How Stalin Distorted Marxism

On May Day 1932, the Communist Party USA released "Toward Soviet America," penned by William Z. Foster who was at that time the Communist candidate for president of the U.S.

This book presented the program and policies of the CPUSA and was in line with the political perspective of the world communist movement under the leadership of Stalin, who had unseated Bukharin from the leadership of the Communist International not long before this period. Foster's book contained the policy and perspective that the late Gus Hall, former chair of the Communist Party USA, would later refer to as "the greatest mistake we ever made."

In "Toward Soviet America," Foster asserts, "The policy of the Social Democracy is basically that of Fascism…. The principal difference is that Social Democracy hides its Fascism…. Thus, in the period of the decline of capitalism, Social Reformism becomes Social Fascism." Foster goes on, "Developing Fascism in the United States has a main foundation in the leadership of the American Federation of Labor." Later, Foster quotes Stalin, "Fascism is a militant organization of the bourgeoisie resting upon the active support of Social Democracy" (177-178, 191).

This equation of social democracy with fascism helped bring about the horrible defeat of the working class in Germany and only after this defeat was Bukharin's policy of the peoples front against fascism adopted and presented by Dimitrov in the form we recognize today as the center-left alliance against the ultra right. (This I Cannot Forget, Larina pp. 11-37)

Stalin deviated from Lenin's policies in two clear ways that Bukharin had defended. One way was the "market socialist" approach of the "New Economic Policy" and the other way was the path of broad peoples unity against imperialism, fascism and finance capital that can be found in Lenin's "Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder."

Stalin's approach was one of extreme economic centralization and political sectarianism as he and Trotsky carried out a "race" to prove who was the "most revolutionary." So much attention has been paid to the Trotsky-Stalin conflict that Bukharin and his contemporary Gramsci have often been ignored when they, from the historical record, are the real "inheritors" of Lenin's Marxism. (Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, Fiori, Giuseppe pp.144-145.)

Foster (and Stalin, who approved of Foster's book at that time) completely misjudged the upcoming New Deal era. He writes, "the policies of the Progressives, although dressed up in radical phraseology, are in practice indistinguishable from those of the ultra reactionaries: sufficient proof of this being the enthusiastic support given to the candidacy of … Roosevelt, Progressive Mogul, in the most Bourbon sections of the South. Progressivism is a grave danger to the working class."

The only "justification" for this viewpoint is "competition with the Trotskyists" to show who was the "most" revolutionary. (The Trotskyists were saying almost identical things at the same time.)

For his part, Bukharin described what really happening. When Bukharin was falsely tried and executed by Stalin and his government a few years from this date it had become clear that he was probably killed because he was a serious and popular rival to Stalin for leadership especially because he was so obviously right about so many of the issues that Stalin had been so clearly wrong about. There stood a clear alternative voice to Stalin and Trotsky and that is the man Lenin called, "the favorite of the Party" – Bukharin. He was the real author of the winning political perspective of World War 2, "the peoples front against fascism," was falsely accused of treason and killed. ("THIS I CANNOT FORGET" Larina, Anna pp.11-33.)

Stalin, Trotsky, and Bukharin all had one error in common. They each, after Lenin's death, contributed to what Lenin had expressly asked they not do and that was build a cult of personality around Lenin. Lenin, who called himself a "consistent marxist," was entombed against his last wishes and was made the "co-founder" with the new term "marxist-leninist." This became the beginning of the process of "sanctifying" communist leadership and robbing communist's of the brilliant example of Lenin who used the foundation and tools discovered by Marx to deeply and painstakingly examine actual current reality by gathering "truth from facts" rather than truth by the leaders' pronouncements. "We do not regard Marx's theory as something completed  and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life. We think that an independent elaboration of Marx's theory is especially essential…; for this theory provides only general guiding principles, which, in particular, … are applied differently." (Lenin CW VOL. 4, PP.210-214.)

War and crimes

From the siege of Moscow to the end of World War Two, Stalin was one of the greatest military leaders in history. Being a master of the art of war does not make someone a great Marxist. Stalin's Marxism was filled with disastrous judgments. His errors rise far past the level of "mistakes." Some of his political acts rise to the level of crimes against humanity. Marxism demands ruthless honesty about all of this. Only on this foundation can 21st century Communism be built.

