Joseph Stalin

By Armando Hart

Armando Hart is the former minister of culture of Cuba. Our translation largely relies on a CubaNews translation by Ana Portela.

These thoughts are intended as a tribute to all revolutionaries, without exception, who suffered the great historical drama of seeing the socialist ideas of October 1917 frustrated. We write this with admiration and respect for the Russian people, who were the protagonists of the first socialist revolution in history and who defeated fascism decades later under the leadership of Stalin. The same Russian people, 130 years before, defeated the military offensive of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fundamentally, I have the experience of fifty years of working for socialist ideas in the beautiful trenches of the Fidel and Martí-inspired Cuban Revolution, that is to say, the first revolution of Marxist orientation that triumphed in what has become known as the West.

It is precisely in the first point of criticism of Feuerbach that Marx and Engels reproach him for not taking into consideration the subjective factor. They explain: "The fundamental defect of all previous materialism—including that of Feuerbach—is that they only conceive of things, of reality, of the senses, as object or as contemplation, but not as sensorial human activity, not as practice, not subjectively".

From the early years of the revolution, Fidel and Che spoke to us of the importance of the subjective factor. Life has proven the value of the subjective factor in the cause of human progress, while at the same time it has also shown that it can have an influence in historical stagnation and regression. A long list can be made to demonstrate that in practice it has both positive and negative influence. Stalin is one of the great examples of the latter, perhaps the most important example of the twentieth century—of how the subjective factor can have a negative influence in history. Keep it in mind, as I will explain that the subjective factor is revealed in culture.

The main lesson to be garnered from history is human insertion; that is to say, the subjective factor had a decisive influence on the tragic outcome of what was known as "real socialism", which, because of its simplistic manner, lost all reality.

A key factor revealed by the experience of the twentieth century is that the teachings of Engels weren't learned in the ussr. Engels with his great talent and modesty, critically expressed that he, as much as Marx, in the process of emphasising the economic as determinant, had consistently forgotten the form, as well as the process, of generating ideas. Engels wrote:

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle visàvis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible.1

In the political practice of Stalin, important formal ethical, legal and political rules were ignored, which proved particularly serious because the lives of millions and millions of people were affected, as was, obviously, the course of history. Underestimating them meant they were not given the proper attention, and two main categories, at the very heart of culture and revolutionary struggles, were relegated: ethics and legality.

In 1917, in the old Petrograd and more generally Russia, the most advanced social and political thought of intellectual Europe was combined with the conditions of exploitation and misery of the Russian peasants and workers. Here the necessity to fight against foreign domination, that is to say, imperialism, and at the same time against what represented feudalism and tsarism, were united. In the old Russia, a triumphant bourgeois revolution did not occur until February 1917, something which had begun in Europe more than 200 years before. Feudalism, imperialist domination and the regime of the tsars were the scenario that nourished the political formation of Stalin—of course, also influenced by Leninism—and which conditioned him with the cultural limitations mentioned above.

Stalin was a revolutionary, but he was unable to reach the dimension of a true socialist leader.

Unlike Lenin and other Bolsheviks, Stalin never lived in or travelled to other countries of the old continent, nor did he learn from the revolutionary wisdom of other regions of the world. Of course, he was influenced by Lenin: this should not be denied because it is a component part of the drama; but he did so on the basis of the old Russian culture from which, while opposing it, he was unable to extract valid socialist consequences for the world of his time.

Objectively, Europe by itself was unable to carry out a socialist revolution, the reasons for which would require an analysis that goes beyond the scope of this paper. But to understand fully the culture of Marx and Engels, and above all to apply it creatively, there was a need to assume the intellectual tradition of the old continent because the founders of socialism were its foremost consistent exponents in the nineteenth century.

They were the real successors of the revolutionary ideas of the previous centuries expressed in the Enlightenment and Encyclopaedists' philosophies.

From this cultural aspect, Stalin did not draw the right consequences, for which his universal reach was limited.

