Over the weekend, I watched two episodes about the great Soviet leader, Stalin, his rise to power, his treachery towards friends and comrades and allies. (It was shown on the AHC channel: “Apocalypse: Stalin.” What emerges is a horrifying character that began as a bank robber and ended as a mass executioner and the instigator of man- made famines that killed millions.
Stalin was a very vain man. There are no official reports about the height of Joseph Stalin because Stalin was sensitive about it; he went to great lengths to conceal his lack of stature from the Soviet people and the world because he stood only at 5 feet 4 or 5 feet 5. He was an un-attractive man with his pockmarked face, bad teeth, his limp, and his withered left arm yet his deepest ambition was to develop his country, weaken or kill rivals and have his image plastered on every public building.
Stalin had a library of 20,000 books. He could quote The Bible, Jane Austin, and Bismarck and others. But from those things he learned little. He lacked refinement, elegance, social polish, and compassion.
His selfish self-worship led his soul by the nose. In each of us there is an innate selfishness which defaces our character. William James talks of a man on a bus that remains sitting while women are standing or grabbing a bigger portion to cut out his neighbor. Such selfishness is a reflex, he said. It can be curbed, held back by careful self-examination and can be weakened over time. But Stalin was a spiritual primitive. He lived in a society where having a conscience was seen as a vulnerability, not a strength. If you hesitated or brooded over a fact or a course of action or tried to correct an impulse, you were lost. If you didn’t seize your chance, another predator might snatch it from you. That’s how Stalin’s mind worked.
As a result, Stalin always was ruled by his worst instincts. There was never a long, inner struggle in his soul between what was good and what was bad, no struggle between the vicious or the charitable, the generous or the spiteful. Stalin made a melodrama of his life. All the good resided with him and everyone else was evil. He lived in a pitiless world and became pitiless. Carneades, a minor Roman philosopher said, in his second lecture, that states had become great by unjust aggressions against their weaker neighbors which were exemplified by Rome. Carneades espoused the doctrine of personal survival at all costs. In a shipwreck, the doctrine of "Women and children first," was not a maxim that leads to personal survival. What would you do if you were flying from a victorious enemy, you had lost your horse, but you found a wounded comrade on his horse? If you were sensible, you would drag him off and seize his horse, whatever justice or decency might ordain.
That sounds like Stalin. In addition, Stalin liked to inflict harm and disappointment one people. When I was in the Arizona State Prison, one day I was watching new inmates getting off a shuttered bus with no windows, and one inmate got out carrying something personal, perhaps a candy bar, I don’t remember. But I remember a chunky, coarse guard with a disagreeable face who came over, took the object from the inmate and ground it under his heel. Why? Asked the inmate, his face hurt. The hack replied, “There is no ‘why’ here.”
Stalin used suspicion, falsehoods and treachery as tools of his rule. Cato thee Elder, a Roman senator put down luxury and feasting, had a cruel and unsavory nature. He made his wife suckle not only her own children, but also those of his slaves, in order that, having been nourished by the same milk, they might love his children. When Cato’s slaves were too old to work, he sold them remorselessly. He encouraged his slaves to quarrel with each other, for "he could not abide that they should be friends." When a slave had committed a grave fault, he would call in his other slaves, and induce them to condemn the delinquent to death; he would then carry out the sentence with his own hands in the presence of the survivors.
That sounds exactly like Stalin.
The perils of life sometimes create murderous characters like him. Any person who lives in a world of hazards will be compelled to seek and find security. If he is weak, he will align himself with the stronger. John Dewey, once observed that if a man could fulfill his destiny, “could willingly ally himself with putting his will…on the side of powers which dispense fortune (and) he could escape defeat, and might triumph in the midst of destruction.” Stalin came to epitomize doctorial power. He was the force able to dispense fortune.
“You bring to reason to our enemies by having them hanged and burning their villages,” said Louvois an 18th century French diplomat. That could have been said by Stalin. Add pillage, fire, rape, requisitions that were merely confiscation and cold=blooded murders and you get a sense of what the Russians endured under Stalin.
Stalin reminds me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus whose contempt for mankind led him to think that only brutal force would compel people to act for their own good. He says: "Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows,” and again, "Asses would rather have straw than gold." So much for self-determination.
So how do we account for characters like Stalin or Hitler? Their governing passion was to amass power at any cost, instigating many assassinations or executions and corpses piled up. Dictators like Stalin perjure, spread falsehoods, defame others, and mischaracterize their rivals. They plot, scheme, they convict on false evidence, take delight in inflicting torture, exile or death on those hose displease them. They pervert the facts. Dictators like Stalin have no honor, no compassion, no respect for themselves or the lives and feelings of others. They never question themselves; they are by nature implacable. Rivals must be exterminated before they obtain enough power to challenge you.
The Soviet leader who presided over the siege of Leningrad during World War Two was a man of genuine promise, humane, efficient, and capable. Yet no sooner was the war over than Stalin had him shot because Stalin’s believed the man had e upstaged him and Stalin was made jealous. The great Soviet General Georgy Zhukov, the man who defended Moscow, freed Leningrad and who took part in very battle on the Eastern Front made Stalin jealous and, thanks to perjured testimony Stalin had him demoted.
Of course, the day after Hitler invaded his country, June 22, 1941, Stalin broke down and for several days was so drunk on brandy and vodka that he was not able to function.
Men like Stalin scheme, vex, trouble, undermine, spread falsehoods, persecute, and oppress without mercy. Their suspicious intrigues know no rest. Stalin reminds one of the 18th century’s Duke of Brunswick who once ordered the complete destruction of Pairs. (Thank God he lacked the means.)
