Was Dictator Joseph Stalin Once a Hip, Young Democratic Socialist?
A meme claiming that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was once a hip, young atheist and a Democratic Socialist appeared on Facebook (archived here) in August 2019. Beneath a black-and-white photograph of an arguably handsome young man, text read:
Josef Stalin was once a hip, intellectual, atheist, and Democrat Socialist, that led protests against the rich and powerful. Rose to power, promising equality, then took over private industry, leading to mass poverty and famine. Killed 20 million of his own people.
Atop it, additional commentary mused:
I guess they leave this chapter out in today’s college classes.
While there was only a small amount of text alongside the image, the entire meme managed to encompass quite a few claims. Among them were:
- The image shows a young Joseph Stalin;
- Joseph Stalin was considered “hip” by fellow young people with political ambitions in his time;
- Joseph Stalin considered himself or was considered an intellectual;
- Joseph Stalin was an atheist;
- Joseph Stalin was historically labeled, self-identified, or both as a “Democrat [sic] Socialist”;
- Joseph Stalin led protests against the rich and powerful;
- Joseph Stalin rose to power promising equality;
- Stalin’s ensuing regime took over private industry;
- A takeover of private industry led to mass poverty and famine;
- Stalin eventually killed 20 million of his own people;
- Stalin is absent from history curricula across American universities
Although the meme never mentioned any particular politicians outright, its reference to democratic socialists seems to tacitly target Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who is young, popular with young people, and opposes income inequality) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (who describes himself as a democratic socialist and espouses several of the positions above.) Others made that connection more explicit:
Joseph Stalin was once a hip, intellectual, atheist, socialist who wanted equality. But once he got government power, he killed 60 million of his own citizens. BEWARE. #AOC
— Lori Hendry (@Lrihendry) April 10, 2019
By means of association with an historically reviled figure (Stalin), the meme indicts concepts as linked with fascism by proxy, including youth, general hipness, intellectual pursuits, atheism, democratic socialism, equality, opposition to corporatism, and regulations of business.
Starting with the easiest claim, the image is a widely-published photograph of Joseph Stalin at age 23 in 1901. That particular photograph is itself a meme, known sometimes as “Handsome Stalin” or “Ridiculously photogenic dictator.” According to a Mashable profile of Stalin, 1901 was the year Stalin left his job in a weather office to become a “a full-time, boot-strapping underground revolutionary.”
A second claim holds that Stalin was once considered “hip” by his contemporaries, a descriptor which was entirely subjective and not verifiable. It goes on to describe Stalin as an intellectual; a journal article published in World Politics in 1953 (the year Stalin died) was titled “Stalin as an Intellectual.” A December 2015 thread shared to the vigorously moderated r/AskHistorians on Reddit similarly asked for perspective on whether Stalin’s contemporaries considered him “uncouth” and “uncultured,” or instead an intellectual:
A top comment was best summarized as declaring the answer to be subjective. A September 2016 Irish Times article on the same subject argued that Stalin was an intellectual — but the basis of that assertion offers a conflicting historical view of Stalin:
In the pantheon of dictators Joseph Stalin’s reputation for brutality is rivalled only by that of Hitler. The conventional image portrays Stalin as nothing more than a bloody tyrant, a machine politician, a heartless bureaucrat and an ideological fanatic. Yet Stalin was also an intellectual who believed in the transformative power of ideas and a bookworm who amassed a significant personal library.
The meme describes the young Joseph Stalin as a rising political star, not the Stalin of decades later. According to that article, Stalin did not begin accumulating books until after the Russian Revolution of 1917 — when Stalin was pushing 40:
Although his peripatetic lifestyle meant Stalin did not begin to collect books and build a personal library until after the Russian Revolution, by the time of his death in 1953 he had amassed a collection of some 25,000 volumes. In 1925 Stalin drew up a grandiose plan for the classification of his books. He envisioned a library that would contain a diverse store of human knowledge, not just the humanities and social sciences but aesthetics, fiction and natural sciences.
That timeline was echoed in a November 2014 profile in The Atlantic, which explained Stalin’s stalled-out political career in his twenties and thirties:
Year by year, crisis by crisis, a fine-grained picture of Stalin’s intellectual development nevertheless emerges. It is easy to forget, but on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Stalin was in his late 30s and had nothing to show for his life. He had “no money, no permanent residence, and no profession other than punditry,” meaning that he wrote articles for illegal newspapers. He certainly had no training in statecraft, and no experience managing anything at all. The Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 brought him and his comrades their first, glorious taste of success. Their unlikely revolution—the result of Lenin’s high-risk gambles—validated their obscure and fanatical ideology. More to the point, it brought them personal security, fame, and power they had never before known.
Per the meme, Stalin was known in his early years to be hip, intellectual, and a leader to fellow youth. But historical accounts indicate that despite Stalin’s youthful commitment to his ideals, roughly two decades passed before he made any meaningful mark on Russian history at all.
