We are inundated with significant anniversaries of distant “world-shaking” events. The government has promised that the whole of next year will be dedicated to commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. No doubt there will be room between the soul-searching and solemnity of these reflections to remember a key date in the Second World War - D Day, June 6. 1944 – the seventieth anniversary of which also falls next year.  We may expect poignant recollections and celebration of the ‘liberation of Europe’ by Anglo-American forces. But earlier this year, in February, the seventieth anniversary of the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad, passed (or was rather passed over) in Britain with scant attention. This titanic battle, which most serious historians recognize as the turning-point in the Second World War opening the way to the final defeat of Nazism, prompts the recollection that 2013 (March) also marked the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the Soviet leader for whom the city was named: Joseph Stalin.

For most people who think about such things at all, it may seem redundant to suggest that it is time for a more serious assessment of Stalin than has hitherto been undertaken. Surely there is little more to be said. The verdict of history is clear and not subject to amendment. Stalin was one of the two most diabolical dictators of the twentieth century, his name linked forever with that of Hitler as epitomizing totalitarian tyranny. Indeed, measured by the number of his victims, some have argued that as a mass-murderer he left Hitler standing. The proponents of what might be termed the “twin but rival totalitarians” view, from Hannah Arendt in the 1950s to Alan Bullock in the 1990s, argued that in spite of their differences both Soviet Communism and Nazism, and the dictators who dominated them until their deaths in 1945 and 1953, had far more in common than whatever differentiated them. The Stalinist and Hitlerite regimes were variants of a “totalitarianism” that had so many features in common (domination by a single party; elimination of all opposition and dissent; a single unassailable charismatic leader; a dominant and exclusive militant ideology; total control by the dominant party of all communications media; the systematic falsification of history; the demonization of a supposed “enemy within” and the justification of eternal vigilance against hostile enemies abroad) that to deny such striking similarities, or to downplay their significance, would be simply perverse. And, it must be conceded, that regarded dispassionately, the list of characteristics in parentheses above, did all apply to both the Soviet Union under Stalin and to Nazi Germany. But how far does admission of such a simple matter of fact actually get us? The differences between the regimes were far greater than proponents of the totalitarian thesis usually admit. Far too little attention is usually paid to the different economic systems. Put simply, Nazi Germany was a powerful capitalist-  imperialist state, in which the economy was dominated by a handful of powerful industrial and financial monopolies. The Nazi regime did not nationalize the commanding heights of the German economy. The dominant ideology of Nazism propagated a virulent social-Darwinist racism which rejected the humanist ethos of the European enlightenment, justified foreign conquest for lebensraum and treated the subjugation of Untermenschen as a necessary requirement for the survival of the “Aryan Ubermensch”. The difference between such an economic and ideological system and the Soviet regime, even in its Stalinist phase, is a matter of more than semantic importance. Inhumanity, fanatical racism, territorial expansion and genocide were inherent within such a system. Its criminality was inseparable from its very nature. Its practice was a fulfillment of its ideology. Nazi ideology was inseparable from Hitlerism. It was a hodgepodge of half-baked late-nineteenth century prejudices – eugenics, Aryan race-myths, anti-Semitism, perversions of Nietzschean philosophy and frustrated geo-political imperialist dreams.

The same cannot be said for Soviet Communism and the ideology on which it was based. Marxism and its development through its exponents, including Lenin, Trotsky Rosa Luxemburg and others, was a revolutionary theory and practice of human liberation, firmly rooted in the European Enlightenment. There can be no serious comparison between Marxism and the eclectic mishmash of pseudo-philosophical nonsense that the Nazis chose to dignify with the grandiose title of a Weltanschauung. Nazi ideology provided a convenient justification for German imperialist expansion. Stalin’s practice from the late 1920s onwards, far from being the application of Marxism-Leninism, as he claimed, was, in Trotsky’s phrase the “betrayal” of the principles of the October Revolution. The harsh necessities of the Bolshevik’s struggle for the survival of the revolution between 1918 and 1923, were subsequently turned into virtues under Stalin, justifying first the systematic crushing of all opposition, and later the fabrication of falsified charges of conspiracy and treason against almost all the old Bolshevik leaders, leading to their physical elimination during the purges. The implementation of a nationwide terror during the late 1930s resulted in the incarceration and liquidation of millions in the slave labor camps of the  Siberian gulag archipelago. Amongst the victims were countless Soviet communists and revolutionaries from Germany and elsewhere in Europe who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union from repression in their own countries. More German communists died in the Stalinist purges than in Hitler’s concentration camps.    

