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“A Nullity…An Empty Void”

Stalin is the outstanding mediocrity of our party…Stalin is a nullity..an empty void
​    —Trotsky, 1932

Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person.
​    —Stalin, 1927


“Thank you mama, for your kind letter,” Stalin wrote to the 70-year-old peasant woman, offering over her cow. “I do not need a cow because I do not have any farmland—I’m just a white-collar employee, I serve the people the best I can, and white collar types rarely do their own farming.” [emphasis mine.]

“I have just come from seeing Koba. Do you know how he spends his time?” Nikolai Bukharin wrote Trotsky in 1922. “He takes his year-old boy from bed, fills his own mouth with smoke from his pipe, and blows it into the baby’s face. ‘It makes him stronger,’ Koba says.”
“That’s barbaric,” Trotsky replied.
“You don’t know Koba,” Bukharin said. “He is like that—a little peculiar.”

By the end of the first two volumes of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental Stalin trilogy, an image, like a half-developed Polaroid, begins to emerge of the kind of person we are dealing with here.

He is the hardest worker. He takes on the most responsibility, makes sure the paperwork is filed, deadlines are met, makes the trains run on time. He advances rapidly within the institution, perhaps becoming the managing editor or the editor-in-chief.

He is easy-going, personable, and very, very reliable and accountable to the higher-ups. He strives to appear selfless and to be a mere executor of the will of the CEO and the spirit of the corporation—he is the all-around fixer and doer. 

When the CEO or founder of the company gets sick, he goes to his house more than anyone else to cheer him up with jokes, to reassure him, to receive his instructions. The boss relies on him. He is the one that puts in the emotional labor. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the underlings from on high, he leverages his personal relationship to grow his stature within the organization.
His own will is singular, he is not split in any way—his will is to execute the founder’s will and stated principles. He lives for the job, nothing else. It is his life. He has never had any other dreams or goals or paths he could have taken. This is it.
He takes no vacations, never leaves town. The other leaders always seem to be convalescing at some nervous ailment health spa or reading French novels. He becomes indispensable to the company. His will melds with the company’s will, they become one.

He likes people and cultivates relationships with everyone around him, particularly his subordinates, who adore him. With each passing day, he creates more dependents, loyalists, people who rely on him for their positions and livelihood. In this way, he builds a no-bullshit organization within the organization. “Stalin’s power flowed from attention to detail but also to people—not just any people, but often new people,” Kotkin writes. He himself comes from nothing, a dirt-road backwater, and he has a bawdy sense of humor. The back-slapping, chew-chaw faction he builds resent and relentlessly mock the more pretentious, intellectual Harvard-Yale faction within the organization. This other group of Bolsheviks have lived in Europe. They've discussed philosophy in the coffee houses. Stalin and his team have never left Russia.

It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik organization happened. He is cunning, works very hard, presents himself as insignificant. During the interminable meetings, he lets the people with strong views speak first and wear each other down fighting. At the very end, the view he puts forward is a middle-of-the-road synthesis, a compromise of all of the positions that have already been expressed by others. If you want to survive in a hierarchical, white-collar office environment, you learn to play the game, to keep your head down. You sublimate your ego, you keep your superiors happy, you appear busy and important, you flatter and undermine your colleagues—that’s it. That’s office politics.

A nobody, the one in charge of the paperwork. No one particularly resents him or views him as a threat. His job is administering the bureaucracy and chairing the meetings.

He is a working-class ethnic minority from the periphery of empire—a diversity hire for the Bolsheviks, brought in to pad the ranks of the mostly white, urbane, and bourgeois leadership. He is simultaneously underestimated and tokenized. “Every time [Stalin] attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out,” Kotkin writes.

No one ever expects the quiet, back-of-the-room functionary, who makes sure the records are kept, to be put in charge. But really, who better to be in charge? Who better knows the organization and can make sure the deadlines are met and trains run on time? The one who has put in the most work, the one who has made themselves most indispensable. No one wants an ambitious, self-focused person to run their organization. A leader is expected to be selfless and stabilize the ship, not be a preening, mercurial egoist.

