Defending Stalin (If you had to)

For some reason, one of my students has to engage in a ‘debate’ in school about totalitarianism, and whether or not Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were totalitarians.
She has the task of arguing that Stalin was not—leaving aside the absurdity of that claim, if you had to provide some defense of the claim, is there any argument to be made at all? I know there were people at the time defending him, but usually those people are overlooking the facts out of ideology, or perhaps speaking without full knowledge and believing his propaganda.

I’m stumped as to why a teacher would ask as student to take this position, but maybe there’s something I’m not thinking of? If there is, I don’t doubt someone here would be able to point it out.

People can argue that the holocaust never happened, too. That doesn’t mean they are right. If anything, Stalin was more a manifestation of the “total” in totalitarianism.

Perhaps the only real argument to be made was that he was busy dragging Russia from the 15th century to the 20th century. he had to fight off the opposition from the west that encouraged the White Russians to reverse the revolution (but that pretty much died before he replaced Lenin); he was dragging the country into the industrial age, and Communism was about removing the vast inequalities in society. Then he had to defend the country against an existential threat from invaders.

But… he was still a totalitarian.

I agree. I’ve never heard anyone make this argument before, and I keep hoping she’s misunderstood the assignment. But folks here often bring up things I hadn’t thought of, so I thought I’d ask.

You could argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin was not perfectly totalitarian when the peasants resisted the kolkhoz model (collective farming) in the '20s. But Stalin himself is still the poster child of totalitarianism. The definition of totalitarianism revolves around Stalin; the two are inseperable.


That’s what I told her. But it seems to be that just because you’re not 100% effective all the time, doesn’t mean you aren’t really a totalitarian.
It also seems like the kid who got the pro- side of this argument was given a way easier assignment.

It sounds like this is an exercise to practice the mechanics of constructing an argument, based on an absurdity. It could just as easily be “argue that MLK was actually a white female.” So, one must get past the moral repugnance of the assertion, and focus on the mechanics of the exercise.

Define the terms, and then refute that the subject meets the definition.

But what definition of totalitarianism do we use that Stalin doesn’t meet? Unless we use one so strict that no one ever meets it.

Well, that is one approach. We see that type of terms definition used in media and politics often.

A tough assignment to be sure. Here is a link to a website that has a lot of good information:

The use of terror, systematic terror, in totalitarian regimes is a key underlying factor that distinguishes them from other regime types. Looking at each of the six traits of totalitarianism as listed above, I will break these down and determine how totalitarian Stalin’s rule was.

Yes, that will be the problem. Because most definitions of totalitarianism were defined specifically to account for Hitler and Stalin. They pretty much are the definition, or were when the term was coined.

Your best bet may be to try to play up the nomenklatura and various regional and local authorities that at least had some amount of automony in the USSR under Stalin.

Another approach would be to sort of undermine the idea that “Totalitarianism” means anything useful at all. That the Soviet system under Stalin was so specific to that place and time that attempting to equate it to Fascism or other authoritarian systems is pointless. Something like “all definitions of Totalitarianism are basically describing Stalin’s regime, so the term itself is meaningless as a category”. But that may not be what the teacher is looking for.

Another tack, perhaps even more difficult to pull off, is to go full Marxist-Leninist and place Stalin in the context of the Revolution. Basically argue that during his entire rule the USSR was in a state of revolution against the Western capitalists and any actions taken that seem “totalitarian” were actually justifiable war-time actions to preserve the revolution of the peasants, soldiers, and workers. Those writers that coined the term to disparage Stalin and the USSR were enemies of the Revolution.

Historian Stephen Kotkin kept showing up on my YouTube recommendations, piquing my interest. But he’d so adamantly veer into “by his own lights, Stalin was doing the right thing,” apologia that I stuck with Robert Conquest and Simon Sebag Montefiore when it came time to but actual books on hold at the library.

People were defending him even after he died, and not just in the Soviet Union. Even today, I’m sure you could find people who think Stalin was cool. Maybe they felt obligated to do so because, if they were communists or more generally on the left, they felt obligated to say placating things? An own-goal type of situation.

Moving to IMHO.

Blech…changing schools out of the question?


A Russian co-worker of mine didn’t defend Stalin’s totalitarianism, but he suggested that maybe hundreds of years from now history books might say “Stalin the Great” could get credit for bringing Russia kicking and screaming into the industrial world.

Attack the definitions. Get the exact wording of the resolution. Find another person with the name “Stalin” (surname, nickname, whatever). Define the person referred to as that person. Show they weren’t totalitarian. Redefine “totalitarian.” Find some small area where people could make their own choices, then use that as proof that “total” wasn’t “total.” One exception means the definition falls.

Wasn’t there a comedian who would imitate some politician and quote a ridiculous statement, then start laughing and saying things like “I just can’t say these things and keep a straight face”? I’m afraid that’s what I would have to do.

However, there is a debating tactic, shift the question from one that is indefensible.

So right at the outset, say OF COURSE Stalin was a totalitarian. He was the poster child of totalitarianism. The was totalitarian no matter how you try to explain away his actions.

Then shift the debate away to another point, such as the one mentioned - how his actions were (urk) logical in light of the times. If the moderator tries to interrupt and get back to the original question - just keep saying “I’ve already discussed that.”

I believe there was a spurious quote “Stalin was perfectly logical if you consider that he believed in Marxist-Leninism and would do anything to ensure its inevitable success.”

There are any number of Stalinist political parties still very much active, including in Western countries. Visiting their websites will turn up plenty of arguments in favour of Stalin and against the notion that he was a totalitarian. Last I checked, one of the UK-based ones even had a FAQ all about the “misconceptions” about Stalin. Among the points I remember reading there was that Stalin was either unaware of his cult of personality (since it was largely hidden from him by his immediate subordinates) or did not condone it; if one accepts either premise, then it would be an argument in favour of him not wielding supreme political power.

So Stalinist apologists with the “it was a people’s democracy!” line might be your best sources here.

I think there are certainly reasonable arguments in defense of some of Stalin’s actions; there was no way Russia could have industrialized that quickly without forcing a lot of people at gunpoint to do things they didn’t want to do. And if they hadn’t industrialized quickly, Germany almost certainly would have won WW2, and that would have been a worse outcome than the one where Stalin’s side won.

But those are arguments to partially justify his totalitarianism; I don’t think there’s any non-ludicrous argument you could make that he wasn’t a totalitarian.

Yeah this is the best bet I think. Bourgeois democracy is just a trick of the ruling classes to enslave the proletariat, true democracy only happens when the workers control the means of production, etc.

But seriously, WTF is wrong with this class? Even if the point is to demonstrate how you can use rhetoric and cherry picked facts to defend the indefensible, maybe don’t choose a mass murdering genocidaire as a example?