Academic journal article Kritika

Heroes and Merchants: Stalin's Understanding of National Character

Academic journal article Kritika

Heroes and Merchants: Stalin's Understanding of National Character

Article excerpt

In his Handler und Helden (1915), the German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart interpreted the Great War as an existential battle not just between nations but between cultures and worldviews. According to Sombart, West European civilization was based on the ideas of 1789 and on commercial values, which he identified with the Jewish spirit. The typical West European was a merchant, exclusively interested in what life could offer him in terms of goods and comfort. In contrast, Germany was a nation of heroes, who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for higher ideals. (1)

With his book, Sombart contributed to the radical right-wing tendency of the so-called Conservative Revolution in Germany, leading ideologists of which were Oswald Spengler, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Ernst Junger. Surprisingly, though he matured and operated within a very different political tradition, Iosif Stalin's views about the mentality of the nations of Europe were very similar.

This is not to say that the Soviet dictator was of one mind with the Conservative Revolutionaries in all respects. He would certainly never have classified "the ideas of 1789" as decadent. For him, they were precisely the higher values for which one should sacrifice oneself. It was the greedy capitalists with their commercial mentality who had betrayed the revolutionary ideals. The Communists had inherited the mantle of the French Revolution.

In his own way, Stalin might even be called "pro-Western"--in the sense that he was an ardent modernizer and a jealous admirer of Western progress. Typically, in February 1947 he remarked to Sergei Eisenstein that it was impossible to deny the progressive role of the Christianization of Russia. It "marked the Russian state's shift toward joining up with the West, instead of an orientation toward the East." (3) Until his death, it remained Stalin's fond goal to overtake the West in terms of civilization and technology. Russia's backwardness deeply troubled him, as is evident in his well-known speech of February 1931 about the causes of Russian historical defeats. (4) The Soviet leader betrayed his insecurity with remarks such as those made to a Polish delegation in April 1945: "the Polish workers are good workers. They are more cultured than ours. The proximity of the West makes itself felt." (5)

Stalin did his best to convince himself that East Europeans were culturally no less developed than their Western counterparts. At a meeting of economic leaders and Stakhanovites in the Kremlin in October 1937, he admitted that Russians remained "culturally behind," but in terms of political culture they were ahead. "In the West people don't throw cigarette stubs on the floor, but the working people over there are slaves of capital." (6) He once told Andrei Gromyko that "the Bulgarian people are not at all at a lower level of general development than the Germans. In times long ago, when the ancestors of the Germans still lived in the woods, the Bulgarians already had a high culture." (7) But Stalin did not really believe this himself. During the hysterical anti-cosmopolitan campaigns of his last years, the dictator insisted that the Russians had always been the world's greatest pioneers. But the very fact that he reiterated Russian "superiority" so emphatically confirmed that he realized that this priority had not yet been achieved.

That said, the parallels between Stalin's views and Sombart's are indeed striking. Like Sombart, the Soviet leader celebrated the heroic spirit of sacrifice, and he acknowledged that Western culture overvalued comfort compared to struggle. Like Sombart, he abhorred the commercial spirit. For a Communist, Stalin put a remarkable emphasis on the cultural, as opposed to the socio-economic, downside of capitalism. He criticized Europe as a capitalist culture, condemning it as a morally defective system. Capitalism denied people the possibility of becoming heroes and thereby sapped its own vital strength. …

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