The most commonly-made claims used to denounce Stalin and the USSR under his leadership are that Stalin built up a cult of personality around himself, that Stalin suppressed democracy and eliminated anyone who disagreed with him, that the bureaucracy which emerged in the USSR was largely Stalin’s doing, and that the USSR under Stalin was ultimately “state capitalism.” All of these claims are either false or thoroughly misleading. The first two assertions are simply not backed up by any credible evidence. Surely, there is a great deal of literature expounding upon Stalin’s supposed crimes and abuses of power, but these accounts are almost entirely based on hearsay and rumor, something even bourgeois historians occasionally admit. A closer investigation, made possible by examining what Stalin actually said, what his contemporaries felt, and through examination of what has been declassified of the Soviet archives, reveals that there is little merit to the picture of Stalin as a malevolent dictator, or the CPSU of the day as a monolithic entity. As for the claims that Stalin “created” a bureaucracy and that he turned the USSR into a “state capitalist” country, they stem from a misunderstanding of the nature of bureaucracy and its roots, the nature of the Soviet economy under Stalin’s leadership, and of socialism generally.
The cult of personality
There was, undoubtedly, a cult of personality surrounding J.V. Stalin. I am unaware of any serious historical account, sympathetic or otherwise, which denies this. The question is whether Stalin himself was the source of this cult, or at least whether or not he was complicit in it. Khrushchev seemed to think so as in his “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, he made the cult of personality the central premise of his denunciation of Stalin and his policies.
After Stalin’s death the Central Committee of the party began to implement a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior. Such a belief about a man, and specifically about Stalin, was cultivated among us for many years…
At present, we are concerned with a question which has immense importance for the party now and for the future—with how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing, the cult which became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of party principles, of party democracy, of revolutionary legality. 
It is interesting that Khrushchev stopped short of outright accusing Stalin of being responsible for the cult of personality (perhaps because, as we shall soon see, he could not have justified such a claim). However in choosing to open the speech in this way, he made the personality cult the focus, and throughout the rest of the speech, he took for granted that Stalin himself fostered the cult, and hoped that others would as well. Indeed many did take it for granted, both within the CPSU—or at least the portion of it that wasn’t purged between the twentieth and twenty-second party congresses—and throughout the capitalist world.
Surely there can be little disagreement that the elevating of one person to a “superhuman… possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god” is an extraordinarily troublesome and unsavory thing. Stalin did not disagree. All available evidence indicates that Stalin opposed the personality cult surrounding him, and that he spent most of his leadership trying to counteract it.
I must say in all conscience, comrades, that I do not deserve a good half of the flattering things that have been said here about me. I am, it appears, a hero of the October Revolution, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the leader of the Communist International, a legendary warrior-knight and all the rest of it. This is absurd, comrades, and quite unnecessary exaggeration. It is the sort of thing that is usually said at the graveside of a departed revolutionary. But I have no intention of dying yet.
- Stalin, June 1926 
You speak of your “devotion” to me. Perhaps this is a phrase that came out accidentally. Perhaps… But if it is not a chance phrase, I would advise you to discard the “principle” of devotion to persons. It is not the Bolshevik way. Be devoted to the working class, its Party, its state. That is a fine and useful thing. But do not confuse it with devotion to person, this vain and useless bauble of weak-minded intellectuals.
- August 1930 
Marxism does not deny at all the role played by outstanding individuals or that history is made by people. But… great people are worth anything at all only to the extent that they are able to correctly understand these conditions, to understand how to change them…
Individual persons cannot decide. Decisions of individuals are always, or nearly always, one-sided decisions…
Never under any circumstances would our workers now tolerate power in the hands of one person. With us personages of the greatest authority are reduced to nonentities, become mere ciphers, as soon as the masses of the workers lose confidence in them.
