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Over the decades, Stalinism came to be associated with socialism. Stalin’s brutal rise to absolute power unfortunately set a precedent for how socialism, as well communism and Marxism, came to be identified.

First of all, communism has not really existed because an epoch perhaps takes decades or centuries to be established and developed. The Soviet Union existed for about 74 years, which is not enough time for communism to exist. Besides, communism has not been mapped out and that makes sense. But there are clues to what a future communist society could be based on the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: “an association of free producers” and the more well-known slogan, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.” (The latter does not mean that people will simply get free stuff, since they are earning through their ability, skills or labor.)

Regarding Marxism, it is originally a dynamic ideology with a persuasive critique of capitalism and what a socialist society could be like (although Marx and Engels were not always correct in their analyses). Regarding both Marx and Engels, if they lived under Stalinist rule they would probably be persecuted as “enemies of the people” and “counter-revolutionaries.” This is what happened to many Soviet citizens, communist and noncommunist alike.

Bolshevik leaders were condemned by Stalin. Leon Trotsky was murdered while in exile in Mexico. Nicholai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were convicted during show trials of the late 1930s and eventually were executed. Further, many rank-and-file communists were purged from the Communist Party, and persecuted as well.

Stalinism, however, doesn’t equal socialism. The former was a deformity, a perverse model. Looking at the basic meaning of socialism in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus reveals a somewhat different conclusion:

Any of various social systems based on shared or government administration of the means of production and the distribution of goods.

While it alludes to government having a major role in the means of production, there is also a sharing of power. The latter would mean worker/owners having some degree of political and economic power. It would result in a sharing of power between government and worker/owners. One example of a sharing of power is worker cooperatives. Decision-making would involve the working-class making decisions in the workplace, kind of similar to what the Soviets, or workers’ councils, could really have been. (Stalin, however, put a stop to that by getting rid of the Soviets and replacing them with other “Soviets” characterized by a Stalinist makeup.)

Stalin’s cynical use of the politburo and communist party showed he was not really contributing to the practice of socialism. Yes, he has a collection of writings and some of it may be impressive, but in this case, theory and practice usually contradicted each other. Soviet workers did not get a share of economic and political power although Stalin and his subservient colleagues had the power.

It didn’t matter whether there were actual conspiracies against Stalin. The accused were damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They were in the way and potentially challenging Stalin’s rise to power. So, condemning his fellow Bolsheviks for conspiring against him, real or not, was utilized.

Stalin did go beyond that. As mentioned up above, show trials were conducted with fellow Bolsheviks Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, among others, being the targets. They were found “guilty” and Stalin no doubt had a say in these decisions. He also wanted Trotsky out of the way since Trotsky, while in the USSR, lead the Left Opposition to oppose Stalin. Trotsky then was exiled, and eventually murdered by a Stalinist agent.

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A book was published in 1971, and later updated in 1986, by Soviet dissident and Marxist Roy Medvedev entitled, “Let History Judge.” (The book was originally banned from the USSR, but years later with Glasnost underway, the book was attainable in the Soviet Union.) The book is about Stalin and how he came to power. Plus, a look at the legacy of Stalinism.

Medvedev is to the point in his book. The following is a general description of Stalin:

“It was not of love for suffering humanity that Stalin came to Socialism and the revolution. He joined the Bolsheviks because of his ambition and his lust for power. For Stalin the party was always just an instrument, a means of reaching his own goals…His main motive was lust for power, boundless ambition. (pp. 600-1, 585)”

(The quote is actually from a review of “Let History Judge” by Paul Lewers and published in Marxist.com with Lewers critical of Medvedev’s book. The book, however, was a monumental work describing a crucial part of Soviet history.)

The ideas of socialism generally contradicted the goals of Stalin. Despite his writings indicating support for socialism, Stalin would say the right things but his actions said otherwise. Socialism by nature is supposed to be a vehicle to fight injustice and inequality. Stalinism was a compulsion to extinguish criticism and to exercise brutality and regression. All the more to separate the two.

There was a tactic used by Stalin to deal with his “enemies.” After executing them, they were blotted out of existence through the use of erasing their images. Those who were in Stalin’s favor had photos taken of them, sometimes with Stalin. But sooner or later if Stalin considered them to be enemies they were taken out of photos with the idea that they never existed in the first place. And they didn’t after being executed.

There are quotes that bring out the nature of Stalin’s personality. To show an example of Stalin’s disregard for life he once said the following: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Further, Stalin had a cynical opinion about voting: “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.” And he wasn’t concerned about the deaths of others: “Death is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.”

Nowadays, is Stalin honored or vilified, or both? Writing in Counterpunch (February 4, 2021), Monika Zgustova mentioned the Stalin Museum located in Gori, Georgia. Zgustova wrote that the authorities were trying to decide what to do with the museum. They figured there were three choices: Destroy it, keep the building and dedicate it to something else, or keep it to “show historical facts in an objective fashion, including the vision that the erstwhile Soviet Union had of its leader.” In addition to this museum, “another museum was opened in Tbilisi, dedicated to the repression suffered by victims of Stalinism.”

Despite the perversion of Stalinism, socialism is still a viable system and it exists in varying degrees in different countries. With the end of Stalinism, there must be a disassociation from that and actual socialism. Marx and Engels would probably be in favor of that.

The Starr Narrative