The Collectivization Counterfactual: Stephen Kotkin's New Stalin Biography

In yet another sign of the relevance of counterfactuals, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (November 6th) profiles Stephen Kotkin’s forthcoming biography of Joseph Stalin by featuring the speculative title, “If Stalin Had Died...” 

Presumably most of Kotkin's book is written as a traditional history (and has few counterfactual lines of argumentation), but by choosing the highlight the seductive premise of one of the 20th century’s worst criminals being removed from history, Kotkin and the NYRB have chosen to capitalize on the vogue for “what if?” thinking.

The gist of Kotkin’s claim in his article is simple: if Stalin had died in 1921 (either of appendicitis or tuberculosis – both of which he suffered from) or if he had been assassinated in 1928 (plans to this effect seem to have been afoot among certain Bolsheviks), the Soviet Union would have been spared the horrors of collectivization.

Kotkin writes, “the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization – the only kind -- would have been near zero, and the likelihood that the Soviet regime would have been transformed into something else or fallen apart would have been high.”

In short, a real historical nightmare would have been averted, thus making the counterfactual claim a clear fantasy.

Kotkin then goes on to refute E. H. Carr’s famous assertion that “Stalin illustrates the thesis that circumstances make the man, not the man the circumstances,” declaring the assertion to be “utterly, eternally wrong.”  Stalin, for Kotkin, validates the great man theory of history (T. Carlyle), writing that he “made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth.”  He concludes: “History, for better and for worse, is made by those who never give up.”

Kotkin does not say how the Soviet Union would have evolved without Stalin.  But he hints that the system could have survived under a different leader.  He dismisses the possible ascension of Trotsky, whose leadership skills were not up to snuff, but he writes that “even within the encumbering Leninist frame, a Soviet leader could have gone out of his way to reduce the paranoia built into the regime’s relations with the outside world....A Soviet leader could have paid the price of partial accommodation, grasping that capitalism was not, in fact, dying out globally....”

Kotkin adds that the Soviet Union could have modernized without Stalin’s crash program of collectivization, noting that it could have pursued a more market based approach; collectivization, he adds, was not “necessary to sustain a dictatorship,” as “private capital and dictatorship are fully compatible” – as shown by the example of Italian Fascism.

Further questions, unasked by Kotkin, could be posed:

Would the Soviet Union have been able to withstand Hitler’s assault of June 22, 1941 and ultimately defeat the Nazis had Stalin not forcibly industrialized the country through the two Five Year plans?  (This is the theodicy that is often invoked to justify Stalin’s dictatorial rule)

For that matter, if Stalin had died in 1921, would the Soviet Union have industrialized as rapidly in the years that followed?  (Kotkin seems to imply the answer to be yes).

It is also worth asking how Russia would have fared had the Whites won the Civil War over the Reds and reimposed some kind of authoritarian or even fascist order in the 1920s. 

Indeed, would Hitler have even invaded Russia in this alternate world?  Hitler’s commitment to Lebensraum in the east suggests the answer to be yes, even if Russia was not ruled by the Bolsheviks.  But can we imagine Nazism without Bolshevism? 

So much speculating to do – but so little time!