Joseph Stalin, one of the most influential leaders in history, had a very interesting ‘cult of personality’ surrounding him. The communist ideology that we know today as ‘Stalinism’ was the result of the cult, which in turn, was closely associated with constant propaganda of the leader by the Soviet media.
Advance towards socialism cannot but cause the exploiting elements to resist the advance, and the resistance of the exploiters cannot but lead to the inevitable sharpening of the class struggle.
― Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin served as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for a period of 30 years from 1922 to 1952. One of the most important figures in the history of the Soviet Union, Stalin and his policies are a matter of debate even today. He is known to have put forth and implemented several policies in the USSR, and although many of them did not yield desired results, they definitely affected the politics of the Soviet Union as well as the world in some way or the other. On ideological grounds, Stalin started off with his career, being influenced by the political principles of his immediate predecessor, Vladimir Lenin and those of Karl Marx. Jointly known as the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, its intention was to develop a given state into a strong socialist republic with the help of “professional” revolutionaries, born from the ongoing class strife in the society. With the passage of time, as Stalin grew as a politician and as an individual, he developed his own set of principles and morals, and according to some, deviated completely from those of Marx and Lenin. This political ideology developed by Stalin is known as “Stalinism”, and has been subject to several sharp criticisms till date.
Stalinism: Origin of the Concept
✥ The term Stalinism was first coined in the mid-1930s, when Stalin’s associate, Lazar Kaganovich, stated, “Let’s replace Long Live Leninism with Long Live Stalinism!”
✥ Kaganovich clearly used the new term to refer to a distinctive political ideology based on Stalin’s principles, as opposed to the former that was based on those of Lenin’s.
✥ Sources tell us that when Stalin came to know about his associate’s remark, he initially hesitated and tried to dismiss it by saying that such remarks contributed to a cult of personality. In other words, Stalin thought that the remark was extravagantly laudatory.
✥ Nevertheless, the term was praisefully received by the members of the Communist Party, and gradually, it began to be widely used.
Policies of Stalinism
✥ Owing to the fact that Stalin was a communist leader, his main focus was to build a society on the basis of common ownership of the means of production. In order to achieve this end and also to ensure Soviet’s survival in the ideological battle with the other democratic and capitalist regimes, he ideated and implemented several policies and actions, which later came to be collectively sheltered under the umbrella term, Stalinism.
✥ To achieve the goal of common ownership of means and resources by the state, Stalin knew that the very first thing that needed to be done was to get rid of the bourgeoisie. Stalin’s stand on class conflict was very aggressive, in that he applied state violence to forcibly rid the society of the affluent class.
✥ Firstly, he adopted and implemented the policy of collectivization of agriculture under which, all lands owned by the affluent farmers or kulaks (and even the smaller ones) were violently ceased by the state. Then, these agricultural lands were clubbed to form several collective farms, in which peasants were made to produce crops for the state.
✥ On all these state-run farmlands, there was large-scale exploitation of peasants, owing to which, a considerable amount of rural population migrated to the urban settlements. This resulted in an increase in population in the urban areas, which meant availability of cheap labor.
✥ Stalin’s next focus was to undertake rapid industrialization in the USSR. He dreamt of making the USSR an industrial superpower, and enable the Soviet Union to stand tall, financially and technologically, against capitalist forces like the United States, in case a warlike situation were to arise in future.
✥ Ironic, however, was Stalin’s decision to enter into contracts with some major American private enterprises, such as the Ford Motor Company, in order to aid the Soviet Union to achieve its goal of rapid industrialization. It is indeed interesting how Stalin used the expertise of the capitalists to construct an anti-capitalist state.
✥ Stalin implemented both these policies (collectivization and rapid industrialization) in his first five-year plan (1928-1933), and was also successful in their execution; however, in the later years, owing to widespread internal and international oppositions, apart from several other unfavorable factors, the success rate began to drop.
✥ Stalin’s dream was to build a totalitarian state, wherein the society would completely be under control of the state. By doing so, he wanted to set up a permanent dictatorship in the Soviet Union, and this he would achieve by hook or by crook.
✥ To remain in power unopposed, Stalin took advantage of the class struggle that was prevalent in the Soviet society. In an effort to make the state a powerful and an unparalleled entity, he propounded the theory of aggravation of the class struggle along with the development of socialism, and this became one of the most important cornerstones of Stalinism.
