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Hunger, Poverty, and Economic Development
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ESSAY on Stalinism



Robert C. Tucker (born 29 May 1918) is an American historian, with great contributions in the field of Sovietology. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he was a prominent Sovietologist at Princeton University. He served as an attaché at the American Embassy in Moscow from 1944–1953. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1958; his doctoral dissertation was later revised and published as the book Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx. His biographies of Joseph Stalin are cited by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies as his greatest contribution. Robert Tucker is also responsible for the coining of 'military communism' to distinguish communist regimes which militarize the party.

At Princeton he started the Russian Studies Program, and he still holds the position of Professor of Politics Emeritus and IBM Professor of International Studies Emeritus at the school.


Robert C. Tucker approach – Stalinist phenomenon interpreted as a historical stage in the development of the Russian other Communist revolutions and of Communism as a culture. Culturalist interpretation of the Russian Revolutionary process.

The Cultural approach treats Communism as a form of political culture or socio-cultural system which also implies the systems of power that derive. Steaming from the implication that if cultures change over time, so can and did Communism, the main advantage of such an approach over the Totalitarian approach, is that it doesn’t treat Communism as a monolithic, ossified structure but as a fluid phenomenon, and as such can better explain the veering and changes Communism underwent from its inception to its death. Furthermore, as cultures are anything but homogenous, this approach also provides a better understanding of the particular forms Communism took in various countries – a degree of “nationalisation” in communist pol. culture and systems that create a diverse variety of forms.

The main ideas of Tucker’s essay derive from the refutation of what we can name the “continuity thesis”. According to it, Stalinism was a logical, inevitable and rightful continuation of Bolshevism. However, there are completely different aspects of Stalinism that stand in sharp contrast with the former NEP and Bolshevik ones. As such, Stalin’s new policies of 1929-33, the “Great Change”, were a great departure from the Bolshevik programmatic thinking.

Main points:  

(1)   Stalinism was a revolutionary phenomenon in essence (despite the counter-revolutionary and conservative elements ).

(2)   Stalinist Revolution from Above was an integral phase of the Russian revolutionary process as a whole, and by such Tucker strongly asserts that it was not the only possibility, nor was it “inevitable”.

(3)   Heritage of the Bolshevik revolutionary ideas, the heritage of old Russia and, possibly more important even, the mind and personality of Stalin were notable causal factors  that can explain the Stalinist phase.


As we have mentioned before, adopting a cultural approach permits a better understanding of the dynamics of change between the different phases of Communism and even communism itself.

Right from the start, Tucker makes an important division between what he calls Palace Revolution and a full scale socio-political revolution. While in a Palace Revolution, the change of a society’s political leadership is implied, a change which can be carried by violent or non-violent procedures ( through a coup d’etat) and has little far-reaching inroads into the society itself, a full scale socio-political revolution implies a complete break with the past and may take years or even decades to unfold completely . As such, a socio-political revolution is “from above” as well as “from below”. If we apply the terms coined by Anthony Wallace, than by looking at the Russian Revolution, Stalinism defines itself mainly by a change of the “transfer culture” (meaning the advanced methods for “transformation“ of the society).

In the case of the Russian Revolution, Tucker advances the idea that, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was an interval between two revolutionary phases. It spawned because, as Lenin stated, Russia was not “civilised enough for socialism”. And quite true, Russia was at that time the battle ground of two coexisting cultures:

(1)   The Dominant Soviet culture – the Revolution’s ideology, governmental structure, political procedures.

(2)   Scarcely sovietised Russian culture - living well before 1917, it survived in the small-scale rural and urban enterprises that flourished under NEP. It was mainly comprised of old pastimes, old values, old outlooks, patriarchal peasant family and illiteracy.

