Lair Of A Squirrel Red

Making sense of Stalinism. by korakious
January 27, 2008, 12:04 am
Filed under: Lenin, Trotskyists, USSR | Tags:

A few days ago was the 84th anniversary of Lenin’s death. If you have been in the Marxist left for more than 6 months and were aware of it (the anniversary, not your being part of the left) then you most definitely spent at least a few minutes thinking “what if?”. “What if Lenin had lived and had completed his fight against Stalin?” In turn, that probably led to something like “What if Trotsky and the Left Opposition had won the political struggle?”. Don’t lie. We have all done it, and we all keep doing it. In fact, I often do it on entirely random occasions.

However, I’d like to use this time of reflection to draw your attention not to what could have been, but to what actually was. Aye, I want to talk to you about Stalinism. The reason I want to do that is that I find our understanding of this inconceivably huge part of our historical movement to be entirely problematic. As a former Trotskyist I can speak only of the anti-Stalinist left and at any rate, hardcore antirevisionist Uncle Joe worshipers are not particularly common in Britain (you are fooling yourselves if you think that this is the case in the rest of the world).

For decades, Trotskyists have been arguing that the crisis in the international proletarian movement is a crisis of leadership. The implication is that if a correct, revolutionary -Trotskyist- line had been followed instead of the wrong, counter-revolutionary -Stalinist- the much desired and anticipated global proletarian revolution would have taken place. Who amongst us has not heard “the betrayals of Stalinism” included amongst the reasons for the failure of the working class to take power? And who hasn’t met that Trotbot who genuinely believed that Stalin was responsible for everything bad that ever happened in the USSR? Alright, I’ll concede that the average Trot group has an analysis of Stalinism that is a bit more elaborate than that (although I’d argue that this is because they follow The Revolution Betrayed like holy scripture, rather than any theoretical effort on their part), ie that Stalinism arose in the Soviet Union because of the weakness of the working class, the political fatigue that was the product of so many years of war, the isolation of the Russian revolution after the failure of the German proletariat to take power etc.

Although there is truth in all of these, particularly on the profound effect that the Civil War had on the Bolshevik party I find that they do not represent a qualitatively different – and therefore actually useful – approach to Stalinism than the extreme of “IT WAS STALIN WOT DONE IT!!!”. The reason is that Stalinism/the bureaucracy is still treated as a thing that is separate from the proletariat, a distinct body that usurps power because of the latter’s weakness. Stalinism is seen as something foreign to the socialist movement, conquering it from the outside. Nowhere is this mentality more prevalent than in the treatment of the non USSR CPs that are seen as nothing more than “tools of the Kremlin”.

If you take a look at your average Trot treatment of Soviet history after Trotsky got expelled, you would be pretty hard pressed do differentiate between it and the prevalent Totalitarianist narrative of bourgeois historians. The only striking difference really is that the bourgeois historian sees in Stalinism the natural development of Leninism while the Trot perceives it as a sharp break from Lenin’s legacy; Lenin good, Stalin bad. As far as I am concerned, these are two sides of the same coin. Stalinism is perceived by both as some sort of incomprehensible, unspeakably terrible, irrational and fiendish terror without end. I some times have a hard time telling Trot and bourgeois histories of Stalinism apart from Scottish Reformation era descriptions of hell. Particularly amongst the state-capitalist camp (Cliffites, Shachtmanites etc) this shallowness of analysis reaches ridiculous proportions. Here’s an example; in A Century of State Murder, a demographic history of Russia in the 20th century, Michael Haynes (SWP) and Rumy Husan assess the impact of state policy on deaths and death rate. In their chapter on the Russian Revolution and Civil War, they argue that the huge number of deaths was largely due to factors that were beyond the Soviet government’s control and correctly point out that the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to prevent deaths and other unpleasantries from taking place when and where this was possible. However, in their chapter of Stalinism, everything that went was the fault of the “new ruling class’s” reckless policies the only purpose of which is presented to be nothing more than the accumulation of privileges.

