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Stalin’s Biography: For Serious Readers Only

Diving into an 850-page biography of one of the most monstrous and powerful men who ever lived is not something one does lightly. So it was with some hesitation that I opened the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s acclaimed Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003).

Montefiore begins the biography on a night in November 1932 in which Stalin and all the leading Bolsheviks and their wives were having an intimate holiday party. Up to this point, despite the mass carnage they had wreaked on Russia and the peasant class, the political elite lived a charmed life together, a so-called “golden age”, strolling around the Kremlin relaxedly with their kids, and taking vacations to the same Black Sea resorts. All of this would come to an end on this particular night in which Stalin’s beloved second wife, Nadya, returned home alone after a public row and killed herself. Thirty-one years old to Stalin’s fifty-three and mother to Vasily and Svetlana, she had been his secretary since before the Revolution and, like many of the Bolshevik women, a historically important character in her own right. In a gripping novelistic account, Montefiore shows how this most mysterious and tragic event of Stalin’s personal life began the downward spiral towards the Great Terror of the Thirties.

As a student of history, political philosophy, and literature, I have long been interested in the phenomenon of the dictator–the set of conditions that facilitates his rise to power, the ways he remakes a government and state in his image, and the ways he is portrayed and resisted by writers and artists (the topic of my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump). Stalin, more than any merely regional potentate like Rafael Trujillo or Mobutu Sese Seko, was basically the Dictator to whom all dictators bow down in (dis)respect; the cannibalistic Cronos who ate all his own children; the monster who out-monstered even Hitler. The fact that Hitler is (rightfully) our universal archetype of monstrously inhuman dictator rather than Stalin is mostly because of the not insignificant detail that we were allied with the latter in the world’s biggest war. Regarding Hitler, the title of world’s worst human and author of the most heinous genocide has not stopped him from still being read and worshipped by neo-Nazis in America in 2017 (including the current American president). Regarding Stalin, even his image as an ambiguous but not-all-bad tyrant is being rehabilitated by the current Russian government. Vladimir Putin, himself an illiberal second-rate dictator and master of false equivalence, has stated that “there is no difference between Stalin and Oliver Cromwell”. Whatever that means. Someone named Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Stalin and Hitler formed a secret alliance that led to WWII; Putin and Trump are now allies. Draw your own conclusions.

The importance of reading true history and biography is that it allows us to work out complex series of causes and effects, and to make sense our own world and how it got to be this way. But also because that old cliche about history repeating itself really is true in a certain fundamental way–this is because the ways in which humans wield political power is fairly limited and predictable, and also because most ideologies human have created share many commonalities. If we want to examine 20th century authoritarian ideologies, for example, we can quite easily find a set of overlapping traits between Fascism, Nazism, Falangism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism. They all believed that the ends justify the means, that individual lives are meaningless, that violence is necessary or even good, and that the Leader is indistinguishable from the State. Resistance to existing dictatorships requires no knowledge of the leader’s biography; resistance to future potential dictatorships, on the other hand, does. While I have no interest at all in reading about Hitler (Don Delillo’s White Noise was enough), reading Stalin’s biography has been slightly disturbing but also very insightful.

Montefiore is quick to dispel the common myth, first propagated by Trotsky, that Stalin was a “colorless bureaucratic mediocrity” but was in fact “exceptional in every way”. Early on, he gives a powerful summary of Stalin’s character:

“The man inside was a super-intelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches from his deformed arm and the iciness of his Siberian exile. Garrulous, sociable and a fine singer, this lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia. Damaged by his childhood and abnormally cold in temperament, he tried to be a loving father and husband yet poisoned every emotional well, this nostalgic lover of roses and mimosas who believed the solution to every human problem was death, and who was obsessed with executions. This atheist owed everything to priests and saw the world in terms of sin and repentance, yet he was a “convinced Marxist fanatic from his youth.” His fanaticism was “semi-Islamic,” his Messianic egotism boundless. He assumed the imperial mission of the Russians yet remained very much a Georgian, bringing the vendettas of his forefathers northwards to Muscovy.”

Montefiore avoids the familiar territory of the Russian Revolution and Soviet foreign policy in order to focus almost exclusively on how Stalin interacted with the small inner circle of Bolshevik leaders to wield power and dominate the Soviet Union from Lenin’s death in 1924 until his own in 1953. Using previously unreleased archival documents and correspondence, Montefiore paints a vivid picture of this unique group of revolutionaries who remained a close-knit family for the first decade and a half after the Revolution: “They were surrounded by the other Bolshevik magnates, all hardened by years in the underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the Civil War, and now exultant if battered by the industrial triumphs and rural struggles of the Stalin Revolution. Some, like Stalin, were in their fifties. But most were strapping, energetic fanatics in their late thirties, some of the most dynamic administrators the world has ever seen, capable of building towns and factories against all odds, but also of slaughtering their enemies and waging war on their own peasants.”

