From "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization"
by Sidney and Beatrice Webb

Is Stalin a Dictator?

Sometimes it is asserted that, whereas the form may be otherwise, the fact is that, whilst the Communist Party controls the whole administration, the Party itself, and thus indirectly the whole state, is governed by the will of a single person, Josef Stalin.

First let it be noted that, unlike Mussolini, Hitler and other modern dictators, Stalin is not invested by law with any authority over his fellow-citizens, and not even over the members of the Party to which he belongs. He has not even the extensive power which the Congress of the United States has temporarily conferred upon President Roosevelt, or that which the American Constitution entrusts for four years to every successive president. So far as grade or dignity is concerned, Stalin is in no sense the highest official in the USSR, or even in the Communist Party. He is not, and has never been, President of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Union Congress of Soviets-a place long held by Sverdlov and now by Kalinin, who is commonly treated as the President of the USSR. He is not (as Lenin was) the President of the Sovnarkom of the RSFSR, the dominant member of the Federation or of the USSR itself, the place now held by Molotov, who may be taken to correspond to the Prime Minister of a parliamentary democracy. He is not even a People's Commissar, or member of the Cabinet, either of the USSR or of any of the constituent republics. Until 19341 he held no other office in the machinery of the constitution than that, since 1930 only, of membership (one among ten) of the Committee of Labour and Defence (STO). Even in the Communist Party, he is not the president of the Central Committee of the Party, who may be deemed the highest placed member; indeed, he is not even the president of the presidium of this Central Committee. He is, in fact, only the General Secretary of the Party, receiving his salary from the Party funds and holding his office by appointment by the Party Central Committee, and, as such, also a member (one among nine) of its moat important subcommittee, the Politbureau.2

If we are invited to believe that Stalin is, in effect, a dictate, we may enquire whether he does, in fact, act in the way that dictators have usually acted.

We have given particular attention to this point, collecting all the available evidence, and noting carefully the inferences to be drawn from the experience of the past eight years (1926-1934) We do not think that the Party is governed by the will of a single person or that Stalin is the sort of person to claim or desire such a position. He has himself very explicitly denied any such personal dictatorship in terms which, whether or not he is credited with sincerity, certainly accord with our own impression of the facts.

A very critical, and even unfriendly, biographer gives the following characterisation of him:

"Stalin does not seek honours. He loathes pomp. He is averse to public displays. He could have all the nominal regalia in the chest of a great state. But he prefers the background. He is the perfect inheritor of the individual Lenin paternalism. No other associate of Lenin was endowed with that characteristic. Stalin is the stern father of a family, the dogmatic pastor of a flock. He is a boss, with this difference: his power is not used for personal aggrandisement. Moreover, he is a boss with an education. Notwithstanding general impressions, Stalin is a widely informed and well-read person.

He lacks culture, but he absorbs knowledge. He is rough toward, his enemies, but he learns from them." (Stalin – a Biography, by Isaac Don Levine, 1929, pp. 248-249.)

An American newspaper correspondent, who has watched both Stalin and the soviet administration in Moscow for the past decade, lately wrote as follow:

"Somebody said to me the other day: ‘Stalin is like a mountain with a head on it. He cannot be moved. But he thinks.’ His power and influence are greater now than ever, which is saying a great deal. He inspires the Party with his will-power and calm. Individuals in contacts, with him admire his capacity to listen and his skill in improving on the suggestions and drafts of highly intelligent subordinates. There is no doubt that his determination and wisdom have been important assets in the struggles of the last few years."' (Louis Fischer. in The Nation, August 9, 1933.)

