was won. But action, in he form of strikes and street demonstrations, was the main way to win support.

While at the Observatory he prepared, with others, the first May Day demonstration in the Caucasus in 1900 on the outskirts of Tiflis, making his first public speech. The next May Day march was planned for the centre of Tiflis, in defiance of the secret police, the Okhrana. The Okhrana struck first, raiding offices, including Soso’s room at the Observatory and arresting leaders. Soso escaped to hold that second May Day demonstration of 2,000 workers in the city centre.

Soon afterwards he was elected to the Social Democratic Committee of Tiflis, his first political position. He was sent to the growing industrial centre of Batum to organise political and industrial activity.

It was then he took the name Koba, the outlaw hero of one of those folklore Georgian poems. It took just four and a half months to transform political activity in Batum. As the police report put it: “As a result of Djugashvili’s activities, social democratic organisations began to spring up in all the factories of Batum ... prolonged strike in the Rothschild factory and street demonstrations...”

He spent 18 months in Caucasian prisons and was then exiled to Siberia.

Almost immediately he prepared his escape and in January 1904 he made his way back to Tiflis, suffering frostbite as he journeyed through the Kuznetsk basin, then the arid wilderness which he was later to transform into the industrial area which made the weapons that defeated Hitler.

Now 25 years old, he was ready for the 1905 dress rehearsal of the October Revolution. The workers’ risings in Petrograd and Moscow reverberated throughout the Russian empire.

But nowhere did they resound louder than in the Caucasus. Indeed, they had been preceded by an oil workers’ strike in Baku, which led to the first collective agreement between workers and employers in Russia.

Koba had interrupted a lecture tour to advise its leaders. His role as a propagandist is well documented in the pamphlets he wrote and the newspapers he edited. His work in political and industrial organisation was, of necessity, less open. His doings in the so-called Technical Branch were particularly sensitive.


Revolution relies on action and action needs finance. Both need organisation. Koba proved it in a fashion which belied the public, folk-hero nature of his name. The police never cottoned on to that one of his roles.

But his fellow revolutionaries knew his qualities. That explains why an underground worker, on the distant fringe of the empire, speaking and writing in a foreign language, became a national leader of the Russian party within the next 10 years, who went to Moscow in the summer of 1917 to lead the Bolsheviks waiting for Lenin.

Until those last reverberations of the 1905 revolution in the Caucasus, the words he used in brochures and newspapers in the political fights were in his native Georgian. But in 1907 he was instrumental in setting up the first industry-wide union in Russia, among the oil workers of Baku, as distinct from those limited to a single trade.

Newspapers founded with it had to be in Russian and so, henceforth, were most of his writings. That made his writings and their quality more available to Lenin the Bolshevik leader, living in Western Europe.

At Lenin’s behest, Koba was co-opted onto the party’s central committee.

His role was to liaise with the party’s MPs and bring out its newspaper,Pravda.

man of steel

It was about this time his writings began to be signed with a Russian pseudonym: Stalin (Steel). He had just time later that year; after another arrest, exile and escape; to prepare the party’s election campaign in Petrograd, the capital, write the election address and organise a strike to force the government to retreat from its decision to annul early election results favouring workers.

By now he was well known, not just among the revolutionaries but their opponents. February 1917 saw him in Siberia. For seven of the previous 10 years he had been in exile or escaping from it.

He hurried to Petrograd where he arrived as the senior Bolshevik - Lenin and the others were still abroad. He took on the joint jobs of running the party and editing Pravda, trebling the party’s membership before Lenin’s arrival.

He remained the organiser of socialist revolution throughout that summer and autumn. Others might play more flamboyant roles as tribunes and orators - his was the spadework, which smoothed the path to success.

His was constantly the sensible, logical line in central committee discussions. His Pravda editorials made the party line clear to his readers. He was one of the small group explaining it to members of the Petrograd Soviet, through which the bloodless revolution was eventually won.

Before then, in July, when premature revolt and counter-revolution both threatened, he was a restraint, preaching sense, even on Lenin.