Lenin, on his deathbed, receiving an affectionate letter from Stalin, brushes it off, telling his sister: “He is not at all intelligent.”                  


Let us take a closer look at this person, get to know him through his own words, in his unguarded moments.

Letter to Voroshilov, 1932: “Have the bombers been sent to the East? Where, exactly, and how many? The trip on the Volga was interesting—I’ll say more: magnificent. A great river, the Volga. Damn.”

On the value of human life: “The loss of airplanes is not as scary (the hell with them) as the loss of living people, aviators. Live human beings are the most valuable and most important thing in our entire cause, especially aviation.”

On being asked to promote literature: “I am decisively against writing prefaces only for pamphlets and books of literary ‘big-shots',’ literary ‘names’…We have hundreds and thousands of young capable people, who are striving with all their might to rise up from below.”

On conflict with the imperialists: “We would be the bottom of the barrel if we could not manage to reply to these arrogant bastards briefly and to the point: ‘You won’t get a friggin thing from us.’” [emphasis mine.]


He has a face you immediately like. When younger, he was very handsome. But very short. The swarthy bankrobber with the famous haircut. Paralyzed in one arm. He worked nights at Tiflis Observatory, attempting to organize the meteorologists. He had been a poet, even got published. Was he still thinking about poetry, watching the stars and the planets cycle overhead until daybreak, up in Tiflis Observatory? Or had he already determined to give up on the path of art, the true path, and venture into the grubby world of organizing and polemics and politics?

In old age, his face is preferable. It is expressive, cratered with smallpox scars, the comically sloping mustache. A warm smile. His eyes are dense animal black. “In the Kremlin, on the ancient throne of orthodox czars, sat a small man with short arms and shiny black eyes,” Curzio Malaparte put it.

The face of a feline man. Intelligent, cunning. More cat than man. A cat who has somehow become a man. A person who has learnt how to play the game of life.

It is not a decadent and artistic face, like Hitler’s, the over-artistic Wagnerian conductor. It is the face of a person who views life with a bit of distance and irony. He loves cowboy movies, thermal baths, and novels. He understood that life was not some grand performance art. It was work. Just endless work. 


It is hard to tell whether his self-pity was an affect, to garner sympathy, or if he genuinely believed that he was insignificant and small. 

“Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person,” he said, during a critical politburo showdown against Trotsky. When his fixer and flattering loyalist Lazar Kaganovich suggested that Stalinism should replace Leninism, Stalin would violently rebuke him. “What is Lenin? Lenin is a tall tower! And what is Stalin? Stalin is a little finger. Sometimes when he made this remark he substituted an analogy, which, shall we say, isn’t suitable for recording here,” Nikita Khruschev remembers. He referred to himself as “shit” next to Lenin. Did he mean it?

A nothing. A chode. A nobody, a non-entity. 

Then there were his constant threats to resign as General Secretary—a job nobody wanted to do. When cornered on some issue, he always offered up his resignation. At one point, Stalin asks to be relieved as General Secretary and sent to Kazakhstan. With all this, he seemed to be saying: this job is terrible, it's just white-collar drudgery, I’d rather be doing something real even if it meant being relocated to the periphery.

On the left, and specifically within Bolshevism—where all values and morals are inverted—there was much power to be had in appearing small, marginal, just a hard worker, just quietly do what you do, contributing in your small way, anonymous, without egoism or pride or approval or adoration-seeking. Leaders were expected to live modestly, work insane hours, and shun personal recognition. 

These constant threats of resignation were a way for them to stress-test their political and social capital. To see who their friends and enemies were. They kept track, they remembered everything.


The paradox of power is, of course, that power repels those who grasp for it. People shrink from neediness, ego, and big personalities. 

In this cruel world, there are hard people and there are soft people. Take for example, writers and editors. Writers work on the outside of institutions and editors work on the inside. They are symbiotic with each other, they need each other. Creative people with creative temperaments can be soft and sensitive, but to work on the inside of an organization requires a person to sublimate their ego and become hard. There is an attraction of opposites and mutual appreciation between these two groups, the hard and soft. Hard people often find themselves repulsed by other hard people—in fellow careerists and glad-handers, they see their own artifice and manipulation reflected back at them. But they tend to have a soft spot for soft people, for those who’ve managed to stay a bit on the outside and uncorrupted by the world. 

