Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reasonable Stalin

HG Wells' interview with Joseph Stalin, lately rescusitated by the New Statesman is a delight in many ways, not all of them predictable.  We have Wells' callow, self-admiring pomposity, like a giant gaseous Lieutenant Fuzz--no surprise there, but it's an amusing nostalgia trip.  What is perhaps surprising--startling to me--is Stalin.  He sounds reasonable. Not just reasonable but as well-informed as you might have been entitled to expect from any contemporaneous leader.  Also with a sense of history remarkable in a former bank robber and seminary dropout.

Read that again:  I didn't say he was reasonable; only that he seemed so, to a reader informed 80 plus years and so much savage bloodshed.  I really don't know quite what to make of all this.  One's first thought is that must be some sort of boy-Stalin: a bit bluff and perhaps unwilling to suffer fools (or at least one fool) gladly--perhaps the kind of guy who could mousetrap those who underrated him, not yet a paranoid monster and madman.
But this can't be right: we know now that Stalin was already well into the great terror-famine that Robert Conquest so damningly documented in Harvest of Sorrow. --and which Walter Duranty worked so hard to conceal from the readers of the New York Times.  So we know that Stalin already possessed the barbarity necessary to execute a program of mass murder but also the duplicity necessary to put a benign face on it.


Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Was Stalin reasonable? I see no reason to believe he was any more or less reasonable than any other leader, historical or contemporary. But that is not a high bar, at least not morally.

You have read enough history, Buce, to know that that every leader, every society, our own included, comes to the table drenched in blood. No society can assert any kind of moral superiority on body count. (Ted Bundy (30), for example, has no standing to call Jim Jones (909) a monster.)

I don't want to excuse Stalin and the USSR any more than I want to excuse Roosevelt and Truman and the United States (and the capitalist West in general), but comparisons on the basis of who murdered and enslaved more people seem at best nonsensical, and at worst hypocritical.

I do not, however, know of a better method of comparison. I focus on abstractions and ethereal theory, but even though I prefer not to dwell on it, I know that there is a price in blood for not only every action but also inaction.

Yes, it would be nice if we could all just get along, but Stalin is no more responsible for the fact that we cannot, than any Western leader.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Hmm. Reminds me of Milovan Djilas' "Conversations with Stalin." Djilas (who should know) thought that Stalin was an intelligent fellow during the war, but that he lost it thereafter.
Which seems to mean that Stalin was a reasonable psychopath before 1945, and a paranoid psychopath thereafter. This seems about right.

Buce said...

Bingo on Djilas, but here's the thing: from Djilas, one might infer that the change took place after WWII--but Wells is listening (or blathering) in the early 30s. The inference might be that Stalin from early on had the capacity to sound reasonable when it suited his purpose. Now, that is the mark of a world-class sociopath.