One of the great achievements of Marxism is reality-based dialectics, understanding contradictory phenomena in real events, people and processes. Stalin, the military leader who emerged as the Nazi horde entered the outskirts of Moscow, did more than any other single person to destroy the Fascist war machine and bring about the total defeat of Hitler. One of Stalin's Trotskyist opponents, Issac Deutscher, wrote, "(Stalin) encouraged the non-political general, devoted to his job.... He brushed aside all sterile pretensions of seniority and paid attention only to performance in battle…. The regeneration of the army, of its morale, and of its commanding staff was one of Russia's most remarkable achievements for which credit was due to Stalin" (Stalin, A Political Biography, Deutscher  pp.494-497).

This same leader who did so much to defeat Hitler, pushed a political line on the communist movement, especially the German Communist Party, the largest Communist Party in the world at that time outside the Soviet Union, that directly led to the Nazi conquest of power. There is no plausible excuse that can exonerate Stalin from the utterly disastrous line he ruthlessly enforced on the Communist International that the Social Democrats were as dangerous or even more dangerous than the fascists. On page 174 of the CPUSA's platform for the 1932 election, William Z. Foster explained Stalin's basic idea that was so disastrous to the workers movement in Germany, "One of the basic features of this trend of world capitalism towards Fascism is the gradual fascisization of the conservative trade unions and Socialist parties" (Toward Soviet America, Foster pp. 174). This sectarian concept made it impossible for the German communists to lead the working class of Germany to a united front against Hitler.

The Social Democratic Party and the German communists together outnumbered the Nazi's for a long time. In the last election free of mass Nazi terror, the July 1932 election, their votes combined almost directly equaled the Nazi vote. The combined "Working Class Left" polled 36.2 percent of the  vote and the Nazi vote was 37.4 percent. "Virtually all serious analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of Nazi electoral support came from Protestant lower middle class people who previously had voted for the bourgeois parties, or had not voted at all… the bourgeois parties net loss was 31.2 percentage points ... the Marxist parties picked up voters" (German Social Democracy 1918-1933, Richard Hunt pp. 117-119). United, the German working class would have had a real fighting chance to beat the Nazis with strikes, mass protest, and armed struggle if necessary. Divided, there was no chance at all.

Some supporters of Stalin down through the decades since this horrible moment in world history want to blame the Social Democrats alone for the lack of unity of the German working class but this is just "spin" when the self-proclaimed vanguard party of the German workers, following the line of the Communist International, directly controlled by Stalin, proclaimed the Social Democrats an equal enemy to fascism. How would any united front, much less an all peoples front be possible? Some supporters of Stalin also have argued that German workers were terrorized into submission. This is true only because unity in the crucial final moment was impossible in the face of such sectarianism. After all, this was the same workers movement that had overthrown the Kaiser in November, 1918 and ended World War 1 with a mass armed rebellion. The largest responsibility for the greatest defeat of the workers movement in the 20th century, Hitler's rise to power, lies with Stalin. 

Inner conflict and cynicism

Lenin's leadership team was amazingly diverse. After all, Stalin, Trotsky and Bukharin all worked together under Lenin. Lenin fought for unity, but did not murder those in the leadership team who disagreed with him. He debated with them, fiercely demanding high standards of evidence and principle in his opponents arguments, always calling people to task for unclear, illogical, factually weak positions. He brought the best out in people, who on their own were fatally flawed. He even threatened to resign several times in order to make his points. Lenin was a master of Marxism  at the global level, European wide level, national, regional and city by city level. One of Lenin's most powerful accomplishments was his ability to translate Marxism to the individual and personal level and then return to broad general points, not just "What is to Be Done" but what is to be done by you and I right now.

Stalin was famously weak in his Marxism on a personal and interpersonal level. He eventually put on trial and had executed almost every single member of Lenin's entire leadership team in a "witchhunt" that makes " Salem" look like a tupperware party. Toward the end of Lenin's politically active life, in 1922, Lenin could feel the hand of death and began to act  from his sick bed to deal with the political problem of his own passing. Stalin's power and position combined with his fatal flaws was one such problem.  

Lenin said,  "Stalin is too rude and this defect ... becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why I suggest ... removing Stalin from that post ... and appointing another ... more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious ... it is a detail which can assume decisive importance" (CW Lenin vol.36 pp.596, 1/4/1923).   

