By Armando Hart
Earlier this year Armando Hart, one of the historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution, wrote this assessment of the place of Joseph Stalin in the history of the revolutionary movement. Thanks to Celia Hart Santamaria, Armando Hart’s daughter, for sharing this manuscript.
These thoughts are an homage to all revolutionaries, with no exception, who suffered the great historical drama of seeing their socialist ideas of October 1917 frustrated.
We do so in admiration and respect for the Russian people who were the protagonists of the first socialist revolution in history and for destroying fascism decades later under Stalin. This same Russian people that, 130 years before, also destroyed the aggression of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I have, as foundation, 50-experience working for socialist ideas in the beautiful trenches of the Cuban Revolution, of Fidel and Martí; the first revolution of Marxist tendencies that has succeeded in what we know as the West.
It is precisely in the first criticism of Feuerbach that Marx and Engels reproach him for not taking into consideration the subjective factor. They explain:
“The main defect of all previous materialism—including that of Feuerbach—is that they only perceive things, reality, of the senses, under the form of object or observation but not as a human sensorial activity, not as practice, not as subjective.”
Since the early years of the Revolution, Fidel and Che spoke to us of the importance of the subjective factor. Life had proven its value in the cause of human progress; it has also shown that it has an influence in the historical stagnation and retrogression. A long list can be made to demonstrate it in practice and as positive or negative. Stalin is one of the great examples of the latter, perhaps the most important one in the 20th century demonstrating how subjectivity can have a negative influence in history. Think here what I consider, that subjectivity is revealed in culture.
The main lesson learned that can be garnered in this history is in the human insertion; that is to say, the subjective factor had a decisive influence on the tragic outcome of what was known as the “real socialism” that, for its simplistic manner, lost all reality.
A key factor that reveals the experience of the 20th century is that the teachings of Marx and Engels wasn’t learned; who with such a great talent and modesty critically expressed that emphasizing the economic content as determinant, had consequently forgotten the form, in the process of generating ideas. Engels expressed that:
There is, also, one point which, in general, neither Marx nor I have stressed enough in our writing, for which we are all guilty. In what we are most insistent—and cannot be less—was to derive from the basic economic events political, legal, ideas, etc., and the actions that are conditioned by them. To move in this fashion, the content makes us forget the form; that is to say, the process of generating these ideas, etc. With this we give our adversaries a good pretext for their errors and distortions.1
In the political practice of Stalin, he ignored important formal forms of ethical, legal, and political character that were particularly serious because they were manifest in the millions and millions of people who affect, of course, the course of history. Underestimating them, he did not give them the proper attention or to the two main categories that were relegated, in the very heart of culture and revolutionary struggles: ethics and legality.
In 1917 it was Petrograd and, in general, in Russia, the most advanced social and political thought of European intellectuality were combined, and the conditions of exploitation and destitution of the country folk and Russian workers were at the fore, with the need to fight against foreign domination, that is to say, imperialism and, at the same time, against what represented feudalism and czarism. In the Old Russia a triumphant bourgeois revolution had not occurred until February 1917. Imperialist domination and the monarchic regimes of the czars was the scenario that nourished the political formation of Stalin, of course, also influenced by Leninism, which he incorporated with the cultural limitations mentioned above.
Stalin was a revolutionary but he was unable to reach the dimension of a true socialist leader.
Unlike Lenin and other Bolsheviks, Stalin never lived or traveled to other countries of the old continent nor did he assume the revolutionary wisdom of other regions of the world. Of course, he was influenced by Lenin: this should not be denied because it is a component of the drama; but he did so on the basis of the old Russian culture which, although opposing it, he was unable to extract valid socialist consequences for the world of his time.
Objectively, Europe was not in condition to have a socialist revolution and the reasons would require an analysis that goes beyond the scope of this paper. But to understand the culture of Marx and Engels in its depth, above all to apply it creatively we would have to assume the intellectual tradition of the old continent because the founders of socialism were its most consequent exponents in the 19th century.