Despite my having no credentials in psychiatry, it did not take me long to recognize Stalin as a clinical psychopath, rather than the madman he is often dismissed as. Montefiore writes: “He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive.” He was also an extremely charming and even lovable person to everyone around him, and this was his best tool of manipulation. “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm. Stalin possessed the dominant will among his magnates, but they also found his policies generally congenial… While incapable of true empathy on the one hand, he was a master of friendships on the other. He constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to charming a man, he was irresistible.”

I usually skip past the first pages of a book which contain laudatory blurbs from journals and reviews, but in this case I found myself reading with great interest the several dozens of such examples. The cognitive dissonance between how an excellent book about a horrible person was expressed, and the contradictory language used for such a delicate purpose led to typically awkward phrases like this: “A wonderful, well-written, extensively researched portrait of a terrifying, inhuman madman.” Some of the reviews seemed to blur the lines to a slightly disturbing extent between the superlative skill of the biographer and the superlative monstrosity of the protagonist. Some examples of this include the words “hero”, “humanizing effect”, and “black humor”; one even spoke of how Labour and Tory ministers should read it for tips on “how to become an efficient fighting machine”, whatever that means (presumably start murdering your enemies and allies alike on industrial scale). One brief review by notable war criminal Henry Kissinger jumped out due to the sheer arrogance of this would-be universal expert: “I did not think I could learn anything new about Stalin but I was wrong. A stunning performance.”

It’s not always easy to continue reading such a book, heavy with chapter after chapter of paranoia, manipulation, and the vicious blood baths inflicted by Stalin and all his equally monstrous lieutenants. It is only Montefiore’s telling of this important story that really draws in the reader and makes it impossible to quit. Neither the man nor the ideology find any semblance of redemption here, but it does help to account for the lengths to which humans can go (or the depths to which they will sink) in furtherance to their ideology. Bolshevism, as much a religion as a political system, maintained that a classless utopia was possible if only the old capitalist corruption were destroyed. One of the most useful facts we can understand by reading history is that there is no utopia that will ever be free of human corruption, and that power should never be concentrated into individual hands. Montefiore comments that: “It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and faults.” Now we must continue to be on guard against the next would-be dictators of our own age, the type of charming psychopath who values power over others as the ultimate goal and would subsume entire continents to achieve it.

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Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche

Russell in 1907 (from Wikipedia)

In my last post, Part One of a two-part series on Bertrand Russell’s monumental A History of Western Philosophy, I highlighted the author’s critical views of Plato and Aristotle from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ section of the work. Now, in Part Two, I will summarize and comment on just one chapter from the ‘Modern Philosophy’ section of this same work–the one dealing with the German-born philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with Plato and Aristotle, Russell is highly disapproving of the outcome of much of Nietzsche’s thought; unlike with the former two thinkers, however, Russell’s critique of Nietzsche seems like a personal ad hominem polemic against the latter. Russell does not only seek to demonstrate scientific, logical, or methodical errors or prejudices, as with many of the philosophers he discusses, but intends to completely ridicule, demolish, and discredit the entire foundation on which Nietzsche’s ideas are built. In addition to prima facie philosophical disagreement, most of the hostility of Russell (who was writing this book in the last years of WWII) comes from the fact that he sees Nietzsche as the most recent example of a European philosophical tradition that has culminated in, or at least prepared the way for, Fascism. Though he would not find Plato innocent of these same charges, it was difficult to trace such a direct line of influence from antiquity to the modern age and the war that was then in progress. This, according to Russell, could not be said about many philosophers of the modern era ever since the successors of John Locke. Here is an example of Russell’s commentary from the chapter entitled “Locke’s Influence”:

Since Rousseau and Kant, there have been two schools of liberalism, which may be distinguished as the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. The hard-headed developed, through Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, by logical stages into Stalin; the soft-hearted, by other logical stages, through Fichte, Byron, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, into Hitler. This statement, of course, is too schematic to be quite true, but it may serve as a map and a mnemonic… A man’s ethic usually reflects his character, and benevolence leads to a desire for the general happiness. Thus the men who thought happiness the end of life tended to be the more benevolent, while those who proposed other ends were often dominated, unconsciously, by cruelty or love of power.

Russell further compares the evolution of ideas to the present day in terms of romanticism, which he opposed, and rationalism, which he supported. From the chapter entitled “Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”:

This revolt (against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics) had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.