- December 1931 
Anti-Stalinists may read these quotes and assume that Stalin must have been hypocrite, that he was merely brandishing a fashionable false modesty while in practice building up a cult around himself. However, Stalin’s opposition to the cult of personality extended beyond mere words. Stalin repeatedly objected to attempts to hold national festivities or propaganda exhibitions in honor of his birthday on the grounds that “such undertakings lead to the strengthening of a ‘cult of personality,’ which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party.”  In 1937, the Politburo attempted to rename Moscow to “Stalinodar,” meaning “gift of Stalin,” but Stalin managed to convince them not to proceed.  In 1938, Stalin opposed the publishing of Stories of the Childhood of Stalin, not only because it contained numerous exaggerations and inaccuracies, but also because in his own words, “the book has a tendency to engrave in the minds of Soviet children (and people in general) the personality cult of leaders, of infallible heroes.”  In 1945, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded Stalin the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, yet he refused to accept it. He could not of course prevent the Soviets from giving him the award after his death. 
But surely, insist the anti-Stalinists, a man as powerful as Stalin must have been able to do more to curb the cult of personality surrounding him! Few have responded to this assertion as concisely as Grover Furr:
Some have argued that Stalin’s opposition to the cult around himself must have been hypocrisy. After all, Stalin was so powerful that if he had really wanted to put a stop to the cult, he could have done so. But this argument assumes what it should prove. To assume that he was that powerful is also to assume that Stalin was in fact what the “cult” absurdly made him out to be: an autocrat with supreme power over everything and everyone in the USSR. 
Stalin was the General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee. He could be removed by the Central Committee at any time. His was only one vote in the Politburo of the Central Committee. Stalin tried to resign from his post as General Secretary four times. Each time his attempt was rejected. The last such attempt was at the 19th Party Congress, in October 1952. It too was rejected. 
Those who continue to assert that the cult of personality was Stalin’s doing are grasping at straws. There is simply no credible evidence of this, and abundant evidence that suggests the contrary. I think it is time we put this particular argument to rest.
The alleged suppression of democracy
The USSR was a single-party state. There is nothing in particular in Marxist-Leninist thought that asserts that this must be the form a dictatorship of the proletariat takes. Certainly, Leninism holds that the Communist Party should play the leading role in politics, but this does not preclude the existence of other parties. In practice however, after the October Revolution, the Communist Party in Soviet Russia and subsequently the USSR very quickly became the only legitimate political organ. This should be understood as a consequence of the fact that in their early form, the Bolsheviks were unprepared to deal with political opposition, but also of the fact that the political opposition of the time was totally unwilling to work within the system. This general scenario is a result of the intense aggravation of class struggle that occurs immediately following a socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie do not simply roll over and allow their power to be usurped; they fight back and attempt to retake it. Opposition parties in a period of counter-revolution tend to be manipulated by the bourgeoisie, or they become opportunistic in their opposition and actively seek allegiance with elements of the bourgeoisie. The result is that opposition parties tend to serve counter-revolution themselves, which is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia. Every opposition party except the Social Revolutionaries refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet system, and even the latter party eventually withdrew. The consolidation of political power into a single party was solidified after the civil war with the 1922 trial of Social Revolutionary leaders for treason, but as Edward Hallett Carr points out in The Bolshevik Revolution, the acts the Social Revolutionaries were tried for “under any system of government would have been criminal.”  So the single-party system arose out of the harsh conditions immediately following revolution, and similar scenarios have played out in nearly all of the other socialist revolutions of the 20th century.
But is working class rule possible in a single party system? While thorough discussion of this question is beyond the scope of this analysis, the answer is decidedly yes, provided that inner-party democracy remains intact. The CPSU’s leadership in the USSR did have a proletarian character, and the proof here is in the pudding; the proletarian nature of the policies carried out by the CPSU before Stalin’s death indicate its role as a working-class organ (this will be discussed in more detail below). However, anti-Stalinists insist otherwise. According to them, Stalin suppressed Party democracy, consolidating power to himself and removing all who opposed him. If this claim is true, then it does seriously call into question whether the Soviet state under Stalin’s leadership was at all a dictatorship of the proletariat. But these assertions have no merit.