They were the real successors of the revolutionary ideas of the previous centuries expressed in the Enlightenment and Encyclopedic philosophies. From this cultural aspect, Stalin did not extract the right consequences and he limited his universal reach.
In a TV appearance during the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, in January of 1998, Fidel Castro referring to the errors of the policy applied during Stalin’s time said:
“As a Pole, the Pope lived through the crossing of Soviet troops and the creation of a socialist State, under the principles of Marxism-Leninism, applied dogmatically without considering the actual conditions of that country and without the political and extraordinary dialectics of Lenin. Lenin was able to achieve the peace of Brest-Litovsk, capable of an N.E.P. and capable of crossing a country at war with Russia in a sealed train that were examples of intelligence, courage and true political genius who never stopped being a Marxist.”2
Lenin developed in the revolutionary actions of the Europe of his time and by studying the life of the founder of the Soviet state enriched his knowledge with a great culture and an active participation in the different scenarios of European countries, among them those that were the foundations of the philosophy of Marx and Engels.
Another paradigmatic example was Ho Chi Minh. This noted Vietnamese founded the French Communist Party, lived and worked in the United States, and traveled to many parts of the world. From his homeland he received the influence of the French culture that had gone to set up colonialism in his country and was able to take it up as an Asian, Third World, and universal status.
The Leninist concepts of the Russian revolution set down the thesis that that country was the weakest link of the European imperialist chain. It was thought, at the time, that the process begun in October of 1917 in Petrograd would be the spark of a revolutionary outbreak in Western Europe, beginning with Germany. This did not occur and thus was promoted the idea of building socialism in a single country. On the other hand, Russia as an Euro-Asian nation formed part of that enormous Asian world. This idea could have fostered for a time after the October revolution; but no one could admit that it was the correct revolutionary strategy for a whole century.
The genius of Lenin to take up those subjects was extraordinary. But, in these texts, Stalin did not understand the conclusions on the possibilities and need to link the interests of socialism with the situation generated, at the time, in the Asian nations and, in general, what we have later called the Third World.
Let us see the descriptions Lenin made of Stalin and we will understand that he was a true prophet. In 1922 he said:
“I think that the main problems to the stability, from this point of view, are Central Committee members such as Stalin and Trotsky. The relationship between them, I believe, entail to a good degree, part of the danger of this split that can be avoided and could serve, in my opinion, to broadening the Central Committee to 50 or 100 members.
When Comrade Stalin became Secretary General, he concentrated an immense power in his hands and I am not sure that he used it with sufficient prudence. On the other hand, Comrade Trotsky, as demonstrated by his battle against the Central Committee rising from the problem of the Peoples Commissariat of Means of Communication did not shine only for his great capacity.
Personally, perhaps he is the most capable man in the Central Committee but too self-sufficient and too much drawn to purely administrative factors of the issues.
These two qualities of the two outstanding heads of the Central Committee at the time could lead unwittingly to a split and if our Party does not take measures to prevent it, the split can occur unexpectedly.3
The policy followed by Stalin during World War II and his pact with Hitler is one of the darkest processes of his long career. Nazism was rejected by the peoples and particularly by the progressive and socialist forces placing the latter in a very difficult position, even in Germany.
Fidel pointed out in the above mentioned TV appearance that… talking with the Soviet visitor, he asked him three questions: Why the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? (that occurred in 1939 and I was 13 years old.) Why had they invaded Poland to win a few kilometers of land? (Land that was later lost disastrously in a matter of days. Why the war with Finland? (the third question I asked) Well this was very costly to the international Communist movement, to the communists around the world, so disciplined and so faithful to the Soviet Union and the Communist International that when told:
“This has to be done” and that was it. Then all the communist parties in the world explaining and justifying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were isolated from the masses.4
In addition, history later revealed that there were intelligence reports in the country that Hitler was preparing an offensive against the Soviet Union. However, it should be acknowledged that after the Nazi aggression, Stalin successfully directed the counter-offensive. The Soviet people fought bravely, the Red Army reached Berlin with an incredible effort and with the loss of millions of lives. The war ended with victory over fascism but, at the same time, agreements were signed in Yalta and Potsdam and conditions were created for the division of the world into two great spheres of influence.
