The consequences of considering vice a virtue.
At the end of the documentary film “Stalin Thought of You,” Stalin’s favorite cartoonist, Boris Efimov, over one hundred years old, brother of Bolshevik journalist Mihail Koltsov (killed during the Great Terror), who had been a friend of Hemingway and of Malraux, expresses his gratitude for not being executed like his sibling. But he adamantly refuses to unequivocally condemn Stalin: “He was not a man, he was a phenomenon.” Ilya Ehrenburg, another famous survivor of the Great Terror, most probably had similar thoughts on the subject. Explaining such situations, such human cataclysms, remains a moral and intellectual duty if we wish to avoid their repetition. The fact that so many Russians continue to worship Stalin’s memory is equally disconcerting, revolting, and revealing. But Stalin was not only a Russian phenomenon. Similarly to Hitler, he embodied, in an extreme and criminal fashion, modernity’s pathologies. This is what I have in mind when, following Leszek Kolakowski’s line of thought, I talk about the presence of the Devil in History.
I know that it might sound shocking, but one cannot deny the fact that Stalin had a Weltanschauung and that he was, in his own way, an intellectual. A self-taught, homicidal, liberticidal, and fanatical one, but an intellectual nevertheless. Wasn’t Engels a self-taught philosopher as well? Similarly, one cannot ignore the affinities between Bolshevism and the tradition of political and philosophical radicalism, Russian and European. Marxism was the apotheosis of ethical relativism; it suspended traditional distinctions between good and evil, it defined the good in utilitarian fashion, instrumentally and pragmatically, as all that served the cause of a Messianic proletariat, the alleged redemptive class. In fact, this was a recipe for what Alain Besancon (echoing Vladimir Soloviev) coined as the falsification of the good. In several annotations, long kept secret, Stalin defined his own table of values, he signaled out what he considered vice (or, sin, if you want) and virtue.
In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the main character, an Old Bolshevik, Nikolai Rubashov, declares that “Number one” (Stalin) kept Machiavelli’s The Prince as his favorite night-table book. Here we are witnesses of a sui generis Machiavellianism, not the recognition and cultivation of the humanist dimension of the Florentine’s work. Historian Robert Service was allowed access to Stalin personal library and he could check Lenin’s volume Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, the 1939 edition, with the annotations of the his “most faithful collaborator and disciple.” At that hour of history (il faisait minuit dans le siècle, wrote once Victor Serge), the general secretary had no significant rival. The Great Terror had reached its genocidal aims; a year later, Trotsky, his unforgivable nemesis, was assassinated in Coyoacan, Mexico, by the NKVD agent Ramon Mercader. In 1939, the Short Course of the History of CPSU (b) was published – the ultimate codification of the Stalinist cosmology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and demonology.
On the blank page at the end of Lenin’s volume (which in itself was a manifesto for a rudimentary philosophical materialism, equally naïve and aggressive), with no connection to the polemic between Bolshevism and epistemologists Mach or Avenarius, Stalin scribbled: “NB! If a person is: 1. Strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) intelligent (or capable), then he is a good person regardless of other vices.” After this, the “coryphaeus of science” enumerates what he held to be vices: “1) weakness, 2) laziness, 3) stupidity.” This is all that Stalin writes; nothing about pride, egocentrism, cruelty, avarice, deceit, greed, hypocrisy, envy, infamy, rabid jealousy, or carnal sins. In this context, one is not amazed anymore of how Stalin ignored Nikolai Yezhov’s (homo)sexual orgies or the notorious transgressions perpetrated by Beria, a serial rapist. It is striking that in these lines, never meant for the public eye, Stalin adopts a traditional ethical vocabulary that he talks of virtues and vices. But it is in no way a rehabilitation, even as a mere intimate personal confession, of the Christian tradition, which he once studied at the Theological Seminary in Tbilisi. On the contrary!
Robert Service is right: “The content of the commentary is deeply unChristian; it is reminscent more of Niccolo Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche than of the Bible. For Stalin the criterion of goodness was not morality but effectiveness. … Furthermore, the fact that the characteristics despised by Stalin were weakness, idleness and stupidity is revealing. Stalin the killer slept easily at night.” (Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 342) Rubashov, a former People’s Commissar, hero of the Revolution, “unmasked” as a traitor, imagined Stalin in similar fashion. Koestler himself, after his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, disenchanted with the show-trials in Moscow, resigned from the German’s Writers Union in exile, which was under complete communist control. The text of his letter of resignation is in fact the embryo of his great political novel that would later influence entire generations, truly becoming a anticommunist manifesto (to use the title of John V. Fleming’s excellent book).
It is only symptomatic that these reflections on what one could call Joseph Dzhugashvili’s personal anti-ethics were written down on the last page of a Lenin volume. Without Lenin, Dzhugashvili would have never morphed into Stalin. We don’t know if Stalin read Nietzsche, but we know that Lenin kept in his book-shelves Thus Spoke Zahathustra with his own notes. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal has written a superb book on the intellectual relationship between Bolshevism and Nietzsche, which I reviewed in Times Literary Supplement.
Gorki, Bodganov, Lunacharsky tried to reconcile Marx and Nietzsche, to establish a new political religion of the New Man as Übermensch. For Lenin, this was heresy not in terms of the overall goal of the project, but because of its mystical undertones. A no nonsense, uncompromising, single-minded revolutionary, with little patience for what he regarded as idle metaphysical squabbles, Lenin lambasted the Bolshevik God-seekers in the name of Marxist rationalism. Service remarked, and he is not the first to do so, that Stalin had his own copy of The Prince, with personal annotations on the sides, but the copy disappeared from the archives. Where might it be now? Maybe in the book-shelves of one of Russia’s oligarchs. There are authors who claim that Hitler owned a copy of this book as well, and that he was particularly fond of it. The Marxist Gnostic, Antonio Gramsci, referring to Lenin’s vanguard party, called it admiringly “the modern Prince”. Marxism thus turned into a sociology of revolutionary will and virtue embodied in the redemptive image of a Party, the predestined repository of absolute truth.
According to Stalin, courage was the cardinal value that ennobled and justified human action regardless of the latter’s finality. Service writes:
“His insistence on the importance of courage could have derived from Machiavelli’s supreme demand on the ruler: namely that he should have vertù. This is a word barely translatable into either Russian or English; but it is identified with manliness, endeavor, courage, and excellence. Stalin, if this is correct, saw himself as the embodiment of Machiavelian vertù.” (p. 343).
He was a paranoid and sociopathic despot, who projected himself in those heroes who changed the fate of the world, who believed himself on the same level with builders of empires and religions. Projecting himself obsessively into these empire-builders, he became one.
Turning ends into absolutes and the exaltation of violence did not begin though with Stalin. Revolutionary Machiavellianism, to use E. A. Rees's concept, comes close to both visions equally cynical and fanatical about “metapolitics” (see Peter Viereck’s classical study), about the Romanticization, re-enchantment of the world by way of myth, community, self-abandonment and sacrifice. Metapolitics emphasizes the centrality of myth in all human experience. I don’t believe that in Stalin’s case we encounter a vertu, in the real sense of the concept, as it was used by Machiavelli. I don’t agree with Bertrand Russell, who once called The Prince a “handbook for gangsters.” But it is true that ideological gangsters know how to twist and disfigure a philosophical text so that what was previously envisioned as a glorification of civic virtue converts into the justification of cynical non-virtue.
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