There is no evidence anywhere that Stalin ever removed anyone from a position of leadership because they disagreed with him. The notion that Stalin removed his political opponents from power is perhaps the greatest fabrication told about the man. There is simply no basis for it. The accusation is backed only by hearsay and rumor, and the sparse anecdotes that appear to show that Stalin hated opposition, refused to compromise, made decisions unilaterally, etc. are easily countered by the numerous contrary accounts given by those who worked with him.
After Stalin’s death appeared the tale about how he used to take military and strategic decisions unilaterally. This was not the case at all. I have already said above that if you reported questions to the Supreme Commander with a knowledge of your business, he took them into account. And I know of cases when he turned against his own previous opinion and changed decisions he had taken previously. 
His style of work, as a rule, was businesslike. Everyone could express his own opinion without being nervous. The Supreme Commander treated everyone the same way—strictly and officially. He knew how to listen attentively when you reported to him with knowledge of your topic. He himself was laconic, and did not like verbosity in others. 
I must say that each one of us had the full ability to express himself and defend his opinion or proposal. We frankly discussed the most complicated and contested questions (as for myself, I can speak on this point with the fullest responsibility), and met on Stalin’s part in most cases with understanding, a reasoned and patient attitude even when our statements were obviously disagreeable to him.
He was also attentive to the proposals by the generals. Stalin listened carefully to what was said to him and to counsel, listened to disagreements with interest, extracting intelligently from them that bit of truth that helped him later to formulate his final, most appropriate decisions which were born in this way, as a result of collective discussion. More than this: it commonly happened that, convinced by our evidence, Stalin changed his own preliminary viewpoint on one or another question. 
I. A. Benediktov:
Contrary to the widespread view, all questions in those years, including those involving the transfer of leading party, state, and military figures, were decided in a collegial manner in the Politburo. At the Politburo sessions themselves arguments and discussions often flared up, different, sometimes contradictory opinions were expressed within the framework, naturally, of party directives. There was no quiet, untroubled unanimity—Stalin and his colleagues could not abide that. I am quite justified in saying this because I was present at Politburo sessions many times. 
Even if we discount all of these statements (and there are many more like this), the fact remains that there is simply no record to support the idea that Stalin was not collegial or that he removed his political opponents for disagreeing with him.
It is also notable that during his leadership, Stalin put forth effort to expand democracy. In 1936, a draft for the Soviet Constitution approved by the All-Russia Congress of Soviets included new provisions for secret ballot, contested elections, and re-enfranchisement of certain groups, including kulaks and those who had violated the “law of three ears.” These additions were insisted upon by Stalin and he continued to vigorously fight for them. The rest of the Central Committee of the Party strongly disagreed with some of these provisions however, and given the panic caused by the uncovering of forces within the state collaborating with Germany and Japan, not all the democratic expansions made it into the final Constitution. 
Additionally, Stalin sought to change the role of the Communist Party in relation to the state. Over the history of the USSR, the Party and state had effectively merged. Stalin did not see this as inevitable or particularly desirable, nor did most other Marxists. A political party that must also carry out the state’s executive functions has little time for healthy ideological life and can become degenerate. Moreover, party-state mergers are breeding-grounds for bureaucracy and opportunism, a view Stalin seems to have held. Thus he advocated that the role of the Party should return to one of agitation, ideological leadership, nominating cadres, etc. while the executive functions of the state should be carried out separately, and nominations to the Soviet congresses should be carried out by the people. Effectively what Stalin was discussing was a separation between Party and state. Although the 1936 Soviet Constitution did vaguely reflect this concept, the desired democratic shift never fully materialized. 
It must also be deeply stressed that there is strong documentary evidence that workers participated heavily and on a mass scale in the economic planning of the USSR during the Stalin era. Workers were free to criticize their managers and local officials, to complain about working and living conditions, and to suggest ways of improving those conditions. These complaints were not hidden; they were often published openly in the newspaper. Workers elected delegates to factory committees, who then helped form the economic plan. These delegates were accountable to direct mandates from workers, and could be recalled at any time. While the socialist system itself could not be challenged, and parties outside the Communist Party were not legal, the latter restriction in particular mattered less in a system where delegates did not necessarily have their own agendas, but were directly accountable to their constituents.  This system of proletarian democracy undoubtedly had shortcomings, but it nonetheless existed and continued to develop under Stalin, and there is no evidence that Stalin made any move to suppress it.
