The Power of Personalityin the Rise of Communism
Machiavelli states that it is much safer to be feared then loved, but still a leader
should make themselves feared in such a way that if they do not gain love, he at any rate
avoids hatred. When assessing the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, it is
important to understand the power of a charismatic leader and the rhetoric he uses to
obtain the trust and legitimacy of his followers. Joseph Stalin was the leader of the
Soviet Union from 1927 to 1953. As the leader of one of the most brutal reigns in history,
Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people. Undoubtedly Joseph
Stalin and his successors all possess a deep self-confidence that allowed them to execute
policies that persuaded a nation of people to follow their regime. Through analysis of
rhetorical devices used in public speeches and propaganda, the power of a charismatic
leader is the most important element in the success of a regime.
Process of a Charismatic Leader
An organization runs successfully when it is led by a skillful and influential
leader. While leaders influence their followers, a good leader can also structure the
organization in the way he wants. He represents the culture of the organization. Some
traits branded within a charismatic leader are self-monitoring, self-actualization, motive
to attain power, self-enhancement, and openness to change. The process of a
charismatic leader is seen as a complex product of three factors: The leader and his
attributes, the social situation, which demands for such a leader and the interaction
between the leader and his followers. (Palshikar) Charismatic leadership involves a
natural process in which the individual undergoes six steps from the rise of the leader to
the fall of the leader. Throughout the reign of Stalin the six steps of a charismatic leader
are recognized, these include: Identification, activity arousal, commitment,
disenchantment, depersonalization, and alienation.
During the first phase, known as the identification phase the aspiring leader is on
the social horizon, followers of the current leader are in distress and looking for the next
successor. With Lenin’s health failing, it was either Stalin or Trotsky who would hold
power. Charismatic leaders are known for judging themselves on a strict scale. They
continuously strive to become better. They know that it is this “superiority” in them
which makes them different from their followers. Charismatic leaders believe that when
eventually they will bring their followers to their present level of dominance, they
themselves should have gone one step above it to remain their leaders. Ultimately,
Trotsky was no match for Stalin, who spent many of his years as Secretary building
loyalty and support. By 1927, Stalin had eliminated all of his political rivals to emerge as
the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In the second stage, the leader arouses followers to become part of change. Stalin
successfully transformed the Soviet Union from an agricultural society to an advanced
industrial economic society through a series of five-year plans. In 1928, Stalin
implemented The Five Year Plan with goals of bringing the Soviet Union into the
industrial age. Stalin seized assets, including farms and factories, and restructured the
economy. These radical efforts led to less efficient production and mass starvation.
Despite the negative effects of collectivization in the first plan, Stalin continued with a
second plan in 1933 that emphasized heavy industry and advancing railways. The
thirdand final plan lasted only three years due to the World War II, this final plan
focused on weapon production and war materials. It is in this stage that followers
become less passive and more active, the longer this stage lasts, the longer the span of
his leadership. With death rates increasing, Stalin created a policy that eradicated any
form of dissent or competition; followers were expected to show nothing but complete
devotion. Religious institutions were closed, church lands were confiscated, and any
books or music that were not approved by Stalin himself were also eliminated to avoid
any outside influences. Any negative comments about Stalin to the press were restricted.
Opposing party leaders were still present and they recognized the devastation Stalin’s
policies were creating. Despite this opposition, he was still re-elected in 1934.
An Omnipresent Stalin
Stalin was present at all places at all times. He became the focus of literature,
music, paintings, and numerous statues of Stalin were placed in public areas.
Charismatic leadership is a relationship between a leader and a group of followers in
which the leader is perceived as superhuman, they follow blindly believing every
statement, unconditionally complying with calls for action, and give absolute emotional
support. (Post 676) Several posters during Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union includes
phrases such as “Glory to Stalin”, “The great architect of Communism”, and “the caption
of the country of Soviets, leads us from victory to victory”. The press presented him as
an all-knowing, omnipotent leader, and Father of Nations. While the media never
referred to Stalin as a god, certain qualities classically attributed to spiritual beings were
applied to him. (Bonnell)As did this Soviet folklore of this period depicted Stalin as allseeing and all-powerful:
(Stalin) looks and looks but can’t get enough
He listens to everything with his keen ear
He sees everything with his keen gaze
He hears and sees how the people live
How the people live, how they work
He rewards everyone for good work
A cult of personality within an individual uses mass media or propaganda or other
methods, to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning
flattery and praise.(Strong)
The most notably acts of Stalin occurred from 1936-1938, known as the
Great Purge. Stalin targeted members of his cabinet and government, soldiers, clergy,
intellectuals, or anyone else he deemed questionable. People that were seized by secret
police would be tortured, imprisoned, or killed. Stalin did not discriminate in his
targets, top government and military officials were not immune from prosecution. In
fact, the purges eliminated many key figures in government. During this period, there
was widespread paranoia. Citizens were encouraged to turn each other in and those
captured often pointed figures at neighbors or coworkers in hopes of saving their own
lives. The purges
led by Stalin characterize the point in stage three of the charismatic
leader process known as the commitment stage. This is where Stalin is at his peak but
also starting to lose some of the support that catapulted him to the power he now
possesses. This step starts by demonstrating the extreme commitment of the leader
towards the goal and same commitment from the followers towards the leader. Some of
the elite followers become disillusioned and they start suspecting their leader as
pompous and hypocrite.Stakeholder pressures place strong demands on leaders of
organizations, increasing the motive for, and likelihood of, corrupt practices.
Furthermore, opportunity for corruption increases due to specific environmental
factors, and through charismatic leaders' ability to create façades and influence
followers to participate in, enable, or hide wrongdoing. (Decelles)How could these
people follow an individual so relentlessly, with visible oppression surrounding them?