The more gifts of nature you have, the moral sensitivity, the more breadth of imagination, the more you have a greater mental reach, the more your life will be a struggle to increase and enlarge such gifts by good and unselfish acts. The shoddier your nature is the more it will be selfish, grasping, ruthless and cruel. Brutes have no conscience; Stalin was a brute. He was consumed by rapacity; he had an “It’s me nothing” cast of mind. He was dead and deaf to the feelings of others. His colleagues wanted to be treated with respect, with deference with kindness. Such words had no part in Stalin’s vocabulary.
Is this kind of slaughter due to a collapse of the individual conscience?
Laws, religion, ethical structures and restraints used to hold such characters in check. When they collapse or a dictator flouts them and seizes power, the slaughter of innocents is the result. In our political system, there are safeguards in place that act to keep human beings on the rails. Take away those safeguards, and you will see ordinary people suddenly resort to brutish violence; the lifting of safeguards turns loose the worst instincts them, and you get the worship of forced and barbarism. There is a seamy side of human nature that the law acts to curb, but once they are gone, you get horror. Free from restraints, people can perform atrocities with impunity.
Hitler forced Stalin into war, but all wars have the effect of stripping away the veneer of civilization. Wars unbridle the worst human habits and tendencies. War releases man’s worst passions and unbridle his worst depravities.
Earlier wars were horrific, but they were limited. Nation states fought for limited goals. It is true that wars embraced the reign of force, but they did not wage wars of annihilation. Montesquieu pointed out that the object of war was victory, victory conquest, conquest, retention. A congest was an acquisition, the spirit of acquisition carries with it conservation and use, not destruction, said In other words, the goal of conquest was assimilation. Alert Sorel said that nothing should be conquered that would not be kept. (Think of Israel and the Palestinians.)
Earlier wars were horrific, but they were limited. Nations or parties fought for limited goals. It is true that wars embraced the reign of force, but they did not wage wars of annihilation. Montesquieu pointed out that the object of war was victory, victory, conquest, conquest, retention. A congest was an acquisition, the spirit of acquisition carries with it conservation and use, not destruction, said In other words, the goal of conquest was assimilation. Alert Sorel said that nothing should be conquered that would not be kept. (Think of Israel and the Palestinians.)
But the objectives of Stalin’s and Hitler’s wars were to enslave and exterminate. In their case, implacability rules. The reign of force is embraced and worshipped. Every country they conquered became a key in their pianos. No one was to enjoy any freedom of action or thought under their rule. The secret police replaced analysis. Stalin’s subjects did as they are told or they faced exile, imprisonment or death. When it came to Stalin’s subjects, all their passions, desires, aspirations, their doubts, their remorse, humiliations, and sufferings, their outbursts of pride, fear or and enthusiasm meant nothing to Stalin. Stalin was so ethologically mistrustful of others that it reminds one of two opponents, both armed and each pointing his pistol at the other. Each may desire to lower their weapon, but they cannot be sure his rival will lover his, and the result is an endless stalemate.
Have you ever seen Stalin with an expression of joy on his face? His young wife of 31 years committed suicide, shot through the head. He put his henchman Molotov the positon where he was to condemn his wife, but Molotov had the courage to abstain. Stalin was endlessly vindictive, retaliatory, and driven by pitilessness.
I believe that the beginning of morality occurs when each of us tries to enter the situation of another human being. That takes imagination, being able to feel what they are feeling and having sympathy for their pain and sufferings. Stalin couldn’t do that. He is a man who was entirely heartless. He feels nothing but his own depraved ambition. Anyone who stood in his way, he killed or exiled. But along the way, he pretends, he smiles sincerely, , while he plots the ruin or destruction of any rival. He doesn’t see people as having individual souls that have a sacred value. They were not an end in themselves. Stalin sees them as troublesome obstacles to his designs. He treats people as if they were furniture, moving them here, moving them here, getting rid of them if they proved bothersome. Their lives mean nothing, their deaths mean nothing. He did not view them as having souls that strive and suffer and die. They had no value at all unless they were the tools of his will. A Bolshevik revolutionary who had earlier saved Stalin’s life was shown no mercy whatsoever during the famous “show trials” of the late 1930s. Just before his execution, the man asked Stalin if he felt any gratitude for having saved his life, and Stalin replied, “Gratitude is a disease of dogs” and promptly killed him.
When President Reagan said that the Soviet state was an “evil empire” many objected, including me. But the more I learn, the more I endorse that judgment. Communism reduced people to animals: they were merely food.
Human beings as Ends in Themselves
The German philosopher Kant taught that human beings have an inherent value. The fact we are human gives us value that is without price. A person’s value consists of his being what he is – a human being, a person, a separate well of life. The fact that he is here on Earth makes him worthy of respect. He or she doesn’t have to prove their value. They are born with it. He or she is an end in themselves and not a means not as a means to something else. They are not stepping stones to something better. They are not the mere keys in someone else’s piano.(Yes.) They are not subservient. They are not superfluous. Whatever their position in life, whether wealthy or poor, their value is never diminishes. Their worth never goes away, and because of that, they are all worthy of reference.
Men like Stalin are frauds. They are imposters. They get their glory under false pretenses, at the point f a bayonet or the barrel of a gun. One day, they will ne found out, just as Stalin was. They will be disgraced and remembered with a sneer or a look of horrified reproach.
Every person is a perhaps, their nature open to development, refinement and knowledge, and each of us is able to perfect his or her best qualities. That goal drives every person forward. We are not bugs, but individuals. To use people wastefully as Stalin did is an unspeakable crime. The more people lack imagination, the more they are incapable of any honest or perceptive self-analysis. The more we are gifted with sympathy, able to enter another’s situation, the more will we be kind, compassionate, and generous. Our destiny is to heal and love each other. It’s as simple as that.