Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Stalin as Theoretician (from Marxism after Marx)
by David Mclellan
1998 edition
Estimated Reading Time: 10 min

Readers joining us fairly recently may not recognize David Mclellan's name but he wrote, among other things Marxism After Marx, which has been helpful in us putting together this year long reader of revolutionary theory. His name sometimes pops up in the introductions to various pieces. Today's reading is all him: a detailed write up on Stalin's contributions to MArxist theory. I think Trotsky's criticism of The Revolution Betrayed will probably be next.

Footnotes not included. They're largely redundant for this one.

It would be putting it mildly to say that Stalin was no very subtle mind when it came to Marxist theory. Nevertheless, he was responsible for several innovations in Marxist doctrine that have gained wide currency. The elaboration of the doctrine of SociaHsm in One Country has already been mentioned. The main text summing up the Stalinist theory was the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik): Short Course, which appeared in 1938 and continued to be the main authority for Communist doctrine for almost twenty years. The History contained several innovations. Firstly, reversing Engels's order, Stalin discussed dialectical method before philosophy. Leaning heavily on Engels's later writings and on Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism, the dialectical method (which Stalin contrasted with metaphysics) was defined as the view that all phenomena in nature were interconnected, that all phenomena were in a state of movement, that movement could be abrupt and changes in quantity give rise to changes in quality, and finally that contradiction was inherent in all things. And of Marxist philosophical materialism (which was contrasted with idealism) the principal features were said to be that the world was by its very nature material, that matter was a primary objective reality existing outside the independent of our minds, while mind was a secondary reflection of matter, and that the world and its laws were fully knowable. It is noteworthy that Stalin reduced Engels's Laws of the Dialectic to two: although talking of the interpenetration of opposites and the transformation of quantity into quality, Stalin omitted all mention of the law of the negation of the negation, the political implications of which are obvious.

Dialectical materialism was rigidly separated from historical materialism. In dealing with the latter, Stalin attributed a significance to the role of ideas that was not reducible to their origin and went out of his way to emphasise their importance. Although new ideas had to await the appropriate material development yet

as regards their role in history, historical materialism, far from denying them, stresses the role and importance of these factors in the life of society in its history ... they become a most potent force which facilitates the carrying out of the new tasks set by the development of the material life of society, a force which facilitates the progress of society.

This emphasis was carried even further in 1939 when Stalin declared that

the community of interest between worker, peasant and intellectual in the Soviet Union has formed the basis for the development of such motive forces as the moral and political unity of Soviet society, and the mutual friendship of the nations of the U.S.S.R., and Soviet patriotism.

Concerning the Soviet Union, Stalin introduced the novel concept of 'Revolution from above'. Talking of the expropriation of the kulaks, Stalin wrote that 'the distinguishing feature of this revolution is that it was accomplished from above, on the initiative of the state, and directly supported from below by millions of peasants'. With the advent of Socialism in the USSR, moreover, although classes continued to exist, they were defined as 'non-antagonistic' since none of them oppressed the others. The new doctrine of Socialism in One Country also helped to explain the failure of the state to wither away. Stalin stated that the state would remain even in the period of Communism (which the Soviet Union had not yet reached) 'unless the Capitalist encirclement is liquidated, and unless the danger of foreign military attack has been eliminated'.

Interest in philosophical questions revived after the war with a wide-ranging 'philosophical discussion' which ended with condemnation of Alexandrov's History of Western European Philosophy for being too 'objectivist'. This was largely on the initiative of Zhdanov, Stalin's spokesman on all intellectual matters. Stalin also intervened personally in support of Lysenko's anti-Mendelian views on genetics, which became thereafter de rigeur in academic circles. But the most striking example of Stalin's innovation was his pronouncement on the linguistics controversy in 1950 in which he condemned the views of Marr, the most distinguished of Soviet linguistic theoreticians. Marr had maintained that language was part of ideology, that there were sharply separated qualitative distinctions between language systems in that they were connected with class development, and that formal, logical thinking was due to be superseded by dialectical materialism, until, finally,

thought gains the upper hand over language, and will continue to gain it, until in the new classless society not only will the system of spoken language be done away with, but a unitary language will be created, as far, then even further, removed from articulate languagl as the latter from gesture.

Stalin, on the contrary, maintained that language was a creation of the whole people, and not of a class: that it developed gradually, and not by leaps, and that Marr was an 1dealist, in that language could never be separated from thought. More broadly, Stalin opened the way for discussions of the relative independence of ideas. Once again he stated that

the base creates the superstructure precisely in order that it may serve it, that it may actively help it to take shape and to consolidatefitself, that it may actively strive for elimination of the old, moribund base and its old superstructure.

He reiterated his doctrine of non-antagonistic classes and practically denied the application of the law of quantity and quality to the Soviet Union.

It should be said in general for the benefit of comrades who have an infatuation for such explosions that the law of transition from art old quantity to a new by means of an explosion is inapplicable not only to the history of the development of languages; it is not always applicable to some other social phenomena of a basal or superstructural character. It is compulsory for a society divided into hostile classes but it is not at all compulsory for a society which has no hostile classes.

Specifically, Stalin declared that 'a Marxist cannot regard language as a superstructure on the base' and 'to confuse language and superstructure is a serious error' .13 More generally, Stalin elaborated the idea that the correctness of Marxist doctrines was limited to the period in which they were expressed. It might seem that some of Stalin's own doctrines contradicted earlier Marxist views. But

the two different formulas correspond to two different epochs in the development of society, and precisely because they correspond to them the two formulas are correct, each for its own epoch. To demand that these formulas should not be mutually contradictory, that they should not exclude each other, is just as absurd as it would be to demand that there should be no contradiction between the epoch of domination of capitalism and the epoch of the domination of socialism, that socialism and capitalism should not exclude each other.

The correlation between these theoretical innovations and Stalinist political practice is evident.

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