Retrospective Review: Boris Souvarine’s Stalin


by Boris Souvarine, translated by C.L.R. James

Alliance Book Corporation, 1939

No biography in the conventional sense can be written about Stalin, due to the far-reaching falsification of the historic record of the “life” the man lived. Although Boris Souvarine’s Stalin is frequently referred to as a biography, it can be more accurately described as a detailed history and critique of the course of the Russian revolution and counter-revolution.

English-language sources on Souvarine’s life and politics are not particularly strong, but he was born in Russia and emigrated as a child with his family to France. He participated in the left-wing of the French socialist movement and was a charter member of the Communist Party, eventually breaking with the Third International in sympathy with Trotsky. He was not, strictly-speaking, a Trotskyist, but functioned as an independent oppositionist. Souvarine organized the French section of the Institute for Social History (which was burglarized by the GPU in a successful effort to obtain Trotsky’s archives). Souvarine sided with Victor Serge in his criticisms of Trotsky (he was also acquainted with Panait Istrati), which earned him the enmity of the Old Man. It is difficult to determine Souvarine’s post-WW II political trajectory from the sources at hand, but he seems to have moved towards a more traditional social democratic position.

Souvarine’s Stalin, originally published in 1935 and translated into English by C.L.R. James (while he worked on The Black Jacobins), is strong on the period after Lenin’s death and excels in its account of the Triumvarate and the so-called United Opposition. The English edition contains a long postscript on the Moscow Trials and the Great Terror, which must have been written after the original edition. Below  are two brief (non-contiguous) excerpts from the postcript, dealing with the fascinating diplomatic relationship (and social kinship) of the U.S.S.R. and fascist Italy.

Criticism &.c highly recommends this indispensable book.

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from Stalin by Boris Souvarine (excerpts from the postscript, “The Counter Revolution”)

ONE of the most remarkable phenomena of the period, the discovery of a Fatherland in the U.S.S.R., some time after the triumph of national-socialism in Germany, was the result of a great miscalculation of Stalin. He hoped at first to come to an agreement with Hitler, as he had formerly done with Mussolini, in spite of the verbal differences in doctrine, and on the basis of the similarity in method between parties of the mailed fist. Since the reception of the Duce at the Soviet Embassy in Rome, on the morrow of the murder of Matteotti, and later, under the pretext of courtesy, the dispatch of congratulations to Mussolini by Rykov after his stay at Sorrento, where Gorky spent most of his time, the relations between the U.S.S.R. and Italy became increasingly intimate and cordial. Mussolini did not conceal a discreet admiration for Lenin, and the reciprocal borrowings increased between the two totalitarian regimes, hand in hand with the progress of their economic relations. In 1933, the year of Hitler’s advent to power, an Italo-Soviet commercial agreement was concluded in May, followed in September by a pact of friendship, non-aggression and neutrality. A Soviet squadron anchored in October off Naples, and the following year an Italian military delegation proceeded to Moscow. Russia even placed orders for warships in Italy. Cordial telegrams from Litvinov testify for posterity to this mutual understanding…. Mussolini flattered himself that he had established a model entente with the Bolsheviks, suppressing communism at home whilst negotiating advantageously with the so-called Soviet State. Thus Stalin thought that he would conclude a similar pact with Hitler, on the ruins of the communist movement in Germany. The renewal of the agreement of Rapallo confirmed him in this hope, as did the new credit facilities granted to the U.S.S.R. by German industry. But he had to sing a different tune when the Third Reich assumed an attitude of determined hostility toward the Bolshevism of the Russo-Soviet State as towards export communism. Hitler’s intuition finally prevailed over the contrary view; a view fairly widespread both in the Reichswehr and in diplomatic circles, which opposed to a new Drang nach Oesten the Bismarckian conception of an alliance with Russia. In vain the Caucasian, D. Kandelaki, appointed as commercial envoy to Berlin with a secret mission from Stalin, multiplied advances, invitations and soundings. The Fuehrer turned a deaf ear and persevered in his attack on Russia through the Communist International. In the end the disappointed Stalin had no choice but to turn toward France and England, toward the League of Nations, to play a different game, and to awaken in the peoples of the U.S.S.R. the consciousness of patriotic duty and of the fascist danger.

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Mussolini had taken a keen interest in this unique counter-revolution, to the point of devoting to it commentaries from his own pen in the Popolo d’Italia. After the sensational execution of the generals, his article entitled Twilight (13th June, 1937) was somewhat severe on Stalin’s regime where “massacre is on the order of the day and of the night.” But a month later, the Critica Fascista (15th July) considered, in a study of the Fascism of Stalin, that the latter’s “fascist” reforms proved the natural force of expansion and the universality of the ideal of the Black Shirts. And during the trial of the twenty-one, Mussolini himself asked (Popolo d’talia for 5th March, 1938) whether “in view of the catastrophe of Lenin’s system, Stalin could secretly have become a fascist,” and stated that in any case “Stalin is doing a notable service to fascism by mowing down in large armfuls his enemies who had been reduced to impotence.” In large armfuls, indeed, Stalin mowed down not only his enemies, declared or secret, alleged or real, but also his “friends,” his creatures, his accomplices. Between the last two pseudo-judicial exhibitions, he had mowed down not only the Old Guard of the Party and the flower of the Communist Youth, but, after the General Staff of the Red Army, all the heads of Soviet governmental, of national and local administration. (It almost goes without saying that the former oppositionists, not produced at the trials, such as Smilga, Preobrazhensky, Sosnovsky, Byeloborodov, Uglanov, etc., must have succumbed in the jails of their “socialist fatherland.”)

See also:

Panaït Istrati’s Russia Unveiled: A Forgotten Classic Of Opposition To Stalinism

2 thoughts on “Retrospective Review: Boris Souvarine’s Stalin

  1. Pingback: Radical Black Reading: Summer 2012

  2. Pingback: Blogging Victor Serge « Poumista

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