This was not positive for socialism.
In the following years when the cold war broke out, neither Stalin nor his successors could understand the forms and possibilities that they would have achieved with an alliance with societies of the Third World and socialism because, for this, a universal concept of cultural basis was needed which they lacked.
In 1959 the Cuban revolution triumphed founded on a national historic tradition and with a Latin American, Caribbean and universal projection. The third world theses of Fidel and Che meant that, from that point on, they would work towards changing the bipolar world from a socialist standpoint.
This assault of the heavens represented, for true revolutionaries of the 20th century, definitely overcoming the bipolarity established from left wing positions and not from right wing, as occurred later during the 1980s. A study of some of the most important events of the 1960s demonstrates with what independence of their political leanings, the need to overcome a bipolar world is characterized.
Let’s review some of them: the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959; the October Crisis in 1962; the tragic split of the international communist movement that led to the break between China and the USSR; the rise and development of the liberation war of Vietnam; the war of liberation of Angola; the fall of the colonial system in Asia and Africa; the birth and rise of the Nonaligned Movement: the rise of the liberation movements in Latin America: the Sandinista Revolutionary Movement, the movements of progressive military officers in Latin America, especially in Peru and Panama, the French May events; the Czech crisis and previously, the situations created in Hungary and Poland.
Stalin’s heirs could not answer this challenge because they were encased in a policy derived from the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and the idea of building socialism in only one country that after the Second World War had extended to several nations. Stalin’s successors could not confront the problem because, in 1956, after his death, when Stalinism was denounced for its crimes, a deep, radical and consistent analysis was made of the nature and character of his regime. It could be said that at the time it was not possible; much less by persons born during that policy, but then, that is what happened.
Today, 80 years later it was not only possible but necessary because, if not, the ideas of Marx and Engels could not come out triumphant from the chaos they were steeped in during the 20th century.
Later, those who wanted to change the bipolar world from a socialist standpoint, like Fidel and Che did in Latin America, were accused of violating economic laws and, in reality, those who did not take them into consideration were those who ignored that the development of productive forces and scientific progress led to surpassing bipolarity. On the contrary, the later course of events dramatically stressed that those who ignored economic laws or tried to adjust them to their conservative position were, precisely, those who rejected the Cuban revolutionary thesis while raising socialist banners.
There are three important conclusions which to ponder in this recently begun century: The first, that this change was a necessity of the growing internationalization of the production forces and, consequently, of the economic and political evolution of the world. The second, that since it was not done from the left, it occurred from the right: and the third, that this change from the left could only be done promoting the national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America and trying to link them up with the ideas of socialism. This was the challenge socialism had to face.
The Stalin biography by Isaac Deutscher, that is now a classic, notes that the Soviet leader substituted the ideas of Marx that violence was the midwife of history for that it was the mother of history.
The fine intellectual line to understand the subtlety of the definition by Marx was, in my opinion, beyond the cultural possibilities of Stalin.
Precisely, the main error of the revolutionary policy of the 20th century, ultimately conditioned by Stalin, were marked by a divorce, separated from culture, even in the case of the USSR where it reached dramatic levels. In Cuba—as we pointed out—we had the great luck of counting on the wisdom of the greatest political revolutionary of the 19th century who was José Martí. The unique teaching of the Cuban revolution in those two centuries and the present relies mainly on having promoted and enriched this relationship. This is the unique quality of Martí and Fidel Castro.
The radicalism of the revolutionary philosophy of Martí went together with a consequent humanism in the treatment of men and the peoples of the metropolis oppressor: The United States and Spain.
On this basis he made a singular contribution calling for the necessary, humanitarian and brief war against Spanish domination and, at the same time, to prevent hatred against those who opposed this purpose. This is a contribution that should be studied in the world by those who slander those who aspire for radical transformations and by those who aim to reach the ends by extreme procedures. The only way to triumph is to promote cooperation among human beings and guarantee their full freedom and dignity. This is the way of being truly radical.
