Stalin the Statesman

Via Yglesias, comes a review by Andrew Bacevich of a revisonist history of Stalin. I find the review to be brilliant. I am curious to see what others here will think. Here is a piece:

In brief, the story that Roberts tells goes like this: Josef Stalin, uncontested leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 until his death in 1953, deserves to be remembered as a great statesman-indeed, as the greatest of the age. Although Stalin made his share of mistakes, especially in the early phases of World War II, he learned from those mistakes and thereby grew in wisdom and stature. Among allied chieftains, he alone was irreplaceable. He, not Churchill and not Roosevelt, was the true architect of victory, “the dictator who defeated Hitler and helped save the world for democracy.”
. . . THERE ARE at least three problems with this depiction of Stalin as great statesman and man of peace. The first problem relates to the nature of the Grand Alliance, which Roberts misinterprets. The second relates to the nature of statecraft, which Roberts misunderstands. The third relates to the moral obligation inherent in the craft of history, which Roberts abdicates. The misinterpretation, the misunderstanding and the abdication all work to Stalin’s advantage, adding luster to his reputation. Yet none of the three is persuasive or acceptable.

. . . If World War II produced a master of statecraft, then surely it was Roosevelt. He won the most at the least cost. Alone among great powers, only the United States emerged from the war stronger than when the war had begun. Fate dealt Roosevelt a strong hand-far stronger than Churchill’s-and he played it well. As a consequence of victory, Washington too acquired an empire of sorts, but this empire helped sustain American prosperity and bolstered American security. Hardly less significantly, FDR succeeded by 1945 in restoring popular confidence in basic institutions, muting the impact of the Great Depression. To his successors Roosevelt bequeathed widely shared expectations that the “American Century” was meant to continue indefinitely, as it has, despite periodically ill-advised policies and reckless misadventures. The contrast with Stalin’s legacy could hardly be greater. (Whether or not the American Century can survive the folly of George W. Bush remains to be seen.) . . .

Reactions will be appreciated. But be sure to read the entire review.

31 comments

Skip to comment form

    • Armando on September 5, 2007 at 7:00 am
      Author

    of the World Unite!

  1. Although insisting that his intent is “not to rehabilitate Stalin but to re-vision him”, Roberts shows negligible interest in considering whether Stalin’s record passes muster with respect to any commonly accepted standards of right and wrong.

    has, I suspect, a good deal to do with why so many people are so negative about academics. I think the point about a potential rehabilitation of Mao is also a good one.

    Bacevich successfully paints the book being reviewed as wrongheaded. I think he also suggests that it’s ahistorical.

    • pico on September 5, 2007 at 7:24 am

    Bacevich seems so determined to un-revise Roberts’ revisionism that I think he runs the risk of understating Stalin’s leadership, and if you read Bacevich and saw the actual, current attitude towards Stalin in Russia (which is not as negative), you’d wonder what the hell was up. 

    I don’t disagree with Bacevich (yes, Stalin was a fuckwad), but a lot of his reputation rests on industrialization in Russia: the cliché is that he found a nation of plows and turned it into a nation of factories.  When he came to office, Russia was a rural backwater; when he left, it was one of the two superpowers.  Bacevich seems to want to gloss over that by pointing out the unsustainability of that superpower, but fact is a great deal of his current reputation lies there.  A lot of the conservative leanings of contemporary Russia rests on that kind of attitude.

  2. Stalin’s legacy lives in infamy. Of come everyone got their country back but us?

    But my favorite story about Stalin was during the grain debacle, when his advisers told him his collectives were economic suicide.

    Stalin’s reply: When you chop wood splinters fly.

    My next favorite Stalin quote:
    If Lenin’s widow does not behave herself, we will appoint a new widow.

  3. Quotes from Andrew Bacevich’s review:

    In brief, the story that Roberts tells goes like this: Josef Stalin, uncontested leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 until his death in 1953, deserves to be remembered as a great statesman-indeed, as the greatest of the age. Although Stalin made his share of mistakes, especially in the early phases of World War II, he learned from those mistakes and thereby grew in wisdom and stature. Among allied chieftains, he alone was irreplaceable. He, not Churchill and not Roosevelt, was the true architect of victory, “the dictator who defeated Hitler and helped save the world for democracy.”

    Or, Hitler defeated himself by breaking his nonaggression pact with Stalin and thus waging a war on two fronts, draining the Fatherland of war resources instead of consolidating his blitzkreig-gotten holdings and building his strength. It was Hitler’s mistake to attack Stalin and thus weakened, if not destroyed the Nazi war machine. Without Hitler distracted by the Soviets, the U.S. and Britain may not have been able to defeat the Axis and the Cold War would have been between the Third Reich and the U.S. with the Soviets playing a role more akin to China.

    Roberts neither denies nor conceals the cruelty and ruthlessness that marked the Stalinist era. He freely admits that Stalin was “responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens.” He concedes that in the 1930s Stalin presided over the Great Terror in which “millions were arrested and hundreds of thousands were shot.” He notes that Stalin directed “a process of ethnic cleansing involving the arrest, deportation and execution of hundreds of thousands of people living in border areas” of the Soviet Union… Roberts makes it clear that the Soviet leader employed mass murder as an instrument of policy-and did so without compunction.