War communism included the following policies:

1.     All industry was nationalized and strict centralized management was introduced.

2.     State monopoly on foreign trade was introduced.

3.     Discipline for workers was strict, and strikers could be shot.

4.     Obligatory labour duty was imposed onto 'non-working classes'.

5.     Prodrazvyorstka – requisition of agricultural surpluses from peasants in excess of absolute minimum for centralized distribution among the remaining population.

6.     Food and most commodities were rationed and distributed in a centralized way.

7.     Private enterprise became illegal.

8.     Military-like control of railroads was introduced.

War communism aggravated many hardships experienced by the population as a result of the war. Peasants refused to co-operate in producing food, as the government took away far too much of it. Workers began migrating from the cities to the countryside, where the chances to feed oneself were higher, thus further decreasing the possibility of the fair trade of industrial goods for food and worsening the plight of the remaining urban population. Between 1918 and 1920, Petrograd lost 75% of its population

Moscow lost 50%. A black market emerged in Russia, despite the threat of the martial law against profiteering.

The ruble collapsed and was replaced by a system of bartering and, by1921, heavy industry had fallen to output levels of 20% of those in 1913.

90% of all wages were 'paid with goods' (payment in form of goods, rather than money). 70% of locomotives were in need of repair and the food requisitioning, combined with the effects of 7 years of war and a severe drought, contributed to a famine that caused between 3 and 10 million deaths. ( Sheldon L. Richman, 'War Communism to NEP: The Road From Serfdom', Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1981, 5(1), pp. 89-97.  )

Therefore NEP signalled a reformist approach, having a social engineering role: to remodel the popular mentality and ethos by educative norms. Overcoming illiteracy, Russia could then pass to socialism, backed by the “voluntary acceptance of cooperative socialism”.

By contrast, Stalinism abandoned the gradualist, reformist approach, marking its entrance with a “revolution from above”. Instead of transcending the NEP evolutionary, Stalinism abolished it revolutionary, by decree and by force. Furthermore it finally crystallized in the extreme centralization of state power. For example, 25 million farm stead were made into one as peasants were organised into some 200.000 collective farms or were employed as hired workers.





In answering to why such procedures took place, and why Stalinism was employed, some authors have proposed the idea that it was a matter of context and that Stalin was no more no less than a charismatic political figure, but with no innovative views, left to handle the destructive consequences at the end of the NEP period.  This vision dubbed as the “circumstantial explanation” draws part of its inspiration from Tortsky’s thinking which in return achieved wide influence through Isaac Deutscher. To give but a brief account, it was proposed that the crisis of January 1928, when the government grain fell short of 2 million tons provided the background of the rural collectivisation. Small farms produced sufficient grain to supply their needs, but the big farms, which produced in excess, demanding a transition to capitalism, put the prices so high so the urban population couldn’t permit to buy grain. Furthermore, the fear of a “grain strike” as well as the argument of national security and the main objective of making Russia achieve a comparable level of industrialisation as the Western Countries  are cited as arguments for why Stalinism revolved around coercive means to achieve a revolution from above.

Robert C. Tucker refutes this circumstantial explanation, saying that there is no conclusive evidence to support the thesis of an imminent “grain strike”, nor was it that the national security of Russia at stake. Citing John P. Sontag, the American Sovietologist concludes that this argument of the war scare while it was more than a mere sham was actually a way of exaggerating and manipulating the population by the Soviet politicians in 1927. Even more, the Bukharinist non-revolutionary alternative for Soviet industrialization policy, inspired by the Leninist thinking of 1921-1923, could provide better results and were more fluid as they continued in the frame of NEP.

To provide the answer to why history took the path it took, Tucker, by adopting the cultural approach to Communism, traces its cultural roots back to Leninism and War Communism. Quite true, in the first years after the October Revolution, Lenin provided the idea of using the state apparatus to abolish the internal bourgeoisie. The Princeton professor, traces such ideas In The State and Revolution and more subsequent works such as “ The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky”. Even more, such ideas are central to Marxism – proletarian dictatorship – the revolution does not end when the revolutionary party takes political power.

