H. Bruce Franklin is a man of many hats. A professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers, he has written respected books on Melville, menhaden, and the history of science fiction, among other subjects. He is also the author of one of the most bizarre exercises in historical interpretation that I've ever read: the introduction to a collection called The Essential Stalin. This essay isn't just an ode to Stalin. It's an ode to Stalin published in 1972, painting him as a People's Hero that the New Left could love. If you're an aficionado of revisionism gone wrong, this is your Holy Grail.
The collectivization of agriculture, for example, is described as a spontaneous, bottom-up process, with Stalin serving as a moderating influence:
the capitalist privileges allowed under [the New Economic Policy] were revoked. This was known as the restriction of the kulaks. The kulaks, whose very existence as a class was thus menaced, struck back. They organized terrorist bands who attacked the co-operatives and collectives, burning down barns when they were filled with grain, devastating the fields, and even murdering Communist peasant leaders….Virtual open civil war began to rage throughout the countryside. As a collective farm movement spread rapidly, pressure mounted among the poor and middle peasants to put an end to landlordism and usury in the countryside for good. In 1929 Stalin agreed that the time had come to eliminate the kulaks as a class. He led the fight to repeal the laws that allowed the renting of land and the hiring of labor, thus depriving the kulaks both of land and of hired workers. The ban on expropriation of the large private holdings was lifted, and the peasants promptly expropriated the kulak class….It is undoubtedly true that in many areas there was needless violence and suffering. But this did not originate with Stalin. It was the hour of Russia's peasant masses, who had been degraded and brutalized for centuries and who had countless blood debts to settle with their oppressors. Stalin may have unleashed their fury, but he was not the one who had caused it to build up for centuries. In fact it was Stalin who checked the excesses generated by the enthusiasm of the collective movement.
Franklin also pushes back against "the orthodox U.S. view of the purge trials" with a narrative that relies heavily on Joseph E. Davies' book Mission to Moscow—yes, the source for Michael Curtiz's infamous movie. The argument peaks with this passage:
Stalin…had publicly admitted, not in 1956, but at least as early as 1939, that innocent people had been convicted and punished in the purge: "It cannot be said that the purge was not accompanied by grave mistakes. There were unfortunately more mistakes than might have been expected." (Report to the Eighteenth Congress.) That is one reason why many of those tried and convicted in the last trials were high officials from the secret police, the very people guilty of forcing fake confessions.
There's much more, including a novel defense of the Hitler-Stalin pact and an argument that Stalin, at the end of his life, "began to turn his attention to the most serious threat to the world revolution, the bureaucratic-technocratic class." Sadly, The Essential Stalin is out of print. Happily, the helpful archivists at The Marxist-Leninist have scanned and posted the essay at their site, allowing everyone on the Internet to read this very original contribution to Soviet studies.
Elsewhere in Reason: Bruce Franklin, meet Gary Allen.