All of this considered, an analysis of democracy (or lack thereof) in the Stalin era would be incomplete without discussion of the purges. Much ado is made about the expulsions from the party, the arrests, and the executions that occurred under Stalin’s leadership, especially those between 1937 and 1938, where the purges reached their height. The extent of executions is often exaggerated, and there is evidence today that many who were accused of crimes were in fact involved in espionage or other sabotage—that is to say, they were guilty of the crimes they were accused of.  Nevertheless, it is well-known that many innocent people were killed during the purges. As with the cult of personality, the question is whether Stalin was responsible for the excesses.
The worst offenses of the purges were carried out by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) during the tenure of Nikolai Ezhov as its director. Ezhov is sometimes described as Stalin’s “loyal executioner,” but the Soviet archives demonstrate he was anything but. He was part of a Rightist conspiracy to undermine the Central Committee’s effort in ousting right-wing cadres from its ranks. The plan was for the NKVD to protect the Rightists by diverting attention away from them, fabricating evidence against honest communists and bringing them to trial and in many cases execution. Here is the 1939 statement from Frinkovsky, one of the deputy heads of the NKVD during the purges:
Before the arrest of Bukharin and Rykov, Ezhov, speaking with me quite openly, started to talk about the plans for Chekist work in connection with the current situation and the imminent arrests of Bukharin and Rykov. Ezhov said that this would be a great loss to the Rights, after that regardless of our own wishes, upon the instructions of the Central Committee large-scale measures might be taken against the cadres of the Right, and that in connection with this his and my main task must be to direct the investigation in such a way so that, as much as possible, to preserve the Rightist cadre…
After the arrests of the members of the center of Rights, Ezhov and Evdokimov in essence became the center, and organized:
1) the preservation, as far as possible, of the anti-Soviet cadre of the Rights from destruction; 2) the direction of the blows against the honest party cadre who were dedicated to the Central Committee of the ACP(b) [the Communist Party as it was called at the time]; 3) preservation of the rebel cadre in the North Caucasus and in other krais and oblasts of the USSR, with the plan to use them at the time of international complications; 4) a reinforced preparation of terrorist acts against the leaders of the party and government; 5) the assumption of power of the Rights with Ezhov at their head. 
Thus in his effort to preserve right-wing cadre, to undermine the Central Committee, and to concentrate power to himself, Ezhov falsely accused and killed huge numbers of innocent people. This is pretty damning. Adding further to this is Ezhov’s own confession, where he admits that he was committing espionage on behalf of Poland and Germany.  Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Stalin was a part of this conspiracy, and it is absurd to suggest that he was. The conspiracy that Ezhov headed was explicitly a response to anti-Rightist efforts initiated by Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee. Stalin himself was a target of removal for Ezhov.  When his heinous crimes were exposed, Ezhov was arrested, tried, and executed. When Beria took control of the NKVD in 1939, the chaos that marked the previous two years largely subsided. 
This is not to say we should absolve Stalin of all responsibility. When massive treachery such as this happens under one’s leadership, even if the leader is totally unaware of it, the leader must to some extent be held responsible. If Stalin was in error here, it was in trusting Ezhov and his cronies. It could also be said that Stalin and the rest of the Communist Party created power structures that were ripe for saboteurs to abuse. Furthermore, the general idea of widespread purges as a means of suppressing internal counter-revolution tended to create a climate which blurred the distinctions regarding contradictions between the people and their enemies, and healthy contradictions within the people themselves, as Mao argued in his sympathetic critique of Stalin. However, to understand all of this as a product of a “villainous” Stalin is a theory that holds about as much water as a sieve. Instead, we should recognize that Stalin fought to combat degeneracy within the party, to expand democracy, and to suppress counter-revolution, but along with the rest of the Party he made some serious errors. Although we should not downplay the significance of these errors, we should understand that they were the product of a leadership grappling with something entirely new: how to build a socialist society, and how to do so in the midst of sabotage and generally extreme conditions at that.