However, in time, Lenin’s views changed, and took the path of promoting a gradual, reformist approach as was NEP. Nonetheless, Stalin, as well as other soviet political figures were greatly influenced by the years of War Communism. Tucker goes even further in saying that Stalinist Leninism was not particularly linked to Stalin. There were other men who became Bolsheviks when Bolshevism was still an anti-regime revolutionary movement and that came to an age during the era of War Communism.

Stalinism-Leninism policy of Kto-Kogo ? – 1926 – “ overcoming our own Soviet bourgeoise by our own forces in a struggle “ + five years plan.

Important to note, here, Tucker does not define this special type of culture as revolving around general ideas or about Leninism as a system of political belief. For him, this culture had also something to do with integrated habits, memories, styles of action, and ways of defining and acting to solve a problem.

War Communism had given way to NEP in 1921 – as the official party policy.

This NEP culture comprised a many-sided new way for Soviet life:

·         Expression in institutions, ideas, habits of mind and conduct;

·         Restored monetary economy.

·         Emergent system to Soviet legality;

·         The new stress on a voluntary smychka between workers and peasantry.

·         Gradualist Leninist revolution as the transfer culture.

·         A general atmosphere of relative social normalcy.

This so-called new NEP culture found its persuasive proponents not only in Lenin, but also in Bukharin, Rykov and numerous others.

Bucharin – socialism in one country – 1925.idea adopted as state policy by Stalin in 1926. 

Fredrich Engels – Principles of communism ( 1847 ) – the revolution cannot take place only in one country !!! Lenin – supporter of this idea.  Even though the idea of “Socialism in one country” was not Stalin’s own – having found its expression in Bukharin too, Stalin was driven by his reminiscent nationalistic Russocentric ideas in his decisions.

[Foundations of Leninism, 1924] => Stalin supports the idea that socialism must be an international phenomenon and the revolution cannot happen just in one country, however – by the end of 1924 he changes this position. ->

'proletariat can and must build the socialist society in one country.”

Stalinist definition in terms of class war to the problem of grain crisis – with the kulaks held responsible translated itself in the form of “Uralo-Siberian method” of forcible grain requisitioning and then mass collectivization.  This method held much appeal to those that sympathized with War Communism. The great struggle overt party policy that took place in 1928-1929 was a struggle between Stalinism and Bukharinism. A battle between the policies conceived in the War Communism against the evolutionary NEP Culture. Bukharin opposed the collectivisation procedure, stating that it would lead either to revolt, either to a low productivity. [ He envisioned a continuation of the NEP as the right path Russia should take ]. Accused of conspiring with Kamenev and Zinoviev, he was thrown away from a party position.


            The spirit of War Communism influenced the collectivization and industrialization of the Stalinist period. However, it is asserted that Stalinism revolution did not repeat the revolution processes of 1917-1921. Therefore, Tucker warns us, should not be seen as a continuation.

Stalinism actually differed in many regards from the pre-NEP predecessor:

·         Emergence of anti-egalitarian tendencies =/= in contrast to the egalitarianism of the Civil War period.

·         The rise of new elites and loss of the relatively independent political role of the lesser leadership ranks;

·         Kolkoz system – bore small resemblance with the agricultural communes initiated during the Civil War.

·         Police terror used in a different way the Red terror sponsored by Lenin , via the original Cheka.

·         Inter-relationship between internal and external policy.

Leninist revolution from above -> destructive process, a tearing down of the old order and solve the class conflicts by the means of state power.

Stalinist revolution from above went beyond the Leninist roots -> it was both a destructive and a constructive process.

CONSTRUCTIVE PROCESS – evident through its slogans or ideological banner -> constructing a socialist society. It was a revolution from above that functioned as a state-building process. => Construction of a highly centralized, powerful, bureaucratic, military-industrial Soviet Russian state.

