SPS: Overall successes and failures of the leader of a single-party state

Past Questions - Paper 2
  • To what extent was the ruler of one single-party state successful in achieving his aims? (May 2008, TZ2)
  • Evaluate the successes and failures of one ruler of a single-party state. (May 2007, 2005)


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1) What were Stalin's main aims?

  • Overriding goal: Building Socialism in one country (1924)

  • In other words, to strengthen the Soviet state internally. It might seem easy to dismiss this as a mere slogan put forward to challenge Trotsky’s position of permanent revolution during the leadership struggle after Lenin’s death. However, in many ways it defines what Stalin’s 25 year reign sought to achieve.

  • Similarly, while it is easy to label Stalin a brutal tyrant in light of his later actions, it also needs to be remembered that he was a sincere believer in the promises of Marxism to ‘liberate’ humanity from alienation.
    Unlike Tsarism, capitalism or religion, which he rejected when he gave up his priestly education, he thought Bolshevism offered a genuine hope of freedom, equality and prosperity for the working class.

In what context were Stalin's aims developed?
Stalin’s chief aims were developed against the backdrop of the following difficulties facing the USSR in the turbulent 1920s:
  • Industry and agriculture remained backwardand inefficient, leading to food shortages
  • This in turn led to pressing social andpolitical problems in the young Communist party state
  • Furthermore, there was the perceived threat of foreign invasion by the capitalist powersaiming to destroy the young Communist state - i.e. 1927 war scare. (Unclear how far this was something Stalin and his comrades genuinely thought was going to happen, or if it was something they manufactured in order to then exploit the opportunities such a threat posed.)

Main aims:
  • Modernise Soviet society and economy – to create a truly Communist and prosperous society
  • Ensure the national security of the USSR
  • Maintain his position as sole leader of the single-party state

These aims can be seen together in the following quote, taken from a speech given by Stalin in 1931:

The history of the old Russia has consisted in being beaten again and again…because of her…backwardness, military backwardness, industrial
backwardness, agricultural backwardness. She was beaten because to beat her has paid off and because people have been able to get away with it. If
you are backward and weak then you are in the wrong and may be beaten and enslaved. But if you are powerful…people must beware of you…
We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do this or they crush us.

2) What key policies did Stalin pursue in search of these aims?

  • A) Industrialisation via the 5 year plans
  • B) Collectivisation (1929 -36)
  • C) The Purges and the Great Terror (1934 – 38)
  • D) Cultural Revolution (including cult of personality and propaganda, education, policies towards youth, religion, etc.)

A) Industrialisation
Aim: create a modern industrial economy to rival western capitalist powers.
Method: Gosplan and series of ‘Five Year Plans' – 1928 – 32 (coal, iron, steel, oil, machinery);
1933 – 37 (as above, plus manufacturing)
1938 – 42 (as above plus consumer goods, but early shift to re-armament and interrupted by Nazi invasion in 1941)

+ Success: heavy industry (coal 600%, steel 400%), economy transformed from relatively backwards in the 1920s to position in 1945 when USSR one of the
world’s superpowers.
+ Ultimate proof of success: Stalin built a modern industrial economy able to withstand attack from,and then defeat Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War.
+ Political success for Stalin: central planning increased government control over the economy, allowing ‘capitalist enemies’ to be removed (Nepmen, bourgeois experts). Plus, increase in industrial workers led to increase in support for party.

- Failure: pressure to meet absurd targets created a chaotic system leading to poor quality products, corruption and inefficiency (but ultimately production was increased.)
- Progress was unbalanced: heavy industry increased production, but not consumer industries (though this was not directly Stalin’s aim)
- Stalin’s success achieved at the expense of the workers: though some conditions improved (no unemployment, more opportunities for women, free education for all), in general working conditions were very harsh (penalties, lateness, etc.) with tough discipline. Together with primitive housing conditions and shortage of basic consumer goods, this made life grim for most workers in the 1930s (though again Stalin would argue this was a necessary sacrifice to be made).

B) Collectivisation
Aim: Stalin needed to produce more grain to support the 5 year plans – both to feed the workers, and to create a surplus to export for capital needed to invest in industry. He therefore needed to modernise the inefficient agriculture system based on small plots, which would also allow him to deal with political opposition in the countryside in the process.
Method: 1929, enforced collectivisation of small farms into larger, collective farms (kolkhoz and sovkhoz).

