Chapter 3: The scarecrow of Stalinism

Submitted by AWL on 24 August, 2004 - 3:05

Chapter 3: The scarecrow of Stalinism

Can the tiger be skinned claw by claw?

In part 2 of his written oration on parliamentary democracy and those whom he denounces as its enemies (Observer, January 17 1982), Michael Foot attempts to answer the challenge he had posed to himself in part one.

There, he ended by promising to undertake the difficult task of replying to those whose rejection of the idea that there can be a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism in Britain was expressed in RH Tawney's brilliant image which Foot quoted thus: "Onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw... If the Labour Party is to tackle its job with some hope of success, it must mobilise behind it a body of conviction as resolute and informed as the opposition in front of it."

Foot commented: "In other words, Tawney recognised the existence of the class struggle and the mighty convulsions required to secure its exorcism.', But nobody with even a slight awareness of the facts of history or of present-day Britain would now deny the existence of the class struggle!

Even Ramsey McDonald, the right-wing Labour prime minister, and the renegade who went over to the Tories and became their captive figurehead prime minister in the anti-working class "National Government" in 1931, recognised the class struggle. He used to boast that while of course he recognised the class struggle, he - unlike the revolutionaries - deplored it and regarded it as something to be moved away from, abandoned, outgrown, patched up; it was not something the left should fight as if they meant to win it.

Serious socialists regard the class struggle as something to be fought in a spirit that takes account of the realities of class society and the facts of history. It will only be exorcised after it has been won by the working class, after the spectre of socialism has become solid social fact. A thousand terrible victories by the ruling classes will not exorcise it, because they cannot abolish class society: only the working class can.

The idea that the class struggle can "be exorcised" by the labour movement agreeing to limit itself, by a historic self-denying ordinance, to certain methods of struggle, is an absurd idea that directly serves the ruling-class side in the inevitable struggle. The class struggle is ineradicable and it will last as long as class society lasts. The idea that, in the interests of "democracy", the workers should not seriously fight the class struggle is an ideological weapon of the ruling class to help tie the hands of its working class opponents. The bourgeoisie fights the class struggle all the time!

He may not know it, but Foot's article is a weapon of the bourgeoisie fighting the battle of ideas inside the labour movement.

What is distinctive about Tawney's image is not the bare recognition of the fact of class struggle, but the rejection of the possibility that it can be resolved peacefully, that the ruling class will peacefully allow itself to be divested of its wealth or of the power to defend that wealth. The ruling class does indeed have tiger's claws, and it will use them when it needs to. The ruling class is "armed to the teeth", and, as Foot in passing recognises in part one, it does dispose of storm troopers.

It is the measure of Michael Foot's politics now that he finds Tawney's comment noteworthy for its mere recognition of the fact of class struggle, and that, astonishingly, he so misreads Tawney as to think that is the point he is making.

In fact, Foot never actually gets round to directly discussing, still less refuting, the point that makes Tawney's image arresting and central to the dispute between reformists and revolutionaries: however peaceful and legal we are, the ruling class will not let us win socialism peacefully, and we can only get our heads clawed off if we approach the matter with naive trust in the myths of parliamentary democracy.

As an advertisement for part 2, Foot in part I had said: "After all we should have learned something from half a century [since Tawney] of such tumult and terror in human affairs. And part of what we have learnt, or should have learnt, adds up to a direct refutation of apocalyptic Marxism, or, if you wish, a justification, in quite a different sense from the old one, of [the Fabian slogan of] the inevitability of gradualness. Throughout those years, several different rivers of experience merge into the same torrent", which he promised to "explore".

In fact the gist of his reply in part 2 is that he rejects the idea of socialism as something radically different from capitalism. He does not argue that in fact you can skin the tiger paw by paw. We can, he implies, escape the tiger's violence if we give up all thought of skinning it! It is the goal of socialism Foot thereby rejects, not "apocalyptic Marxism" as he says. For Foot now, there is to be no socialist transformation, no socialism as something distinct from capitalism - only civilised, decent Labour government, concerned with ameliorations and reforms while helping the bourgeoisie run capitalism. And the goal of returning and then sustaining such a Labour government now displaces all other goals.

His discussion of peaceful or non-peaceful roads to socialism is thus purely academic, because, essentially, he resolves the dilemma he has posed for himself, quoting Tawney, by abandoning the goal of socialist transformation.

And in fact there is only one stream to Michael Foot's "torrent", and that is the experience of Stalinist totalitarianism. In the nature of things, Foot can not examine the other great mid-20th century stream of working class experience, that of the supine reformists whose weaknesses helped generate both Stalinism and fascism.