In a TV appearance during the visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, in January 1998, Fidel Castro, referring to the errors of the policy applied during Stalin's time, said:

Being Polish, the pope lived through the crossing of Soviet troops and the creation of a socialist state, under the principles of Marxism-Leninism, applied dogmatically, without in any way considering the concrete conditions of that country and without the extraordinary political and dialectical nous of Lenin, who was able to achieve peace through the Brest-Litovsk treaty, capable of the NEP [New Economic Policy] and capable of crossing a country at war with Russia in a sealed train, examples of real intelligence, courage and true political genius, who never stopped being a Marxist.2

Lenin was educated in the revolutionary actions of the Europe of his time, and from studying the life of the founder of the Soviet state, it can be seen that he enriched his knowledge with the great culture of, and active participation in, the different scenes of European countries—those precisely which gave birth to the philosophy of Marx and Engels. A similar situation gave rise to another paradigm, that of Ho Chi Minh. This noted Vietnamese founded the French Communist Party, lived and worked in the United States and travelled to many parts of the world, and received in his homeland the influence of French culture that colonialism had imposed, enabling him to assume Asian, Third World and universal influences.

The Leninist concepts of the Russian Revolution put forward the thesis that this country was the weakest link of the European imperialist chain. It was thought at the time that the process initiated in October 1917 in Petrograd would be the spark for a revolutionary outbreak in western Europe, beginning with Germany. It did not occur like this; the idea of building socialism in a single country began. On the other side, Russia, as a Eurasian nation, formed part of the enormous Asian world. At this conjuncture, such an idea could have been useful for a short moment after the October Revolution; but no one could admit that it was the correct revolutionary strategy for a whole century.

The genius of Lenin in taking up these issues was extraordinary. But Stalin did not take from these texts the conclusions on the possibilities and necessity to link the interests of socialism with the situation generated, at the time, in the Asian nations and, in general, in what we later called the Third World.

Let us look at the description Lenin made of Stalin and we will see that he was a true prophet. In 1922 he said:

I think that from this standpoint the prime factors in the question of stability are such members of the cc as Stalin and Trotsky. I think relations between them make up the greater part of the danger of a split, which could be avoided, and this purpose, in my opinion, would be served, among other things, by increasing the number of CC members to fifty or one hundred.

Comrade Stalin, having become general secretary, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution. Comrade Trotsky, on the other hand, as his struggle against the CC on the question of the People's Commissariat for Communications has already proved, is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present CC, but he has displayed excessive self-assurance and shown excessive preoccupation with the purely administrative side of the work.

These two qualities of the two outstanding leaders of the present CC can inadvertently lead to a split, and if our party does not take steps to avert this, the split may come unexpectedly.3

The policy followed by Stalin during World War II and his pact with Hitler were one of the darkest processes of his long career. Nazism was rejected by the peoples and particularly by the progressive and socialist forces, placing the latter in a very difficult position, including in Germany. Fidel pointed out in the above-mentioned TV appearance:

… when talking with a Soviet visitor, I asked him three questions: Why the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact? This occurred in 1939, when I was 13 years old … Why had they invaded Poland to win a few kilometres of land? Land that was later lost disastrously in a matter of days … Why the war with Finland? That is the third question I asked … Well, this was very costly to the international Communist movement, to the Communists around the world, so disciplined and so faithful to the Soviet Union and the Communist International that when told, "This has to be done", then so it was. Therefore, all the Communist parties in the world, explaining and justifying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, were isolated from the masses.4

In addition, history later revealed that there were intelligence reports in the country that Hitler was preparing an offensive against the Soviet Union. However, it should be acknowledged that after the Nazi aggression, Stalin successfully directed the counter-offensive. The Soviet people fought bravely, the Red Army reached Berlin with an incredible effort in which millions of lives were lost. The war ended with the victory over fascism but, at the same time, agreements were signed in Yalta and Potsdam and conditions were created for the division of the world into two great spheres of influence.

This was not positive for socialism.

In the following years when the Cold War broke out, neither Stalin nor his successors could understand the forms and possibilities that they could have achieved with an alliance between the societies of the Third World and socialism because, for this, it was necessary to have a universal concept of the fundamental bases of culture, which they lacked.