In the carefully revised and entirely authentic report of an interview in 1932, we find the interviewer (Emil Ludwig) putting the following question:

"Placed around the table at which we are now seated there are sixteen chairs. Abroad it is known, on the one hand, that the USSR is a country in which everything is supposed to be decided by collegiums but, on the other hand, it is known that everything is decided by individual persons. Who really decides?'' Stalin's reply was emphatic and explicit. He said ''No, single persons cannot decide. The decisions of single persons are always, or nearly always, one-sided decisions. In every collegium, in every collective body, there are people whose opinion must be reckoned with. From the experience of three revolutions we know that, approximately, out of every 100 decisions made by single persons, that have not been tested and corrected collectively, 90 are one-sided. In our leading body, the Central Committee of our Party, which guides all our soviet and party organisations, there are about 70 members. Among these members of the Central Committee there are to be found the best of our industrial leaders, the best of our cooperative leaders, the best organisers of distribution, our best military men, our best propagandists and agitators, our best experts on soviet farms, on collective farms, on individual peasant agriculture, our best experts on the nationalities inhabiting the Soviet Union, and on national policy. In this areopagus is concentrated the wisdom of the Party. Everyone is able to contribute his experience. Were it otherwise, if decisions had been taken by individual, we should have committed very serious mistakes in our work. But since everyone is able to correct the error of individual persons, and since we pay heed to such corrections, we arrive at more or less correct decisions.'" (An Interview with the German Author, Emil Ludwig, by J. Stalin, Moscow, 1932, pp. 5, 6.)

This reasoned answer by Stalin himself puts the matter on the right basis. The Communist Party in the USSR has adopted for its own organisation the pattern which we have described as common throughout the whole soviet constitution. In this pattern individual dictatorship has no place. Personal decisions are distrusted, and elaborately guarded against. In order to avoid the mistakes due to bias, anger, jealousy, vanity and other distempers, from which no person is, at all times, entirely free or on his guard, it is desirable that the individual will should always be controlled by the necessity of gaining the assent of colleagues of equal grade, who have candidly discussed the matter, and who have to make themselves jointly responsible for the decision.

We find confirmation of this inference in Stalin’s explicit description of how he acted in a remarkable case. He has, in fact, frequently pointed out that he does no more than carry out the decisions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Thus, in describing his momentous article known as "Dizzy with Success", he expressly states that this was written on "the well-known decision of the Central Committee regarding the 'Fight against Distortions of the Party Line' in the collective farm movement..." "In this notification", he continues, "I recently received a number of letters from comrades, collective farmers, calling upon me to reply to the questions contained in them. It was my duty to reply to the letters in private correspondence; but that proved to be impossible, since more than half the letters received did not have the addresses of the writers (they forgot to send their addresses). Nevertheless the questions raised in these letters are of tremendous political interest to all our comrades.... In view of this I found myself faced with the necessity of replying to the comrades in an open letter, i.e. in the press... I did this all the more willingly since I had a direct decision of the Central Committee to this purpose." We cannot imagine the contemporary "dictators" of Italy, Hungary, Germany and now (1935) the United States – or even the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or France – seeking the instructions of his Cabinet as to how he should deal with letters that he could not answer individually. But Stalin goes further. He gives the reason for such collegiate decision. He points out that there is a "real danger" attendant on the personal "decreeing by individual representatives of the Party in this or that corner of our vast country. I have in mind not only local functionaries, but even certain regional committee members, and even certain members of the Central Committee, a practice which Lenin had stigmatised as communist conceit." "The Central Committee of the Party", he said, "realised this danger, and did not delay intervening, instructing Stalin to warn the erring comrades in an article on the collective farm movement. Some people believe that the article 'Dizzy with Success' is the result of the personal initiative of Stalin. That is nonsense. Our Central Committee does not exist in order to permit the personal initiative of anybody, whoever it may be, in matters of this kind. It was a reconnaissance on the part of the Central Committee. And when the depth and seriousness of the errors were established, the Central Committee did not hesitate to strike against these errors with the full force of its authority, and accordingly issued its famous decision of March 15, 1930." (Leninism, by Josef Stalin, vol. 11, pp. 294.295.)