✥ He argued that in order to make the state powerful and prevent it from “withering away”, it was of utmost importance to get rid of all political opponents, and everybody else who was deemed to be hostile to the state. In short, he argued in favor of defeating all the counter-revolutionary elements, which he also did, as can be seen from his various violent campaigns, such as the Great Purge in the year 1937.
In spite of the fact that Stalinism faced widespread criticism from many countries, the ideology also succeeded in gaining support and a considerable fan following. A number of east European communist regimes did adhere to Stalinist policies, albeit for a limited period of time. Even in China, the warlord of Xinjiang, named Sheng Shicai, influenced by the totalitarian ideal of Stalin, conducted a similar purge in the 1930s in his province.
Stalin and the Use of Propaganda
✥ Through his ideology and policies, and the influence that they had on the various communist regimes around the world, Joseph Stalin, as a political figure had acquired enough name and fame. Some historians claim that Stalin himself behaved rather modestly in public; however, owing to the powerful position that he held in the communist world, a peculiar ‘cult of personality’ was automatically built around him.
✥ Especially, in the USSR, Stalin received massive media attention, and soon enough he began being portrayed as the ‘all-knowing leader’ by the Soviet propagandists.
✥ The ‘cult of personality’ that had developed around Stalin was always one of the most visible elements of Soviet politics of that time; however, it became more prominent when lavish celebrations were held throughout the USSR on his 50th birthday (December 1929).
✥ From then on, Stalin became a favorite subject of the Soviet press; his name and images began to appear so fervently in the media that he seemed almost omnipresent.
✥ Initially (before and during the WWII) when Stalin was known to make several public appearances from time to time, the Soviet press took on the responsibility to show the world how their leader was socially and emotionally linked with the common people. For this purpose, several newspapers often published letters written by farmers and industrial workers, praising Stalin for bringing hope and happiness in their lives.
✥ After the end of the WWII, Stalin’s public appearances decreased to a great extent. But his cult was still widespread and so, the propagandists moved on to promote him as a ‘father figure’. Newspapers and magazines often published his photographs with children, and he himself also often went to several schools and orphanages to distribute gifts amongst kids. This gesture also earned him substantial media coverage.
✥ According to experts, promoting Stalin as the “father” mingled the aspects of religion with those of the cult of personality, and the main purpose behind doing so was to deviate the attention of people away from the church and towards Stalin.
✥ The relationship between Lenin and Stalin was also an important aspect that helped build Stalin’s image in the mass media. The Soviet press maintained that Stalin was the constant companion of Lenin until the latter’s death, and that the former’s ideals are rooted in those of Leninism. Though Stalin’s policies, more often than not, seemed to be in complete contrast with those of Lenin, he always claimed of having been a faithful follower of his predecessor’s ideals, and thus, indirectly kept on implying that his rule was also as flawless as that of Lenin.
✥ Over the years, Stalin became so powerful and popular that he tended to completely overshadow Lenin. In the later representations, Stalin was not shown alongside Lenin, but was portrayed independently, indicating that he was the only leader responsible for the success and well-being of the Soviet Union. In fact, since 1936, Stalin came to be known as the Father of Nations.
Stalin’s propaganda by the Soviet press led to the leader gaining popularity in the popular culture as well. He became a favorite subject of writers, painters, poets, musicians, and filmmakers. Numerous imposing statues of Stalin were installed at public places throughout the USSR, and a number of Soviet villages, towns, and cities were renamed after him. As if all this was not enough, several pompous titles were conferred upon him, which he, rather modestly, accepted. These included Brilliant Genius of Humanity, Gardener of Human Happiness, Coryphaeus of Science, and Great Architect of Communism, amongst others. Furthermore, post the WWII, Stalin’s name was also included in the new national anthem of the USSR that was first broadcasted on the Soviet radio on 1 January 1944.
After Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev rejected and dismissed most of his policies, and initiated a campaign of de-Stalinization. Under this campaign, all those institutions that formed Stalin’s support system, including his cult of personality, were removed, and his aggressive policies such as large-scale forced labor were discarded. De-Stalinization curbed the enormous influence that Stalin had on the USSR, and thus, marked an important epoch in Soviet history.