Lenin's final two letters before he was forever silenced by a stroke concerned this very issue, "Dear Comrade Stalin: You have been so rude as to summon my wife to the telephone and use bad language…. I have no intention of forgetting  so easily what has been done against me, and it goes without saying that what has been done against my wife I consider having been done against me ... make your apologies, or ... relations between us should be broken off" (CW Lenin V 45 pp.608 3/5/1923). Lenin's use of the  term "rude" more closely resembles the 21st century usage of the term "abusive." In a situation of true collective leadership a problem such as this is more manageable but in a situation of one man rule  and the "cult of the personality" which grew up around Stalin this problem became, as Lenin himself said, "a detail which can assume decisive importance." A careful analysis of Stalin's worst deviations from Marxism show that some of them flow directly from his abusive, intolerant, inconsiderate and capricious characteristics.

Stalin was extremely cynical about people and their potential and this is common with very abusive individuals. Under Lenin's guidance and in collective leadership he provided a kind of balance to Trotsky's "excessive self assurance" and Bukharin's weakness with dialectical thinking (seeing all sides of a complex issue) (CW Lenin V 36 pp.594-595 12/24/1922).

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin, in leadership by himself, with his cynical tendency unchecked, then gutted Marxism's emphasis on carefully considered revolutionary action. Stalin's disastrous political line equating the Social Democrats as an equal danger to the fascists was a prejudiced course of action reflecting his cynicism about the Social Democrats rather than a careful examination of them. Stalin did not abandon this ill-conceived perspective until after it was too late to stop Hitler. As Lenin might have put it, the "What is to Be Done?" was replaced by "Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder."

Stalin replaced Marxian dialectics with a mechanistic version that emphasized the "inevitability" of socialism in place of Karl Marx's stark choice for revolutionaries in "The Communist Manifesto," "a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes" (CW Marx Engels V 6 pp.482). For Marx the possibility of terrible defeat was so real that all prejudice and intellectual short cuts had to be abandoned because each serious choice in a crisis that revolutionaries make on the "ground they have been given" can lead to advance or "the common ruin of the contending classes." Stalin's disastrous line equating Social Democracy as an equal enemy to the workers movement as Fascism was so clearly prejudiced and filled with intellectual short cuts that it can only be explained, at least in part, by the same character flaws that Lenin wanted Stalin removed as Secretary General of the Communist Party for in 1922. All revolutionaries have to accept "the ground they have been given" such as the militarized imperialism and ferocious racism in Germany in 1932, but Marxists have no excuse to abandon careful analysis for cynical prejudice. We have no excuse now nor should we excuse Stalin.

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Not much distinguished Stalin the tyrant from the German Furher. They ordered the murders of their political adversaries. They committed genocides. They terrorized their peoples. They created an opiate-numbed, religious cult around their personalities. They were both paranoid and their inner contempt for themselves was unleashed upon the world. They both used people for slave labor. All of human life within the scope of their domains, and the suffering which accompanied it, was directed at the will of them. Both tyrants were imperialistic. The only difference between them is the fact that the Third Reich only lasted about 10 years, whereas it took another 45-50 years for the Soviet Union to fade away. Let us face it, the Soviet Union was not what Marx and Engels intended. The Soviet Union and the Third Reich were military dictatorships; it is just that simple.

    Posted by Thomas Lane, 01/23/2012 1:45pm (12 years ago)

  • This article stops just about the time Stalin was getting started. Even so, there is no mention of the widespread famine that occurred as a result of collectivization and the destruction of the "kulaks" (read: good farmers.) The repressions of the late 30's send millions into the GulAg including the flower of the Communist Party. And, as for the united front, the only united front Stalin managed to make was with Hitler.

    Postwar, the repression resumed and the GulAg was filled to bursting. The Party suffered along with the population (Leningrad leadership, Soviet POWs, etc.)
    Then, there was, essentially, a pogrom against Jews.

    Posted by Jim Williams, 07/04/2011 11:35pm (13 years ago)

  • After millions of banishments,exiles and deportations,hundreds of thousands of executions,corroborated and verified from thousands of sources,we have to say the crimes of Stalin are facts,let's stop playing.
    Lenin's evaluations of Stalin's activities are clear,but not as clear as the wanton,murderous devastation in Siberia and the Central Asian Republics. People are the main concerns of truly human social systems,and the stamp of Stalin's activities don't qualify as human or becoming human,no more than massive murder and repression does.
    Let's not eviscerate our discussion,clamoring for a "list"
    when this is goes without saying.
    Neither should we fail to distinguish between imperialism's German fascism and the Soviet Union's devastating, murderous repression.
    These come from totally different sources and have totally different remedies.
    The anti-fascist and anti-repression struggles by the Communists both inside and outside the Soviet Union complemented one another to an extent,and this is almost totally lost in the discussion we are having so far,but needs to be investigated. Also, the contributions the Soviet Union made toward peace initiatives and affecting the international working class's place in the world's relationship of forces was critical,as the Russian and multi-national,multi-racial population in the former Soviet Union will be in the future. Lithuanians,Latvians,Estonians,Finns,Poles,Romanians,Turks and Germans know this and will know in the future.
    Cold,common sense dictates.