In 1959 the Cuban Revolution triumphed, entrenched in the national historic tradition and with a project to reach out towards Latin America, the Caribbean and the world. The Third Worldist theses of Fidel and Che meant that, from that point on, they would work towards changing the bipolar world from a socialist standpoint.

This assault of the heavens represented, for true revolutionaries of the twentieth century, having to overcome definitively the bipolarity, from leftwing positions and not from rightwing ones, as occurred later during the 1980s. A study of some of the most important events of the 1960s demonstrates that independently of their political leanings, they were all characterised by the necessity to surpass the bipolar world.

Let's review some of them: the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959; the October Crisis in 1962; the tragic split of the international communist movement that triggered the break between China and the USSR; the rise and development of the liberation war of Vietnam; the war of liberation of Angola; the fall of the colonial system in Asia and Africa; the birth and rise of the Non-Aligned Movement; the rise of the liberation movements in Latin America: the revolutionary Sandinista movement, the movements of progressive military officers in Latin America, especially in Peru and Panama; the French May events; the Czech crisis and, earlier, the situations created in Hungary and Poland.

Stalin's heirs could not answer these challenges because they were locked into the policy derived from the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and the idea of building socialism in only one country, which after the second world war had extended to several nations. Stalin's successors could not confront the problem because, in 1956, after his death, when Stalinism was denounced for its crimes, a deep, radical and consistent analysis of the nature and character of his regime was not made. It could be said that at the time it was not possible, and much less so by the people who were products of those politics, but then, that is what happened.

Today, eighty years later, it is not only possible, but necessary, because as long as this is not done, the ideas of Marx and Engels will not be able to come out triumphant from the chaos into which they were introduced in the twentieth century.

Later, those who wanted to change the bipolar world from a socialist standpoint, like Fidel and Che did in Latin America, were accused of violating economic laws. In reality, the people who did not take those laws into consideration were ignoring that the development of the productive forces and scientific progress were leading to the surpassing of bipolarity. The later course of events dramatically demonstrated that those who ignored economic laws or tried to adjust them to their conservative position were precisely those who, while raising socialist banners, rejected the theses put forward by the Cuban revolutionaries.

There are three important conclusions on which to reflect, for this recently begun century: The first is that this change was a necessity of the growing internationalisation of the productive forces and, consequently, of the economic and political evolution of the world. The second is that, because it was not done from the left, it occurred from the right. And the third is that this change from the left could have been made only by promoting the national liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America and trying to link them up with the ideas of socialism. This was the challenge socialism had before it.

Isaac Deutscher, in his biography of Stalin, which is now a classic, noted that the Soviet leader replaced the idea of Marx, that violence was the midwife of history, with one that saw it as the mother of history. The intellectual refinement necessary to understand the subtlety of Marx's definition was, in my opinion, beyond the cultural possibilities of Stalin.

The main error of revolutionary policy of the twentieth century, ultimately conditioned by Stalin, was marked by a divorce, a separation from culture, even in the case of the USSR, which as is known, reached the most dramatic levels. In Cuba—as we pointed out—we had the great luck of counting on the wisdom of the greatest political revolutionary of the nineteenth century, José Martí. The unique teaching of the Cuban Revolution in those two centuries, and the present, relied on having promoted and enriched this relationship. This is the unique quality of Martí and Fidel Castro.

The radicalism of the revolutionary philosophy of Martí went together with an intense and consistent humanism in the treatment of people, including the peoples of the oppressor metropolises, the United States and Spain.

On this basis he made a unique contribution, calling for a necessary, humanitarian and brief war against Spanish domination. At the same time, he did not generate hatred against those who opposed this proposition. This is a contribution that should be studied by those in the world who slander others for aspiring to radical transformations and by those who aim to reach these ends by extreme means. The only way to triumph is to promote cooperation among human beings and guarantee their full freedom and dignity. This is the way of being truly radical.

