[lbo-talk] Edmund Wilson on Stalin

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sat Dec 10 12:06:31 PST 2011

[The New Republic unearthed an April 1936 piece by Edmund Wilson on Stalin from its archives. It's subscriber-only. An excerpt.]

THE GLORIFICATION OF Stalin is undoubtedly one of the things in Russia which affects an American most unpleasantly. The paper comes out almost every day with a photograph of Stalin on the front page, either standing with a distinguished visitor or, if there is no distinguished visitor, visiting somebody or something himself; and every speech and important public document ends with a tribute to Stalin, like the prayer at the end of a sermon. Stalin is plastered all over the place, and even genuinely popular public figures such as Litvinov and Voroshilov are such a long way behind him that they seem scarcely to belong to the same race.

When I spoke of this to a Russian, I was told that Stalin himself did not like it. And since I have been back, I have heard the same opinion expressed by a Russian who was anti-Stalinist: “The situation is so tense,” he said “that they have to have an ikon.” It is unquestionably true that this relation between Stalin and his public is reciprocal. An American in Russia who has been here long enough to take for granted the features which at first aroused his enthusiasm: the natural manners, the throwing open of everything to the people—is likely, as time goes on, to begin to find himself repelled by what seems to him to be the cold-blooded manipulation of the people by the governing power. He may have left the United States with a conviction that his countrymen, who keep up with the Joneses and believe what they read in the Hearst papers, are a conformist and credulous people; but, when he has had a chance to observe what seems to him the docility and timidity of the Russians, he decides that his countrymen, by comparison, are critical and self-reliant. And his instinct is to resent the brazenness with which it seems to him the Stalin administration propagandizes and dragoons the people while always formulating its policies in some language such as, “The indignant proletariat demand the execution of so-and-so.” The American is antagonized by this, as he would be if it were done to him—as, indeed, he remembers unpleasantly, it was at the time of the War.

Yet this impression misrepresents what is happening. This is not the United States, and the people involved are different from us. The Russians, before the Revolution, had had a paternalistic government for centuries; they had no democratic institutions: the dumas were the dolls of the Tsar. Remember that before the Revolution, 80 percent of the Russians were illiterate. Remember that there are among these masses who march in a Physcultur parade, men who have changed their names from Svinukhin and Sobakin to Novy and Partisanov in order to destroy them memory of the time when their great-grandfathers and grandfathers were exchanged for pigs and dogs, and to establish the mere human dignity which has been brought them by the Revolution. The dictatorship of such a proletariat inevitably results in a state of things where the proletarians, though the favored class, are dictated to by a governing group. The Russian proletarians and peasants are educating themselves with an avidity and have now, it is said, almost reversed the old illiteracy figures. And they are taking most seriously their new duties of citizenship. But how can people who have just learned to read be expected to criticize the press? And how can they be expected to develop political institutions which have taken the Western peoples centuries? In the meantime, for all their efforts of progress, there is always the tendency to lapse back into their earlier relation to the Little Father. Even if old Bolshevik Stalin did not want to be Stalin apotheosized, the people would have tried to invent him. Remember that Lenin at the present time is appearing in person like any saint to the more primitive inhabitants of the Union, and that the reason why the visitors to his tomb are kept so rapidly moving is alleged to be the anxiety of the authorities to avert possible miraculous cures. One has only to attend some great public demonstration like the Physcultur parade, or even go to a popular play which has been written to illustrate some new policy and to hear the loud bursts of applause, to be convinced that the relation between Stalin and his proletarian public is very close and strong. They not only fear Stalin: they trust him to see them through. There seems a real identification of will between Stalin and a central element of the people in whose name he speaks.

Admitting this, however, with all respect for Stalin’s abilities: his energy, his positiveness, his shrewdness, his adamantine adherence to his Marxism, with all appreciation of his cardinal importance in Europe at the present time, is it wise for him to allow this deification to be carried so far as it is? It is true at the present time in Russia not only that the name of Stalin cannot except furtively be taken in jest—when the radical caricaturist Will Low drew a picture of Stalin in the dust, the Russian who was with him smeared it out—but that there seems to be a tendency in some quarters to be afraid to utter it at all, like the unpronounceable name of God with the Jews. People resort to circumlocutions, just as they refer to Mussolini as “Lui.” On one occasion, when I was talking with a Russian in the streets of a country town, he began saying something about “our big man—I don’t want to say his name.” I was prepared for some sinister revelation, but it turned out that he was only going to cite with approval something that Stalin had said about his interview with H. G. Wells. I suppose that the trouble was that he was afraid to be heard talking about Stalin with a foreigner in a foreign language. But, after all, as Van Loon has reminded us, Frederick the Great, that feudal autocrat, when informed that a poster he was trying to read was a satire directed against himself, walked on, merely commenting that they ought to have hung it lower. And I got the impression, although no one would admit it openly, that most intelligent Russians, however loyal, were a bit ashamed of what had happened. I have heard a Russian, unaware of a foreign presence, groan to another Russian when he was handed the morning paper and confronted with the inevitable cap and mustache.

This cult has nothing to do with Marxism and is not justified by a socialist dictatorship. Marxism regards the ruler as the human, and hence fallible, representative of the interests of certain human beings. Marxism, by definition, is irreverent toward persons in authority. Lenis was irreverent toward himself in the sense that he took himself seriously only as the agent of a revolutionary cause. He cared nothing about power for its own sake; nothing about admiration. He always acknowledged and lamented his human errors of judgment. One cannot imagine Lenin, for all the popular devotion he commanded, playing a role like that of Stalin—a role which gives constant encouragement to the people who want to make it out that the Soviets are the same thing as Mussolini, and which invites the fate of Aristides. As the Russians become better educated and more capable of thinking for themselves, how are the young people going to react to the ikon?

This relation of the people to the dictatorship is the core of the whole Russian question and must be faced and dealt with by any advocate of socialism in America. It seems to me obviously impossible that s socialist government in the United States should resemble the state of things in Russia; and it is totally unrealistic for either the opponents or the champions of socialism to talk as if socialism would mean for us the naïveté’s of a Stalin regime. We have in the United States some miserable and illiterate groups; but we have in general no such feudal peasantry and no such primitive proletariat as Russia. The farmers and working class men and women, the disillusioned middle class and the radicalized executives and experts, would no more, in the political relations, resemble the Stalinist Communists and their Stalin-adoring constituents than they would be holding physical-culture parades for the purpose of celebrating the bicycle, the basketball and the tennis-racket. In spite of much corruption and many idiocies, we have certainly learned something about self-government, just as we have learned outdoor sports. Let us hope that we have no need to fear the feudal elements of Russian socialism any more than we need fear the feudal elements of German and Italian fascism.

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