The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOUR
THE STALIN REVOLUTION

No other period of Soviet history has been as fraught with historical controversy as the era of Stalinism. Earlier justification for Stalin's harsh rule by Communist or sympathetic writers was challenged by both Left critics, like Menshevik emigrés or Trotsky and his followers, and the proponents of the “totalitarian model,” who were prominent during the Cold War. While the Left saw Stalinism as a perversion of socialism, the “totalitarians” argued that fascism (particularly Hitler's “national socialism”) and Stalinism were essentially variants of a single political system. This model building went on in the absence of field work or deeply empirical studies (with some notable exceptions), for the Soviet Union was closed to serious foreign investigators. Western writers disagreed about the role of the dictator, the scale and purpose of the Great Purges, and the nature of the Stalinist state. The imagery associated with totalitarianism obscured the differences between Nazism and Stalinism. The two economies, for all the importance of the state, were fundamentally different. Stalin obliterated the capitalist market economy, while Hitler essentially preserved the market and established a form of state capitalism. The ideologies of the two regimes were quite distinct. Stalinism inherited (and perverted) a secular humanist doctrine of human liberation based on equality and the empowerment of the working class. While Soviet socialism failed to live up to its ideology, Nazism lived up to its only too well. Hitler and the fascists proudly proclaimed the inequality of people and the right of designated races or supermen to rule over (and exterminate) their social and racial inferiors. The launching of the Second World War and the physical elimination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, Communists, and others were all too consistent with the original doctrine of Nazi party.

As a school of analysis within Russian/Soviet studies the totalitarian approach began to dissipate in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, as some historians moved from the study of personalities, parties, and the state to look more deeply at society, social movements, and the ways of life of ordinary people. A divide developed between social historians, on the one hand, and more traditional political historians and political scientists, on the other. While many of those writing in the totalitarian vein neglected the sources of resistance and autonomy within Soviet society, some social historians overreacted by diminishing the role of Stalin or searching for sources of support from below for collectivization or playing down the purges to the point that they were accused of being Stalinist apologists. At times, an apolitical social history denied the need to look at the state and politics altogether. But after initial excesses,

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