For Lenin came to realise that the clear thinking and organising ability of this son of Georgian peasants were of greater value to the common cause than perhaps the showier qualities of other colleagues with more intellectual backgrounds.

The year after the revolution, when civil war broke out, Stalin sent Lenin his first secure food supplies from the south, then to military trouble spots as they arose.

his achievements

Stalin’s achievements had two effects: the back-room organiser became a public figure with growing fame; and he was continually voted by his colleagues into positions demanding his particular talents. “Who else could do it?” as Lenin once asked.

This account has dealt at length with Stalin’s rise from the depths. The peaks of his achievements: the socialist industrialisation of the Soviet Union; victory in the Second World War; and the establishment of the Soviet Union - which were then yet to come - are better known.

But they can only be valued when seen against the background of his country’s position. It had been impoverished by the war and further impoverished by civil war and the intervention of capitalist countries, horrified by the thought of socialism.

Industrialisation, bourgeois or socialist, depends on a productive agriculture. Agriculture has to provide industry’s workers yet continue to feed them.

To win peasant support for the revolution, the land had been shared out in small packages. First attempts to proclaim a socialist economy failed in the face of agriculture’s own failure to supply workers and food.

Industrialisation also demands managers, which were also lacking. By the late 1920s this had changed. In agriculture, human nature led to another revision of land ownership.

Farms grew; some peasants prospered and became kulaks at the expense of others. But collectivisation gave the poor peasants the opportunity for both fairness and further growth.

Stalin’s work as arch organiser, general secretary of the party and head of the national inspectorate was already meeting that of other needs of industry: trained organisers.

To universal surprise and disbelief he launched the drive for socialist industrialism.

Again to universal surprise and disbelief it was an unparalleled success.

In 10 years, the increases in outputs from the mines and factories were achieved which had taken other countries a century or more - 75 years in the nearest rival in rapid industrialisation: Germany.

Nor was it just a material success. Growth in books, education and medical services were equally without precedent. It had not however lasted quite long enough. In the face of anti-communist enmity, the Nazi Germany backed by many in the West, Stalin had warned of the need for military strength and begun to provide it in new tanks, planes, gun and rocket artillery, which were to prove their superiority.

The attack on the Soviet Union came six months to a year too soon for them. So once more to universal surprise and disbelief, while its generals were told to delay the Germans, Stalin concentrated on shifting to the east the factories, which would provide those war-winning weapons.

Altogether 1,523 industrial plants, including 1,360 major armaments factories were evacuated, necessarily delaying the main body of new weapons.

In the end the war was won and nobody doubted that Stalin had played the largest individual role in winning it. Nowadays attempts are made to play down his role but the facts are clear. He consulted; he demanded opinions as well as information but in the end every major operation was under his overall control.

He was commander-in-chief on an unprecedented scale for modern war. As one military historian has stated: “He must be give credit for the amazing successes ... when the whole German army groups were obliterated with lightning blows. Some of these victories must be reckoned among the most outstanding in world military history.” After the war the Soviet Union recovered fastest of the war-ravaged countries, despite Truman’s breaking of economic agreements and supplies.

It overtook the United States in production of “recovery goods”, building materials and such.

Stalin’s policies probably saved the world from a third and final world war. It is now known that Churchill’s own plans for an assault on the Soviet Union, while still in power, were ditched by his own chief of staff, General Alan Brooke, who had a higher regard for Stalin’s ability - “a first class military brain” - than he had for his own boss’s.

It was Stalin’s foresight in depriving the west of Poland to use as an advanced base, which probably prevented the use of the atom bomb in such an assault until his own programme for nuclear parity made it impossible.

Interestingly, among that current vilification, the Encyclopaedia Britannica described Stalin as “possessed of a superlative and all-transcending talent” as a politician.

His achievements, from the depths to the heights, were probably unmatched.

He was beyond any doubt a man of success. It is unfortunate the same cannot be said of his successors.

New Worker 24th January 2003