Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The myth of the Soviet monolith is rapidly losing its hold on the scholarly community. The totalitarian model of a unified, smoothly running Party-State unquestioningly implementing the orders of its dictator was popular in the Cold War period, but has proven less and less tenable as an analytical structure for understanding either the Soviet present or past. The Bolshevik victory in 1917 is no longer universally ascribed to Lenin’s control over a conspiratorially organized Party, the inter-Party factional fighting of the 1920’s is losing the anomolous character it has held in traditional historical work, and hints have emerged that serious conflicts split Stalin’s Politburo in the years between the collectivization of agriculture in 1929 and the purges of 1936-1938. William O. McCagg, Jr.’s Stalin Embattled, 1943-1948, carries this challenge to the home ground of the totalitarian model, the postwar years of “High Stalinism.” McCagg attempts to show that both the Soviet domestic political scene and the international Communist movement were riddled with conflict, and that an analysis of these conflicts is essential to an understanding of Soviet diplomatic maneuvering during the onset of the Cold War.

Thus, the book also has a bearing on another scholarly controversy: that on the origins of the Cold War. This debate is dominated by two schools of thought. According to the orthodox, Stalin was intent on spreading Communism throughout the world by fomenting insurrection and using the victorious Red Army to back Communists in Eastern Europe. Such intentions rendered Soviet-Western cooperation impossible, and the blame for the Cold War falls on Stalin. The revisionists, however, believe that Stalin’s intentions were much more limited and nonrevolutionary. The Western powers could have dealt with Stalin, because his major goal was to acquire the sphere of influence in Eastern Europe traditionally sought by Russian diplomacy. It was only the West’s misunderstanding of his intentions that made them see him as a revolutionary and forced him into an adversary relationship with his former allies. McCagg’s interpretation is an imaginative, but ultimately flawed, attempt to split the difference between the two schools.

According to McCagg, Stalin really was the force for order that the revisionists see, but circumstances forced him to look like the sly revolutionary of the orthodox picture. He actually wanted to perpetuate the wartime cooperation of the Allies and articulate Soviet interests within a stable postwar world order, but he tried to achieve these goals through an elaborate deception. Faced with wayward elements in the Communist world, Stalin publicly broke with the principles which had previously guided his foreign policy and encouraged foreign Communists and the Red Army to “press for revolutionary power.” This turn to the Left made Stalin look more revolutionary than he really was. His maneuvers were designed to regain control over foreign Communists who favored insurrection, as well as over a postwar revival of the Soviet Communist Party that he had himself inspired. During the war, the military, the secret police, and the industrial managers had all managed to gain strength in the Soviet system. The Party revival was meant to offset the power of these other institutions, but it too began to get out of control, especially when it came under the influence of A. A. Zhdanov, the head of the Leningrad Party Organization, and V. M. Molotov, Minister of Foreign Affairs. These foreign and domestic challenges endangered Stalin’s control and the postwar stability he desired.

On the one hand, Stalin’s revolutionary posture had the desired effect. It kept foreign insurrectionaries in line, and it resulted in a diplomatic failure for the Soviet Union that benefited Stalin by discrediting the Party revivalists, especially Zhdanov and Molotov. On the other hand, Stalin’s manipulations engendered much suspicion in the West, and destroyed his credibility so much that no one believed his eventual protestations of moderation.

McCagg’s argument is an elaborate, even imposing edifice. It advances several generally accepted and generally plausible hypotheses. When one begins to examine more closely, however, serious problems emerge: the argument extends far beyond the evidence, rests on certain unproven assumptions about the Soviet system, and may exaggerate the centrality of the Party revival.

The argument sets two tasks before McCagg. He must first prove that Stalin’s postwar foreign policy was indeed a turn to the Left. This means, in his own terms, that it broke with “statism,” a word McCagg never defines but uses to mean a domestic reliance on State rather than Party institutions, a foreign policy concern for Russian geopolitical interests, and above all, the opposite of revolutionism. Second, he must prove that there were forces in the Communist movement and the Communist Party strong enough to induce Stalin to make such a change.

Neither proposition is self-evident, and both are questionable. Postwar Soviet foreign policy did not necessarily contradict the nonrevolutionary principles that inspired it before the war. As McCagg himself shows, Stalin felt that Eastern European Communists should enter coalition governments, and in 1943-1948, he moved to undermine only those governments which were overtly anti-Soviet. Neither Stalin’s opposition to the London-based Polish government, nor the Soviet ultimatum to King Michael of Rumania in 1945 were obvious breaks from this kind of statism. McCagg has only one clear example of Stalin’s being forced to moderate his commitment to nonrevolutionary policies by native radical Communists, and even this, the 1947 Béla Kovács affair in Hungary, did not result in a Communist...

(The entire section is 2380 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Library Journal. CIII, June 1, 1978, p. 1179.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIII, May 29, 1978, p. 46.