The historian J A Getty, one of the most respected authorities on Soviet history, remarked of the Stalin era:
“For no other period or topic have historians been so eager to write and accept history-by-anecdote. Grand analytical generalisations have come from second-hand bits of overheard corridor gossip. Prison camp stories (‘My friend met Bukharin’s wife in a camp and she said …’) have become primary sources on central political decision making.
“The need to generalise from isolated and unverified particulars has transformed rumours into sources and has equated repetition of stories with confirmation. Indeed, the leading expert on the Great Purges has written that ‘truth can thus only percolate in the form of hearsay’ and that ‘basically the best though not infallible sources is rumour.’ As long as the unexplored classes of sources include archival and press material, it is neither safe nor necessary to rely on rumour or anecdote.”
The ‘leading expert’ to whom Getty was referring was, of course, Robert Conquest, whose emotionally-charged books on the Stalin era, such as Harvest of Sorrow and The Great Terror, did more than perhaps any others to ingrain in people’s minds the notion of Stalin as ‘the ruthless dictator’.
This image was, however, inherited from the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev whose infamous ‘Secret Speech’ at the 20th Congress of CPSU claimed to ‘lift the lid’ on the hitherto hidden terror of Stalinism. As Grover Furr notes in his book on the speech (provocatively entitled Khrushchev Lied):
“This speech is often referred to as one of the ‘revelations’ by Khrushchev of crimes and misdeeds done by Stalin. The issue of the ‘cult of personality’, or ‘cult of the individual’, around the figure of Stalin was the main subject of the speech …
“The ‘Secret Speech’ threw the world communist movement into crisis. But the claim was that all the damage done was necessary, prophylactic. An evil part of the past, largely unknown to the communists of the world and even of the USSR, had to be exposed, a potentially fatal cancer in the body of world communism had to be mercilessly excised, so that the movement could correct itself and once again move towards its ultimate goal.”
The fall-out from this speech cannot be underestimated. It led to a rift in the world communist movement between the two largest socialist nations, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (the ‘Sino-Soviet Split’ as it is referred to by historians), as well as a rift between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of Albania.
The Albanians and the Chinese rejected both the image of the Stalin era that was being presented by Khrushchev and the way that phoney image was being used as justification for revisions of the central tenants of Marxism Leninism. The anti-revisionist movement was thus born.
An equally important result of the ‘Secret Speech’ was that it reinvigorated the decaying Trotskyist movement. As Furr notes:
“Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the ‘Secret Speech’ echoed Trotsky’s earlier demonisation of Stalin. But in 1956 Trotskyism was a marginal force, its murdered leader most often dismissed as a megalomaniacal failure. Khrushchev’s speech breathed new life into Trotsky’s all-but-dead caricature of Stalin.
“Communists and anti-communists alike began to view Trotsky as a ‘prophet’. Had he not said things very similar to what Khrushchev had just ‘revealed’ to be true? They dusted off Trotsky’s little-read works. Trotsky’s reputation, and that of his followers, soared. That the ‘Secret Speech’ constituted an unacknowledged ‘rehabilitation’ of Trotsky was recognised by Trotsky’s widow Sedova who, within a day of the speech, applied to the Presidium of the 20th Party Congress for full rehabilitation for both her late husband and her son.”
Trotskyism thus re-emerged as a force within the working-class movement and, often trading off its apparently sharp-eyed analysis of the Soviet Union, rose to become one of the most persistent features of the western political spectrum.
Indeed, in a very real sense it may be said that the ‘Secret Speech’ was the birth of modern Marxism. After all, what modern strand of Marxism has not been shaped by its views on the Stalin era?
‘Western Marxism’ (the Frankfurt School, Hegelian Marxism etc) sought to develop a ‘non-totalitarian’ Marxism and much of its work is pregnant with ruminations about ‘terror’; and the necessity for the ‘freedom of the individual’ to safeguard against it. ‘Luxemburgism’ and ‘Anarchism’, which came to believe that the Leninist political project itself inevitably ended in tyranny and repression. And, of course, ‘Trotskyism’ which we have already touched upon.
The publication of Grover Furr’s Khrushchev Lied is therefore an event of great import. Having spent the past ten years buried in the infamous Soviet archives (or at least, those sections of it which are now available to be studied – much of the archives are still too politically-charged to be considered for opening by the current Russian government) he has now produced a book, based on his research, which makes an outrageous claim:
“Not one specific statement of ‘revelation’ that Khrushchev made about either Stalin or [Lavrenti] Beria [former head of the NKVD] turned out to be true. Among those that can be checked for verification, every single one turns out to be false. Khrushchev, it turns out, did not just ‘lie’ about Stalin and Beria – he did virtually nothing else except lie. The entire ‘Secret Speech’ is made up of fabrications.”
The book has already caused a storm in Russian academic circles and is beginning to make an impact in the United States, as well. As Professor Roger Keeran of Empire State College has remarked: “Grover Furr’s study demands a complete rethinking of Soviet history, socialist history, indeed world history of the 20th century.” This is not an overstatement.
Among the most important claims debunked by Furr are:
- Stalin supported and fostered a ‘cult of personality’. Furr demonstrates that not only did Stalin not actively foster any such ‘cult’, he spent a great deal of his time actively fighting against it. Khrushchev, on the other hand, emerges as one of the leading proponents of the cult, for his own self-serving political motives.
- Stalin embarked on ‘mass repressions’ within the Bolshevik party. This claim has already been tackled by earlier historians and writers (including Ludo Martens, in his book Another View of Stalin), but it is Furr who really puts it to bed, with reams and reams of primary sources to refute it. Furr also successfully rehabilitates Lavrenti Beria, the man who is often accused of being ‘Stalin’s executioner’ in his role as head of the NKVD.
- Stalin stifled internal party debate and ruled the Soviet Union as a ‘dictator’. Furr provides an impressive collection of primary sources, which document that Stalin was committed to internal party democracy and that he made no special fetish of his position of power.
In total, Furr identifies and debunks sixty individual lies or half-truths put forward by Khrushchev in his ‘Secret Speech’. The sheer number of major modifications to our common understanding of the Stalin era that are suggested by Furr is dizzying.
The beauty of Furr’s book, however, lies in the clarity of its argument and the author’s rigorous attention to good historiography. Every claim that Furr makes is backed up with primary or secondary sources of real weight.
The book’s structure speaks volumes about the intellectual integrity of its author: the first quarter of the book is taken up with directly examining and countering the claims made by Khrushchev, the second quarter is taken up by a wide-ranging discussion of the historiography of the Stalin era in general, while the entire second half of the book is taken up with a mammoth appendix documenting, and providing lengthy quotations from, Furr’s source material. The appendix alone makes for fascinating reading. In it, we find such nuggets as this comment in a letter from Stalin to Shatunovsky:
“You speak of your ‘devotion’ to me. Perhaps this is a phrase that came out accidentally. Perhaps … But if it not a chance phrase, I would advise you to discard the ‘principle’ of devotion to persons. It is not the Bolshevik way. Be devoted to the working class, its party, its state. That is a fine and useful thing. But do not confuse it with devotion to persons, this vain and useless bauble of weak-minded intellectuals.”
Or the documentary evidence of Stalin’s four attempts to resign his position as General Secretary of the CPSU (1924, 1926, 1927, 1952), as well as his attempt, in 1927, to abolish the position of General Secretary altogether. We can quote directly from the CC Plenum transcript of this last occurrence:
“Yes, it seems that until the 11th Congress we did not have this position [of General Secretary]. That was before Lenin stopped working. If Lenin concluded that it was necessary to put forward the question of founding the position of General Secretary, then I assume he was prompted by the special circumstances that appeared with us before the 10th Congress, when a more or less strong, well-organised opposition within the party was founded.
“But now we no longer have these conditions in the party, because the opposition is smashed to a man. Therefore we could proceed to the abolition of this position. Many people associate a conception of some kind of special rights of the General Secretary with this position. I must say from my experience, and comrades will confirm this, that there ought not to be any special rights distinguishing the General Secretary from the rights of other members of the secretariat.” [Emphasis added]
These are just two examples from what is a veritable goldmine of source material.
It is, however, the section on historiography which, in many respects, emerges as the most engaging. Furr’s sober approach to his subject matter deserves to be widely read and imitated and his comments on Soviet historiography are at least as persuasive as many of the ‘standard’ works on the subject. A good example is his discussion of ‘Torture and the historical problems related to it’, a question which any serious student of the Stalin era cannot avoid:
“The fact that a defendant was tortured does not mean that defendant was innocent. It is not evidence that the defendant was innocent. But it is often erroneously assumed to be … Establishing the fact that someone really has been tortured is not always easy.
“The mere fact that someone claims he confessed because he was tortured is hardly foolproof. There are many reasons why people sometimes want to retract a confession of guilt. Claiming one was tortured is a way of doing this while preserving some dignity. So to be certain a person was tortured there has to be further evidence of the fact, such as a statement or confession by a person who actually did the torturing, or a first-hand witness.