The plain truth is that, surveying the administration of the USSR during the past decade, under the alleged dictatorship of Stalin, the principal decisions have manifested neither the promptitude nor the timeliness, nor yet the fearless obstinacy that have often been claimed as the merits of a dictatorship. On the contrary, the action of the Party has frequently been taken after consideration so prolonged, and as the outcome of discussion sometimes so heated and embittered, as to bear upon their formulation the marks of hesitancy and lack of assurance. More than once, their adoption has been delayed to a degree that bas militated against their success and, far from having been obstinately and ruthlessly carried out, the execution has often been marked by a succession of orders each contradicting its predecessor, and none of them pretending to completeness or finality. Whether we take the First Five-Year Plan, or the determination to make universal the collective farms, the frantic drive towards 'self-sufficiency in the equipment of the heavy industries, and in every kind of machine-making, or the complete "liquidation of the kulaks as a class", we see nothing characteristic of government by the will of a single person. On the contrary, these policies have borne, in the manner of their adoption and in the style of their formulation, the stigmata of committee control. If the USSR during the past eight or ten years has been under a dictatorship, the dictator has surely been an inefficient one. He has often acted neither promptly nor at the right moment, his execution has been vacillating and lacking in ruthless completeness. (It is not easy to get held of copies of the pamphlets surreptitiously circulated in opposition to the present government of the USSR, which is personified in the alleged dictatorship of Stalin. One of the latest is described as entitled The Letter of Eighteen Bolsheviks, and as representing the combined opposition to the dictatorship of both "right" and ''left" deviationists. The specific accusations are reported as relative, not so much to the manner in which policies are framed, or to their origin in a personal will, as to the policies themselves, which are now alleged to have been faulty on the ground that they have failed! These policies were (a) the stifling of the activities of the Comintern, so that no world revolution has occurred; (b) the confused and vacillating execution of the faulty Five-Year Plan; (c) the ruinous failure of so many of the collective farms; (d) the weak half-measures adapted towards the kulaks; (e) the making of enemies, not only among the peasants and intelligentsia, but also within the inner governing circle, by failing to get them to combine on policy!

It will be seen that the criticisms of the USSR Government are exactly parallel in substance and in form with those that are made by a Parliamentary opposition to the policy of a Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy. They do not reveal anything peculiar to a dictatorship as such. If we had to judge him by the actions taken in his name, Stalin has had many of the defects from which, by his very nature, a dictator is free. In short, the government of the USSR during the past decade has been clearly no better than that of a committee. Our inference is that it has been, in fact, the very opposite of a dictatorship. It has been, as it still is, government by whole series of committees.

This does not mean, of course, that the interminable series of committees, which is the characteristic feature of the USSR Government, have no leaders; nor need it be doubted that among these leaders the most influential, both within the Kremlin and without, is now Stalin himself. But so far as we have been able to ascertain, his leadership is not that of a dictator. We are glad to quote an illustrative example of Stalin's administration, as described by an able American, resident of Moscow:

"Let me give a brief example of how Stalin functions. I saw him preside at a small committee meeting, deciding a matter on which I had brought a complaint. He summoned to the office all the persons concerned in the matter, but when we arrived we found ourselves meeting not only with Stalin, but also with Voroshilov and Kaganovich. Stalin sat down, not at the head of the table, but informally placed where he could see the faces of all. He opened the talk with a plain, direct question, repeating the complaint in one sentence, and asking the man complained against ‘Why was it necessary to do this?’

"After this, he said less than anyone. An occasional phrase, a word without pressure, even his questions were less demands for answers than interjections guiding the speaker's thought. But how swiftly everything was revealed, all our hopes, egotisms, conflicts, all the things we had been doing to each other. The essential nature of men I had known for years, and of others I met for the first time, came out sharply, more clearly than I had ever seen them, yet without prejudice. Each of them had to cooperate, to be taken account of in a problem; the job we must do, and its direction became clear.