Revolution is Stalinism

His way of "replying" to what Tawney said about the tiger is to quote Tawney 20 years later, in the 1950s, writing thus: "The truth is that a conception of socialism which views it as power, on which all else depends, is not, to speak with moderation, according to light.

"The question is not merely whether the state owns and controls the means of production. It is also who owns and controls the state. It is not certain, though it is probable, that socialism can in England be achieved by the methods proper to democracy. It is certain that it cannot be achieved by any other."

Foot adds emphasis to the last sentence. Tawney and his politics is a subject in itself. The use Foot makes of him is astonishing! According to Foot, when Tawney invoked the tiger which will not voluntarily be skinned, he was writing "before he and most others had examined the full nature of Soviet totalitarianism". And somehow the fact of Stalinist totalitarianism qualifies that - essentially irrefutable - image of the tiger who will not be skinned peacefully and renders it obsolete.

Only if the goal of skinning the capitalist tiger is abandoned - because of Stalinism! - does Tawney's image become obsolete! Tawney uses the general term "by the methods of democracy" where Foot gives it the most narrow reading to mean "exclusively by the methods of parliamentary legality".

Foot presumes Tawney meant "peaceful methods" (though whether only peaceful methods are democratic is in fact open to argument, as we have seen). But in any case Tawney (as quoted) argued only that such methods would probably be sufficient, not that they would certainly be so. He left the alternative open, where Foot closes it completely, thereby disavowing in advance the right of the labour movement to self-defence against the organs of state repression, which in Foot's best of all possible democracies remain in the hands exclusively of the ruling class.

The question Tawney poses: "who owns the state?" is indeed at the heart of socialism. It defines the difference between socialism and state collectivism. Foot's implication that mass democratic action outside parliament would somehow place the state outside the control of the people is, truly, a bizarre one! Bizarre, too, is Foot's use of Tawney's reflections on Stalinism - the untrammelled power of the totalitarian state bureaucracy over all of society including the working class - to justify his policy of leaving all power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and its "stormtroopers", and not daring to fight to resist Thatcher's government for fear of them.

Foot does three impermissible things here. First, he equates Stalinism with a form of socialism, accepting the preposterous self-justification of the Stalinist ruling caste as a force embodying and struggling for a form of socialism. Unfortunately its methods are bad (Foot argues) and destroy a (presumably) acceptable socialist end.

Foot links and identifies the totalitarian system that has now existed in the USSR for over 50 years (and which has been replicated in many other countries) with the workers' revolution of 1917. He locates the root of totalitarianism in the Original Sin committed in lgl7 by the Russian workers when they used violence to take power.

Thus he equates any violence by the labour movement - implicitly even defensive violence - with the germ of totalitarianism. Thus only "the methods of democracy", by sleight of hand identified as those of the decrepit British parliamentary system now (even including its blatantly undemocratic secondary rules) are permissible.

The third impermissible step in Foot's polemic is the pretence that his references to Stalinism have anything to do with what he is in dispute with the serious Labour Party left about now. No, they do not!

By "the methods proper to democracy" or by totalitarian methods, meaning working class direct action methods: that is Foot's way of posing the alternatives. But it is ahistorical, illogical, and for the immediate issue beside the point. The issue which remains to be argued is whether the "methods proper to democracy" should or can exclude extra-parliamentary actions to stop the Tories now, or violent self-defence against ruling-class violence, or violent revolutionary action by a working class majority to deprive the ruling class and its state of the means of threatening or using violence against the labour movement. They are the issue. Stalinist totalitarianism is something else again.

The Stalinist counter revolution

The argument about ends and means, says Foot truly, "did mount to a new point of intensity, once the world began to recognise the nature and accompaniments of the Soviet dictatorship".

Those overthrown in the Russian Revolution had denounced the force used to overthrow them, records Foot. "Much more serious and persistent and devastating were the socialist criticisms directed to the same end,, - George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and Ignazio Silone. With this self-chosen political genealogy, Foot firmly places himself in the ranks of those who in the '30s and '40s abandoned socialism for, at best, liberal reformism, in response to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

"Every means tends to become an end", he quotes the one-time pre-Stalinist communist Silone. "Machines which ought to be man's instruments enslave him, the state enslaves society, the bureaucracy enslaves the state, the church enslaves religion, parliament enslaves democracy, institutions enslave justice, academics enslave art, the army enslaves the nation, the party enslaves the cause, the dictatorship of the proletariat enslaves socialism".

"Parliament enslaves democracy", would serve well as an epitaph for Foot himself. For the rest, Silone is talking about Stalinism. As a communist of the heroic period who broke with the Communist International in 1929, as it was becoming something qualitatively different from the revolutionary organisation set up by Lenin and Trotsky, Silone knew something about the differences between Stalinism and Bolshevism.