In Cuba the Marxist concept of violence, as José Martí understood, was carried out in the best revolutionary tradition of our country. It taught us that together with a strength of principles and the struggle to obtain social and political objectives we should include the Spaniards and U.S. citizens to our objectives or, at least, to the understanding of our purpose. The idea of divide and conquer was radically surpassed in Cuba and the principle of uniting to conquer was put in its place. That was a much more radical and consequential policy than that of the extremists.
With regard to socialism, Martí’s judgments were very revealing [in] demonstrating where the weaknesses lay in the policies carried out by Stalin.
The Apostle answered his soul brother in this manner:
I must commend you for one thing and it is with the affectionate conduct; and your virile respect, for the Cubans who roam around sincerely seeking, with either this or another name, a little more friendly order and the necessary equilibrium in handling the things of this world: Judgment of aspirations must be done nobly: and not have this or that defect placed on by human passions.
The idea of socialism has two dangers, as so many others—reading foreign writings that are confused and incomplete—and the furtive pride and wrath of the ambitious who pretend to rise up in the world, to have shoulders on which to climb up, frenzied defenders of the forsaken. Some go about troubling the queen, others change from a lowly person to gentleman, like those described by Chateaubriand in his Memoirs. But there is not so much risk with our people, like in the most furious societies and of lesser natural clarity: our work will consist of explaining, clearly and deeply, as you will know how to do: the issue is not to compromise lofty justice by equivocal means or excesses on asking for it. And always with justice, you and I, because the errors of form do not authorize the souls of the wealthy to abandon in their defense.5
Since 1884, José Martí, wrote at the time of the death of Karl Marx, an article that can help us clear up what happened with socialism in the 20th century. The Apostle said the following:
“See this great hall, Karl Marx has died. Since he took the side of the weak, he deserves to be honored. But he who points out the damage and burns with the wish to put it right does not fare well, but he who teaches a soft remedy of the damage....”6
Further on he writes:
“Karl Marx studied the way of settling the world on new bases and awakened the sleepers and he showed them how to bury the broken pillars. But he went quickly and a little in the shadows unseeing that the children of unnatural and troubled gestations were not born viable, nor from the bosom of the people in history, nor from the breast of a woman at the hearth. Here are the good friends of Karl Marx who was not only the titanic driving force of the anger of the European workers but the deep sentinel about the reason of human miseries and in the destinies of man and man desirous to do good. He saw everything he had in himself: rebelliousness, rising up, struggle:”7
The estimation and profundity that the ideas of Marx had for Martí are evident. His criticism he makes of extremism must be taken in the context of what was happening in New York where the anarchist ideas were confused with Marxist thought. Engels, in Europe pointed out that Marxist ideas were not being applied in the United States.
It is accepted now that both always warned against the extremists and the ideas of the anarchists. Concerning the idea that men were being thrown against each other, it should be taken into consideration that Martí who was preparing a war, although thinking it necessary, humanitarian and brief, would forcibly imply an armed conflict.
In the writing after the beautiful, human and deep description José Martí made of Karl Marx he points out:
“Here is a Lecovitch, an every day man: see how he talks: he receives sparks from this tender and furious Bakunin: he begins to speak in English; turns to other in German: “da! da! his compatriots answer excitedly from their seats when he talks to them in Russian.
