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?

Venezuela & Freedom. What would Lenin do? by korakious
May 26, 2007, 8:48 pm
Filed under: Chavez, First World Left, Freedom, Human Rights, Lenin, Theory, Venezuela

Most of you are probably familiar with the fuss kicked up on the bourgeois media when Chavez announced that the license of RCTV, an opposition station in Venezuela would not be renewed. The First World Left, including of course its vanguard, the AWL jumped on the bourgeois liberal media bandwagon, immediately concluding (or repeating their already made, age old analysis of any revolution that is not led by them) that Venezuela was heading down the road of Stalinism, state capitalism, Bonapartism and whathaveyou. Of course, neither the media, nor their “left” lackeys mentioned that the station was not being shut down, but having its license not renewed in a perfectly legal manner, as has happened a number of times in the “Free” World, without protest from either the media or our fellow revolutionary imperialist apologist brothers.

That of course is besides the point because a cursory look at RCTV’s involvement in the coup of 2002 against the democratically elected Chavez government would lead anyone but the most liberal of bourgeois liberals to conclude that the station should have been immediately shut down after the failure of the putsch. You see, the media often forgets to mention that the station was not only actively supporting the overthrow of Chavez, but also practically assisting the putschists by engaging in news blackouts. Now, perhaps the mourners of democracy should take a minute and think in what way any of the “democratic” governments of the West would have responded to a failed coup. Surely most of the participants would have been arrested and the leaders would have probably spent their lives behind bars (if not executed). What happened in Venezuela? The supreme court ruled that the military officers should not stand trial as what happened wasn’t really a coup but a… power vacuum. Oh, the brutality of authoritarian Venezuela! By the way, I would be amused to see how the very concerned about human rights left would respond to a similar situation in their own country. It is very easy to criticise little brown/red (you know, those who need our benevolent leadership; it is after all, the white man’s burden! ) people half way around the world, but it isn’t quite as simple to come up with a response to politically crucial events taking place in your own society.

Anyhow, I am ranting again. What’s interesting here is not the chauvinism-bordering-racism underlying much of the politics of the first world left, but the rush of such groups to publicly defend the democratic rights of a bourgeois media station that is owned by the ruling class, thus throwing class analysis out of the window and subscribing to Jeffersonian notions of the inalienability of rights. See for example the post made by TWP on Shiraz Socialist:

How many of us have “openly called” for the overthrow of capitalism? Well apparently Tariq Ali doesn’t see the irony in his statement about Chavez’s failure to renew a TV licence for the anti-government channel RCTV. By his logic most of the newspapers of the far left could be legitimately closed down in Britain. […]I have always argued for “no platform for fascists” and stand by that argument. However, this isn’t a “fascist” TV station – it simply opposes the government in the strongest terms. That is not a reason for shutting it down

Let’s take the arguments in reverse order. First, if a supporter of Fascism is a Fascist, then it makes sense that a TV station supporting Fascism is a Fascist TV station. One could of course try to argue that a military coup in Latin America might not lead to Fascism but to… something else. I would kindly ask them to stop reading and **** off my internets.

Now, with that out of the way, it would be useful to examine the contradiction inherent in TWP’s support for “No Platform For Fascists” and opposition to the “shutting down” of RCTV, a contradiction that runs deeper than the rather evident fact that RCTV is a Fascist supporter.

I do not wish to examine here whether the “No Platform” approach is correct or not. Let us assume it is. Why do socialists adopt a “No Platform” line on fascism? The evident and right, if a bit simplistic, response is that we do so because fascism is diametrically opposed to the interests of the working class and presents a formidable obstacle to the fight for socialism. So far, so good. But why is that we do not also call for “No Platform” for capitalists as well? Is it because we think that capitalist/liberal views are more legitimate than fascists’? Is it because capitalism is less of an obstacle to socialism and less of a danger to the working class? Of course not. If anything, capitalism has proven to be more resilient than fascism and has now become a threat not only to the working class but to the whole planet. Further, only the most stupendously half-witted liberaloleftie would dare argue that “kick them Pakis out of Britain” is a less legitimate view than “let’s bomb those terrorist A-rabs”. The reason therefore that we do not pursue a “No Platform” policy re capitalism is that we can’t. The whole purpose of “No Platform” is to prevent the poison of Fascist ideology from spreading among the working class, creating vile sectarianism, racism and other niceties. This is totally inapplicable to the hegemonic struggle of socialists against bourgeois ideology; you can’t call for “No Platform” to bourgeois ideology. Why? Because bourgeois ideology is the platform. Every single social structure is permeated by and functions according to bourgeois ideology. Hence the adoption of the Transitional Programme and the need for a War of Position, among other things. It should be clear by now, but it is worth restating. Socialists do not tolerate bourgeois ideology because it is more “legitimate” than Fascism but because not tolerating is a non starter. This brings us back to the first point made by TWP, that of legitimacy.