"I was hardly conscious of the part played by Stalin in helping us to reach a decision. I thought of him rather as someone superlatively easy to explain things to, who got one's meaning half through a sentence, and brought it all out very quickly. When everything became clear, and not a moment sooner or later, Stalin turned to the others 'Well?' A word from one, a phrase from another, together accomplished a sentence. Nods – it was unanimous. It seemed we had all decided, simultaneously, unanimously. That is Stalin's method and greatness. He is supreme analyst of situations, personalities, tendencies. Through his analysis he is supreme combiner of many wills.''(Dictatorship and Democracy in the Soviet Union, by Anna Louise Strong, New York, 1931, p. 17.)

There is, in fact, a consensus of opinion, among those who have watched Stalin's action in administration, that this is not at all characteristic of a dictator. It is rather that of a shrewd and definitely skilful manager facing a succession of stupendous problems which have to be grappled with. (Mussolini describes, very differently his own statutory dictatorship, He once said "There is a fable which describes me as a good dictator but always surrounded by evil counsellors to whose mysterious and malign influence I submit. All that is more than fantastic: it is idiotic. Considerably long experience goes to demonstrate that I am an individual absolutely refractory to outside pressure of any kind. My decisions come to maturity often in the night – in the solitude of my spirit and to the solitude of my rather arid (because practically non-social) personal life. Those who are the 'evil counsellors of the good tyrant' are the five or six people who come each morning to make their daily report, so that I may be informed of all that's happening in Italy. After they have made their reports, which rarely takes more than half an hour, they go away.'' (Through Fascism to World Power, by Ion S. Munro, 1935, p. 405.)

It is not conceited enough to imagine that he has, within his own knowledge and judgment, any completely perfect plan for surmounting the difficulties. None of the colleagues seated around the committee table, as he realises, has such a plan. He does not attempt to bully the committee. He does not even drive them. Imperturbably he listens to the endless discussions, picking up something from each speaker, and gradually combining every relevant consideration in the most promising conclusion then and there possible. At the end of the meeting, or at a subsequent one – for the discussions are often adjourned from day to day – he will lay before his colleagues a plan uniting the valuable suggestions of all the other proposals, as qualified by all the criticisms, and it will seem to his colleagues, as it does to himself, that this is the plan to be adopted. When it is put in operation, all sorts of unforeseen difficulties reveal themselves, for no plan can be free from short-comings and defects. The difficulties give rise to further discussions and to successive modifications, none of which achieves perfect success. Is not this very much how administration is carried on in every country in the world, whatever may be its constitution? The "endless adventure of governing men" can never be other than a series of imperfect expedients, for which, even taking into account all past experience and all political science, there is, in the end, an inevitable resort to empirical trial and error.

At this point it is necessary to observe that, although Stalin is, by the constitution, not in the least a dictator, having no power of command, and although he appears to be free from any desire to act as a dictator, and does not do so, he may be thought to have become irremovable from his position of supreme leadership of the Party, and therefore of the government. Why is this? We find the answer in the deliberate exploitation by the governing junta of the emotion of hero-worship, of the traditional reverence of the Russian people for a personal autocrat. This was seen in the popular elevation of Lenin, notably after his death, to the status of saint or prophet, virtually canonised in the sleeping figure in the sombre marble mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square, where he is now, to all intents and purposes, worshipped by the adoring millions of workers and peasants who daily pass before him. Lenin's works have become ‘Holy Writ’, which may be interpreted, but which it is impermissible to confute. After Lenin's death, it was agreed that his place could never be filled. But some new personality had to be produced for the hundred and sixty millions to revere. There presently ensued a tacit understanding among the junta that Stalin should be "boosted" as the supreme leader of the proletariat, the Party and the state. His portrait and his bust were accordingly distributed by tens of thousands, and they are now everywhere publicly displayed along with those of Marx and Lenin. Scarcely a speech is made, or a conference held, without a naïve – some would say a fulsome reference to "Comrade Stalin" as the great leader of the people.