A fourth claim in the meme was that Stalin was an atheist, another assertion largely not in dispute. But the image was taken in 1901, not long after Stalin left a seminary in 1899, suggesting that in his early life he was not so committed to atheism as he was during his later years:
Stalin was of Georgian — not Russian — origin, and persistent rumours claim that he was Ossetian on the paternal side. He was the son of a poor cobbler in the provincial Georgian town of Gori in the Caucasus, then an imperial Russian colony. The drunken father savagely beat his son. Speaking only Georgian at home, Joseph learned Russian — which he always spoke with a guttural Georgian accent — while attending the church school at Gori (1888–94). He then moved to the Tiflis Theological Seminary, where he secretly read Karl Marx, the chief theoretician of international Communism, and other forbidden texts, being expelled in 1899 for revolutionary activity, according to the “legend”—or leaving because of ill health, according to his doting mother.
The fifth and most central claim was that Stalin was a “Democrat [sic] Socialist,” referencing a modern political affiliations known as democratic socialism:
American politicians today who are associated with democratic socialism generally favor New Deal-style programs, believing that government is a force for good in people’s lives and that a large European-style welfare state can exist in a capitalist society. They generally support ideas such as labor reform and pro-union policies, tuition-free public universities and trade schools, universal healthcare, federal jobs programs, fair taxation that closes loopholes that the wealthiest citizens have found, and using taxes on the rich and corporations to pay for social welfare programs. (Of course the Democratic Socialists of America website has a whole page on this very question, as do the campaign websites for Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar, as well as that of Senator Bernie Sanders, another prominent democratic socialist.)
In history, Stalin’s name is attached to a specific form of political ideology known, appropriately, as Stalinism:
Stalinism, the method of rule, or policies, of Joseph Stalin, Soviet Communist Party and state leader from 1929 until his death in 1953. Stalinism is associated with a regime of terror and totalitarian rule … In a party dominated by intellectuals and rhetoricians, Stalin stood for a practical approach to revolution, devoid of ideological sentiment. Once power was in Bolshevik hands, the party leadership gladly left to Stalin tasks involving the dry details of party and state administration. In the power struggle that followed Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, the intellectual sophistication and charismatic appeal of Stalin’s rivals proved no match for the actual power he had consolidated from positions of direct control of the party machinery. By 1929 his major opponents were defeated; and Stalinist policies, which had undergone several shifts during the power struggle, became stabilized. Stalin’s doctrine of the monolithic party emerged during the battle for power; he condemned the “rotten liberalism” of those who tolerated discussion on or dissent from party policies.
Basic to Stalinism was the doctrine of “socialism in one country,” which held that, though the socialist goal of world proletarian revolution was not to be abandoned, a viable classless society could be built within Soviet boundaries and despite encirclement by a largely capitalist world. Stalin, appealing both to socialist revolutionary fervour and to Russian nationalism, launched in the late 1920s a program of rapid industrial development of unprecedented magnitude. A “class war” was declared on the rich farmers in the name of the poor, and Russian agriculture was rapidly collectivized, against considerable rural resistance, to meet the needs of urban industry.
Given Stalin’s role in world history, it is unlikely that any modern political entities would rush to describe themselves as “Stalinist,” and that the term would function more as a pejorative hurled at opponents regardless of their ideology. And despite use of the word “socialism,” the definition of Stalinism went on to describe the seizure of agriculture assets from farmers deemed wealthy, assets which were mobilized to serve industrialized business. Presumably American ideologues on both sides of the aisle would see their cause as opposed to the tenets of Stalinism.
Stalin was associated with three parties in his political career, and the third evolved to become the Communist Party:
- Communist Party of the Soviet Union
- Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party
It would likely be most accurate to class Stalin as, appropriately enough, a “Stalinist” and a communist. But the ideals he espoused did not align with those of modern democratic socialists.
The meme went on to say Stalin “rose to power, promising equality,” following with a number of claims about his time in power and an effort to industrialize agriculture. According to a History.com biography, Stalin rose to power through various struggles with his political contemporaries, not via appeals to his fellow citizens:
In 1912, Lenin, then in exile in Switzerland, appointed Joseph Stalin to serve on the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. Three years later, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. The Soviet Union was founded in 1922, with Lenin as its first leader. During these years, Stalin had continued to move up the party ladder, and in 1922 he became secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a role that enabled him to appoint his allies to government jobs and grow a base of political support.
After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin eventually outmaneuvered his rivals and won the power struggle for control of the Communist Party. By the late 1920s, he had become dictator of the Soviet Union.
