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.
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