The claims that Stalin created the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union are already more-or-less in shambles in light of the above evidence. Thus I will not spend too much time on them here, other than to reiterate that Stalin fought for democratic reforms, and led the charge against Rightists within the Party in order to curb the growing bureaucracy and degeneracy within the CPSU. We must go beyond this however and understand where the bureaucracy came from. It is foolish and inaccurate to blame it on any one person. Instead, we need a materialist analysis.
The experiences of both the USSR and the People’s Republic of China demonstrate that the bureaucratization of socialism is a consequence of the fact that class struggle continues under socialism, and of the fact that realities of rapid industrialization and collectivization create conditions in which certain segments of society can become privileged and elitist. In the first place, the bourgeoisie does not simply disappear after a successful proletarian revolution. Their wealth and social power do not evaporate overnight. Moreover their clout is magnified by the influence of foreign capitalist powers as long as they exist. Class struggle manifests itself at all levels of society, and the Party and state are no exception. Bourgeois influence has a tendency to bureaucratize the Party and divorce it from the working class. This is one source of bureaucracy. The other major source stems from the process of mobilizing society’s productive forces. The struggle of the masses to learn to manage themselves is a major part of the socialist aim, yet it takes time. Meanwhile, the economy has to be run. This necessitates managers and planners, who are often petty-bourgeois intellectuals and they often demand high salaries. In a socialist society, these managers are subordinate to the common plan, but nevertheless their level of education, social position, and high incomes put them in some sense above the rest of society, and this can lead to bureaucracy.
It is clear that the trend toward bureaucracy needs to be countered. The purges in the USSR, at least those not orchestrated by Ezhov, had the explicit goal of countering right-wing, bureaucratic forces. Yet the truth is that they failed. Immediately following Stalin’s death, when Khrushchev came to power in 1956, the Soviet Union was set on the capitalist road, and Khrushchev solidified his revisionist clique by expelling 70% of the Party leadership.  Monthly Review argued in their January 1967 issue that this failure to ultimately quell the bureaucratic forces is best understood to have been a result of the fact that the Bolsheviks failed to mobilize the masses at a grassroots level against bureaucracy, and that they did not adequately train a new generation of revolutionaries to defend socialism after Stalin died.  In other words, the Bolshevik response to the bureaucracy in the form of the purges was rather impotent, and only temporarily kept the counter-revolutionary forces at bay, rather than addressing the source of the problem. If we are to gain anything from the experience of the USSR, we need to be able to make such critiques which get to the core of things. Simply putting the blame for the bureaucracy on Stalin is not only extremely disingenuous, but it leaves us without a coherent explanation for why it arose or how to counter such bureaucracy in the future.
Was the USSR under Stalin a “state capitalist” country?
The final refuge for the anti-Stalinists is in the assertion that the USSR in the Stalin era was not a socialist country at all, but rather a “state capitalist” country. It is often extremely unclear what is meant by this. First, let us understand succinctly what is meant by socialism. Socialism is a society in which the proletariat controls the state, the productive forces are mobilized for the benefit of the working people, and society is moving toward collective ownership of the means of production, abolition of wage labor, and ultimately toward eliminating classes and achieving communism. Any judgment of whether or not a nation is a socialist country must be tested against this standard.
The accusation that the USSR under Stalin’s leadership was not socialist seems to come from two camps. The first claims that centralization of productive forces in the hands of the state does not constitute socialism in any case. The second camp claims that although state central planning can be socialist in character, the economy of the USSR under Stalin was run primarily for the enrichment of capitalists and bureaucrats. Although the latter assertion is more coherent, both are false.
