From One Party to Stalinism

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Commentary on the book by Angela Mendes de Almeida

Few books bring together such a wide range of information in such an elegant style. Angela Mendes de Almeida began her research in exile in France and defended her thesis in political science in 1981, which makes up the first part of her work From One Party to Stalinism. His investigation continued in the following decades and benefited from the impact of the end of real socialism on documentation.

Not only was former Soviet archives partially opened, but various militants and spies for communist intelligence services published memoirs, provided interviews or revelations through third parties. A new historiography, biographies and even novels served as a source for Angela Mendes de Almeida. It can situate Stalinism as a historical problem and not as a derivation of some a priori concept or a lightning bolt from a blue sky, unexpected and without a past.

When the Moscow trials portrayed the great names of the October Revolution of 1917 to the world as criminals, Gestapo agents and traitors to the Soviet Union, the progressive intelligentsia (fellow travelers) and the communists themselves were appalled. Bolsheviks like Kamenev and Zinoviev, Bukharin and Tukachevsky confessed to crimes and were shot. Stalinist terror still struck internationalists like Karl Radek and Willi Münzenberg and so many others, men and women devoted to the socialist cause. Trotsky himself was overtaken by Soviet agents in Mexico and assassinated.

This is a well-known story. However, when those leaders were in power, at the height of their popularity, they also exercised a dictatorship with elements that anticipated Stalinism. After all, before they themselves were victimized, anarchists like Emma Goldman and internationalist socialists like Angelica Balabanova had long since grown disillusioned with the Revolution and abandoned Soviet Russia.

In 1918 Zinoviev declared that it was necessary to eliminate 10 million “counterrevolutionaries” (ALEKSIÉVITCH, 2017, p. 22.); Tukhatchevsky ruthlessly crushed the Kronstadt rebellion and Trotsky threatened to use chemical weapons if resistance continued (AVRICH, 2004, p. 209); Bukharin advocated state terrorism; and in the civil war there was the use of family members of enemies as hostages.

Certainly, no one is unaware of the circumstances that explain these attitudes and it is not even a question of judging them. a posteriori. They only ask us about how much rupture and continuity there is between those leaders who took power in October 1917 and the Stalinism that crushed them. And this is the problem that historian Angela Mendes de Almeida faced.

Of course, none of those leaders mentioned above imagined physically eliminating the other. The terror was to be directed outside the party. Nor did any of them seriously propose a massacre on the scale of Nikolai Yezhov or Lavrenty Beria, later heads of the Soviet political police. One could even argue that Zinoviev's statement was one of his well-known bravados and that the other threats were a rhetorical device by intellectuals. Still, they all supported a repressive system that existed before Stalinism and which led to the closure of the Constituent Assembly, the repression of councilists, anarchists, revolutionary socialists and Mensheviks.

It is not a question of condemning the Revolution, much less of not understanding the historical justifications of the Bolsheviks, as we will see. The terror of the 1930s was not a direct product of the Revolution. It wasn't even scheduled. It responded to the objective conditions of the country that the Bolsheviks inherited. But it wasn't inevitable. There were disputes, there were choices, many of them made by the victors, but also by future defeats who did not foresee or desire the dictatorship that befell the world communist movement.

Many historians have recognized elements of rupture between Lenin's and Stalin's periods alongside the permanencies. Michel Löwy (in the excellent preface to Angela Mendes de Almeida's book) criticizes the author's position, which would suggest a simple continuity between the Bolshevik single party and Stalinism. However, the thesis is more complex. Continuity is studied in a contradictory process of conflicting revolutionary traditions, such as those of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. There is no linearity, but a set of objective conditions such as the First World War and what the author called “the great choices of communism”.

The single-party model, soon imposed on the international communist movement, synthesizes a series of practices that would be exacerbated in the 1930s. The author demonstrates how the creation of the Third International reflected the revolutionary optimism of the end of the First War. Europe seemed plunged into social upheaval with military mutinies, strikes, factory occupations and popular uprisings. Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland appeared to be heading towards socialism. All over the world, from Brazil to India, from Argentina to China, protests were registered in a wave that lasted for some years.