Whatever reservations there may be about describing the Soviet Union as socialist, there are even more problems involved in treating it as capitalist. The economic system constructed during Stalin’s forced march to industrialization in the ten years after 1930, was one based largely on state ownership of the means of production. Private enterprise capitalism was totally eliminated under a regime of the most draconian centralized bureaucratic control. The cost in human suffering and loss of life involved in this colossal transformation was incalculable. Much of it was accomplished by slave labor from the gulag and even the dwindling band of Stalin’s admirers must have difficulty in accepting that socialism can be built on the basis of slave labor. But the industrialization of the Soviet Union was accomplished without private ownership of the means of production. It cannot be regarded as a capitalist enterprise, unless one subscribes to the minority neo-Trotskyist theory that it was a form of “state capitalism” – a view which among its remaining adherents has hardened into a reinforced but unpersuasive dogma raising more questions than it can answer. Inadequate though the term may be, it probably makes more sense to regard the Soviet regime built under Stalin as some form of state socialism.

That Stalin’s regime was a tyranny is beyond dispute. But most western critiques of Stalinism remain woefully inadequate in explaining the nature of that regime. Most of the critics resort to the claim that Stalin was paranoid. While there is clearly some truth in this claim, particularly when considering the post-World War Two period, it doesn’t get us very far. Before the war Stalin had good reason to mistrust the motives of the British and French governments during the Soviet attempts to achieve collective security agreements to resist Nazi aggression. After the war he also had good reason to believe that the Soviet Union faced a threat from the USA and its NATO allies. His paranoia lay in his suspicion that there were numerous conspirators in his own ranks and, later, in the new Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe and that they were all secret agents of Nazi Germany and the United States. He treated them as he had treated the supposed conspirators during the purges of the late 1930s - with frame-up trials and execution.

But, to return to the starting point and the battle of Stalingrad, the real conundrum concerns Western attitudes to Stalin and the Second World War. From 1941 to 1945 Great Britain and the USA were allied to the Soviet Union in the struggle against Hitler’s Germany and its allies. Everyone knows that when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 in violation of the German-Soviet pact, Stalin was taken by surprise. He was so stunned that he didn’t initially believe that the invasion had started. But, after the initial Soviet reverses, the Germans were stopped before Moscow. In the course of 1942 the Soviet resistance stiffened and eventually the tide of German victories was halted before Stalingrad.The Sixth Army was trapped and forced to surrender. Later in 1943, after the Battle of Kursk – the greatest tank battle the world has ever known – the tide of war turned irrevocably against Nazi Germany. While the part played by the British and the U.S. in Germany’s defeat cannot be gainsaid, by far the greatest part was played by the Soviet Union and the Red Army. Most serious historians of the Second World War also recognize that after mid-1942, Stalin’s leadership, although brutal and merciless, was of the highest quality. It is worth recalling two statistics about the human impact of the war on the two most powerful allies: the United States lost 300.000 men in all fields of battle – all military combatants. The Soviet Union lost 25 million military personnel and civilians. No country in the world has suffered fatalities on such a scale before or since.

In 1931, with the launch of the first of the five year plans for industrialization, Stalin said that the Soviet Union lagged 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries of the West and that it had 10 years to catch up. The country would, he said, either succeed or be crushed. Exactly 10 years later the Germans invaded. The titanic military effort that brought final victory, enabling the Soviets to defeat the greatest military machine in history was made possible by the 10 year forced march to industrialization with all the accompanying human suffering entailed. Had that industrialization not taken place, or had it, perhaps under a different leader such as Bukharin, proceeded at a far slower pace, would the Soviet Union have possessed the means to withstand the onslaught of the Wehrmacht? Perhaps it is not possible to say for certain, but it should not be forgotten that it was a country with an industrial “state socialist” planned economy that was able to do so.

And is anyone seriously going to argue that in the Second World War, which pitted the forces of civilization against the forces of Nazi barbarism, it didn’t matter which side would win; that there was nothing to choose between the Anglo-US-Soviet alliance and the perpetrators of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Maidanek? Human civilization was saved from  barbarism; and by far the greatest part in that salvation was played by the long-suffering, heroic people and armed forces of a country led by Joseph Stalin. That is the conundrum.