What is centrally wrong with all Foot's arguments here is indeed the identification of Stalinism and Bolshevism. Foot insists on the ridiculous and false identification of the workers' revolution of 1917 with the totalitarian dictatorship of the bureaucracy over the working class which was established in a bloody civil war against the workers and peasants of the USSR after 1928 (a civil war in which only one side, the bureaucracy, was armed and organised). Bolshevism in 1917 was a political tradition in the Russian labour movement which concentrated in itself the self-liberating energy of the revolutionary workers, and led them to take and consolidate state power in most of the former Tsar's empire.

The Russian workers armed themselves, and used force to disarm or destroy those who were in arms against them. They were organised in a democratic network of workers' councils elected in factories and districts and linked together across Russia. Elections were frequent and delegates were easily recallable.

It was a far more flexible representative, responsive system, controllable by the masses, than any parliament such as the existing British one can ever be.

This system was intended to do without permanent state bureaucrats (and for a while it succeeded). The armed forces which made the revolution were the Red Guard - a workers' militia, which was essentially more or less identical with formations like the flying picket squads of miners, builders or steel workers which we have known in Britain over the last decade - except that they were armed, that they disarmed the bourgeoisie and its agents and supporters, and that they themselves became the state power.

That was the Russian workers' revolution. 65 years later, it is a proper subject for critical minded socialists whether everything done by the armed workers and by the workers' party led by Lenin and Trotsky was well done, and whether anything they did contributed to the rise of Stalin later on. But to identify the 1917 revolution with Stalinism is preposterous!

It was the opposite of totalitarianism: mass, armed working class (and initially peasant) democracy. They would rightly have replied in Trotsky's words to the notion that "methods proper to democracy" meant excluding armed self-defence or offensive action against the armed forces of the ruling class: "The reformists systematically implant in the minds of the workers the notion that the sacredness of democracy is best guaranteed when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the workers are unarmed. "

Not only were they the opposite of totalitarianism, in the sense given to the word by Hitler and Stalin, they were in the existing conditions of Russia in 1917 and offer the only alternative to bloody ruling-class dictatorship. If the vacillating middle of the road government of Kerensky had not given way to the workers' power it would have given way to the armed reaction, based on sections of the army. The pioneering fascist-style counter-revolutionary movement would have emerged in Russia, not, as happened (when the Italian workers failed in 1919-20 to take power) in Italy.

The real roots of Stalinism

Foot says that Stalinist "apologists have never been able to explain how the enormities of Stalinism happened - or what guarantee there can be that they should never develop again."

No. Of course not. But others - Leon Trotsky, for example - have explained it, in rational historical and sociological terms; and also in terms of the basic ideas of Marxism and of those Marxists - the Bolsheviks - who proclaimed, even when leading the Russian workers to the taking of state power in 1917, that Russia was not ripe for socialism.

Where did Stalinism come from? Stalinism was a counter-revolution (on the basis of maintaining the state-owned property forms established by the revolution, developed and extended) by a distinct social formation which emerged in the '20s - a bureaucracy rooted initially in the state created for self-defence in the civil war and the wars against the 14 capitalist states which intervened in Russia.

In the course of the struggle for survival in the three years after the revolution, the working class itself was dispersed and partly destroyed as a social formation, so great was the disruption caused by counterrevolutionary violence and invasion.

More: Russia in 1917 was too backward for socialism. The Russian labour movement expected that the workers of Germany and France would soon follow where they had led, and that a European socialist federation would emerge, at the heart of which would be the advanced countries whose material development and culture were on a level sufficiently high to make an advanced post-capitalist socialist society possible. But instead of joining the Russian working class in a push for socialism, the main leaders of the labour movement sustained capitalism. In Germany they did not scruple to shoot down the revolutionary workers to make Germany safe for capitalism (no more than government minister Michael Foot scrupled to use the armed power of the British state to keep Des Warren in jail for three of the last Labour government's five years in office).

Stalinist totalitarianism, with its terror and unrestrained violence, its lies and its wiping out of many of the fruits of the entire epoch of capitalist civilisation' was the system that emerged when the bureaucracy that clustered around the state in backward, isolated and ruined Russia threw off the constraints which survived from the revolutionary period and made itself master of society. The totalitarian system is the system of their unbridled rule over society and over the working class.

It used the most terrible and savage violence to destroy the power of the workers and to wipe out the Russian labour movement - and the revolutionaries too. It used the power thus established and consolidated to exercise an immense totalitarian dominance in society.