    Still, Roberts leaves the distinct impression that when it comes to evaluating Stalin’s standing as a statesman, such crimes qualify as incidental.

    And the use of torture that George W. Bush’s administration has used would likely be characterized by someone such as Roberts as “incidental” too. The fact that Stalin killed millions of his own citizens is precisely the reason why he is not a great statesman, nor a great leader. Instead of meeting dissent and defusing it politically, Stalin simply eradicated dissent. He is no more a great statesman than Hitler was a great statesman. Both men were murderous thugs.

    In essence, Roberts takes Stalin at his word as a man who sought only peace.

    And Bush, if you take him at his word, only wants to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East. I believe you cannot simply take a leader by what he or she says, his or her actions speak much more loudly than words. I think you cannot be an advocate of democracy and freedom when your administration cozies up to dictators on one hand and tries to repeal freedoms with the other. Their actions do not match their rhetoric.

    As you know, in his review Bacevich points out the problems with Roberts revisionist reworking of Stalin and flunks Roberts work for reasons I would agree with, namely:

    Here political historians have a particular obligation to render unambiguous judgments, discriminating right from wrong. By tacitly issuing Stalin a moral waiver, Roberts shirks that obligation. In doing so, he opens the door to further revisionism of the most pernicious sort.

    Roberts is wrong and so is his whitewashing of Stalin.

  4. the author, Roberts, for both taking Stalin at his word when Stalin professed to want peace and to end tyranny, and also for assuming that this profession, whether meant sincerely or not, pertinent to the moral evaluation of Stalin’s actions.  (Of course, even brief descriptions of Stalin’s actions, as in this review, cause one to flinch, e.g.: “the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940, involving the liquidation of 20,000 Polish officers and government officials”)

    Very oddly, Bacevich seems to use Bush’s self-professions of “good intentions” as reminders for the reader that, pace Roberts, Stalin should not be taken at his word:

    Roberts credits the Soviet dictator with a self-induced sincerity. He finds “no reason to suppose that Stalin and the Soviet leadership did not believe their own propaganda about the essentially peace-loving policy of the USSR.” In this sense, Stalin’s commitment to “freedom and peace between peoples” bears comparison with President Bush’s post-9/11 commitment to eliminating tyranny. For Roberts, such high-minded professions mean everything.

    This is quite something!  By way of chiding Roberts’s for believing Stalin, Bacevich reminds us that this would be like believing Bush.  Oh, how I wish that sounded crazy.

    Well, perhaps I’m making too much of that.

    In any case, Bacevich’s comparison of Stalin to Bush is less interesting to me than a secondary comparison we can make between Roberts, the author of this (apparent) apology for Stalin, and, say, William Kristol, apologist for Bush/Cheney.

    Or, perhaps not William Kristol, as he is part architect of the Bush doctrine.  Say, instead, Jonah Goldberg.  In each case, we have interpreters who are willing to believe any profession of good intentions, however outlandish, and also to say that those professions excuse every action, however grotesque.

    To assign to the Soviet Union then (or to the United States today) a defensive orientation is to open up a rich vein of interpretive possibilities, which Roberts is quick to tap on Stalin’s behalf.

    The lesson here in the uses of history and the creation of it, is certainly timely.

    My critical points about the review would be limited to remarks like these:

    To his successors Roosevelt bequeathed widely shared expectations that the “American Century” was meant to continue indefinitely, as it has, despite periodically ill-advised policies and reckless misadventures.

    Hardly were the U.S. acts of aggression exclusively “ill-advised policies and reckless adventures” — many of them were considered and deliverate, and constituative of U.S. preminence in the world today.  Not always a pretty story.

    But to harp on that sort of thing — which of course is completely standard pro-U.S. stuff — in a review about Joseph Stalin and FDR, would be a bit hyper-careful-lefty of me, perhaps.

    In all, quite a good piece.

  5. than Geoffrey Roberts does. From a story this past weekend in The New York Times, This Just In: Pete Seeger Denounced Stalin Over a Decade Ago.

    “I think you’re right I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in U.S.S.R.,” Mr. Seeger wrote…

    in fact, Mr. Seeger, 87, made such statements years ago, at least as early as his 1993 book, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” In the book, he said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he had apologized “for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.”

      • Armando on September 5, 2007 at 7:21 am
        Author

      Try Bush as Eden at best.

    • Turkana on September 5, 2007 at 8:04 am

    and che is a folk hero. stalin might as well be next.

    1. where’s our union with france?

  6. i question the sanity and the motives of anyone who had the time, means, and wherewithal to write a book, and chose to write that book about stalin

    even if you really, really think the guy didnt get a fair shake historically, is he really the guy you’d sit down and try to paint a rosier portrait of? 

    and does he try to explain away that moustache??  or just ignore it???  as if one could!!!

  7. Yet another neocon, a reconstructed Eurocommunist. He’s been writing along these lines since the 1980s, and signed the Euston Manifesto along with Martin Peretz and Michael Ledeen, so what else could be expected from him? Of course Stalin is the bestest leader of the whole 20th century! Just like George W. Bush!

Comments have been disabled.