Glimpses of a New Human Nature: Stalin and the Enthusiasm of Socialism (Part 1)

PT Through History, Marxism

These are new people, people of a special type (Stalin, Works, vol. 14, p. 90).

Marxists have tended to prefer a Pelagian rather than an Augustinian view of human nature. Human beings are inherently good, or at least the proletariat and peasants are decent people, who, once they have re-created history through their own hands will be released from the oppression of their masters. Given such an opportunity, they willingly engage in the new forms of social organisation and economic production, since it is for the greater good. Rarely has there been a rigorous Marxist appreciation of what the theological tradition has called evil and sin.

One exception to this tendency was none other than Joseph Stalin. Or rather, Stalin develops a position on human nature that initially seems Pelagian, only to turn to a much more Augustinian view. In this text, I focus on the Pelagian dimension of Stalin’s position, which he develops in light of the Stakhanovite movement of the 1930s. Ultimately, his concern was to delineate a new type of human nature. This was precisely the underlying concern of both Pelagius and Augustine: how does one understand the new nature that human beings seek, a nature embodied in Christ as the new Adam.

Context: Industrialisation and Collectivisation

The context for Stalin’s reflections was the dual process of massive industrialisation and collectivisation in the late 1920s and 1930s. Industrialisation came first, producing not only a modern industrial nation with phenomenal increases in production and output, but also tensions with the backward forms of agriculture. Already inadequate in the tsarist period, this agriculture had to support the industrialisation process. To do so, high prices were instituted for industrial products and low ones for agricultural produce. The response by farmers was to withhold their produce in the hope of raising prices. This led to enforced requisitions in 1928 and 1929, but the government soon realised this approach would not last. So it was decided to undertake accelerated collectivisation of agriculture in order to overcome the vast gulf between industry and agriculture. By 1937, more than 95 percent of agriculture was collectivised.

This situation produced a profound bifurcation in economic and social life. Many were those who enthusiastically embraced the production of a new life, but many were those who dragged their feet, with some actively resisting. So we find that employment exploded, unemployment virtually disappeared, social insurance became widespread, the population grew, education became universal, cultural institutions from libraries to cinemas became widespread, women found themselves released from age-old domestic bondage, health-care became universal and free and the material standards of workers and farmers increased. At the same time, the ground-shaking disruptions had their negative effects: new economic problems arose, including food shortages, and those who opposed the process found themselves subject to purges, deportation and enforced labour. This is the context for the shifts in understanding human nature, first on the positive side and then the negative. Here I focus on the positive dimension, specifically in terms of the development of Stakhanovite enthusiasm.

Stakhanovite Passion

On the night of 30-31 August, 1953, Aleksei Stakhanov hewed 102 tonnes of coal, which was fourteen times his quota. The phenomenal achievement, enabled by new technology used by an experienced hand, became the model of a new movement – Stakhanovism. Many were the Stakhanovites who emerged in the following years in all branches of industry and agriculture. They were regarded as ‘heroes of labour’, the modest and ordinary workers who produced at hitherto unheard-of levels. My primary interest is in the outlines of the new person Stalin begins to see emerging, if not a new type of human nature characterised by the ‘will to socialism’, by ‘passionate Bolshevik desire’, by emulation as the ‘communist method of building socialism’, if not by Bolshevik ‘tempo’.

The crucial text in which Stalin reflects on the theoretical implications of Stakhanovism is a speech given at the first all-union congress of Stakhanovites in the middle of the 1930s (Works, vol. 14, pp. 89-110). Here the theme of ‘new people’, of a new type of human nature, emerges strongly. Stalin plies a double argument that threatens to become dialectical: the new techniques and conditions under socialism have enabled the Stakhanovites to achieve hitherto unexpected and extraordinary levels of work and productivity; the potential of such workers has been held back by previous and even current conditions, but now it has burst forth from the deep. In other words, the argument deploys an implicit dialectic of objective and subjective, with ramifications for understanding human nature. It also invokes what may be called a dialectic of latency. On the one hand, the potential of Stakhanovism has always existed in workers and peasants, awaiting the right moment for coming to light – or what Ernst Bloch calls the latency of utopia. The moment is of course socialism. On the other hand, the realisation of this latency produces the first glimpses of what has never been seen or experienced before. In terms of human nature, the potential for a new nature lies within the old, yet the new does not rely merely on the old but is a qualitatively different nature.

Surrounding this main theoretical text cluster a number of others that identify further features of this new human nature – beyond the glimpse of creativity and productiveness of Stakhanovism. Taken together, these features begin to provide the outlines of what this new human nature might be. Thus, Stalin speaks of ‘passionate Bolshevik desire’, the furious faith (Losurdo) of the ‘socialist offensive’, which was recognised at the time as a revolution on its own terms. He speaks also of emulation, which is ‘the communist method of building socialism, on the basis of the maximum activity of the vast masses of the working people’ (Works, vol. 12, p. 115). This emulation, which arose in a complex intersection of spontaneous enthusiasm from below and government policies from above, resulted in the famous ‘shock brigades’ and their fostering of socialist competition. The shock brigades would be sent into areas that required models of the new modes of work, of the use of new techniques and technical equipment in industry and agriculture, of the way collectivisation should work. At a deeper level, the sense was that such brigades would indicate the contours of a new human nature, so much so that it would encourage people to shed the fetters of the old nature and foster the emergence of the new nature in yet more workers and farmers.