This “analysis” serves only to mystify the complex and multi dimensional social and political reality that was Stalinism. We must mercilessly criticise and scrutinise Stalinism. But this criticism must be directed towards the proletarian movement itself, not some fantastical foreign entity. We must understand and most important of all, accept, that Stalinism was part of ourmovement. This means that any criticism we make, any remarks and conclusions we come up with, must be from the class standpoint of the proletariat, not the class enemy. In plain terms, Stalinism should not be criticised for killing people. Stalin should not be criticised for the purges. It is the way the purges and killings were conducted and their targets that we should denounce. Bourgeois liberals weep for “Stalin’s” victims because they would rather see hundreds of thousands die of malnutrition, again and again, than a few thousands die because of industrialisation. Yes, we should be critical and angry at Stalinist murders. But it is the Trotsys and the Bukharins we should be mourning, not the hundreds of potential Vlasovs that fell during the purges. And what of Stalin’s economic policies? The only reasonable criticism Trots level against those is that Stalin attempted to implement a five year plan in four years. Yet the single most destructive thing was perhaps forced collectivisation, directly nicked from Trotsky’s own programme. And what of social-fascism? The rabid, “rives of blood” kind of anti-Stalinists seems entirely unable to consider the possibility that this might have been the product of the German proletariat’s entirely horrible experience with Social-Democracy, you know, the same Social-Democracy that murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the same Social-Democracy that had line up behind German imperialism and militarism less than 20 years before. Instead they choose to blame the rise of Hitler on the German CP being a “tool of the Kremlin”. No, not a wrong political calculation by the proletarian movement, reflecting its own weakness, but a treacherous act by that tool of the Kremlin leadership, because after all, the crisis of the proletarian movement is a crisis of leadership, right? Wrong.

In reality, every single of the “evil” traits of Stalinism can be found at various degrees throughout our movement. If you are looking for personality cults, why look further than Tommy Sheridan? If you are looking for Lysenkoism, why look further than the terrible attitude towards “bourgeois science” shared by the vast majority of the left and expressed in a particularly amusing manner in Ted Grant’s and Alan Woods’s Reason in Revolt that famously rejected the existence of black holes as incompatible with dialectical materialism? Witch-hunts you said? Well comrades in the SSP really did get the word “witch” thrown at them during the events prior to the split. I am not even going to try and give an example of rigid, sclerotic, life sucking bureaucracy in the movement, it would be redundant.

So how come then that all our splendid, anti-bureaucratic, anti-Stalinist, socialism-from-below groups most, or all of Stalinism’s oh-so horrific traits? Allow me to reiterate that this is because these are elements that are inherent in the proletarian movement of this age. The proletariat is locked in an insoluble contradiction with capital. In its incessant fight against capital it is infected by capital and mirrors it. In non-philosophical terms, the terms of the fight are set by capital, the proletariat has to deal with them. When the bourgeoisie throws in the battlefield an army of the highest discipline and organisation, the proletariat can only respond by organising itself with similar efficiency as well. As long as the the contradiction between mental and manual labour dominates society, it will manifest in our movement as well, whether in the form of personality cults or excessive bureaucracy. Within the context of a revolutionary society, as was Soviet Russia, where even the tiniest element of society is mobilised to its fullest intensity, these shortcomings of our movement can be amplified to reach huge proportions, with tragic consequences. A mildly amusing series of expulsions such as the SWP often does to protect the prestige of its Central Committee manifests as show trials and executions.

If we are to deal with this problem and eventually overcome it, we shall have to go beyond calls for a “return to Lenin” and a rejection of “Stalinism”. We must accept Stalinism as a historical part of our movement, its horrors as our horrors. Only then will we actually try to find some real solution to our (get it?) contradictions and give capital a final kick in the butt.

PS: How do you like the font size?


22 Comments so far
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The font size is cool, but I’m sorry to say this, I’d much rather forget about the Stalin era.

To dwell on it is to remind people of what went wrong within a certain time and place – and thus unintentionally emphasise the TINA meme at the expense of deveoping an understanding of the current situation and the struggles within the societies in which we live.

I feel that far more attention needs to be given to past attempts at industrial democracy, the potential for greater mass participation in decision-making, etc.

Of Stalinism, though, perhaps it is better to speak of “bureaucratisation” and how to combat it with openness and direct participation in decision-making – this way the Stalin-worshippers and the obsessively anti-Stalinist can conduct a contemporary debate.

Comment by charliemarks

Well the very first point I would raise here is that our enemies make sure that we can’t really forget about it.

But I do like what you say about bureaucratisation. That way we can show that Stalinism was really not about Stalin, but a general tendency that exists within our movement of which we must always be wary whatever our theoretical label. It seems to me that, like always, we don’t really disagree.

Comment by korakious

First things first, excellent post.

In response to Charlie, I don’t really think it’s possible to ‘forget’ the Stalin era. Firstly, the Stalin era remains prominent in the public consciousness ‘forgetting’ it doesn’t really address this, in fact it probably looks quite bad. But neither is the standard disavowal of responsibility which characterises certain groups – since this ignores the real continuities between ‘Stalinism’ and the Marxist left since. Secondly, distancing onself from ‘Stalinism’ makes it much more difficult to learn its lessons (because they are not ‘our’ lessons). Thirdly, many active revolutionary movements outside of the first world can be characterised as in some way ‘Stalinist’ (usually explicitly so), it seems somewhat arrogant (and stupid) to ignore them.