+ Political success for Stalin: de-kulakisation (estimated c. 15 million either killed or sent to gulags) which resulted from peasant opposition to the process saw Stalin gain control of the countryside and the food supply. The state no longer needed to worry about haggling with the peasants for grain and a significant source of opposition was removed! Stalin: “We must smash the kulaks so hard they will never rise to their feet again.”
Furthermore, the fact that over 90% of land had been collectivised by 1937 meant that one of Stalin’s aims was achieved: the peasants were firmly exposed to socialist ideology and traditional social roles (mir, priest, school master) were removed as the countryside was transformed.

- Political success but economic failure: kulaks slaughtered livestock rather than surrender them to the state, halving number of cattles which led to a shortage of meat and milk. Grain production actually fell (from 73 million tonnes in 1928 to 67 million tonnes in 1933), which together with state control of the food supply contributed to
the great famine in the Ukraine (1932 – 3, 5 million dead). However, it should also be noted that in the later 1930s increased use of machinery led to some recovery in agricultural production but levels remained low nonetheless.

+ From Stalin’s perspective he was still able to seize more grain and export this to fund industrialisation, in spite of lower production. Plus, he introduced modern technology to the countryside which in the longer term would lead to increased production and the eventual end of famines in the USSR.
Though collectivisation was achieved at an immense human cost, Stalin would see this is a historical necessity to achieve his longer-term aim of
modernising Soviet agriculture, together with his more immediate need to gain control over the countryside.

C) The Purges and the Great Terror

Aim: while historians might disagree about Stalin’s exact motives and the degree to which he is personally to blame for the purges, they are generally in agreement that the key aim of the purges was to eliminate opposition to Stalin’s rule. Faced with growing criticism of his policies both inside and outside the party in the 1930s,
Stalin responded with a brutal display of violence.
Method: following the mysterious murder of Kirov (’34), Stalin launched purges of the Party (show trials), the Army and the people between 1934 and 1938 – millions killed or sent to gulags.

+ Success: any potential source of opposition to Stalin’s rule was removed, and the masses were terrorised into obedience. This left Stalin secure in his position as single ruler of a single-party state until his death in 1953.

+ Success: possible future rivals to his leadership within the party, especially those of the ‘old guard’ who had been part of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, were eliminated.

+ Success: all rebellious elements in the Party, in central and local government, in the army and navy, were violently silenced.

+ Success: sending millions of opponents to the gulags, created a labour force of slaves to work on various building projects, etc.

- Failure: killing/removing many of the best minds in government and industry in a country with a minority of highly educated people, was not a
tactic likely to favour the progress of modernisation!

- Failure: purging the army of its officer class (c. 35,000 killed) in the turbulent international atmosphere of the 1930s was not a good way of securing the defence of the state. Arguably, this weakening of the Red Army contributed to the disastrous collapse and loss of Western Russia to Nazi forces in 1941.

3) Historiography of Stalin

What overall assessments have historians made about Stalinism and its impact?

Martin McCauley, Stalin and Stalinism (2003): Stalin used brutal and appalling methods, but achieved considerable results, as shown most clearly by industrialisation which allowed USSR to defeat Nazi Germany and emerge as one of the world's two superpowers after the Second World War.
  • Stalin "launched a violent, phenomenally ambitious modernisation of the country"
  • Stalinism "was phenomenally successful and eventually a crashing failure"

E.H. Carr, Marxist historian, argues Stalin was a product of his times: produced by the chaos created by the Civil War and the Bolshevik consolidation of power. If Stalin had not taken the initiative to industrialise Russia, someone else would have done so instead. Stalin's rule combined great achievements with incredible brutality, and Stalin was thus for Carr both "an emancipator and a tyrant".

Adam Ulam, liberal American historian writing in the Cold War tradition of anti-USSR, argued strongly that any leader could have industrialised the USSR, and the country would have been far better off without Stalin's rule. Rather than seeing Stalin as a heroic leader of the Great Patriotic war, he argues that Stalin actually got in the way of Soviet victory, as his purges had removed valuable manpower and expertise - esp from the army.