In Cuba, the Marxist concept of violence was understood in the way conceived and carried out by José Martí, and in the best revolutionary tradition of our country. It taught us that, together with a strength of principles and the struggle to obtain social and political objectives, we should include the Spaniards and us citizens in our objectives or, at least, seek for them to understand our intentions. The idea of divide and conquer was radically surpassed in Cuba, and the principle of uniting to conquer was put in its place. That was a much more radical and consistent policy than that of the extremists.

With regard to socialism, Martí's judgments were very revealing, demonstrating where the weaknesses lay in the policies carried out by Stalin.

Fermín Valdés Domínguez, a close friend since childhood, wrote to him from Cuba in regard to the work he was carrying out in favour of socialism. The Apostle answered his soul brother in this manner:

I must commend you for one thing: that is the care with which you attempt and your respect for people, for the Cubans who are sincerely seeking, either with this or that name, a little more than friendly order and the necessary equilibrium in handling the things of this world. Judgment of aspirations must be done nobly, and not for this or that defect placed on it by human passions. The idea of socialism has two dangers, as do so many others—reading foreign writings that are confused and incomplete, and the disguised pride and rages of the ambitious, who in order to rise up in the world begin by pretending to have shoulders on which to climb, frenzied defenders of the forsaken. Some go about, troubling the queen ... others change from a lowly person to gentleman, like those described by Chateaubriand in his Memoirs. But there is not so much risk in our people, as there is in the most furious societies and those of lesser natural clarity: our work will consist of explaining, clearly and deeply, as you will know how to do. The point is not to compromise lofty justice by incorrect or excessive means of asking for it. And always with justice, you and I, because the errors of your manner do not compel the souls of the wealthy to abandon their defence.5

In 1884 shortly after the death of Karl Marx, José Martí wrote an article that can help us clear up what happened with socialism in the twentieth century. The Apostle said the following:

Look at this large hall. Karl Marx is dead. He deserves to be honoured for declaring himself on the side of the weak. But the virtuous man is not the one who points out the damage and burns with generous anxiety to put it right; he is the one who teaches a gentle amendment of the injury.6

Further on he writes:

Karl Marx studied the methods of setting the world on new foundations, and wakened those who were asleep, and showed them how to cast down the broken props. But being in a hurry, with his understanding somewhat clouded, he did not see that children who do not have a natural, slow and painful gestation are not born viable, whether they come from the bosom of the people in history, or from the wombs of women in the home. Here are the good friends of Karl Marx, who was not only a titanic stimulator of the wrath of European workers, but also showed great insight into the causes of human misery and the destiny of men, a man driven by a burning desire to do good. He saw in everyone what he carried in himself: rebellion, the highest ideals, struggle. 7

The value and profundity that the ideas of Marx had for Martí are evident. The criticisms he makes of extremism must be taken in the context of what was happening in New York, where anarchist ideas were confused with those of Marx. Engels, from Europe, pointed out that Marxist ideas were not being applied in the United States.

It is accepted now that both always warned against the extremism and ideas of the anarchists. Concerning the idea that people were being pitted against each other, it should be taken into consideration that Martí who was preparing a war, although aimed to be only by necessity, humanitarian and brief, did imply an obligatory armed conflict.

In a few sentences after the beautiful, human and deep description that José Martí made of Karl Marx, he points out:

Here is Schevitsch, a journalist: see how he speaks: reflections of the sensitive, radiant Bakunin reach him: he begins to speak in English; he addresses others in German. "Da! Da!" his compatriots reply enthusiastically from their seats when he speaks to them in Russian. The Russians are the whip of the Reform—no more! These impatient and generous men, tarnished with anger, are not the ones to cement the New World: they are the spur, and prick like the voice of a conscience which might be falling asleep: but the steel of the spur cannot be used as a construction hammer.8

All this Stalin lacked. He did not understand that the steel of the incentive was not enough to build a new society. Deutscher in his important biography of Stalin notes:

Here we suspend the history of the life and work of Stalin. We are under no illusion that we may be able to extract from them some final conclusions or form, from this basis, a trustworthy judgment about the man, his achievements and his failures. After so many climaxes and anticlimaxes, only now the drama of Stalin seems to have reached its peak; and we do not know under what new perspective we could place his last act in relation to the previous ones. What does seem definitely established is that Stalin belongs to the breed of great revolutionary despots, in the same class as Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon.9

