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)

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