Sheila Fitzpatrick, revisionist historian looking at popular history 'from the bottom up' - ie. from the perspective of the people rather than the centre of power. She has found positive things to say about Stalin, noting that during his reign the USSR “was at its most dynamic” – engaging in significant social and economic experiments such as the spread of mass education and social services.

Alec Nove, an economic historian born in Russia but who lived and worked his whole life in the West, has argued that in some senses Stalin’s brutal policies were demanded by the situation in which he found himself – only extraordinary methods could achieve success given the condition of the state he inherited from Lenin and the Tsars before him!

What was the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism? Did Lenin beget Stalinism?

Earlier Western liberal historians, such as Richard Pipes, argue that Stalinism was a continuation of Leninism and condemn them both for brutal crimes. This is a position also taken by many Russian historians writing today.

On the other hand, many Western historians writing today - such as Orlando Figes and Robert Service - argue there was a clear distinction between Lenin and Stalin. While Lenin may have committed atrocities he did so as a result of circumstances and in pursuit of ideals aiming to improve conditions for the entire population. However, Stalin distorted the ideas of Lenin and Marx, and used these as tools in order to consolidate his own personal dictatorship. Stalinism thus rested on a subversion of Marxist ideology which would have appalled Lenin had he lived to see it: in which, as Russel Tarr argues, rather than a classless society of free equals, the workers and peasants were as exploited as they were under the Tsars, and the Party members (nomenklatura) replaced the capitalists as the privileged class. Instead of Marxism, socialism, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and the ‘withering away of the state’, there was Stalinism and his personal dictatorship.

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For Lenin, see overview of key points below and this page for more detail.

1) What were Lenin's main aims?

Political and ideological
Seize power in the name of the workers, and establish a Marxist state to guide the population towards socialism ('dictatorship of the proletariat' in the short term, before the 'withering away of the state' in the long-run).

All opposition to be crushed, and socialist thinking to be promoted - increase 'revolutionary and socialist consciousness' among workers
Collectivist economic thinking to replace capitalism - take state ownership of the means of production to achieve a socialist economy before the final transition to a communist society.
Foreign Policy
Spread the socialist revolution worldwide! Overthrow capitalism and establish global supremacy of the proletariat.

2) Overall successes and failures?

Political and ideological
Survival and consolidation of power

Single-party rule

won Civil War - defeated opponents!

Red Terror overcame opposition
No withering away of the state - strengthened central control after the Civil
war! (though too short a time-scale to expect this anyway!)

Peasant resistance and that of workers and sailors (i.e. Kronstadt) - clearly
not 'socialists' yet!

Did he betray the ideals of the revolution and his promises? 'All power to the
Soviet' is not the same as 'all power to Lenin and the Party'!

After his stroke in 1922, was he fully in control of what was happening? In
any case, he failed to secure a successor that would continue working
towards realising his vision for the country. Eventually, it is this last point
that would ultimately prevent Lenin's ideology from being implemented
beyond his death.
NEP may have been ideologically a retreat, but it helped
make sure that production figures improved significantly.
Reaching pre-war levels showed that Russia was getting
back on its feet after the devastation of WW1.
War Communism failed - peasants and workers resented it (grain requisition,
harsh discipline), andproduction figures reflected this.

NEP as economic and ideological compromise - re-introducing capitalism,
even if heavy industry still under state control, seen by some as a betrayal,
and created new capitalist class of 'nepmen'.

Thus, failure to establish a socialist economic system based on collectivity -
though it is reasonable to ask if this was likely to be possible in such a short
span of time and given the circumstances of fighting a brutal civil war!
Foreign Policy
Ending the war with Germany, as this allowed Lenin to increase
in popularity and remove Russia from a war it had no hope of
winning - if Brest-Litvosk was an expensive settlement,
it was nullified shortly after anyway,

Survived foreign intervention of the Brits, French, American
and Japanese during the Civil War.
No world revolution achieved! The hoped for 'domino-effect' did not happen,
as Russia emerged as alone in a hostile world after the revolution.

Failure of the Red Army to take Poland in 1920 a great disappointment to Lenin -
prevented 'march of revolution' spreading to Europe!