Comment by Rob

Font size – much better. Can’t read the terrorism post. (And Rob, are you going to cross-post everything longer than a few lines? If so I might actually drop your blog from my feed list.)

I liked the post. I learned a lot of my Marxism from ex-Communists who can’t not be called ex-Stalinists (Williams, Thompson), which has meant that for a long time I’ve believed in a more positive version of the continuity thesis – i.e. that at least some forms of Communism-that-can’t-not-be-called-Stalinism allowed and even fostered some achievements of lasting value. I’d have difficulty arguing this publicly – I have difficulty arguing it to myself sometimes, particularly when I talk about the 1930s with my wife, who’s Ukrainian – but I can’t entirely not believe it. Developing a sense of the negative continuities between Stalinism and other forms of Marxist thought & practice might make it easier to think heretical thoughts about positive continuities.

Comment by Phil

Hi Phil, I fixed the font for Rob’s post as well. You see there’s no way to do this automatically on wordpress, so I have to do it via html.

at least some forms of Communism-that-can’t-not-be-called-Stalinism allowed and even fostered some achievements of lasting value

The thing is that “Stalinism” was the concrete manifestation of the 20th century communist movement, whether we like it or not, while Trotskyism and the various libertarian communisms were fringe (mainly first world) phenomena that had next to zero influence over the class. We cannot really reject “Stalinism” wholesale unless we are prepared to say that everything the proletariat did in the 20th century was shite because it was led by the wrong people.

Comment by korakious

Phil, I’m not cross-posting everything over a few lines, it’s just the last two things felt like they could go here too. When are you going to start posting again?

Comment by Rob

Ah. Yes. For a variety of reasons I haven’t felt like blogging lately, or not in the way that I have done in the past. The trouble with leaving a gap (as I guess you know) is that after a while it gets harder and harder to start again – the vague sense of alienation from what you were doing before is compounded by the feeling that you ought now to be doing something like that but better. I’ll kick it back into gear some time soon, probably with some unmitigated trivia.

Comment by Phil

I really do know the feeling Phil.

Also, were you actually taught by Raymond Williams? If so, awesome.

Comment by Rob

Interesting post. As someone who regards themselves as definitely “pro Trotsky” but without believing that Trotskyism as a separate political project has much validity in the 21st century I agree with a lot of what you have to say.

I think that the “human raw material” factor in revolutionary politics is often hugely underestimated – I have no doubt for instance that had Gerry Healy got his hands on state power he would have been just as bad as Stalin!

Incidentally I’m a member of an organisation that also includes people of both a pro-Trotsky and pro-Mao persuasion, but in my experience most of the political disagreements we have don´t involve a split along traditional lines.

And even though we don´t put forward a “party line” on international issues we usually manage to find a great deal of common ground on events as disparate as the revolutions in Nepal and Venezuela.

The key thing though for us has been to sort out the key political tasks for revolutionaries in our own country in the here and now, and in this respect critical Trotskyists and critical Maoists can find more in common with each other than with the other confessionally-based sects.

Comment by Tim B

[…] Communism looks at the horrors of Stalinism and the sometimes tendency of the socialist left to say this occurred […]

Pingback by Politics in the Zeros » Socialism and Stalin

were you actually taught by Raymond Williams?

I could just about say Yes, but it would be a stretch. I did English at the Cambridge college where he was based, but he was very much doing his own thing by that stage. On one occasion our Director of Studies arranged a session on Marxism and Literature, complete with a Q&A with the great man. I remember someone who’s now a professor asked him why it was called Marxism and Literature and not Literature and Marxism. Answer: it was commissioned for OUP’s “Marxism and…” series.

It was a weird combination – this very distant presence who you’d occasionally see around the place, and these books which (once I’d worked my way into the style) blew my mind like almost nothing before or since. (Modern Tragedy is highly relevant to the Stalin discussion, incidentally.) I remember reading M&L and having the physical sensation that the top of my head was lifting off – suddenly there was a lot more room to think.

Comment by Phil


BTW Tim B says: “I think that the “human raw material” factor in revolutionary politics is often hugely underestimated – I have no doubt for instance that had Gerry Healy got his hands on state power he would have been just as bad as Stalin!”

I would go further, if Trotsky had come to power he would probably have been worse than Stalin.

What is crucialy missing from Trot accounts in the “a big boy did it and ran away” school of Societ history, is any looking at the role actually played by the left opposition in the crucial years 1926 to 1928.

Comment by andy newman

Hello Tim,

I too regard myself as “pro-Trotsky”, but I also regard myself as pro-Gramsci, pro-Luxemburg, pro-Pannekoek, pro-many people on different issues. The problem with the left is that they often become attached to the theorists and then proceed from there to reject any tradition with which their revolutionary icon might have come into contact with. I am very interested in what you say about your organisation. I will be following your blog closely for more info.