TWP argues that if we support Chavez’s action on the basis that RCTV supported the coup, then, it would be legitimate for, say, the British government to close down the newspapers of the far left, since they (we) have often supported the violent overthrow of capitalism. TWP here falls to the usual trap of forcing a fictitious universality onto concepts of a divided -ie partial not universal – society. Talking about legitimacy, TWP forgets to ask the crucial question: “for whom?” In a class society, questions of legitimacy, legal or moral, cannot be extracted from the context of class struggle and made into abstract, timeless dicta derived from the sky above. Therefore, if the British state decides to close down socialist newspapers, it will be a perfectly legitimate move for the class interest it represents. For socialists of course, it would be a terrible crime, not because it would take away our “freedom” but because it would severely reduce our efficiency and capability to promote our ideas. The illegitimacy of the act would not consist in a violation of our perceived human rights but in the fact that it would be an attack on socialism. In that manner, the very existence of the bourgeois state and its ideological supports is illegitiate. No action it takes can ever be considered morally acceptable by socialists, apart from that which is forced upon it by the struggle of the working class.

The same goes for human rights. The reason the left usually defends human rights is because attacks on them are made by the bourgeois state with the aim to undermine the fighting power of the working class. Indeed, “universal” human rights were won by workers after decades of painful struggle; there was no right to free speech for socialists for a large part of the 20th century (and one may very well say there won’t be a right to it again, if socialism becomes a powerful political force again), there was no right to shelter and food, no right to education. Socialists support human rights for the working class, but we have no obligation to fight for the right of RCTV owners to back fascist coups. Expecting from socialists to rise in support of freedom of speech for RCTV, is like expecting the Tories to organize demonstrations for the right to strike.

The concerned leftie will reply: “But isn’t the point of socialism to create a society where people are free? How can you increase freedom by curtailing freedom?”. To a limited extent, this is not wrong. I do not subscribe to the tanky notion that freedom in itself, is a bourgeois ideal. The fallacy of the liberalosocialist approach lies, again, in the abstractly universalistic manner it uses the concept of freedom. Like legitimacy, freedom cannot be extracted from its class context. As Lenin points out in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, one cannot discuss freedom and democracy without asking “for what class?”. The freedom of workers to go on strike restricts the freedom of capitalists to extract profit. The freedom of capitalists to own media curtails the freedom of workers to establish independent media outlets.

Freedom then, within the context of a class society is a question of which side you are on, as the amount of freedom a class has is inversely related to the amount of freedom of its antagonistic classes. Marxists are on the side of the working class and this is why we do not see anything wrong with the Chavez government shutting RCTV down. Had RCTV been a workers’ co-operative or had Chavez moved to silence an oppositional workers’ political group, he would have been on the receiving end of the harshest of criticisms from the Squirrel Vanguard. The only criticism one could level against Chavez is that instead of turning RCTV into a cooperative news outlet, he made it a state owned one. Other than that however, his democratic record with respect to the working class has been brilliant, to put it mildly. Not only has community power greatly expanded under his administration, but in what is probably a world first, the right of recall has been enshrined in the constitution and has already been used by Chavez’s opponents against him.

Perhaps the freedom-loving left (as in opposed to freedom-hating commies like me) should remember that true, universal freedom, can only be the product of a positive transcendence of alienation and therefore, achievable only in a true classless society. And since liberalosocialists don’t quite like “authoritarian” Lenin, I’ll finish this post with a quote by “libertarian” Rosa Luxemburg:

Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished