Popular Support for the Soviet Union

A common anti-communist talking point is that past socialist societies have only been able to survive on the basis of coercion, rather than popular support. These critics often use this supposed coercion as evidence that socialism does not work or is not in the interests of the masses. If socialism did accomplish these things, reason the anti-communists, then surely the people would not need to be ruled by fear. This is a reasonable argument, but it is not based in fact. In this essay, I will prove that the Soviet system survived by the popular support of the working class, rather than by repression or force.

John Murphy Thomas writes in Stalin that, “Since the moment when they [the Bolsheviks] first secured a majority in the Soviets prior to the November Revolution they have retained the confidence of the majority, or they could not have maintained power.” [1]

Emil Ludwig writes in his book of the same name that, “But if you take the progressive peasants and workers, not more than 15 percent are skeptical of the Soviet power, or are silent from fear or are waiting for the moment when they can undermine the Bolsheviks’ state. On the other hand, about 85 percent of the more or less active people would urge us further than we want to go. We often have to put on the brakes. They would like to stamp out the last remnants of the intelligentsia. But we would not permit that. In the whole history of the world there never was a power that was supported by nine tenths of the population as the Soviet power is supported.” [2]

In Soviet Policy and its Critics, J.R. Campbell writes that “the Communist Party could only function on the basis of the confidence of the workers; that this confidence was not created by propaganda, but by people testing from their own experience the quality of the political leadership of the Party; that before any policy could be carried out, the Communist Party had to secure the cooperation of millions of people who were not Party members, who were not under Party discipline, who could not be coerced into cooperation, but who could only be convinced on the basis of their experience; and that further, if in the progress of the struggle a change of direction was necessary, not only the Party, but tens of millions of non-party people had to be convinced of the need for this change of direction and had to understand the methods of carrying it through.

In carrying out its activities, the Party rests on the trade unions and on the Soviets. Without the support of the 20 million trade unionists, without the support of the peasantry, organized in the Soviets and in the collective farms, the Party could not last for a week, for it is not the dictatorship of the Party, but a dictatorship of the working-class, in alliance with the peasantry.” [3]

Baldwin also writes about this in Liberty Under the Soviets, stating, “Even to tourists in Russia the absence of any moneyed class is at once apparent… No fine shops, no gay restaurants, no private motors–none of the trappings of wealth that lend color and variety to the life of bourgeois countries. Instead, a somewhat monotonous drabness and shabbiness, more than compensated for by the thought of its significance to the masses.” [4]

Many prominent anti-communists have also asserted that the Soviet system was legitimate in the eyes of the masses. Richard Pipes wrote in Under the Bolshevik Regime that, “The British War Cabinet scheduled a meeting for July 29, 1919 to discuss the Russian situation. The news of Kolchak’s reverses emboldened those who had all along wanted an accommodation with Lenin. Their thinking was reflected in a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet by a Treasury official and banker named Harvey. The document grossly distorted the internal situation in Russia to press the argument for abandoning the White cause. Its basic premise held that in a Civil War the victory went to the side that enjoyed greater popular support, from which it followed that since Lenin’s government had beaten off all challengers it had to have the population behind it [the document stated]:

“It is impossible to account for the stability of the Bolshevik Government by terrorism alone…. When the Bolshevik fortunes seemed to be at the lowest ebb, a most vigorous offensive was launched before which the Kolchak forces are still in retreat. No terrorism, not even long suffer ing acquiescence, but something approaching enthusiasm is necessary for this. We must admit then that the present Russian government is accepted by the bulk of the Russian people.” [5] The British state has dedicated millions of dollars and considerable mental effort to promoting anti-communist ideas. It is unlikely that it would utter a kind word about the Soviet Union unless it was absolutely true. The fact that even an ardently anti-communist empire is willing to concede this point is strong evidence that it has merit.

Many opponents would argue that the support enjoyed by the Soviet system was the result of the context in which it was formed. The Soviet people had never known anything but oppression and misery under the Tsar. Any improvement, no matter how marginal, would garner great popular support. Surely, now that the former Soviet citizens have experienced over two decades of capitalist democracy, they understand that the Soviet model is undesirable. Yet this is untrue. Ordinary citizens of former Soviet nations understand that they lived better under Communism. According to an article in the Globe and Mail, Karol, 14, and his sister Alina, 12, everyday trudge to a dump, where mixed industrial waste is deposited, just outside Swietochlowice, in formerly socialist Poland. There, along with their father, they look for scrap metal and second grade coal, anything to fetch a few dollars to buy a meager supply of groceries. “There was better life in Communism,” says Karol’s father, 49, repeating a refrain heard over and over again, not only in Poland, but also throughout the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. “I was working 25 years for the same company and now I cannot find a job – any job. They only want young and skilled workers.” [6] According to Gustav Molnar, a political analyst with the Laszlo Teleki Institute, “the reality is that when foreign firms come here, they’re only interested in hiring people under 30. It means half the population is out of the game.” [7] That may suit the bottom lines of foreign corporations – and the overthrow of socialism may have been a pleasing intellectual outcome for well-fed, comfortable intellectuals from Boston – but it hardly suits that part of the Polish population that must scramble over mountains of industrial waste – or perish. Maciej Gdula, 34, a founding member of the group, Krytyka Polityczna, or Political Critique, complains that many Poles “are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. They promised us a world of consumption, stability and freedom. Instead, we got an entire generation of Poles who emigrated to go wash dishes.” [8] Under socialism “there was always work for everybody” [9] – at home.

A 2008 report in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, noted that “many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country.” Among the grievers is Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer.  Sribnaya remembers “Pioneer camps when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” [10]

Ion Vancea, a Romanian who struggles to get by on a picayune $40 per month pension says, “It’s true there was not much to buy back then, but now prices are so high we can’t afford to buy food as well as pay for electricity.” Echoing the words of many Romanians, Vancea adds, “Life was 10 times better under (Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae) Ceausescu.” [11] An opinion poll carried out last year found that Vancea isn’t in the minority. Conducted by the Romanian polling organisation CSOP, the survey found that almost one-half of Romanians thought life was better under Ceauşescu, compared to less than one-quarter who thought life is better today. [12] And while Ceauşescu is remembered in the West as a Red devil, only seven percent said they suffered under Communism.  Why do half of Romanians think life was better under the Reds? They point to full employment, decent living conditions for all, and guaranteed housing – advantages that disappeared with the fall of Communism [13].

In the former East Germany a new phenomenon has arisen: Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the GDR. During the Cold War era, East Germany’s relative poverty was attributed to public ownership and central planning – sawdust in the gears of the economic engine, according to anti-socialist mythology. But the propaganda conveniently ignored the fact that the eastern part of Germany had always been less developed than its western part, that it had been plundered of its key human assets at the end of World War II by US occupation forces, that the Soviet Union had carted off everything of value to indemnify itself for its war losses, and that East Germany bore the brunt of Germany’s war reparations to Moscow. [14] On top of that, those who fled East Germany were said to be escaping the repression of a brutal regime. This view is held by, among others, Hope M. Harrison. She is an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. While some may indeed have been ardent anti-Communists fleeing the state, most were economic refugees. Most of those who fled East Germany sought the embrace of a more prosperous West, whose riches depended in large measure on a history of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing imperialism—processes of capital accumulation the Communist countries eschewed and spent precious resources fighting against.

Today, nobody of an unprejudiced mind would say that the riches promised East Germans have been realized. Unemployment, once unheard of, runs in the double digits and rents have skyrocketed. The region’s industrial infrastructure – weaker than West Germany’s during the Cold War, but expanding — has now all but disappeared. And the population is dwindling, as economic refugees, following in the footsteps of Cold War refugees before them, make their way westward in search of jobs and opportunity. [15] “We were taught that capitalism was cruel,” recalls Ralf Caemmerer, who works for Otis Elevator. “You know, it didn’t turn out to be nonsense.” [16] As to the claim that East Germans have “freedom” Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister replied tartly, “Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security.” [17].

 

Today, Stalin is considered the third greatest leader in Russian history, according to a poll by Russian television station Rossiya. [18] A Gallup poll confirms that about sixty percent of citizens in the former Soviet Union prefer it as it was before the transition to capitalism. Twice as many ex-soviets see dissolution of the soviet union as harmful than beneficial. “Only Azerbaijanis, Kazakhstanis and Turkmen are more likely to see benefit than harm from the breakup. Georgians are divided,” says the report.  Fifty-eight percent (58%) of people say they prefer state planning and distribution to the market system. [19] It is possible that this is a case of romanticizing the past, but seventy-five percent (75%) of Soviet citizens voted to keep the USSR before its dissolution, indicating that it brought them genuine benefits. [20]

The people of the USSR were by most accounts quite invested in its success. Szymanski wrote in 1984 that, “The Soviet system has a high degree of legitimacy among all of its citizens, and this is readily admitted by its critics both inside and outside the USSR.” [21] This is evidenced by a saying that was common during the Stalin era. “Yes, there was a cult, but there was also a great man.” [22]

A passage from James Harris’ Stalin as General Secretary also supports the view that the general opinion of the Soviet system was positive. He writes that, “It appears that Stalin largely carried the central committee on the basis of his policies and, at the time, the concrete results they brought about.” [23] The idea that Stalin’s rule-and the Soviet system as a whole-was based on coercion is patently false, as this quote indicates.

I would like to conclude with a quote from The Kremlin and the People, written by the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times during the Stalin Era. He writes, “It is one of the strangest things, that the average Soviet Russian honestly believes that the system under which he lives, which we consider a tyranny, or dictatorship, or totalitarian regime, or anything save freedom–the average Russian thinks that his regime is freer than “the plutocratic oligarchy” (as he terms it) under which, he says, Americans live, move, and have their being. That’s what the Russian says, and that’s what the Russian thinks, and he doesn’t believe in our freedoms, but he does believe in his own. It’s amazing, but that’s how it is” [24].

It is an utter myth that Soviet socialism had no popular support, but why should we pay that any mind? After all, it has been over twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would argue that is important to disseminate positive information about the Soviet Union because of its prevalence in the popular consciousness. Working people rarely object to socialism on theoretical grounds. This is generally left to academics sitting in their ivory towers. The majority of the population see socialism as undesirable because of the supposed oppressive nature of socialist societies. The Soviet Union, of course, is one prominent example. If we can prove that the defects of the Soviet system are either fabricated or nonsystemic, we introduce the idea that socialism is a viable alternative to capitalism today.

  1. Murphy, John Thomas. Stalin, London, John Lane, 1945, p. 173
  2. Ludwig, Emil, Stalin. New York, New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1942, p. 175
  3. Campbell, J. R. Soviet Policy and Its Critics. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1939, p. 15-16
  4. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 30
  5. Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993, p. 96
  6. “Left behind by the luxury train,” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2000.
  7. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.
  8. Dan Bilefsky, “Polish left gets transfusion of young blood,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010.
  9. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.
  10. Globe and Mail (Canada), June 9, 2008.
  11. “Disdain for Ceausescu passing as economy worsens,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999.
  12. James Cross, “Romanians say communism was better than capitalism”, 21st Century Socialism, October 18, 2010
  13. “Opinion poll: 61% of Romanians consider communism a good idea”, ActMedia Romanian News Agency, September 27, 2010.
  14. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2002. p. 232-235.
  15. “Warm, Fuzzy Feeling for East Germany’s Grey Old Days,” New York Times, January 13, 2004.
  16. “Hard lessons in capitalism for Europe’s unions,” The Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003.
  17. New York Times, July 20, 1996, cited in Michael Parenti, “Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism,” City Light Books, San Francisco, 1997, p. 118.
  18. Guy Gavriel Kay, “The greatest Russians of all time?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 10, 2009.
  19. Neli Espova and Julie Ray, “Former Soviet countries see more harm from breakup,” Gallup, December 19, 2013,
  20. ”Referendum on the preservation of the USSR,” RIA Novosti, 2001
  21. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 274
  22. Kreis, Steven, Stalin and the Cult of Personality. April 13, 2012, “The History Guide: Lectures on the Twentieth Century”
  23. Harris, James. Stalin: A New History, 2005. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p.64
  24. Duranty, Walter. The Kremlin and the People. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941, p. 161

Capitalism, Socialism, and Stalin's Cult of Personality

There is a widespread claim that socialism is unworkable because it invariably results in the elevation of a leader beyond reproach. The Soviet Union and Stalin are the most frequently cited examples. This argument takes the premise that cults of personality are universally harmful and extrapolates this to mean that socialism must therefore also be undesirable. In this essay, I will counter this perception.

There was, undoubtedly, a cult of personality surrounding J.V. Stalin. I am unaware of any serious historical account, sympathetic or otherwise, which denies this. The question is whether Stalin himself was the source of this cult or at least whether or not he was complicit in it. Khrushchev seemed to think this was the case. In his “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, he made the cult of personality the central premise of his denunciation of Stalin and his policies.