Andy, I think you are being a bit too harsh when you say that Trotsky would have been worse than Stalin. I am really not sure that Trotsky would not have murdered Bukharin (the murder of Bukharin for me is the epitome of what is wrong with Stalinism) as despite being a ruthless bureaucrat, he did not seem to suffer from Stalin’s paranoia. Certainly, Trotsky’s criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy would have been impossible if it hadn’t turned back to bite him in the arse as it was to a large extent his creation. People seem to forget that he was calling for the militarisation of labour in the early 20s.

Comment by korakious

The Trotsky-worse-than-Stalin thing misses the point about bureaucratisation. Perhaps only someone travelling back in time – a Quantum Leap into Stalin, if you will – could have spoken out against bureaucratisation. I like the idea of Uncle Leon… Stalin going into exile – it would make an excellent film, no?

Comment by charliemarks

Reading through some of the other comments, I think I may perhaps have been a little too careless in the way I phrased by remarks about Gerry Healy and Stalin – what people like Gerry Healy and Joseph Stalin had in common was of course not just that they were terrible human beings *but also* that their respective parties had terribly bureuacratic and repressive internal regimes which enabled their worst excesses.

Fortunately though I guess the WRP didn’t have access to the levers of state power.

So I agree with “charliemarks” that bureaucratisation is the important issue here, and of course in this respect Trotsky was correct in his analysis if perhaps a little slow in getting there.

As far as the point about not defining your politics exclusively in terms of one revolutionary tradition goes I agree absolutely. It is really mainly in regard to the class nature of the USSR debate that I describe myself as pro-Trotsky. If we were discussing Cuba I could equally well describle myself as pro-Guevara! And while I don’t find much to like about Mao himself, there are aspects of the Maoist movement in places like the Philippines and Nepal that I think we can certainly learn from.

Comment by Tim B

Now, I watched over the weekend (something of a coincidence) an Adam Curtis documentary made in the early nineties about the early years of the USSR and the process of bureaucratisation ( What’s lacking is a critique from the perspective of expanding democratic control in the economy, but it’s interesting nonetheless, and, rarely for such a documentary, not overtly anti-communist.

Comment by charliemarks

Just watched it, thanks for that Charlie. It was very interesting, and it is quite reflective of the mental/physical labour contradiction.

Comment by korakious

A favourite moment, highlighting the bureaucratic planning system was the taxi driver pointing out the Gosplan building and saying if they took his place they’d have more suitable plans.

Comment by charliemarks

“The reason is that Stalinism/the bureaucracy is still treated as a thing that is separate from the proletariat, a distinct body that usurps power because of the latter’s weakness.”

Well what’s the problem ? The fact is that indeed the bureaucracy, although starting out as part of the worker’s movement, or to be precise, the workers’ state separated itself from the proletariat, first piecemeal, then in more clearcut and violent ways, until it became a new class, with control over the means of production, and extracting surplus-value from the workers.

That part of the workers’ movement became aware early of the risk of this separation arising, you can see in the writings of Lenin in 1920-23 and Trotsky 1923 onwards.

Second part – and this is where I feel you haven’t been talking to the right trots ! – is the analysis of stalinism within the workers movement, ie the various CPs around the world. They certainly didn’t become new ruling classes themselves, as the seat was still occupied, but turned to various kinds of reformism from the influences of the local conditions, strength of the local workers movement, and the interests of the Kremlin bureaucracy.

So it’s all there to be analysed, with the good old trusty tools of historical materialism ! On the other hand I must say fear you’re going down an impasse looking for the causes of stalinism in our sullied souls…

Comment by ilestre

“But I do like what you say about bureaucratisation. That way we can show that Stalinism was really not about Stalin, but a general tendency that exists within our movement of which we must always be wary whatever our theoretical label. It seems to me that, like always, we don’t really disagree.”

The key text for this – albeit of bourgeois origin – is Robert Michels’ Political Parties. If you ignore his positing of ‘iron laws’ , and occasional tendency to platitude, he often raises very good points about precisely this topic (although his concern is the prewar german SPD).

Comment by R

I have long been struck by the superficiality about the KPD and its hostility to the SPD (feelings were quite mutual by the way) and how this helped Hitler to power. The reality is that the KPD had reasons to be hostile to the Social Democrats even without instructions from Moscow. Everyone knows Hitler came to power in 1933 and the left was divided. Not everyone knows that German police under SPD control shot dead Communist demonstrators, notably on May Day 1929. More has come out over the years about SPD cooperation, at leadership level at least, with the Freikorps, and complicity in the murders of Liebknecht, Luxemburg and many others.

Comment by Eugen Levine

Any youtube video’s from

Comment by Steapymmeroro

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