A further feature is what may be called Bolshevik tempo, manifested by the shock brigades and the Stakhanovites. This tempo has a triple reference: a) the acceleration of industrial and agricultural production based on the mastery of technique and its creative application; b) a wider view in which the whole process – October Revolution, establishment of power, overthrow of capitalism, industrialisation and collectivisation – is a manifestation of such tempo, which was yet to be raised to a level ‘of which we dare not even dream at present’ (Works, vol. 13, p. 40); c) a qualitative change, in which time itself has been reshaped so that time itself is not the master, but workers are masters of time.

Throughout Stalin’s reflections, one notes, alongside concerns over technique, science and engineering, the distinctly human dimension of all that is taking place. Stalin speaks of fostering, encouraging and caring for such ‘modest people’, who have only recently made the extraordinarily rapid move to mechanised production and new social organisation. At the heart of these deliberations is the issue of human nature. The new human being needs to be nurtured and supported: ‘We must cherish every capable and intelligent worker, we must cherish and cultivate him. People must be cultivated as tenderly and carefully as a gardener cultivates a favourite fruit tree’ (Works, vol. 14, 48)

Yet, this human being is not an abstract entity with an indeterminate identity. Stalin clearly speaks of women and men. The Stakhanovites may have involved men such as Stakhanov himself, or Busygin and Smetanin, but they also included Maria Demchenko, from the Ukraine and her feats with sugar beet, as well as Pasha Angelina from the Donetsk region, who was the organiser of the first all-female tractor brigade. Time and again, Stalin discusses at some length (and at times with local people) the new Soviet woman, released from the restrictions of social and economic life before the revolution and now involved in everyday working life, in the factories, collective farms and management of Soviet work. In an address to women collective farm shock workers in 1935, Stalin reflects on the extraordinary changes he has seen. He compares the women of old Russia, enslaved as they were to men at all stages of life, to the new emancipated and independent women of the collective farms who are in control of their own lives. These ‘heroines of labour’ represent a ‘slice of the new life’, of ‘socialist life’:

We had no such women before. Here am I, already 56 years of age, I have seen many things in my time, I have seen many labouring men and women. But never have I met such women. They are an absolutely new type of people (Works, vol. 14, p. 85).

The Limits of Passion

Yet, alongside this rather Pelagian view of the new human nature is a more sombre view, which we may call Augustinian. This negative dimension of passionate enthusiasm emerges clearly in a letter to Maxim Gorky in January, 1930 (Works, vol. 12, pp. 179-83). The letter was written at the outset of the first wave of accelerated collectivisation, which was itself a response to the extraordinary pace of industrialisation. Throughout the letter, Stalin addresses the positive and negative dimensions of the whole process, exploring ways to enhance the latter. When he comes to the question of young people, the understanding of the tension between positive and negative rises to another level. One should expect differentiation, writes Stalin, when the old relations in life are being broken down and new ones built, when ‘the customary roads and paths are being torn up and new, uncustomary ones laid’, when those used to living in plenty are being disrupted in favour of those who were oppresses and downtrodden. In this situation, some will be enthusiastic, hardy, strong and with the character to appreciate the ‘picture of the tremendous break-up of the old and the feverish building of the new as a picture of something which has to be and which is therefore desirable’. But some do not exhibit such characteristics, even some among workers and peasants. Indeed, ‘in such a “racking turmoil,” we are bound to have people who are weary, overwrought, worn-out, despairing, dropping out of the ranks and, lastly, deserting to the camp of the enemy’. We may read this observation at a banal level, with some enthusiastically embracing the new and others falling by the wayside, if not a brutal description of the ‘the unavoidable “overhead costs” of revolution’. But I suggest that a deeper dialectical point arises here: the passion for the new generates the falling away, the foot-dragging and even desertion to the enemy; but so also does the falling away produce yet more enthusiasm. The two are inseparably entwined.

One thought on “Glimpses of a New Human Nature: Stalin and the Enthusiasm of Socialism (Part 1)

  1. I struggle when people use concepts of Pelagian and Augustinian to describe how we relate to others. I struggle because these concepts fit a particular context and our social relationships is not that context. If we talked about whether Stalin was trying to create what he saw was a right-ordered society or not, it would have fit, but not Pelagian vs Augustinian.

    After that, we would have to ask whether Stalin was really trying to create a right-ordered society after socialist principles or was he just trying keep people under control. I write that because Stalin merely magnified Lenin’s anti-socialist move of relying on top-down governance. Lenin too had his purges and the targets consisted of “fellow” socialists. I put the word ‘fellow’ in double quotes because perhaps we should question his Socialist credentials by how he ruled.

    Somehow central state control has been equated with Socialism regardless of who is in control of the state. This equation has been made by those on the Right and some claiming to be on the Left which means that that equation is made for different reasons. And that equation is made regardless of who has control of the state and why control is exercised. That implies that either socialism is much older than we realize or that some do not realize what socialism actually is.

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