The facts about that bloody Stalinist counter-revolution, which included the public trial in person or in absentia (Trotsky) of nearly all the leaders of the revolution, are very well known by now. The river of blood that marks off Stalinism from Bolshevism is by now so well charted that even Foot's beloved Tribune, which fellow-travelled with the Stalinists until as late as 1939, long ago became aware of it.

What sense therefore can there be in pretending that murderer and victim, Cain and Abel, Bolshevik workers' revolution and Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution are identical? In terms of historical fact, what sense is there in pretending that the workers' revolution of 1917, one of the great liberating events in history, directly freeing the workers, peasants and oppressed nationalities of the vast Tsarist empire, is the selfsame thing as the vile counter-revolutionary system that was erected on the political grave of that revolution, and on the graves of countless Russian workers and peasants?

There is no sense to it, nor logic, nor rational evaluation of the facts of the anti-working class counter-revolution by way of which, and out of which, the Stalinist system emerged and displaced the workers' democracy of 1917. Foot's notion that the violence of the workers' militia in 1917 is the root of the Stalinist totalitarian system is at root a religious notion (appropriate accompaniment to his fetishism of the existing form of parliamentary democracy in Britain!).

The taboo is violated and everything thereafter is contaminated, cursed, doomed. The Russian workers - not to speak of the Poles and others - today are still paying for the sins of their revolutionary mothers and fathers and grandparents 65 years ago! And Foot says he is an atheist, believe it or not!

Even if it could plausibly be argued that certain institutions set up by the revolution in the terrible struggle for survival in civil war and the war against the 14 intervening states contributed to the degeneration of the revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, it would only follow from this that certain mistakes were made, not that the revolution was itself a mistake. It would not follow that democratic mass working class action to take power and disarm the ruling class necessarily leads to totalitarianism.

The truth is the very opposite. If the Russian workers had an armed militia system now, totalitarianism would not survive a week in the USSR. If the Polish strike pickets who guarded the gates in Gdansk during the great strike of August 1980, carrying pick-axe handles, had gone on to organise an armed workers' militia then Jaruzelski's martial law in December 1981 would have been impossible. If the British trade union movement had an armed militia now, then Britain would be a much safer place for democracy than in fact it is.

Or would armed resistance by the Polish or USSR workers, even against Stalinism, also be a breach of the taboos of Foot's pacifist god? The conclusion from Stalinism, says Foot, is "the necessity of establishing some truly independent parliamentary institutions". This, he says, is the course Solidarnosc would have wished to follow in Poland. Yes! In August 1980, the most democratic parliament ever to meet in Poland lived and functioned for a month in Gdansk.

It was not a parliament like the one bound by the five year rule which sustains Mrs Thatcher. It was a workers' council, a sort of "soviet", composed of factory delegates from the entire region, who reported back to their electors and could easily be replaced. It was counterposed to the bureaucratic state apparatus, and incompatible with it and with the bureaucrats served by it. Such a system of intense democratic self-rule is always and everywhere incompatible with the rule of a stable bureaucratic state machine behind the scenes. That is why, though it was a parliament it belonged to the type of the 1917 workers' councils, and not to the type of Michael Foot's revered institution.

Just as he invokes the dead, safe, radical causes of the past, and falsely appropriates them for use against those who stand in their living continuity, Foot misuses the Polish experience. For that tremendously democratic "parliament" in Gdansk could only have been developed and consolidated as a revolutionary movement. It could live only if it could find the force to disarm the Polish state and successfully raise the cry of national revolt against Russian overlordship in Poland (and the rest of Eastern Europe: only a movement spreading across Eastern Europe could hope to defy and defeat the Russian state).

Instead, the workers' movement, the unchallengeable power in Poland in August 1980, decided to bow to the fact of Russia's overlordship of Poland. and the consequent rule of the Polish Stalinist bureaucracy. It transformed itself into a "trade union" - though in fact Solidarnosc was always much more. And the forces of Stalinist reaction gathered strength for the blow they struck last December, when martial law was declared.

What would Foot have advocated in Poland? Reliance on the Sejm (the official parliament - which showed some life, in fact)? A long, moderately conducted war of attrition - perhaps for decades - to make the Sejm "a real parliament"? There is more than one way to "sacrifice generations", Michael Foot! I repeat: the only guarantee against counterrevolution in Poland would have been an armed working class which overthrew the bureaucracy and secured Polish independence. The road to democracy in Eastern Europe and the USSR - surely even Michael Foot will have to agree - is the road of armed revolt.

The only sure guarantee against capitalist or Stalinist counter-revolution ~s active, self-controlling mass democracy in real control - without a reserve military force which is the iron hand in the parliamentary glove, and which the ruling class (or ruling bureaucracy) can use to strike down the masses and their democracy.