(Trotsky relates in elaborate detail what he describes as the intrigues aiming at his own exclusion from among those who, at public meetings, were given popular honours as leaders, Presently, he continues, "then the first place began to be given to Stalin. If the chairman was not clever enough to guess what was required of him, he was invariably corrected in the newspapers. It was as the supreme expression of the mediocrity of the apparatus that Stalin himself rose to his position." (My Life, by Leon Trotsky, 1930, pp. 499-500.)

Let us give, as one among the multitude of such expressions of whole-hearted reverence and loyalty, part of the message to Stalin from the Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration of the Leninist League of Young Communists (the five million Comsomols).

"In our greetings to you we wish to express the warm love and profound respect for you, our teacher and leader, cherished in the minds and hearts of the Leninist Comsomols and the entire youth of our country... We give you, beloved friend, teacher and leader, the word of young Bolsheviks to continue as an unshakable shock-detachment in the struggle for a classless socialist society. We swear to stimulate the creative energy and enthusiasm of the youth for the mastery of technique and science and in the struggle for Bolshevik collective farms and for a prosperous collective farm life. We swear to hold high the banner of Leninist internationalism, fearlessly to fight for the elimination of exploitation of man by man, for the world proletarian revolution.

"We swear to continue to be the most devoted aids to our beloved Party. We swear with even more determination to strengthen our proletarian dictatorship, to strengthen the defence of the socialist fatherland, to train hundreds of thousands of new exemplary fighters, super-sharp-shooters, fearless aviators, daring sailors, tank operators and artillery corps, who will master their military technique to perfection. We swear that we shall work to make the glorious traditions of Bolshevism part of our flesh and blood. We swear to be worthy sons and daughters of the Communist Party. The Leninist Comsomol takes pride in the fact that under the banner of Lenin, the toiling youth of the country which is building socialism has the good fortune freely to live, fight and triumph together with you and under your leadership."

It seems to us that a national leader so persistently boosted, and so generally admired, has, in fact, become irremovable against his will, so long as his health lasts, without a catastrophic break-up of the whole administration. Chosen originally because he was thought more stable in judgment than Trotsky, who might, it was felt, precipitate the state into war, Stalin is now universally considered to have justified his leadership by success; first in overcoming the very real difficulties of 1921, then in surmounting the obstacle of the peasant recalcitrance in 1930-1933; and in the successive triumphs of the Five-Year Plan. For him to be dismissed from office, or expelled from the Party, as Trotsky and so many others have been, could not be explained to the people. He will therefore remain in his great position of leadership so long as he wishes to do so. What will happen when he dies or voluntarily retires is a baffling question. For it is a unique feature in Soviet Communism that popular recognition of pre-eminent leadership has, so far, not attached itself to any one office. Lenin, whose personal influence became overwhelmingly powerful, was President of the Sovnarkom (Cabinet) of the RSFSR, or, as we should say, Prime Minister. On his death, Rykov became President of the Sovnarkom of the USSR, to be followed by Molotov, but neither succeeded to the position of leader. Stalin, who had been People's Commissar for Nationalities and subsequently President of the Commissariat for Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, had relinquished these offices on being appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party. It is Stalin who has, since 1927, "had all the limelight". No one can predict the office which will be held by the man who may succeed to Stalin's popularity or whether the policy of "boosting" a national leader will continue to be thought necessary when Soviet Communism is deemed to be completely established. For the moment the other dominant personalities seem to be L.M. Kaganovich, one of the Assistant Secretaries of the Communist Party of the USSR and Secretary of the Party in Moscow, in 1935 appointed People's Commissar of Railways; Molotov, the President of the USSR Sovnarkom; and Voroshilov, the popular People's Commissioner of Defence.

1) In 1934 he was elected a member of the presidium of the central Execetevo.

2) He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Third International (Comintern), which is, like the Communist Party of the USSR, formally outside the state constitution.

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