book reviews

Book Review: The Soviet Century

Introduction, by Oaklandsocialist: It may seem to some, especially those of younger generations, that what happened in the Soviet Union is “yesterday’s news”. That is far from the truth. With “socialism” becoming more popular exactly among the youth, we must understand how what happened in the Soviet Union affected socialist thinking today.

Book review by Sean G.

This is a review of the book The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin. In some ways the title is misleading, as the primary aim of the book is to define Stalinism and explain how it emerged in the late 1920s and 30s.

Lewin was a Marxist historian who actually spent part of his youth in the USSR. While generally supportive of a permanent revolution perspective, he was not a Trotskyist. Instead, he pushed for a greater consideration of Bukharin’s ideas, around which there is still a small movement today (like the editors at Cosmonaut.)

The book offers a few key arguments:

Among Stalin’s crimes was the deportation of national minorities. Here the Tatars were deported from their homeland in Crimea. They were given just minutes to pack up their belongings. It is estimated that up to 40% of them died in transit.

1. The fight over nationalities and the relation between Russia and the other SSRs in the early 20s was the central site where Stalinism revealed itself and where it could have been defeated. He argues that Lenin realized all the major questions facing the Russian Revolution (e.g., the international situation and bureaucratization) were present in debates over the federal structure of the USSR. In Lewin’s view, Trotsky made a fatal mistake in treating this as a secondary question. Moreover, he shows that Lenin was not just beginning to worry about Stalin when he died, but had in fact seen the major features of Stalinism in the nationalities question and decisively broken with him by 1924.

2. He argues the Soviet Union was not a one-party state but a “no party” state. It is not just that Stalin and his supporters abolished internal democracy within the party or imposed decisions from on-high, it’s that they took apart the party and made it into an administrative apparatus. Under Stalin, technicians and specialists took over from partisans and theorists. From the late-30s onward the CPSU simply did not function as a political party – it met infrequently and its press debated/put forward few perspectives. Even the upper echelons of the party that did make decisions (the politburo, the central committee) were essentially administrative bodies focused on technical questions and largely rubber-stamped decisions coming from the government bureaucracy.

3. Most interesting is his argument about Stalin’s own intellectual trajectory from the 1940s until his death in 1953. He argues that Stalin spent the last fifteen years of his life consciously attempting to move the party away from Marxism and toward a kind of renewed Russian nationalism. He focuses particularly on Stalin’s promotion of the ideas of Zhdanov and others like him to indoctrinate new/youth cadre into the idea that the goal of the party was to save “Great Russia” from the chauvinistic West. That Stalin largely failed in this ideological endeavour is, to Lewin, a testament to the committed socialists who remained in the party/bureaucracy’s lower levels.  

Critiques: The major drawback of the book is the scant attention paid to the world situation. While Lewin has contextual passages on the defeat of Western revolutions and anti-colonial revolts in 1918-1923, he does not seem to see these as at all significant to the emergence of “Socialism in a Single Country” and the bureaucracy. He barely mentions the comintern.

Oaklandsocialist comments: Without having read the book, Lewin’s argument seems to make sense. Shortly before his death Trotsky wrote a “Last Will and Testament”. In it he suggested that Stalin be removed from his office, but he also warned that Stalin would try to make “a rotten deal in order to deceive.” That is exactly what happened. At the Communist Party congress following Lenin’s death, Trotsky agreed to allow the existence of Lenin’s document to remain secret and in return he – Trotsky – would be allowed to give the key address to the congress. That address was on the economic development. That was the deception that Stalin was able to achieve.

Today, the national question, and similar issues, still has huge importance. In the U.S., the issue of white supremacy is similar. So is the division between the Shia and the Sunni as well as the role of Islamic fundamentalism. In many parts of that world the nation states are largely a product of one colonial power or another drawing up national boundaries for their own convenience and power, leaving a festering sore which capitalism cannot resolve. Especially in the former colonial world, none of this will be understood without understanding the dynamics of what Trotsky explained in his theory of permanent – or uninterrupted – revolution.

For further reading, see What Happened to Revolutionary Socialism?

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