Elements of Stalin’s rise to prominence and leadership circle back to the meme’s claim that he had been lauded as an intellectual. Other biographies mention demonization of intellectuals as a key tenet of his political messaging:
After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin methodically went about destroying all the old leaders of the Party, taking advantage of their weakness for standing on arcane intellectual principle to simply divide and conquer them. At first, these people were removed from their posts and exiled abroad. Later, when he realized that their sharp tongues and pens were still capable of inveighing against him even from far away, Stalin switched tactics, culminating in a vast reign of terror and spectacular show trials in the 1930s during which the founding fathers of the Soviet Union were one by one unmasked as “enemies of the people” who had supposedly always been in the employ of Capitalist intelligence services and summarily shot. The particularly pesky Leon Trotsky, who continued to badger Stalin from Mexico City after his exile in 1929, had to be silenced once and for all with an ice pick in 1940. The purges, or “repressions” as they are known in Russia, extended far beyond the Party elite, reaching down into every local Party cell and nearly all of the intellectual professions, since anyone with a higher education was suspected of being a potential counterrevolutionary. This depleted the Soviet Union of its brainpower, and left Stalin as the sole intellectual force in the country–an expert on virtually every human endeavor.
That same item describes Stalin’s motives as predicated on economic competition — efforts that resulted in a massive famine:
Driven by his own sense of inferiority, which he projected onto his country as a whole, Stalin pursued an economic policy of mobilizing the entire country to achieve the goal of rapid industrialization, so that it could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Capitalist powers. To this end, he forcefully collectivized agriculture (one of the Bolsheviks’ key policy stances in 1917 was to give the land to the peasants; collectivization took it back from them and effectively reduced them to the status of serfs again), instituted the Five-Year Plans to coordinate all investment and production in the country, and undertook a massive program of building heavy industry. Although the Soviet Union boasted that its economy was booming while the Capitalist world was experiencing the Great Depression, and its industrialization drive did succeed in rapidly creating an industrial infrastructure where there once had been none, the fact is that all this was done at exorbitant cost in human lives. Measures such as the violent expropriation of the harvest by the government, the forced resettlement and murder of the most successful peasants as counterrevolutionary elements, and the discovery of a source of cheap labor through the arrest of millions of innocent citizens led to countless millions of deaths from the worst man-made famine in human history and in the camps of the Gulag.
The famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) is considered a “man-made catastrophe” during which millions of people died:
The result of Stalin’s policies was the Great Famine (Holodomor) of 1932–33 — a man-made demographic catastrophe unprecedented in peacetime. Of the estimated five million people who died in the Soviet Union, almost four million were Ukrainians. The famine was a direct assault on the Ukrainian peasantry, which had stubbornly continued to resist collectivization; indirectly, it was an attack on the Ukrainian village, which traditionally had been a key element of Ukrainian national culture. Its deliberate nature is underscored by the fact that no physical basis for famine existed in Ukraine.
Finally, claims that Stalin killed 20 million during his reign appeared in a 1989 New York Times article, which drew figures from an article published by a Russian newspaper:
A Soviet weekly newspaper today published the most detailed accounting of Stalin’s victims yet presented to a mass audience here, indicating that about 20 million died in labor camps, forced collectivization, famine and executions.
The estimates, by the historian Roy Medvedev, were printed in the weekly tabloid Argumenti i Fakti, which has a circulation of more than 20 million.
That 1989 reporting cited labor camps, executions, and policies as well as famine as causes. Those figures are debated by historians, with no firm number of deaths under Stalin agreed upon by scholars:
Accounts “gloss over the genocidal character of the Soviet regime in the 1930s, which killed systematically rather than episodically,” said Naimark. In the process of collectivization, for example, 30,000 kulaks were killed directly, mostly shot on the spot. About 2 million were forcibly deported to the Far North and Siberia.
They were called “enemies of the people,” as well as swine, dogs, cockroaches, scum, vermin, filth, garbage, half animals, apes. Activists promoted murderous slogans: “We will exile the kulak by the thousand when necessary – shoot the kulak breed.” “We will make soap of kulaks.” “Our class enemies must be wiped off the face of the earth.”
One Soviet report noted that gangs “drove the dekulakized naked in the streets, beat them, organized drinking bouts in their houses, shot over their heads, forced them to dig their own graves, undressed women and searched them, stole valuables, money, etc.”
The destruction of the kulak class triggered the Ukrainian famine, during which 3 million to 5 million peasants died of starvation.
The meme about young Joseph Stalin as a “Democrat Socialist” and an intellectual is laden with inaccuracies and half-truths among some historically factual information. The image of a man does show Stalin in 1901, Stalin was an atheist, and many died in famines during his reign. He was a communist or Stalinist, not a democratic socialist by any accepted definition. And though arguments have been presented that Stalin was “an intellectual,” they exist in contrast with his historical presence as a brute and tyrant. Finally, his name is commonplace in history texts and the poor education hinted at in the meme is likely to produce factually slanted and misleading Facebook shares versus awareness of Stalin’s legacy.