Many he would later have killed seem to have earnestly appreciated him, even looked up to him and relied on him as an editor and a friend.

 In 1928, Nikolai Bukharin and Lev Kamanev still felt like they were close friends with Stalin. They had been on the same team for a long time. Bukharin was the prolific theoretical wunderkind of the party. Stalin was the organizational head and editor. There seemed to be a little bit of a kid-brother dynamic to their relationship (you could imagine Stalin giving Bukharin a noogie) but Stalin clearly admired the younger man’s talents, before taking a position, always asking “Which way did Bukharin vote?”

Stalin moved Bukharin and his family into the Kremlin apartment next to his. Their wives and kids were close. Bukharin rode around in Stalin’s Packard. Their families were close. Bukharin thought they were friends, until they broke over collectivization—then Stalin began to sadistically manipulate his affections and trust. First, he gave him the silent treatment. Then he helped break up his marriage. Then he began to break the brilliant writer and theorist by tasking him with the most mundane assignments possible like drafting party program documents, crossing them out in red pen and rewriting them from top to bottom. 

Yet, when Bukharin was threatened to be expelled from the Central Committee, Stalin became his protector. This was his customary move—two steps forward, one step back to show mercy. It seems that for Stalin revenge was a slow process of pushing people down and then pulling them back pretending to be their savior, like a medieval torture device. 

There was a manipulative component to this friendship. In 1930, Stalin wrote Bukharin, “I have never refused a conversation with you. No matter how much you cursed me, I have never forgotten that friendship we had… We can always talk, if you want.”

People need each other and want different things from each other, but in the end, editors need writers less than writers need their editors.Writers can sometimes put their editors on a pedestal, respect them too much, see them as a father figure. Bukharin was the editor of Pravda, but sometimes the true interpersonal dynamics between people defy official status and position in the world. 

Bukharin never quite shook the kid-brother-to-his-older-editor dynamic—even at the very end, when Stalin had him in prison, awaiting the Show Trial after which he would be executed. In 1937, he wrote many letters to Stalin, keeping him apprised of his literary efforts. He even asked Stalin to write the preface for one of his prison works. This is the editor as a cruel sadist. In the end, he resorted to begging his old friend to preserve his last book for posterity:

I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear…Don’t let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. Don’t let it be lost!… Have pity! Not on me, on the work!

After being shot in 1938, Bukharin’s four prison manuscripts were sent to Stalin for inspection and then deposited into his vast personal archive, where they sat and gathered dust for nearly sixty years, until being exhumed by an American scholar.


There is an old Soviet joke about the 1920s leaders of the Central Committee. They go out together and have a picnic. Once they get a little loose and day-drunk, someone asks, “What’s the best thing in the world?” 
“Books,” says Lev Kamenev.
“A woman, your woman,” says Radek.
“Cognac,” says Rykov.
and Stalin?—”revenge against your enemies.”

For Stalin, revenge was everything. To never forget a slight, to live long enough for the tides to shift and be able to destroy someone who tried to break you. Before they both ended up on the chopping block, Bukharin wrote to Kamenev: “Stalin knows only one means: revenge. Let’s call it the theory of ‘sweet revenge.’” 

Kamanev and Stalin had known each other since 1900. They had been in exile together. It was Kamenev who, in 1904, gifted Stalin a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Malaparte, the archcynic's droll assessment: “Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn’t have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.” 

In the end, they couldn’t find the ruthlessness within themselves. In a 1926 politburo meeting, when Kamenev said that he could have destroyed Stalin years before, Stalin shouted, “Why did you not say it?” Kamenev said, “Because I did not want to employ such methods.” The big secret about the Old Bolsheviks is that they lacked nerve when dealing with their own. They still believed in friendship and good faith, even when unbeknownst to them, they had a wolf in their midst and the time for that had long since passed.