“When there is no evidence at all that a defendant was tortured objective scholars have no business concluding that he was tortured. This obvious point is often overlooked, probably because a ‘paradigm’ that everybody was tortured, and everybody was innocent, acts powerfully on the minds of both researchers and readers.”
Another engaging aspect of Furr’s work is the possible conclusion that it points towards, and it is this aspect that will probably most interest those readers who are already convinced of the ‘innocence’ of Stalin. Traditionally, it has been assumed by anti-revisionists that Khrushchev’s primary motivation in attacking Stalin was to lay the groundwork for his pro-market economic reforms and his counter-revolutionary modifications to Marxism Leninism. Furr accepts this as a likely primary motivation, but he adds to this another, more disturbing, possible motivation.
Furr returns to the right-Bukharinite conspiracy that was uncovered by the Moscow Trials in the late 1930s and notes the sheer number of those convicted as part of that conspiracy by Stalin and Beria who were ‘rehabilitated’ (often posthumously) by Khrushchev following his ‘Secret Speech’.
Among these are Ezhov, the man responsible for hundreds of thousands of wrongful imprisonments and thousands of wrongful executions as part of concerted campaign to ‘sow discontent’ amongst the Soviet people and lay the groundwork for a counter-revolution; Zinoviev and Kamenev, both of whom were working with Bukharin to aid the cause of hostile imperialist powers and remove the leadership of the CPSU; and Eikhe, the First Secretary who was deeply involved in the illegitimate repressions of the Soviet people, and many others. The chilling significance of this is best explained by Furr himself:
“[Iuri] Zhukov has argued that it was the First Secretaries, led by Robert Eikhe, who seem to have initiated the mass repressions [uncovered and exposed by Beria and Stalin in the late 1930s]. Khrushchev, one of these powerful First Secretaries, was himself very heavily involved in large-scale repression, including the execution of thousands of people.
“Many of these First Secretaries were themselves later tried and executed. Some of them, like Kabakov, were accused of being part of a conspiracy. Others, like Postyshev, were accused, at least initially, of mass, unwarranted repression of party members. Eikhe also seems to fall into this group. Later many of these men were also charged with being part of various conspiracies themselves. Khrushchev was one of the few First Secretaries during the years 1937-1938 not only to escape such charges, but to have been promoted.
“Might it be that Khrushchev was part of such a conspiracy – but was one of the highest-ranking members to have remained undetected? We can’t prove or disprove this hypothesis. But it would explain all the evidence we now have.”
The implications of such a possibility are, of course, massive. In particular, if Khrushchev could be proven to be a part of the right-Bukharinite conspiracy, it would have vital implications for our understanding of the birth of revisionism in the Soviet Union.
The difficulty for anti-revisionists up till this point has been to demonstrate how seemingly good communists could develop into enemies of the proletariat. This new theory, while not removing the difficulty entirely, would certainly tie it into more readily explicable phenomena, such as the right deviation that overtook Bukharin and others and led them to actively seek the overthrow of the Soviet leadership. Clearly, this is a point that will demand further examination.
If there is one major fault to be found in Furr’s work, it is his final conclusion. In the very last page and a half of the book he arrives at the somewhat dubious assertion that the rise of Khrushchevite revisionism and the right-Bukharinite conspiracy is to be explained by the faulty conception of socialism which Stalin inherited from Lenin and Lenin in turn interpreted out of the works of Marx and Engels.
This is not a conclusion which he has hitherto been building towards, nor is it one that he makes much, if any, sustained attempt to support in the page and a half that he discusses it. It feels a-priori, as if the author is trying to make his own personal belief about Marxism Leninism sit comfortably with the other conclusions of his research in a way that it simply does not.
To Furr’s credit, he wisely ends on the words “that is a subject for further research and a different book”, but nonetheless, one is left wishing he had simply left his own personal feelings on Marxism Leninism for that ‘different book’ and not tacked them, sloppily, to the end of what is otherwise a fantastic work.
Khrushchev Lied is a fascinating new perspective on the history of the Stalin era. The wealth of new research alone is worth the cover price, but the reader is also treated to an excellent discussion of historiography and some tantilising possible conclusions.
I would urge anyone with any interest whatsoever in either Joseph Stalin or the Soviet Union to read it, but also I feel certain that it will serve as a new vital resource for the anti-revisionist movement in its fight against the historical distortions perpetuated by the enemies of Leninism.