A popular thing among left-communists and many Western leftists is to argue, or at least to imply, that the USSR was not a socialist country because the state owned the means of production as opposed to the workers. This goes beyond merely saying that state ownership is not necessarily socialism; this is to say that state ownership cannot equal socialism, that “state socialism” is a contradiction in terms. It is notable that this notion is in opposition not only to Stalin and the “cabals of evil men who betray revolutions,” but also to those the anti-Stalinists purport to cherish so much: Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Lenin (I have written about the specific case of Luxemburg and “state socialism” before). All saw socialism as state ownership of at least the most important means of production, combined with mass participation of the proletariat in the state apparatus.
But more importantly, those in opposition to “state socialism” offer no real alternative. They make vague statements about workers owning and controlling the means of production directly, but this is all they have. They have no concrete examples of how this would actually work, especially on a large scale. They are not even very clear about what “directly owning and controlling the means of production” means. Moreover they do not consider that class struggle continues under socialism, that a strong state is necessary to quell counter-revolution, that some of what workers produce must be appropriated to defend the nation from external attack, etc. To deny that all of these concerns are real and must be incorporated into our conception of socialism is simply Utopian.
Fundamentally, what we are talking about when we discuss building socialism is the mobilization of all of society’s productive forces for the benefit of the working people. We are talking about utilizing economies of scale to feed the whole populace, increase the quantity and quality of means of production, provide universal access to health care and education, all without exploiting the labor of other nations. For this to succeed, the productive forces must be coordinated according to a common plan. The state is a tremendous tool for the kind and scale of coordination we are talking about. Certainly, nationalization of industries and collectivization of agriculture is not enough to constitute socialism, for the means of production in the hands of the state can be utilized in a way that is only beneficial to the powerful and the wealthy. But if the proletariat controls the state—and the Marxist position is firmly that this is possible—and the common plan is arrived at in a democratic way, then state planning can be a central tool for socialism. Indeed it must be. “State socialism” can work, and it has worked for hundreds of millions of people. To deny this is simply farcical.
However there are also anti-Stalinists who recognize the role that the state is to play in socialism, but they insist that the USSR under Stalin was not a dictatorship of the proletariat. According to them, the CPSU was not a party of the working class (i.e. that proletarian democracy was suppressed) and that the economy was run for the benefit of the few, rather than the many. In this, these anti-Stalinists are simply misinformed. We have already seen that the claim that democracy was suppressed under Stalin is highly exaggerated or an outright fabrication. Evidence of the proletarian character of the CPSU is further reinforced when one looks at the overarching nature of the policies that were implemented under Stalin’s leadership, as we shall shortly see. The assertion that the economy of the USSR in the Stalin era was ultimately run for the benefit of capitalists or a handful of bureaucrats and dictators has no basis in fact.
The means of production were public property in the USSR, wage labor was abolished, and individuals could not employ the labor of others. What exactly was capitalist about this system? Perhaps it could be argued that since commodity production was not completely abolished, the state was in some sense merely managing a capitalist economy. Indeed, some did make such an argument in Stalin’s day, pointing to a statement by Engels in Anti-Duhring:
With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer.
In other words the critics of socialism in the USSR believed that because commodity production had not been eliminated immediately, that the Soviet Union was betraying the principles of socialism. Stalin responded to this quite aptly in Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR.
These comrades are profoundly mistaken.
Let us examine Engels’ formula. Engels’ formula cannot be considered fully clear and precise, because it does not indicate whether it is referring to the seizure by society of all or only part of the means of production, that is, whether all or only part of the means of production are converted into public property. Hence, this formula by Engels may be understood either way.
Elsewhere in Anti-Duhring Engels speaks of mastering “all the means of production.” Hence, in this formula Engels has in mind the nationalization not of part, but of all the means of production, that is, the conversion into public property of the means of production not only of industry, but also of agriculture…
But here is the question: what are the proletariat and its party to do in countries, ours being case in point, where conditions are favorable for the assumption of power by the proletariat and the overthrow of capitalism, where capitalism has so concentrated the means of production in industry that they may be expropriated and made the property of society, but where agriculture, notwithstanding growth of capitalism, is divided up among numerous small and medium owner-producers to such an extent as to make it impossible to consider expropriation of these producers? 
