How Josef Stalin Became a Bolshevik

My biography is not psychoanalytical. I haven’t taken a kind of Freudian point of view, because I don’t think, as a historian, I can psychoanalyze Stalin one hundred years after the fact. But you don’t do biography without psychology. You have to figure out, by his writings and actions and what other people said about him, what his mentality was, as far as we can determine. There are parts of the brain and the mind that are closed to historians, but we do the best we can.

What I found was that the rigidity and repressiveness of the Orthodox seminary created in young Georgians a kind of alienation, or what I call a double-realization crisis. They were, like Stalin, poor and socially peripheral. It was hard to even survive in that environment. Secondly, they were being challenged not only by social and class prejudices but by the ethnic prejudices promoted by the regime. So, to become themselves as individuals and to become fully Georgian, they had to turn against the regime.

Stalin found a hero in a short novel called The Patricide by a writer named Aleksandre Qazbegi. The hero of the story is Koba, a ferocious outlaw who lives in the mountains and takes revenge on those who have committed injustices against the people. Vengeance is a way of reestablishing a just order, by getting rid of those who have broken the traditional ways of justice and fairness. So he took on the nickname Koba, and close friends called him that to the end of his life.

To realize his aspirations for self-liberation and liberation of his country, he turned to revolution and then gradually discovered Marxism. Marxism is not a nationalist philosophy, it’s international and cosmopolitan, and step by step he gravitated toward the Russian social democratic movement, the movement the Georgian Marxists were propagating. He adopted the most advanced, modern, and progressive philosophy that was available in Georgia, and eventually turned his back on his own country.

Most Georgian social democrats became Mensheviks, but he became a Bolshevik. Why Bolshevism? In 1902, Lenin wrote a pamphlet called Chto Delat, or What Is to Be Done?, This pamphlet, which has been much misunderstood, was a polemic within the small circles of Russian social democracy arguing against what Lenin and others called “economism.” Economism was a kind of reformist approach that focused on supporting workers in their efforts to reduce working hours, improve working conditions, and raise wages, not the political struggle against the regime itself. Lenin, of course, was always dedicated to revolution, and he argued in What Is to Be Done? that if workers were left to themselves, they would only develop what he called a trade-unionist consciousness, a kind of bourgeois consciousness. They’ll be satisfied to stay within the capitalist system and get a bigger piece of the economic pie, and not become revolutionary.

In order for workers to become revolutionary, social democrats need to bring the message to them so they can understand fully the repression they live under and the need for revolution. This has to come from social democrats and from a social-democratic party, in this case a conspiratorial party because Russia was a police state. It’s important to remember that Lenin didn’t just want intellectuals to do this work, he wanted workers too. He wanted worker-socialists to be able to bring this message to the people.

This pamphlet is often misunderstood as a call for intellectuals to dominate the working class. That’s not the case. Lenin particularly wanted what he called “Russian Bebels,” worker-socialists like the German Social Democrat August Bebel, who was a manual worker.

Stalin, of course, was precisely that. His father was a shoemaker. So he was a worker-intellectual, and Lenin promoted him for that reason. Lenin believed that workers do have natural tendencies toward socialism. But given the dominance of bourgeois culture, of the hegemony, as he called it, of bourgeois ideas, it’s very difficult for them to gravitate spontaneously toward socialism. The social democrats can bring that message and teach workers about the need for the socialist consciousness and a revolutionary posture. That’s the message of What Is to Be Done?.

The original cover of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902).

Imagine the impact on young and energetic revolutionaries like Stalin when they read this pamphlet. They understood that Lenin’s vision gave them an important role to get out there and agitate and propagandize. So Stalin moved very quickly toward this Leninist posture, which did have some support in Georgia at this time, 1902–04. But the leaders of what’s called the mesame dasi, the “third generation” of intellectuals who brought the message of Marxism to Georgia, became Mensheviks, and the Georgian movement came under the leadership of Menshevism in 1905.

Stalin and the few Georgian Bolsheviks who remained loyal to Lenin were left high and dry, generals without an army. Eventually, Stalin had to abandon Georgia and go to Baku, the oil-producing center on the Caspian Sea, today the capital of Azerbaijan, where the Bolsheviks had some meaningful support from the workers. Later on, in 1905, Lenin put the argument of What Is to Be Done? aside and said, “Workers are now out in the streets. They’re making revolution. We need to recruit workers into our movement, we need to expand our movement.” Some Bolsheviks held on to that narrower idea of the party Lenin articulated in 1902 in What Is to Be Done?, and that conception will later come back in Soviet times. But when the workers were spontaneously getting active and revolutionary, Lenin wanted to celebrate that.

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