I would like to mention here that cults of personality are explicitly contrary to socialism. As I wrote in my post on the mass line, it is not the leaders who make history, it is the people themselves. Socialism is brought about by millions of proletarians acting together, not by one person issuing a decree. As such, it makes very little sense to place so much importance on one man, as cults of personality always do.

The Soviet Communist Party understood this point very well. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Central Committee of the party implemented a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his “secret speech” that, “At present, we are concerned with a question which has immense importance for the party now and for the future—with how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing, the cult which became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of party principles, of party democracy, of revolutionary legality.” [1]

It is interesting that Khrushchev stopped short of outright accusing Stalin of being responsible for the cult of personality (perhaps because, as we shall soon see, he could not have justified such a claim). However, in choosing to open the speech in this way, he made the personality cult the focus. Throughout the rest of the speech, he implied that Stalin himself fostered the cult and hoped that others would assume he did. Indeed, many did take it for granted, both within the CPSU—or at least the portion of it that wasn’t purged between the twentieth and twenty-second party congresses—and throughout the capitalist world.

Surely, there can be little disagreement that the elevating of one person to a “superhuman… possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god” is an extraordinarily troublesome and unsavory thing. Stalin did not disagree. All available evidence indicates that Stalin opposed the personality cult surrounding him, and that he spent most of his leadership trying to counteract it. Here is just a small sampling of quotes to support this position.

“I must say in all conscience, comrades, that I do not deserve a good half of the flattering things that have been said here about me. I am, it appears, a hero of the October Revolution, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the leader of the Communist International, a legendary warrior-knight and all the rest of it. This is absurd, comrades, and quite unnecessary exaggeration. It is the sort of thing that is usually said at the graveside of a departed revolutionary. But I have no intention of dying yet.”

– Stalin, June 1926 [2]

“You speak of your ‘devotion’ to me. Perhaps this is a phrase that came out accidentally. Perhaps… But if it is 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.”

– August 1930 [3]

“Marxism does not deny at all the role played by outstanding individuals or that history is made by people. But… great people are worth anything at all only to the extent that they are able to correctly understand these conditions, to understand how to change them…

Individual persons cannot decide. Decisions of individuals are always, or nearly always, one-sided decisions…

Never under any circumstances would our workers now tolerate power in the hands of one person. With us personages of the greatest authority are reduced to nonentities, become mere ciphers, as soon as the masses of the workers lose confidence in them.”

– December 1931 [4]

Anti-Stalinists may read these quotes and assume that Stalin must have been a hypocrite, that he was merely brandishing a fashionable false modesty while in practice building up a cult around himself. However, Stalin’s opposition to the cult of personality extended beyond mere words. Stalin repeatedly objected to attempts to hold national festivities or propaganda exhibitions in honor of his birthday on the grounds that “such undertakings lead to the strengthening of a ‘cult of personality,’ which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party.” [5][6]  

In 1937, the Politburo attempted to rename Moscow to “Stalinodar,” meaning “gift of Stalin,” but Stalin managed to convince them not to proceed. [7]  In 1938, Stalin opposed the publishing of Stories of the Childhood of Stalin, not only because it contained numerous exaggerations and inaccuracies, but also because in his own words, “the book has a tendency to engrave in the minds of Soviet children (and people in general) the personality cult of leaders, of infallible heroes.” [8]  

In 1945, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded Stalin the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, yet he refused to accept it. He could not of course prevent the Soviets from giving him the award after his death. [9]

But surely, insist the anti-Stalinists, a man as powerful as Stalin must have been able to do more to curb the cult of personality surrounding him! Few have responded to this assertion as concisely as Grover Furr in his book Khrushchev Lied. He writes, “Some have argued that Stalin’s opposition to the cult around himself must have been hypocrisy. After all, Stalin was so powerful that if he had really wanted to put a stop to the cult, he could have done so. But this argument assumes what it should prove. To assume that he was that powerful is also to assume that Stalin was in fact what the “cult” absurdly made him out to be: an autocrat with supreme power over everything and everyone in the USSR. “ [10]

Stalin was the General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee. He could be removed by the Central Committee at any time. His was only one vote in the Politburo of the Central Committee. Stalin tried to resign from his post as General Secretary four times. Each time, his attempt was rejected. The last such attempt was at the 19th Party Congress, in October 1952. It too was rejected. [11].  If Stalin really reveled in his position of power, would this have been the case? I think we can safely assume that the answer to this question is a resounding no.