Lev Kopelev, a Communist himself and active Bolshevik was arrested in 1945 and
sentenced to a ten-year term in the Gulag for fostering "bourgeois humanism" and for
"compassion towards the enemy" had this to say about Stalin:
“In my memory the pain and the horror of 1933 and 1937 had not grown cold. I
remembered how. . . he had deceived us, how he had lied to us about the past
and the present. . .And nevertheless I believed him all over again, as did my comrades. I
believed him more than at any time in the past. Because, perhaps, at the moment I first
felt a spontaneous, emotional attachment to him. . . This belief and heart felt devotion
could not easily be broken. It was not broken by many years of prisons and camps”
Stalin had created so much legitimacy through his long reign of overshadowing “good”
that he made it virtually impossible for his followers to see him in such a negative light.
Following the Cold War, Stalin was approaching his final years. He tried to
reshape his image as a man of peace. This point in Stalin life marks the fourth stage of
the process of the charismatic leader, known as the disenchantment phase. This phase is
quite unavoidable and sometimes even intentional on the part of the leader. Many times
social structure brings the disenchantment stage. Sometimes, because the leaders
themselves know that they are not immortal, they try to bring the routinization in the
leadership.When the leader of such a state dies or leaves office, and a new charismatic
leader does not appear, such a regime is likely to fall shortly thereafter, unless it has
become fully routinized.(Auerbach) Stalin invested in many domestic projects, such as
bridges and canals. Most were never completed. Stalin died in March 1953. Stalin
maintained his cult of personality even after his death. Like Lenin before him, Stalin’s
body was embalmed and put on public display. In spite of the death and destruction he
inflicted upon those he ruled, Stalin’s death devastated the nation. The cult-like loyalty
he inspired remained, although it would disappear in time.
The fifth and sixth stages of the process of the charismatic leader are
depersonalization and alienation. These two stages do not necessarily require the
presence of the leader. In Stalin’s case he was already dead. In the depersonalization
stage, the leadership style becomes more like a bureaucratic leadership. Within the
Communist bureaucracy, the ruling class was responsible for administering a state
property system . (Constas) The death of Stalin 1953, marked a new era, the Post-Stalin
Thaw. Reforms termed “De-Stalinization” removed key institutions and policies that
helped Stalin hold his power. A collective leadership emerged among Lavrentiy Beria,
Nikita Khrushchev, and Georgi Malenkov.
The final stage known as the alienation phase is when the followers feel that the
organization and the leader are going away from the initial goal and thus they start
alienating themselves from the organization and the charisma of the leader fades as the
social situation which has made him appeal to the masses has changed. De-Stalinization
was intended to rid the Soviet Union of the “evils” wrought by Stalin’s regime; however,
just as many new problems arose with the program. Attempts to fix the underlying
problems within Soviet society caused an enormous emergence of difficulty in the long
run. It placed a large amount of blame upon Stalin’s shoulders. The general degrading of
Stalin and his regime neglected to actually solve problems, instead only replacing them
with a new generation of concerns.This stage does not necessarily mean the failure of
After having described what is charismatic leadership and how it works, it is
interesting to find out what makes one a charismatic leader. A charismatic leader also
has the ability to be a master rhetorician.
Rhetoric is an art. It has the power of ruling the minds of men through the use of
words alone. Rhetoric refers to the study and uses of written, spoken and visual
language. It investigates how language is used to construct meanings and identities,
coordinate behavior, mediate power, produce change, and create knowledge. Stalin’s
ability to persuade the Soviet people to embrace his brand of communism was achieved
through a variety of coercive and persuasive techniques. It was relatively easy for Stalin
to persuade people because of the control and censorship he had over the media. In
several speeches and interviews analyzed, numerous rhetorical devices were found that
identify Stalin as a master rhetorician.
“We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make
good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us”, Stalin said this in
1931, at the beginning of the rapid industrialization campaign. Ten years later, Nazi
Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The rhetorical device used here can be identified as
collective memory as well as exigency. Collective memory works by relating the present
to the past to make sense of contemporary conditions. Also, Stalin’s use of words such as
must and either to create a sense of urgency. The phrase “either we do it, or they will
crush us” was creating a ultimatum and also installing a rhetoric of fear within the
Rhetorical devices such as moral inheritance and familial rhetoric arerecognized
in a meeting Stalin had Albanian Communist leader EnverHoxha.
“You Albanians are a separate people, just like the Persians and
the Arabs, who have the same religion as the Turks. Your
ancestors existed before the Romans and the Turks. Religion
has nothing to do with nationality and statehood... the question
of religious beliefs must be kept well in mind, must be handled
with great…..These feelings have been cultivated in the people
for many centuries”
Moral inheritance intends to motivate action in moving forward, using ancestors as an
emotional appeal to ensure their sacrifices were not in vain. Furthermore, the first
clause “You Albanians are a separate people”, is Stalin’s attempt at using nationalism as
a source oflegitimacy. The Communist propaganda was centered around a number of
polarized dichotomies: virtues of the Communist world versus the Capitalist world.
(Clews) Stalin’s use of rhetorical devices is quite remarkable whether intentional or not.
The guidelines for propaganda are clearly outlined, linking his Communist party
ideologies to the working class, unifying them with others in society.
Following the process of a charismatic leader, Joseph Stalin’s life fits all six stages
in the process of a charismatic leader. Through analysis of rhetorical devices used by
Joseph Stalin in public speeches and propaganda and the media’s creation of a cult of
personality thepower of a charismatic leader has been identified as the most important
element in the success of a regime. Through his leadership, Stalin successfully
transformed an entire nation of people into followers of his ideology.
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