We can agree with the comparison to Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon, but only with the following reservations:

Robespierre died tragically defending an ideal that was impossible in his time, the purest ideas of the forgers of the French revolutionary thought of the eighteenth century. The rise of the bourgeoisie prevented that. Napoleon set the legal and political basis of the French bourgeoisie and, paradoxically, opened the way for a bourgeois-feudal alliance that formed the capitalist politics of the nineteenth century. Cromwell also managed to pave a positive way for the English bourgeoisie and left open the possibilities for a later rise.

Stalin did not reach these objectives regarding socialism. He could neither push forward the socialist revolution in Europe and the world, nor was he able to consolidate it in the USSR. Capitalism returned to Russia seven decades after the October Revolution under new and radically different conditions, and this backward step is marked, among other factors, by the serious errors of Stalin, who lacked the necessary stature and historical vision.

We can reach the conclusion that the time of Stalin is definitively finished, and that the perspectives of a new era are in view. If Stalin belongs to the category of revolutionary despots, we need to draw the lessons that with them, it is not possible to open a lasting path towards a socialist society, which needs love and culture to build itself.

It is evident that if revolutionary despots were able to open the way for capitalism, the construction of socialism cannot be made under the direction of a despot. Stalin was accused of a cult of personality. I think what he lacked was a great socialist personality; he lacked what the Cuban Revolution has, the revolution of Martí, taken up by Fidel, and which is based on the best patriotic tradition of our people, with a true sense of internationalism.

As a final conclusion to the above, especially to what we said at the beginning, experience has taught us the importance of the so-called superstructure. That is one of the necessary keys to discover what happened and find roads for socialism in the twentyfirst century.

The economy operates through it; between one and the other there is a dialectical relationship. If natural and social evolution is marked by the inseparable relationship between form and content—as Engels explained—it can be understood that the thoroughness, significance and passion with which these forms are treated are at the centre of our revolutionary duties. Morality is intimately related to the social question and the system of rights. These categories—morality, the social question and the system of rights—constitute the central nucleus from which philosophical research can establish the political and legal practice valid to find new roads towards socialism. In the end, culture and especially the role of the subjective factor acquire a practical significance based on the necessities of ethical, legal principles and on the forms for conducting such politics.

For success in any effort of transformation, it is essential to link political practice with culture. The victory and continuity of the Cuban Revolution confirm the validity of this reasoning. It is important today to think deeply about this question.

The rupture of the bonds between culture and politics was undoubtedly at the root of the serious setbacks suffered. In Latin America, the tradition of our nations sustained the desire for a culture of emancipation and multinational integration that was promoted by the liberator Simón Bolívar and which José Martí called the moral republic of America. The fundamental tendency of this culture was antiimperialist, and its basic roots were in the working class and exploited population. The most important immediate factor for revolutionary politics was, and is, to encourage this tendency. This can and should be done by incorporating intellectuality into the emancipatory effort that is present in the most revolutionary forms of our spiritual evolution.

Obviously, this has to be done through culture and information about the genesis and history of Latin American ideas. For this, knowledge and clear understanding are needed of the role of subjective factors in the history of civilizations, which is precisely what was ignored in the socialist political practice. What is now known about the historic practice after the death of Lenin and since Stalin is that a vulgar, crude materialism was imposed, which paralysed the enrichment and progression of the ideas of Marx and Engels. This required—as Mariátegui did for his Indo-American vision—a study of the role of culture from a historical materialistic perspective; but those who embarked on this road were challenged by revisionists. Thus, the possibility of taking the ideas of the classics to a much deeper level was blocked.

Approaching a concept such as we have expounded, and attempting to delve into complex ideological problems, bring with them their own difficulties, but these in the end are infinitely smaller than those faced when we ignore the necessity to reach a relationship of confidence between revolutionary politics and the immense and growing mass of intellectual workers.