The Antifa Whisperer

Its no secret that the taxonomical spread of the American right is longing for an apocalyptic confrontation with antifa. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, like Louise Mensch and her agents of Russian influence, they see antifa everywhere. This is developing into an obsession. They think about antifa at the shooting range. They think about antifa at the gym. The nazis overestimate antifa, the antifa overestimate the nazis, and a general ratcheting up occurs until some moron fires the first shot. Large scale conflicts and civil wars often creep up this way, insidiously, everybody waiting for John Brown to pop out of the bushes and “accelerate the contradictions.” Fire the first shot of the race war, BABY! 
It has been bizarre to watch the American right discover and latch onto antifa in the past two years, as if they actually understood it or its premises. To hear Trump shout Aunttttieee-fa! with stank on his breath at a Phoenix rally and listen to the crowd of several thousand previously-normal suburban Republicans go wild, it’s hallucionagenic. For most previous presidential administrations, anarchists were a mosquito-like annoyance to be left to the police, but the Europe-watchers at Breitbart have imported that most "cosmopolitan" of European phenomenons across the pond and now Trump is talking about “black clad goons.”

Antifa as a thing on the US left is also a relatively new development. In the long hangover between the WTO riots of Seattle and Occupy, only a small clique talked about antifa; those that did were largely expats returned from extended European squatter vacations with mullets and St. Pauli t-shirts. Last August, 350,000 people signed a Whitehouse.gov petition calling for antifa to be re-classed as a terrorist organization. Politico has published a report citing anonymous sources that claims the Department of Homeland Security quietly put antifa on a domestic terror watch-list during the 2016 presidential campaign. About a year ago, a monument in Wisconsin to the republican volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, was graffiti’d with Antifa Sucks, Trump Rules and swastikas. 

Antifa has no reliable social base. In spite of all the videos and memes and the suddenly-fascism-obsessed Trump Resistance, they are self-marginalized, making them an easy scapegoat for an administration that has fought an uphill battle in their efforts to squeeze other groups.

Since Trump’s victory, we live in a golden age for totalitarianism experts. Previously-hermetic fascism scholars and commentators have been mainstreamed as sought-after public intellectuals and cable talking heads. Liberal commentators now casually debate the Weimar Republic and the abortive Spartacist uprising with red-rose DSA avatars on Twitter. 

Into this sewer, this state of social sepsis, enter Dartmouth antifa scholar and former Occupy organizer Mark Bray. After the riots in Berkeley and Charlottesville, the liberals badly needed someone to explain antifa for them. The antifa, of course, were unwilling to do this themselves. As a telegenic young lecturer with Ivy credentials and a perfectly timed book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, he was tapped by the producers to be the Official-Antifa-Whisperer. As both an ethnographer of the faction and a true believer himself, he offered a glimpse into the thrilling subculture of masked heroes, ‘brickbats’ and rationalized nazi-punching. He took on the unenviable task of explaining the motives of a media-allergic tendency to the liberal commentariat.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single expert appear and debate and be interviewed on such a wide range of media platforms in such a short amount of time. Bray performed his duties as unofficial antifa-spokesman admirably, sparring with skeptical magazine editors and pundits. The discourse around antifa’s tactics has been predictably binary, basically a re-hashing of the “black bloc anarchist” debate under a new names. Now that we live under “fascism” there’s a bit more public sympathy for “resistance.” Still, little interesting gets said and the bulk of commentary falls into two categories: condescending liberal pedantry (There’s no excuse for violence, the Civil Rights movement is a preferable model, these people are not representative) or dyed-in-the-wool triumphalism (brave antifa! brave nazi-punchers! Remember the Battle of Cabal Street!) “No platforming” is what the most vocal and angry ultra-radical faction are into, so who the hell are we to criticize the stupid things they do? Diversity of tactics!