“They are the Russians of the whips of reform: but no, they are not yet these impatient and generous men, soiled with anger, those who are going to lay the foundations for the new world: they are the spur and are ready, like the voice of conscience, that could slumber: but the steel of the incentive is not useful for forging a hammer.”8
All this Stalin lacked. He did not understand that the steel of the incentive was not enough to build a new society. Deutscher in his important biography of Stalin notes:
“Here we suspend the history of the life and work of Stalin. We are under no illusion that we may be able to extract final or form conclusions, from this basis, a trustworthy judgment about the man, his achievements and his failures. After so many climaxes and anti-climaxes, only now the drama of Stalin seems to reach its peak; and we do not know under what new perspective we could place his last act in relation to the previous ones. What does seem definitely established is that Stalin belongs to the breed of great revolutionary despots, in the same class as Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon.”9
We may agree with the comparison to Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon only with certain reservations:
Robespierre died tragically defending an ideal that was impossible in his time, the purest ideas of the forgers of French revolutionary thought of the 18th century. The rise of the bourgeoisie prevented that. Napoleon set the legal and political basis of the French bourgeoisie and, paradoxically, opened the way for a bourgeois-feudal alliance that formed the capitalist politics of the 19th century. Cromwell also managed to pave a positive way for the English bourgeoisie and left open the possibilities for a later rise.
Stalin did not reach these objectives regarding socialism. Nor could he encourage the socialist revolution in Europe and the world, nor was he able to consolidate it in the USSR. Capitalism returned to Russia seven decades after the October Revolution under new and radically different conditions and this backward move is marked, among other factors, by the serious errors of Stalin who lacked height and the necessary historical vision.
We can reach the conclusion that the time of Stalin is definitely concluded and that the perspectives of a new era are in view. If Stalin belongs to the category of revolutionary despots, the lessons learned reveal that it is not possible to open an everlasting way towards a socialist society without love and culture to build itself.
It is evident that if the revolutionary despots were able to open up the way for capitalism, the construction of socialism cannot be made under the direction of a despot. He was accused of personality cult, I think that what he lacked was a great socialist personality, he lacked what the Cuban revolution has, the revolution of Martí taken up by Fidel that is based on the best patriotic tradition of our people with a truly universal sense.
A final conclusion of the above mentioned and especially what we said at the beginning, experience has taught us the importance of the so-called superstructure. That is one of the necessary keys to discover what happened and find roads for socialism in the 21st century.
Economy operates through them, between one and another there is a dialectic relationship. If natural and social evolution are marked by the inseparable relationship between form and content—as Engels explained—it can be understood that thoroughness, significance and passion with which these forms are treated are in the center of our revolutionary duties. Morality is intimately related to the social question and with the systems of rights. These categories: morality, social question and system of rights constitute the central nucleus from which philosophical research can be made to establish the political and legal practice valid to find new roads towards socialism. In the end, the subject of culture and specially the role of the subjective factors acquire practical significance because it is based on the necessities of ethical, legal principles and on the forms to make policy.
For success on any transforming effort it is essential to link political practice with culture. The victory and continuity of the Cuban revolution confirms the validity of this reasoning. It is important today to think deeply about this question.
The rupture of the bonds between culture and policy was, undoubtedly at the root of the serious setbacks suffered. In Latin America, the tradition of our nations sustained the desire for a culture of emancipation and multinational integration that was promoted by the liberator Simon Bolivar and which José Martí called the moral culture of America. The fundamental tendency of this culture was anti-imperialist and its basic roots were in the working and exploited population. The immediately important factor for the revolutionary policy was to encourage this tendency. And this should and can be done by incorporating the intellectuality to this emancipating effort that is present in the most revolutionary of our spiritual evolution.
Obviously, this has to be done through culture and information about the genesis and history of Latin American ideas. For this, knowledge and clear understanding is needed for the role of subjective factors in the history of civilizations that was precisely what was ignored in practice in socialist policy. What is now known of the historic practice after the death of Lenin and since Stalin, is a vulgar, crude materialism that paralyzed enrichment and the progression of the ideas of Marx and Engels. This required—as Mariátegui did from his Indo-American vision—a study of the role of culture from a historical materialistic vision; but those who embarked on this road were fought as revisionists. Thus, the possibilities to reach a depth at a deeper level of the ideas of the classics were halted.
Approaching a concept such as what we have expounded brought its own difficulties in the intent to delve over the complex ideological problems, but is infinitely less than ignoring the necessity to reach a relationship of confidence between revolutionary policy and the immense and growing mass of intellectual workers.