In conclusion, if fluid relations are not established between revolutions and the cultural movement, the processes of change will never win. We are dealing not only with a cultural question but an essential aspect of political practice. To know revolutionary politics, it is necessary to understand the mobilising potential of art and culture, and understand that within these lies the basis of our redeeming ideas.

Deutscher said in his book in a more eloquent manner what I believe is the main conclusion, theoretically, that we can reach regarding Stalin: "In this contempt for the immaterial factors of the great political processes lies the main weakness of his strong, but limited realism".10 This is an exemplary lesson for those who proclaim themselves realists.

Without taking into consideration those things that are called immaterial factors, that is to say, those of subjective character, we will be unable to find new roads because they will have an influence, objectively and materialistically, in history. The reader is invited to relate these words to what Engels self-critically said, and what we have mentioned at the beginning. Let us never forget that human beings and society are also part of the material world—to say it in the language so often used by socialists—that is to say, of nature, to express it in the Martí manner. Remember the verse by Martí:

All is beautiful and right,
All is as music and reason,
All as diamonds 'ere their season:
All is coal before it's light.11

In 2005, any revolutionary must examine the history of the twentieth century beginning, without sectarianism, from the immense culture accumulated, and search for the essence of the revolutionary ideas in the best thousand years of history.

During the time of perestroika, someone affirmed that Marx would remain a cultural question. I thought: "And do you think that is something small?". To find new roads, culture has to be found; there is no other alternative political practice, and those who do not believe it will not be able to contribute to making revolutions in the twenty-first century.

I want to stress that I dedicate these words to all the communists and revolutionaries who fought for socialism, who were faithful and who saw with sadness the tragic outcome of socialism, especially for the peoples of our America. Those who feel in their hearts the cause of human justice in a radical and internationalist form and who look into themselves deeply must acknowledge—as Martí stressed—that Marx deserves to be honoured because he took the side of the weak, and must become more aware that he and his loyal comrade, Friedrich Engels, represent the highest expression of social and philosophical thought of Europe in the nineteenth century. The fanatical detractors of Marxism are not post-modernists, but pre-modernists, and have been unable to analyse the deep roots of what occurred with Stalin.

Roman wisdom, in the framework of a slave society, of course, pointed out that the legacy of someone who died could be accepted as a benefit; in other words, that the heir would not be affected by payment of the debts of the deceased. In the twenty-first century, humankind will perfect socialist practice, and in dealing with the errors committed, will use the necessary tools to transform the world, something which will not be possible by simply throwing them into the torn sack of socialist heritage. For this reason, I have recommended that young people consciously take on the socialist practice of the twentieth century We do not renounce the legacy of Marx, Engels and Lenin and the socialist ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but assume them as part of a deep evaluation of what has occurred. Only with the thoughts of Marx, Engels and Lenin can we carry out this task. But not only theirs.

In the 1920s, Julio Antonio Mella and the founders of the first Cuban Communist Party rescued from oblivion the program of Martí which had fallen during the early years of the neo-colonial republic. Today, in 2005, with the thoughts of the Cuban Apostle and his ultra-democratic program, we Cubans can strengthen the socialist fibres in our country and contribute to rescuing them from the disrepute and isolation into which the political practice that arose since the beginning of Stalin had led them.


1. Frederick Engels, "To Bloch in Konigsberg, London, September 21[22], 1890" in Marx, Engels, Lenin on Historical Materialism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 295.

2. Fidel Castro, Appearance on Cuban television, January 16, 1998, Granma, January 20, 1998.

3. "Letter to the Congress", December 24, 1922, in V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Lenin's Fight Against Stalinism, Pathfinder, New York, 1975, p. 64.

4. Castro, op. cit.

5. José Martí, "The Memorial Meeting in Honor of Karl Marx Held in Cooper Union Hall in New York, March 20, 1883", in José Martí Reader: Writings on the Americas, Ocean Press, Melbourne, 1999, p. 47.

6. ibid., p. 48.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. Isaac Deutscher, Political and controversial biography of Stalin, Instituto del Libro, Havana, 1968.

10. ibid., p. 420.

11. Martí, "A sincere man am I", loc. cit., p. 272.