Uncle Joe's less obvious legacy to the oppressed

December 2, 2005

Could Stalin possibly have been the instigator of the human rights movement? Andrew Puddephatt considers how the dictator might argue his case

Interviewer: Mr Stalin, I understand that you are speaking at a debate at the London School of Economics next week where you intend to claim that you've done more to promote understanding of human rights than anyone else. Is this correct?

Joseph Stalin: Quite correct.

I: But many will find this claim incomprehensible, if not outlandish.

JS: Then they'll disappear soon enough (laughs). Only joking.

I: So how do you explain your claim? I can't imagine the connection between human rights and your kind of Marxism.

JS: How so?

I: Because Karl Marx dismissed human rights as nonsense, irrelevant to the real issue of exploitation.

JS: Correct - but then he was, like me, a utilitarian sort of fellow. I am not claiming to be a champion of human rights, which I regard as weak-minded trickery, merely that my actions did more than any other person's to help create the modern human rights movement.

I: Please explain.

JS: Human rights have been part of Western philosophy for many years - indeed, some would argue that they were the basis of European radicalism throughout the 18th and early 19th century. Tom Paine's Rights of Man is the one book workers would have been likely to have read in 19th-century England. Given the powerful work of John Locke and the influence of the American and French revolutions, rights were bound to form the basis of radical progressive thought in the modern world.

I: So what happened?

JS: Karl knocked them off that perch. He saw, quite rightly in my view, the danger of this kind of sentimentality and utopianism. He foresaw Marxism's need to colonise the space occupied by those who care about social justice and equality for itself and to substitute the harsh but scientific doctrine of dialectical materialism in their place. After all, if human rights had remained the foundation stone of radical thought, the dominance of the communist parties would never have been possible and our methods would have been deemed unacceptable.

I: So Marxism needed to eliminate other options so it could dominate radical thinking?

JS: Exactly. By the later 19th century, Marxism defined the parameters of radical thinking rather than ideas of human rights. This, in retrospect, was Karl's great achievement. I couldn't have achieved what I did without this groundwork. In the great clash of 20th-century ideology - the battle between capitalism and communism (where I admit we've had a little setback) - human rights were utterly marginalised. In fact, when the conflict appeared to become one between fascism and communism we almost stamped out the idea of human rights for ever.

I: Surely human rights became a rallying point for those opposed to fascism?

JS: How naive you are. In the 1930s, when the threat of fascism became clear to all but the most stupid of the upper classes, people looked to communism and the Soviet Union to defeat it. Hence we built the Popular Front movements and saw a great defection of Western intellectuals to our side. The Red Army then broke the back of the Nazi armies; our power and prestige was never higher than in 1945. Our right to rule in Eastern Europe was conceded by the US and the British, who were happy to betray the Poles, the Czechs and their other allies. What role did human rights play in the defeat of fascism? None. How many divisions did the human rights movement have? None.

I: So why did the idea of rights gain such a hold after the war?

JS: Well, it could be that my old admirer H. G. Wells started it off when he called for a declaration of rights during the war, and, of course, President Roosevelt's four freedoms speech was instrumental. These two certainly launched the concept of human rights as a modern framework for discussion, but I think we could have held out against rights if it hadn't been for certain unfortunate developments.

I: Surely the shocking truth about Nazi death camps played a big role in establishing human rights in international politics.

JS: Perhaps. But everyone at the top knew about those camps during the war and did little to try to stop them. The Allies were particularly neurotic about being seen to fight a war on behalf of the Jews. I'm confident that if it hadn't been for certain unforeseen developments, Nazi atrocities would have been interpreted as a victory for our vision of Marxist-Leninism - not a case for a new human rights movement.

I: What unforeseen developments?

JS: All that wretched publicity about so-called oppression inside the Soviet Union. All those silly Cossacks committing suicide rather than coming back to the motherland to be executed properly. All that opposition to the policies of the Soviet Union, to the arbitrary executions, the camps, the political prisoners and other necessary measures that we took to safeguard the security of the motherland. Without that opposition, generations of radicals would have seen communism as the antidote to fascism. Human rights would never have figured in their calculations. It was weak-minded sentimental leftists and liberals, who turned away from the sacrifices we were making to secure world domination, who revitalised human rights. After all, it wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greatest tragedy of all our lifetimes, that human rights really took hold on the international stage.

I: Surely it was awareness of the Holocaust that caused many people to argue that we needed to recognise and protect the essential dignity of human beings? At the time that the Nazis were committing terrible atrocities weren't you violating human rights on a massive scale yourself?

JS: Of course I was - in a necessary cause - you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. But this is my point. Without me the historical lesson of fascism would have been to boost leftism. It was the so-called (by my opponents) oppression of rights by a workers' state that led people to conclude that rights were universal rather than a construct of the Left.

Until I came along no one on the Left wanted to believe that the Left could oppress people. I had 14 million people in labour camps, the peasants had slaughtered half their herds, starvation was rampant, the secret police were carting off people to the camps by quota, thousands were going through sham show trials before their execution - and leftist visitors came to Soviet Russia and still saw a workers' paradise. It took a long time for people to realise that human rights were the only guarantee against people like me and upstarts such as Hitler.

As for the Holocaust - why do you think that promoted awareness of human rights? No one did anything about the Nazis until they invaded Poland. They were building concentration camps back in 1933 and all anyone else did was turn away Jewish refugees seeking asylum. No, no, my naive sentimental friend. If you want to meet the instigator of the modern human rights movement, you're looking at him.

I: Well, thank you, Mr Stalin. I have to confess, I'm amazed.

JS : Join the queue, young man.

Andrew Puddephatt is the former director of Liberty and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics. The human rights day balloon debate on who is the greatest human rights personality of modern times takes place at the LSE on December 8.

More details: www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/human-rights/

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