Although proclaimed socialist, it differed highly for what most socialist thinkers -> Marx, Engels and Lenin among them – understood as socialism to mean (Stalinism -> socialism of mass poverty rather than plenitude, sharp social stratification rather than equality, constant fear through repression rather than deliberate decision and emancipation). Tucker suggests that some implementations have strong ties with tsarism. Comparing the state of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century with the position it held in the 18th and 19th century – when the state took the job to remodel the social structure in order to prevail economic and technological backwardness, he concludes that the strong emphasis on a industrial-military state was not unique in Russian history, and that Stalinism actually revitalised dormant ideas that manifested themselves in a different context. The Stalnist rural revolution from above, for example was seen as, in essence, an accelerated repetition of the tsarist developmental pattern. Mainly, it was characterized by binding all social groups, from the lowest serf to the highest noble in compulsory state service.

Petrine Revolution – made nobility a matter of rank rather than vice-versa.

liquidation of the kulak” – was actually a slogan that masked the real procedure of using force labour ( the term “kulak” had very large extensionality), a PRETEXT. Deportations in Siberia, the Urals or far North – were actually used in order to gather forced labour force. Although this ethnic catastrophe was without precedent , Tucker again draws parallels to the precedent in Petrine Russia. [ revival of tsarist patterns of revolution from above ).

1928,1929 – 1933 – first phase; 1934 – pause; 1934 – The Great Purge -> Sergei Kirov assassinated in Leningrad as a central power decision.

First Phase (1929-33) – binding the peasantry and working class to an every more centralised, bureaucratized, police-dominated Stalinist state. 

The Second Phase (1934-39) – bounded the inteligenzia ( in the Soviet sense – encompassing managers, officials, specialists, technicians and professors ) and the party itself as a serving class. Completing the process ideologically -> 1941 party conference – “ We are all servants of the state” = Soviet Russian statist.

EXAMPLE: Socialist realism became state policy in 1932 when Stalin promulgated the decree 'On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations'. The Union of Soviet Writers was founded to control the output of authors, and the new policy was rubber-stamped at the Congress of Socialist Writers in 1934.

The Great Purge – destroyed the Old Bolsheviks veterans of the anti-tsarist struggle. Return to the norms and values in art, law and education on the patterns of the 19th century.

SAMZIDAT – clandestine copying and distribution of material that was censored by the Soviet state => dual culture. An underground Russian culture spawn.


Decisive in the second phase of the Revolution – Stalinism – was Stalin’s personality !!! The Tsarist policy of revolution from above was reinstalled -> patterns remerged. But the tsarist policy was the sworn enemy of the Blosheviks. Internalising patterns of the past, as dictated by  psychological needs or predispositions, formative years and as such form the personality. Tucker advances the idea that even in a culturalist approach of the Russian Revolution, and more so on Stalinism, the emphasis on the personality of Stalin must play the biggest part in any study.

·         Stalin’s compulsive psychological need , born of neurosis, to prove himself a revolutionary hero of Lenin-like proportions, to match and even surpass what all Boslheviks considered Lenin’s supreme historical exploit – October 1917, Lenin’s leadership;

·         the great revolutionary drive to change Russia in the early 1930s was intended as Stalin’s October.

Second world war -> Great Fatherland War -> intensified some aspects of Stalinism:

·         military strain -> central aspect in Stalinism since the time of War Communism.

·         Strengthened the hierarchical structure of Stalinist Soviet society.

·         Augumented the already far-reaching Stalinist hypertrophy of the state machine.

POSTWAR period -> after 1945 -> policy dominated by conservatism in terms of internal policies.

However, in the War-time and post-war externalized form, the Stalinist revolution from above comprised both the takeover of a given country, normally – via military occupation, AND the restructuring of that country according to socialist ideals via the means of friendly Soviet-orientated parochial Communist parties there.

1946-1953 – marked a return to the emphasis on heavy industry and, ( Stalin’s speech -1946) preparing the country for a new war.  The plan was to return the clock to the 30s.

Politica de confidentialitate



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