Capitalism in the most advanced countries centralizes capital in both industry and agriculture, so that upon seizure of power by the proletariat, the conditions exist for relatively easy expropriation of all productive forces into collective hands. In many countries however, including Russia, capitalism developed rapidly in industrial sectors, creating a revolutionary proletariat and creating conditions for the nationalization of industry under socialism, but it did not centralize capital in agriculture to nearly the same extent. The conditions that the Soviets faced were that agriculture was dominated by small and middle-sized producers who were unwilling to have their product expropriated. Stalin argued that there were three ways of proceeding: The first option was to abandon socialism until capitalist development had immiserated the peasants enough to make them “ripe” for expropriation, which no Marxist of any conscience could advocate. The second option was to forcibly expropriate the peasants, which would have been criminal. The third option was what the Soviets in fact did. They collectivized agriculture, so the means of production and land were owned by the state, but the product belonged to the peasants. The peasants would sell this product to the state and use their payment to purchase personal effects, hence the necessity of a sphere of commodity production. 
Does commodity production necessarily mean that capitalism is dominant? Stalin argues that this is not necessarily true:
It is said that commodity production must lead, is bound to lead, to capitalism all the same, under all conditions. That is not true. Not always and not under all conditions! Commodity production must not be identified with capitalist production. They are two different things. Capitalist production is the highest form of commodity production. Commodity production leads to capitalism only if there is private ownership of the means of production, if labor power appears on the market, and if consequently, the system of exploitation of wage workers by capitalists exists in the country. 
Certainly, one of the goals of socialism is ultimately the abolition of commodity production, but faced with reality, sometimes temporary compromises need to be made. In the USSR, commodity production was a necessary concession to the peasants, the sphere of commodity production was limited, and its mere existence did not constitute capitalism for it was still part of the common plan, and it was not driven by private ownership of the means of production or wage labor.
The question still remains however: was the economy run in a way that benefited the workers and peasants, rather than capitalists and bureaucrats? Anti-Stalinists love to focus on the forced collectivization of the kulaks, holodomor, and other errors and incompetent practices. Did these failures dominate the Soviet economy? The answer is no. The productive forces—including in the sphere of commodity production—were mobilized not toward profit, but toward maximizing “satisfaction of the material and cultural requirements of society,” toward expanding productivity and efficiency to the point where the whole population could be fed, housed, medically treated and educated.  The results speak for themselves. Average at-birth life expectancy during Stalin’s leadership jumped from about 45 years to 67 years.  In 1926 the literacy rate was 56.6%. By 1937 it was 75% and by 1939 the literacy rate was 81.2%.  The rapid industrialization brought about under Stalin’s leadership transformed the USSR into a 20th century economy and allowed the nation to defend itself from Nazi aggression. At the end of the day, socialism in the Stalin era was a boon for the people of the Soviet Union.
The reasons behind the distortions
We have seen that none of the claims discussed—that Stalin fostered the cult of personality around himself, that Stalin suppressed democracy, that he created bureaucracy, and that the USSR under Stalin was “state capitalist”—are true. Yet claims such as these are ubiquitous. Many of us assume, simply because we have heard Stalin demonized so many times, that there must be some justification for it. We assume that someone, somewhere, has done the research to back up these claims. However, upon actual investigation, we find that the anti-Stalinist narrative falls apart. Clearly if we desire truth, then we are forced to realize that there has been a travesty here. The question left to us now is why?