Leninist optimism initially alienated the socialist parties that supported Soviet Russia, but did not accept the rigidity of the 21 conditions for joining the organization. For the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary party should have been the result of a split and not a long dispute for the socialist bases that led to the isolation of the reformist leaders, as the author found.

The book covers in detail the debates of the Communist International, the united front tactics, the peculiar trajectory of the Italian communists, the Bolshevization imposed on the parties, the consequences of the so-called “third period”, among which the division of the German left and the rise from Nazism to the strategic turn that led to the Popular Front in France (1934-1939) and Spain (1936-1939).

The author has a remarkable knowledge of sources and bibliography, in addition to giving a fine methodological treatment to the documentation. The entire history that she traverses up to the 1930s is richly illustrated by exhaustive research. However, her greatest work contribution, and the one most subject to debate, is in the last two chapters. In them, she analyzes the historical significance of Stalinism, the emergence of a powerful police apparatus in the Soviet Union, the suspicions surrounding the assassination of Kirov and the Moscow trials that, despite having been a political instrument for asserting power, frightened the public. world because the leaders of the Revolution were portrayed as spies for foreign intelligence services.

It was something so far-fetched that, if taken seriously, it would make the October 1917 seizure of power itself a mere conspiracy. The party's own history had to be rewritten under Joseph Stalin's personal supervision, concealing or slandering his opponents. Still, many people were convinced or conveniently silent. The defense of the first socialist state, surrounded by imperialism, and political and, in many cases, even physical survival weighed in the balance. The agitation and propaganda machine also fulfilled its role to the point where the US ambassador to the Soviet Union was fully convinced of the guilt of the defendants who had led the Revolution (Davies, 1945).

The last chapter is the most impressive of the work, as it collects countless testimonies from victims of Stalinism. There is another thesis within it: that of a position declared by the victims that guides history and denies any claim to neutrality. For the author, there is no equivalence between the truth of the victims and the allegations of the oppressor, as is the norm in human rights, according to her. The narrative resembles a thriller and the reading is full of emotion.

Countless revolutionary characters who dedicated themselves to an internationalist cause and were murdered in the most diverse ways appear and say goodbye: Trotskyists, socialists, anarchists, dissident communists, casual victims who didn't even know why they were condemned and even faithful and convinced members of the Communist Party summarily executed for no reason. The stage set by the author went beyond the Soviet Union and encompassed the civil war in Spain, the French resistance, exile communities in the United States and elsewhere. We witnessed the settling of scores within the communist parties in France, Italy and even Brazil and the operations of concealment, disinformation and slander against old combatants who had suddenly fallen from grace.

These trajectories allowed the author to discuss something that was little known at the time, but which would inevitably appear over time: an extraordinary historical experience that revealed itself in acts of solidarity and cowardice, heroic struggles and crimes. The Soviet Union saved humanity from Nazism and built an alternative model of social and economic organization. Joseph Stalin, whatever the assessment of the quality of his command in the Second World War (and the author's is entirely negative), was erected by the party as a symbol of the country's effort in the collectivization of agriculture, in the accelerated industrialization and in the resistance to the Nazism. But in all these deeds we find its negation: the forced labor camps and the elimination of millions of “enemies of the people”.

Angela Mendes de Almeida's book is endowed with intellectual courage, both to confront Stalinism and to question the organizational principles that allowed a dictatorship of a single party to be imposed.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Studio).

Originally published in Magazine Advanced Studies.


Angela Mendes de Almeida. From One Party to Stalinism. São Paulo: Alameda, 2021. 516 pages (


ALEKSIÉVITCH, Svetlana. The end of the Soviet man. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2016 (

AVRCH, P. Kronstadt. Buenos Aires: Anarres, 2006.

DAVIES, J. mission in moscow. São Paulo: Calvino, 1945.

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