Totalitarianism Soviet Stalin

To what extent was the Soviet Union a totalitarian state by 1939? The term ‘totalitarianism’ emerged in the 1920s and ’30s, to describe the dictatorial regimes which appeared at that time in Germany and the USSR. The Soviet Union was undoubtedly totalitarian by the late 1930s. However, Stalin’s power was anything but absolute up until that time. It took the Great Terror, the cult of personality and two decades of political patronage to put him in a position where he could abandon the pretences of law and rule like a tsarist despot.

According to the political scientist Carl Friedrich, a totalitarian regime is istinguished by the following characteristics: a powerful ideology, which promised the onset of a golden era; a single mass-based party, led by a charismatic dictator; a system of terror, built around a ruthless secret police force; and the centralised control of the economy, the mass media and the armed forces. Clearly, the Soviet Union shared all of these characteristics by the late 1930s.

As far as ideology was concerned, Marxism-Leninism offered a powerful and appealing vision for the nation: a society that was devoid of exploitation, and in which all men and women were qual. Of course, the reality in no way mirrored that vision, but this could be rationalised on the grounds that state control was necessary until capitalism had been vanquished elsewhere in the world. Marxism also offered a deterministic interpretation of history, in which all societies were moving towards socialism.

Hence, dissidents (those who opposed the Stalinist vision) could be swept away on the grounds that they were standing in the way of history. Politically, the Soviet system had many characteristics of totalitarianism even before Stalin had consolidated his ule. Russia had become a one party state within a year of the Bolsheviks seizing power, and that party soon grew to have millions of members. With the outbreak of the civil war, the Cheka had been given the power to deal with enemies of the Revolution without the inconvenience of a trial.

No one knows how many people were put to death in this way between 1918 and 1924, but it was at least 70,000 and possibly as many as a quarter ofa million. Even so, the Communist Party itself retained many democratic elements throughout the 1920s. Stalin needed the support f his colleagues to attain pre-eminence within the Politburo, and this dependence continued until the 1930s. Even as late as 1933, he was unable to persuade his colleagues to have dissident elements within the party put to death. Only two members of the Politburo (Molotov and Kaganovich) were willing to back him on this.

Two others (Voroshilov and Kalinin) were reluctant to agree, while the rest (Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, Kossior, Kuibyshev and Rudzutak) were totally opposed. To obtain absolute power, Stalin needed to circumvent the traditional avenues of authority and resort directly to terror. Kirov’s assassination gave him his chance. In 1936, he unleashed a series of show trials, to discredit and eliminate his enemies within the Central Committee. In the first of these trials, in 1936, Stalin eliminated the so-called ‘Oppositionists’ – those Old Bolsheviks who had tried to block his rise to power in the Os (men like Kamenev and Zinoviev).

The second set ot trials, in 1937, was aimed at Stalin’s own allies – those who had opposed him on issues such as collectivisation and the execution of party dissidents. Finally, in 1938, he eliminated the remaining members of Lenin’s inner circle (men like Bukharin and Rykov). This was accompanied by a full-scale assault on every institution in the Soviet Union: the party, the army, the bureaucracy, the cultural organisations, the industrial enterprises, even the secret police. In all, 18 million people died during these purges.

With his enemies dead, deported or terrorised into silence, Stalin now assumed the powers of a despot. As Alan Bullock has written, “Stalin felt strong enough to order the arrest of any of his colleagues without consultation or appeal to the Central Committee or anyone else – the classic definition of the tyrant’s power. (Bullock: 525) However, fear was not the only factor underpinning Stalin’s rule. Soviet totalitarianism was also characterised by the state’s monopoly over economy, the mass media and the armed forces.

As far as the economy was concerned, Stalin replaced NEP with a system of command socialism. Under this system, the state owned virtually all productive assets and ran the economy via central planning. Agricultural land was collectivised, and a series of Five Year Plans was introduced to facilitate industrialisation. Another area where the state enjoyed a monopoly was the media. There were over 10,000 newspapers in the country, and all were government owned or controlled. The regime also controlled the nation’s cinemas and film production houses.

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