There is nothing liberals like more than being explained a previously-unknown underground culture or tendency by an insider; they feel like they are getting in early on the Next Big Thing. And liberal public opinion compulsively assumes that whatever the telegenic young ultra-radicals have coming down the pipe must be cool new thing, must be correct, because its new and exciting. The ultras, being the youngest and farthest to the left, and most vocal, are automatically assumed to have the coolest and most exciting analysis.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is intended as a breezy historical primer for the uninitiated, who want to brush up on the origins and rationale behind antifa. Anti-fascism before 1945 is given a quick gloss, while the bulk of the book is dedicated to a lower-frequencies oral history of the subcultural skirmishes between the international, mostly Western-European antifa and neo-nazis since the 1970s. Even for someone familiar with the concepts and history, it is interesting to watch and read Bray, for how he so studiously toes the antifa line. There of course is no “official” antifa line, but you basically already know what it is: present antifa as a “self-defense” vanguard for marginalized people (using the relative diversity within coastal, insurrectionary anarchist circles to claim antifa speaks for the subaltern),  explain and rationalize their tactical decisions or lack thereof.  If there is an argument to be had, it is probably with a strawman non-violent liberal rambling on about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and democratic norms. When all else fails, just shrug and say: its autonomous, no one is in control, mistakes get made because people are angry. 

Bray claims that antifa’s hyper-vigilance springs from the fact that they’re aware that many leading fascists started out as laughable, marginal figures and they want to to reckon with them while they’re still in utero.

He also fetishizes the noble left-wing failure: Occupy, Paris 1968, Italy’s Autonomia, the banlieue riots, the periodic militant solar flares bursting out from Athens’ anarchist-controlled neighborhoods. The anecdotes and stories all follow a similar utopian story arc: some brave, autonomous souls in Italy, Germany, Utah, or Indiana anti-racists got together in their city and violently resisted fascists in the streets. By putting undecided local people into a polarizing situation, they even garnered a modicum of support from local shopkeepers and youths, who joined in the throwing of cobblestones and dumping of chamber pots. Then, they melted back into the alleyways and punk clubs, having driven the neo-nazi scourge back into their hives of villainy. Like a good movie plot, it pulls the heartstrings and checks all the boxes that make you feel good. 

Then, a brief, muttered footnote, like the ultra-fine-print at the bottom of a contract: The far-right actually temporarily harvested political gains from the aforementioned action or endeavor. The aftermath and success of these fleeting nazi-bashings isn’t seriously analyzed or reflected upon because the unpleasant truth is that it made fascists stronger. Oh well, onto the next barricade.

For many people with faith in antifa and nazi-punching, there is a premise that reactionary hate is a nearly protean force—it periodically rises inexplicably in society, like a malignant tumor, and the job of antifa is to be the white blood cells that put it down before it spreads. “How many murderous fascist movements have been nipped in the bud over the past seventy years by antifa groups before their violence could metastasize? We will never know,” he writes, with enviable optimism. This argument smudges and blots out the fact that reaction can be spurred forward by the political and strategic failures of the left.

Small groups of punks and skinheads beating and stabbing each other outside of Utah punk clubs in the 90s is interesting to me personally, but in this time of great political earthquakes and re-alignments, should the small and obscure be focused on and reified in such a way? The little skirmishes between pro-nazi punks and anti-fascist anarchists of the last 30 years are the faint burning embers and smoke in the aftermath of a great conflagration. It is unfortunate that Bray breezes so quickly over the most important period of anti-fascism, the 1930s and 1940s—when the stakes were the highest and anti-fascism ascended to the level of mass armed guerilla resistance and in certain countries was made official state ideology.

Fascism emerged in direct response to the tsunami of revolutionary ardor after the success of the Bolshevik revolution. All roads to fascism lead back to a panicked desperation of desiccated old regime elites, nationalist veterans, and industrialists as they struggled to contain the Soviet bacillus to Eurasia. Its hard to overemphasize the impact the Bolshevik revolution had Western European and American revolutionaries and the fear that must have gripped the hearts of elites when they realized that this problem wouldn’t go away in six months. The Bolsheviks were gambling and spending heavily so that Germany, Italy, Poland,  China, Hungary would all overthrow their regimes and the world revolution could link up in the rubble of empires. In 1920, Lenin wrote to Stalin that the “revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately… Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands, and Romania.” 