Nietzsche in 1869 (from Wikipedia)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Russell’s views on Nietzsche, and the reason I have chosen to comment on this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps the only place in A History of Western Philosophy in which I found myself in something less than complete substantive acquiescence with Russell. For reasons that are not entirely known to me, I think Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche was too harsh, too biased, or possibly based on an incomplete reading, interpretation, translation, or understanding.

The following series of quotes will provide a brief, but representative, synopsis of Russell’s chapter entitled “Nietzsche”, which will be followed by a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

Lord Byron, Romantic rogue

In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men… Both have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.

Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification…”

It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters… He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated… He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

There is a great deal in Nietzsche that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac… It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip”–but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear… It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them… I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it: Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Suppose we wish–as I certainly do–to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?… The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.)

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

So what are we to make of Russell’s scathing indictment of Nietzsche? Russell has certainly made a strong and convincing case for his opinions, but one that I feel is only one possible interpretation and in one historical context. This interpretation seems too shallow and dismissive of such a complex well-spring of ideas that was Nietzsche. For example, I understand and sympathize with Russell’s rejection of the concept of the Übermensch and the Will to Power as an ‘aristocratic lust for power’. I am not so sure about the validity of Russell’s conclusion that Nietzsche’s philosophy was the result of universal hatred and fear. My reading of Nietzsche is incomplete, but it is already clear to me that he is more important and useful than Russell gives him credit for. He is one of the most original and captivating Western thinkers of modern times (or probably of any age), and the breadth of his influence already shows that his ideas cannot be pigeon-holed or dismissed so easily.

As for the historical context, Russell was writing during World War II, as an obvious opponent of Fascism and war in general. It is true that Nietzsche’s works had influenced German militarism and nationalism in both world wars, including misuse by the Nazis. This cannot necessarily be understood as a fault of Nietzsche, who was an opponent of Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Germany itself (he renounced his citizenship and was officially stateless for the last 31 years of his life). Hitler probably never actually read Nietzsche, and the Nazis mostly cherry-picked lines that seemed convenient to them. This is hardly a surprise in the case of such a multi-layered and open-to-interpretation thinker such as Nietzsche. Indeed, some of his earliest followers were not Fascists but left-wing anarchists and Zionists, and poets such as Yeats and Mencken, as well as virtually every ‘Continental’ philosopher of the 20th century–Heidegger, Sartre, Strauss, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, etc. It is with them in mind that I shall conclude this post.

(The above video is a spoken excerpt from Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche, followed by Martin Heidegger’s contradictory remarks on the importance of Nietzsche).

Martin Heidegger was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a 4-volume work on him. Though I am less familiar with the notoriously difficult Heidegger than I am with Nietzsche, the emphasis of the former seems to be much more on the individualistic and ontological aspects inspired by the latter. For example, Heidegger continues Nietzsche’s veneration of pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus over Parmenides and the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus believed that everything was in a state of flux, famously stating that a person cannot step twice into the same river, and therefore the focus was on the process of Becoming. Parmenides, followed by Plato, believed that everything is eternal and unchanging, with the focus on the state of Being. Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche led to his own attempt to redefine the meaning of Being itself and its consequences for human affairs. I have found here a useful synthesis and exegesis of many of Heidegger’s working notes on Nietzsche.

Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, though opposed by Heidegger on different grounds, continued this line of thought further from its Nietzschean origins. When taken out of his political context, it is in this regard that I think Nietzsche may still be useful, contra Russell. The fact that Nietzsche helped diminish the role of metaphysics has led to questions as to the nature of our existence, which was expressed by Sartre as “existence precedes essence.” From a certain perspective, it even seems possible that Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with Russell’s Analytical school in that they, too, had no use for metaphysics. Their solutions to this problem differed, with Nietzsche prophesying and attempting to create a new morality “beyond good and evil”, and Russell adamantly advocating the case for logic, reason, and liberalism.

This is certainly not a closed book, and at this point I can come to no definite conclusions, except for a tentative belief that Russell’s criticism is not wholly valid, and that other uses of Nietzsche are possible. For example, here is a curious article I have found that attempts to portray Nietzsche as a proto-egalitarian. As with most thinkers, Nietzsche is often misunderstood and can quite easily be exploited or twisted into service for many ends. I will have some occasion to discuss this in the future, as, for example, in the unfortunate case of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for a positive and empowering individualistic interpretation of Nietzsche, such as was used, I believe, by Nikos Kazantzakis (whom I discussed here). Walter Kaufman’s excellent translation and commentary (which I employ) has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s post-WWII image in the Anglo-American world. I will continue to search for a common-ground between divergent modern philosophical ideas as represented by Russell and Nietzsche (which sums up, on a smaller scale, the ongoing conflict between Analytic and Continental philosophy), as I believe both provide useful tools for asking questions and finding solutions as to the nature of truth and existence in the universe and in our lives.

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