In conclusion, if fluid relations are not established between the Revolutions and the cultural movement, the processes of change will never win. It is not only a cultural question but an essential aspect for the political practice. To know revolutionary politics, the important movement of art and culture must be assumed and understand that there lies the basis of our redeeming ideas.
Deutscher said it in his book in a more eloquent manner and I believe that it is the main conclusion, theoretically, that we can reach regarding Stalin: “In this contempt for immaterial factors of the great political processes lies the main weakness of his strong but limited realism.”10 An exemplary lesson for those who proclaim themselves realists.
Without considering what are called immaterial factors, that is to say, the subjective characteristic, we will be unable to find new roads because they have the same influence, objectively and materialistically, in history.
The reader is invited to relate these words to what Engels self-critically said and what we have mentioned at the beginning. Let us never forget that man and his society are also part of the material reality of the world—to say it in the language so in vogue by the socialists—that is to say, of nature, to express it in the Martí manner, recall that verse by Martí:
All is beautiful and constant,
All is music and reason,
And all is like a diamond,
That, before brightness, is carbon.11
In 2005 any revolutionary politician must examine the history of the 20th century from the immense culture accumulated devoid of any sectarianism and searching for the essence of the revolutionary ideas in the best thousand years of man.
Someone, during the times of the perestroika affirmed that Marx would remain as a cultural question. I thought: “And do you think that is little.” To find new roads the culture has to be found; there is no other political practice alternative and those who do not believe it will not be able to contribute to making revolutions in the 21st century.
I want to stress that I dedicate these words to all the communists and revolutionaries who fought for socialism, who were faithful and who saw with sadness the tragic outcome of socialism, especially for those peoples of our America. Those who feel in their heart the cause of human justice in a radical and universal form and who look into themselves deeply must acknowledge—as Martí stressed—that Marx deserves to be honored because he took the side of the weak and must be aware that he and his loyal comrade, Fredrich Engels, are the highest expression of social and philosophical thought of Europe in the 19th century. The fanatical retractors of Marxism are not post-moderns, but pre-moderns and have been unable to analyze the deep roots of what happened with Stalin.
Roman wisdom, in the framework of a slave society, of course, pointed out that what was left as legacy by someone who died could be accepted as a benefit in the inventory, in other words, that the heir would not be affected by payment of the debts of the deceased. In the 21st century, humankind will perfect the socialist practice and will have to use the necessary tools to deal with the errors committed to transform the world and will be unable to do so throwing them into the ripped sack of socialist heritage. For this reason, I have recommended to young people to consciously assume the socialist practice of the 20th century as an inventory benefit. We do not renounce the legacy of Marx, Engels and Lenin and the socialist ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries, but assume it as part of a deep evaluation of what has occurred. Only with the thoughts of Marx, Engels and Lenin can we carry out this task. But not only from them.
In the decade of 1920, Julio Antonio Mella and the founders of the first Cuban Communist Party rescued from oblivion the program of Martí which had fallen during the early years of the neo-colonial republic. Today, in 2005, with the thoughts of the Cuban Apostle and his ultra-democratic program we Cubans can strengthen the socialist fibers in our country and contribute to rescue them from the disrepute and isolation to which the political practice that arose since Stalin, had lead them.
A CubaNews translation by Ana Portela, revised and edited by Walter Lippmann.
1 C. Marx, F. Engels, Chosen Works, t. 3, p, 523, Editorial Progreso Moscú.
2 Castro, Fidel. Appearance in Cuban television. January 16, 1998, Granma daily, January 20, 1998.
3 V. I. Lenin, Letter to Contress, Moscow. Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, /S.A./.
4 Castro, Fidel. Appearance quoted.
5 Martí, José, O. C., t. 3, p. 168.
6 Martí, José, O. C. t. 9, p. 388.
9 Deutscher, Isaac, mentioned work, p. 420.0
10 Deutscher, Isaac, mentioned work, p. 420.
11Martí, J. O. C. Versos sencillos, t. 16, p. 65.