    Posted by peaceapplause, 04/12/2011 1:05pm (13 years ago)

  • "The crimes of Stalin and his deviations from Marxism/Leninism are facts."

    Please comrade(s) list these "crimes" and "deviations".

    So they can be discussed along with the sources of these charges

    Posted by Harvey Smith, Marxist Leninist, 04/12/2011 7:48am (13 years ago)

  • The crimes of Stalin and his deviations from Marxism/Leninism are facts.
    To however, equate these crimes with the rise and promulgation of "imperialism gone wild" (a Lenin description) will lead to and has led to, many,many quagmires and falsehoods. To say or to suggest that Stalin is responsible for the rise of the Third Reich is to flatly contradict the work of Lenin and W.E.B. Du Bois's work on fascism in Germany(Du Bois studied in Germany at the time of the rise).
    More basic and important,this would be a contradiction of the Marxist/Leninist theory of historical materialism and how capitalism evolves to imperialism from itself,the main contribution of the student genius of Marx,Lenin,who describe these events in his Imperialism,the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
    Norman Markowitz does a good job outlining the contributions of Lenin and telling why we can't separate Marx from Lenin in his You Can't Separate Marx and Lenin,in these windows.

    Posted by peaceapplause, 04/11/2011 3:08pm (13 years ago)

  • I strongly suggest a very good book on this subject by Grover Furr titled "Khrushchev Lied" based on historical data and correspondence.

    Posted by Harvey Smith, Marxist Leninist, 04/11/2011 9:24am (13 years ago)

  • I always felt the Comintern's fear of Social Democracy and it's flavors was misguided, but realistic. Obviously Hitler presented a much larger threat and a unified front against him was the best solution, but the working class growing complacent with stop gap measures that satisfy the working class still enforce class structures is almost as dangerous.

    Posted by Sheep, 04/09/2011 8:45am (13 years ago)

  • There is much that is valuable and true in this, and it is an important corrective to some trends we see lately which aim at, so to speak, "rehabilitating" Stalin. However, there needs to be a little more balance. I would like to add a few points:

    1. Though I agree that casting the social democrats (S
    Ds) as a worse enemy than the fascists was a terrible mistake, let's not allow that to carry us to a position of idealizing the SDs either. Remember that in Germany, the position on this taken by the German Communists came after brutal repression of communists by Social Democratic politicians Ebert and Noske, who allied with the proto-fascist Freikorps and the reactionary military monarchists to brutally crush the Spartakus revolt. There is no guarantee, either, that if the German communists had offered a united front to the SD's, the latter would have accepted. Today SDs are a very mixed bunch, including reactionaries such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair of the UK, and radicals such as former president Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti.
    When many of the CP's of the world either disappeared or suffered drastic losses in membership after the collapse of the USSR, some of the 2nd International Social Democratic parties met a similar fate, particularly the one in Italy which imploded after a massive corruption scandal. In Europe today, most Social Democratic parties in power are on board with neo-liberal policies which hurt working class interests, so there is really no way the CPs can combine with them in united fronts without betraying their working class base (there are exceptions). In other words, yes communists should make united fronts with SD's in certain circumstances, but not in ALL circumstances.
    2. I am against dropping the term Marxism-Leninism. Although it is true that a sort of cult of Lenin was built up after his death, and that Stalin, Trotsky and others all participated in this, this is now 2011 and Marxism-Leninism has acquired other meanings in the world communist movement. Outstanding communist parties like the South African CP, which is a model of scientific realism and non-sectarianism, call themselves "Marxist-Leninist". To them this means among other things anti-imperialist. Our dropping the phrases "Marxist-Leninist" and "Marxism-Leninism" could be interpreted as our backing away from anti-imperialism.
    3. Anna Larina was the widow of Bukharin, her views should be analyzed with that consideration in mind, and especially in view of the brutal way in which Stalin and his henchmen had Bukharin killed and Anna imprisoned for many years. To Anna Larina, very naturally Bukharin was her lost hero, but this could distort the relative importance she gave to his influence on various issues. Such excrutiating personal pain sometimes distorts perceptions.
    4. W.Z. Foster had strong sectarian tendencies, but at the same time he did our Party a big favor by his role in reversing some of the policies of Earl Browder which went to the opposite extreme, such as dissolving the Party and replacing it with the "Communist Political Association", on the wrongheaded theory that the US-UK-USSR alliance that came together during World War II would continue indefinitely and that this would gradually bring about socialism in the US, evidently with only a minimum of class struggle. Browder, who had been give the role in the COMINTERN of mentoring some of the CPs of the Latin America area, also influenced those parties into similar illusions, leading to bad situations for the CPs in some countries when imperialism struck hard after the end of the war.