As Russia fought a grinding civil war and made pushes into Poland and Ukraine, a wave of strikes and uprisings tore across Europe in 1917-1919—the Spartacist uprising, Bienno Rosso in Italy, civil war in Finland, Hungary—it was precisely in this moment that what we know today as ‘fascism’ was born. The Bolsheviks were waiting on German revolutionaries to take over, opening the door to the rest of Europe. Armed young Great War veterans threw themselves into desperately snuffing out their local revolutionists, making inroads with old regime conservatives and industrialists; Social Democrats sold their erstwhile comrades down the river in an attempt to maintain order. Even after the German and Hungarian revolutions were put down with the help of proto-fascist World War I veterans, Lenin kept looking for a door or a window to ignite the Soviet wave in Europe. 

Just as there could be no Civil Rights Act without the black power movement, there would be probably be no modern European social democracy or its perverse doppelgänger—corporatist fascism—without the implicit threat of armed communists linking up with the Soviet colossus and taking power. Modern social democracy as we know it emerged directly from big bad Bolshevism banging at the door—suddenly, the industrialists and bosses were willing to share profits, make a class compromise with workers—it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it was heart-rending fear.

Strangely, Bray claims that left-wing violence played no part in the rise of fascism—this is a kind of whitewashing to make the modern antifa a bit more palatable to the faint of heart. Embedded inside of the communist risings was, of course, violence, the threat of violence, expropriation, armed communist bands and reactionary bands were in the streets. Fascists preyed on widespread desire for law and order. When push comes to shove, most average people want peace and stability and aren’t ready to get totally on board with revolutionary left-wing risings—they turn back towards moderates and reactionaries, back toward the warm embrace of comforting stability. Bray claims it wasn’t about left-wing violence, it was about communist electoral success. But fascists fed on both real and perceived fears of armed left-wing violence like yeast feeds on sugar—it was their central plank, their raison d’etre. Desiccated old regime elites and industrialists made a devils bargain and were ultimately outmaneuvered, blackmailed and won over by populist-fascist outsiders. Our populism is your best bet for survival. This was the reasoning and the implicit threat, and its not much different from the way the “good Republicans” are presently being held hostage by the Trump base.

Accordingly, the first partisan fighters and first victims of fascists were not just random citizens, they were communist party members. Other groups were smeared and subject to hate, but weren’t directly targeted and hunted until later, and at first for the reason of being potential communist collaborators. 

Fascism and communism were and are bound together in a cycle of action and reaction, that reached its Wagnerian crescendo in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a bloodbath unlike any the world has ever seen. Bray seems to think that part of the image issue antifa face is that people don’t understand they are socialists, communists, and anarchist revolutionaries. This doesn’t give people enough credit. People know what antifa is about behind the “anti-fascism”—they just don’t like it. 

Bray’s argument is at its weakest when he mounts a lengthy defense of “no platforming” fascist free speech and against legally restricting hate speech: Why be all worked up about antifa restricting nazi free speech, he seems to be saying, when American history is a history of speech denied to the marginalized. In the space of a couple of pages he goes into a relativistic rabbit-hole of American horrors: COINTELPRO, slavery, Dred Scott, the genocide of Native Americans, the Palmer Raids, Guantanamo Bay, Citizens United, Facebook, corporate control of media…did these not restrict speech? Its not that Bray is wrong. It’s that this argument is as politically unconvincing as going after Christopher Columbus. “America was never great” is almost as bad a rallying cry as “America is already great.” 

As Joseph Goebbels’ Brunhilde Pomsel said in a documentary just before she died in 2017: “People nowadays… say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.” Despite its shortcomings and an overall sense of whitewashing antifa as a knight in shining armor, Bray has done good yeomen work as an educator and popularizer with his books and public appearances. It is all food for thought, and given that the tit-for-tat media and street war between the left and the far-right in America is only growing more polarized, these are important questions to mull over. But the elephant in the living room is avoided: Did it actually do anything or did it just make people feel good? Did it build anything long lasting? ​Does this hurt or help?