To go with the social media hysteria about President Trump trying to become the next Adolf Hitler, here, from an essay, “The Tyrant as Editor,” by Holly Case for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is how President Trump’s anti-media-fake-news campaign may owe more to the editorial instincts of Joseph Stalin.
The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.
Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits.
The few who visited the Soviet leader in his Kremlin study mention the blue pencil in their memoirs. Georgy Zhukov, commander of the Soviet military during World War II, observed that “Stalin usually made notes in blue pencil and he wrote very fast, in a bold hand, and legibly.”
Even when not wielding his blue pencil, Stalin’s editorial zeal was all-consuming. He excised people—indeed whole peoples—out of the manuscript of worldly existence, had them vanished from photographs and lexicons, changed their words and the meanings of their words, edited conversations as they happened, backing his interlocutors into more desirable (to him) formulations.
All editors, wrote the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, “show a common bias: … what the editor would prefer is preferable.”
At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in February of 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, submitted his own radical edit of Stalin’s legacy. In his “Secret Speech”—perhaps the most famous, if not the only example of a head of state reflecting explicitly on editorial practice—he condemned Stalin’s hubris and cruelty, taking aim at Stalin the editor: “Comrades … 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,” Khrushchev began. “Who did this? Stalin himself, not in his role as a strategist, but in the role of an author-editor.”
He who lives by the blue pencil must know that history is subject to revision.
One of the great American editors of recent years was Ruth Whitney, editor of Glamour magazine from 1967 to 1999. We were both from Wisconsin and when we saw each other at meetings of the American Society of Magazine Editors we always found time to talk. At one lunch the subject was how well should an editor get to know his or her writers.
I tended to work closely with writers, thinking that a lot of back and forth between editor and writer helped make a decent piece good or a good piece great.
Ruth, who ran a bigger magazine, said she took the opposite approach with writers. “I don’t like to get to know them too well,” she said. “It makes it too hard to play lord high executioner.”
See also Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him, by Donald Rayfield, Random, 2004:
Stalin was a poet in Georgian. True, he stopped composing verse in the language at sixteen, but right into old age he continued to read Georgian and made brutal underlinings and exclamations in red or blue pencil in the margins of his books. He read like a very competent and unforgiving copy editor: he corrected Georgian grammar or style, he questioned obscure words with an angry “What’s that?”