Every group that has spread distortions about Stalin and socialism in the USSR has had an agenda. The Troskyites denounced Stalin attempting to explain their removal from influence and marginalization by the CPSU. The Khrushchevites put the USSR on the capitalist road and used “de-Stalinization” as cover. Many Western leftist organizations today opportunistically seek to cozy up with liberals by distancing themselves as much as possible from Stalin and the USSR. But by far the biggest reason for the distortions and lies about Stalin stems from the fact that the USSR under Stalin’s leadership was a major threat to capital. Stalin and the rest of the Communist Party took the theoretical construct of socialism and made it into concrete reality. Stalin is hated not because he failed, or because the USSR in his day was a catastrophe; Stalin is hated because he succeeded. He proved that we can build a society that functions and provides for the needs of its people without the rule of capital. The profundity of this should not be underestimated, and it should come as little surprise that the bourgeoisie has for decades made every effort to discredit the achievements of the Soviet Union, especially those made by Stalin. The reason for this is that if we realize the truth, then suddenly, socialism seems like not such an unrealistic thing. Suddenly, socialism appears as something that can be achieved and has been, with a rich history of success and failure to learn from. In short, if we embrace the experiences of really-existing socialism rather than disavow them, then we are empowered to build a clear vision of a better world, and a plan for how to get there. Nothing more terrifies the ruling class.
1. N. Khrushchev, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences (1956). http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1956khrushchev-secret1.html
2. J.V. Stalin, Reply to the Greetings of the Workers of the Chief Railway Workshops in Tiflis (1926). http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1926/06/08.htm
3. J.V. Stalin, Letter to Comrade Shatunovsky (1930). http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1930/08/x01.htm
4. J.V. Stalin, Talk With the German Author Emil Ludwig (1931). http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1931/dec/13.htm
5. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223.
6. Ibid., 9.
8. J.V. Stalin, Letter on Publications for Children Directed to the Central Committee of the All Union Communist Youth (1938). http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1938/02/16.htm
9. F. Chuev, Conversations with Molotov. From the Diary of F. Chuev (Moscow, 1994), 254.
10. G. Furr, 8.
11. Ibid., 22.
12. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 190.
13. G.K. Zhukov, Razgrom fashistskikh voysk na Kurskoy duge. http://militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/zhukov1/17.html
14. G.K Zhukov, Stavka Verkhovnogo Glavnokomandovaniya. http://militera.lib.ru/memo/russian/zhukov1/11.html
15. A. Mikoyan, Tak byla (Moscow: Vagrius, 1999), 464.
16. G. Furr, 242.
17. G. Furr, Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform, Part One (2005), pp. 20-36. http://clogic.eserver.org/2005/furr.html
18. Ibid., pp. 42-45.
19. R. Thurston, Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia 1934-1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), Ch. 6.
20. This is another topic that is beyond the scope of this analysis. However, Chapter 11 of Grover Furr’s Khrushchev Lied contains a detailed and thorough account of how Pospolov’s report—which Khrushchev used to “rehabilitate” many who he claimed had been falsely accused during the purges—is extremely fraudulent. This is highly recommended reading.
21. Lubianka. Stalin I NKVD – NKGB – GUKR “SMERSH”. 1939 – mart 1946 (Moscow, 2006), pp. 33-50. http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/research/frinovskyeng.html
22. Lubianka. Stalin I NKVD – NKGB – GUKR “SMERSH”. 1939 – mart 1946, (Moscow, 2006), pp. 52-72. http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/research/ezhov042639eng.html
24. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied, 37.
25. CPGB-ML, Revisionism and The Demise of The USSR (2011), 72. http://cpgb-ml.org/download/publications/RevisionismUSSR.pdf
26. Monthly Review, January 1967, The Cultural Revolution in China.
27. J.V. Stalin, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, (Marxist Internet Archive, 2005), Ch. 2. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1951/economic-problems/index.htm
30. Ibid., Ch. 3.
31. M. Ryan, Life expectancy and mortality date for the Soviet Union, Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 1988 May 28; 296(6635): 1513
32. S. Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s peasants: resistance and survival in the Russian village after collectivization, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) pp. 225-226 & fn. 78 p. 363.
33. M.V. Kabatchekno, L.D. Yasnikova, Eradicating Illiteracy in the USSR, Literacy Lessons, Vol 10 (Unesco: International Bureau of Education, 1990).