The great majority of evidence points to the fact that Stalin was not only not responsible for the cult of personality that formed around him, he actively attempted to undermine it.

Still, an important question remains. If the cult of personality did not arise from the conscious decisions of Stalin and the Party, where did it come from?  There is a great deal of evidence to support the idea that cults of personality served a material purpose. Scholars since Max Weber have observed that cults of personality can unify a group in times of crisis and inspire them to action. The cult of personality around Stalin rallied the masses around a common cause. It inspired them to not only win the war against the fascists, but also to rebuild their decimated economy after they had done so.  {12]. These specific material conditions necessitated the development of a personality cult. The Civil War could also be said to have contributed to the existence of a personality cult around Lenin. Such cults are far from an intrinsic part of socialism. Therefore, the argument that socialism is undesirable because it leads to a cult of personality is patently false.

This argument is especially spurious when used by proponents of capitalism, especially those living in the United States. When talking about cults of personality or brainwashing, these “principled citizens” conveniently forget (or more likely choose to ignore) the fact that students are all but required to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance every morning. Day after day we see stories in the news about good-hearted police officers rescuing dogs or performing some other “selfless” deed. Both of these practices are regarded as ‘showing respect to authority,’ or simply ‘being patriotic.’

In reality, they are meant to indoctrinate people into believing that America is not an oppressive state, despite it being built on slavery, Native genocide, and exploitation. None of these things are relegated to the past, as many would have you believe. The thirteenth amendment permits prison slavery, a fact that many capitalists have taken advantage of. [13]. Further, Native Americans are still subjected to the same kind of oppression they were during the founding of America. A Gallup independent study found that many reservations were comparable to the third world in terms of living conditions. [14]. The oppressive character of America is still very much alive. American personality cults exist to mask this oppressiveness. They deceive the people rather than inspiring them.

American cults of personality are much harder to spot than that which was present in the Soviet Union, but they exist nevertheless.  They have been normalized through diffusion and subtlety. Although there are no statues of President Obama in the town squares, it is normal to center him in every political discussion. Indeed, this is true of all Presidents. The American personality cults are typically focused on a particular position (such as Presidents or the aforementioned police officers) rather than an individual person. In some cases (as with the American flag) personality cults are even ascribed to symbols. This serves only to obscure them further.

Not one  U.S. head of State has ever disavowed these practices. On the contrary, they encourage them! Unlike the personality cult in the Soviet Union, which existed to inspire the masses to liberate themselves, the personality cults in the United States exist only to perpetuate the oppression of the working class and the marginalized.

On a purely theoretical level, it is apparent that the capitalist system is far more conducive to creating personality cults than any socialist system. Socialism, as mentioned above, is based on collective action undertaken by the masses. Capitalism, however, prides itself on individualism. It preaches the myth that any one person can rise to the top of the social ladder if only they work hard enough [15]. It heaps praise upon  supposed “self-made” billionaires such as Henry Ford and Bill Gates, crediting them with innovation rather than the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers who actually produce products. Capitalism turns billionaires into king-like figures, perhaps even akin to gods, and there is no better definition for a cult of personality than this.

Based on all of the above evidence, we can conclude that if one is opposed to cults of personality, one ought to be a socialist rather than a capitalist.

  1. N. Khrushchev, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences (1956).
  2. J.V. Stalin, Reply to the Greetings of the Workers of the Chief Railway Workshops in Tiflis (1926).
  3. J.V. Stalin, Letter to Comrade Shatunovsky (1930).
  4. J.V. Stalin, Talk With the German Author Emil Ludwig (1931).
  5. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. Ibid.
  8. J.V. Stalin, Letter on Publications for Children Directed to the Central Committee of the All Union Communist Youth(1938).
  9. F. Chuev, Conversations with Molotov. From the Diary of F. Chuev (Moscow, 1994), 254.
  10. G. Furr, 8.
  11. Ibid., 22.
  12. D. Brandenberger, Stalin as Symbol: a Case Study of the Cult of Personality and its Construction (University of Richmond, 2005)
  13. E. Puryear, Shackled and Chained (PSL Publications, 2013)
  14. May 5, 2004, Gallup Independent
  15. “Social Mobility is a Myth,” E. Zuesse (Business Insider, 2013)