    5. Nevertheless, I do think that some of the pieces I have seen either praising or making excuses for Stalin are very wrongheaded. By a minimum count, Stalin's government executed 681,692 people, mostly for political reasons, in the years 1937 and 1938 alone. The vast majority were Communist Party members (figures published in an appendix to Moshe Lewin's fascinating book, "The Soviet Century" and based on reports of a commission appointed by the USSR government after Stalin's death). Claims by Stalin and his apologists that this was all Yezhov's fault and Stalin did not really know these things were going on are totally lacking in credibility. Quite apart from controversies about whether Stalin or Bukharin were right on agricultural policy, such a hecatomb has to have had a major effect on the superstructure of the Soviet state formation. As much is suggested by David Laibman in his book "Deep History", in which he refers to the atrophy of mass organizations and the timidity of leadership in the Soviet Union post-Stalin. I think Stalin did terrible damage to the Communist Party of the USSR by these violently repressive policies. The damage to the CPUSSR under the Stalin period should be examined more closely as a factor in the eventual downfall. This does not exhonerate Khrushchev or others of their own egregious errors.
    6. Finally, we need to look again at the conflict between Lenin and Stalin on the NATIONAL QUESTION, which Amadon inexplicably glosses over. Perhaps one of the biggest ways that the relationship between Lenin and Stalin has been falsified (by Stalin) has been the claim that the two men were in agreement on this. In fact, they were at daggers drawn; Lenin, already sick, was furious about the way that Stalin, Sergo Ordzhonekidze and Felix Dzierzinski had bullied the Georgians. Lenin wanted a LOOSER and more egalitarian structure among the Soviet republics than Stalin did, and was willing to restore his frayed friendship with Trotsky to accomplish this. Lenin's letters warning of Stalin's authoritarianism and then calling for him to be removed as General Secretary actually developed out of this argument, in great part. Then came the stroke that knocked him out of action forever, a huge loss for the world.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 04/06/2011 9:36pm (13 years ago)

  • I think this article does well to highlight Stalin's distortions of marxism and his (and his leadership's) crimes against humanity. Measuring a strategic policy against whether or not it would have satisfied Lenin's point of view or comports with texts of his -- especially since the man is no longer alive -- seems way silly, religious almost.

    Posted by AgainstDogmatism, 04/06/2011 8:25am (13 years ago)

  • This is a very good critique of the hugely mistaken policy of "Social Fascism" which caused Dual Unionism, and Left Infighting.

    I think it should however, be pointed out that William Z. Foster joined the Communist Party on the basis of opposition to "dual unionism", but his book "Toward Soviet America" was in line with COMINTERN Line, which he internally opposed. (See: "William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism.")

    Yes, "social-fascism" and dual unionism an ultra-left deviation of Marxism. They are inconsistent with Lenin's classic book "Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder."

    However, the Popular Front and the "Democratic Front" were equally contrary to Leninism.

    The "third period" mistakenly divided society between "The Communist Party v. Everyone Else."

    However, the Popular Front redefined Marxism to be "the progressive majority v. conservatives" or sometimes, "Democracy or Fascism?" as Earl Browder's address to the 1936 CPUSA convention was called.

    Both "real communists v. 'social fascism'" and "progressives v. right-wingers" are distortions of Marxism-Leninism.

    Marxism-Leninism is an ideology based on the concept of the following: "all history hitherto is a history of CLASS STRUGGLE."

    In modern times what is needed is CLASS AGAINST CLASS!

    Posted by Caleb T. Maupin, 04/05/2011 11:11pm (13 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments