What's wrong with Stalinist iconography

Author: 

Cathy Nugent

In the recent past there has been a minor craze in and around the Labour left for using 1930s Stalinist iconography. This craze, based in social media, ranges from the use of Stalinist socialist realist “art” to images and memes attacking Trotskyists, including ice-picks emojis etc. Some people, so we understand, who volunteer for Momentum like to use jargon attacking Trotskyists, taken from these social media exchanges, such as “Clear Them Out”. They mean that people who support Workers’ Liberty or Socialist Appeal should be expelled from the Labour Party.

In an effort to draw attention to this phenomena, we commented here on a recent example of Stalinist “theatre”, where a prominent member of the Labour left wore a badge saying “Goodnight Trotskyite”, showing a figure being stabbed with an ice-pick — a reference to the murder of Trotsky by Stalin’s assassin Ramón Mercader.

That person apologised. Others, some “satirical Stalinists” around the Facebook page “Red London”, in an attempt, I guess, to defend their right to wield the virtual ice-pick, responded with something more toxic and slanderous in character. They made claims (and not for the first time) of paedophilia against the AWL, based on selectively quoting from two of our articles, both of which were serious discussions about how the tackle the problem of child abuse! They also tried to make fun of a 15-year old comrade of ours by posting a nasty comment about his fundraising activity. Apologising shortly afterwards, they continued to maintain that the dog-walk, advertised on a charity crowdfunding site, was intrinsically funny, thus continuing to ridicule this young man’s endeavours. The Labour left platform Red Labour commented here on this, arguing effectively why Red London are really very unfunny.

We are not thought police, we have no wish to, nor could we, ban this iconography and group-think. Jokes and memes have their place in the movement, as they have in life. However, we believe it is time to spell out the political implications of the Stalinist craze.

It has been said that real Stalinists – people that adhere to the state ideology of the Soviet Union from the1930s onwards - no longer exist. That very few people in the UK labour movement believe the Soviet Union was a socialist utopia. Pretend Stalinism is therefore fairly “safe” silliness. Not so.

There are small groups of people who are proudly Stalinist. Some of them are very influential: ex-Guardian journalist Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union, are both central to the Labour leadership’s inner circle. Both were members of a former Stalinist sect “Straight Left”, and they have not changed their views. Then there are groups like Red London, and individuals who operate at a very different level to Milne and Murray. (And, to be clear Corbyn himself is not a carbon copy of his advisors, and, always deals with political disputes in a comradely way.)

The likes of Red London use hateful trolling because they know it will be both tolerated and feared, or rather it will be tolerated because it is feared. Nobody wants to get in their way of their slanders. But they get their tactics of abuse and slander, some of it very personal, straight out of the High Stalinist playbook.

Many of today’s Stalinists and semi-Stalinists are inculcated into their views, and an operating policy of slander and lies, through a simplistic world view. For example, that the Soviet Union was a mighty power against Hitler and against American imperialism. That the Soviet Union was a great ally of small and oppressed nations. People, such as ourselves, Trotskyists in general, some anarchists and left libertarians, or anyone who challenges these views are regarded as being on the “other side” of a political binary. We are enemies, collaborators, sometimes we “have right-wing handlers” etc, etc.

Simplistic views are often seductive. Moreover “campist” views have many ways to become operational in contemporary politics. In the Stop the War Coalition, for instance, which for many years, under the influence of George Galloway, refused to make solidarity with Iraqi trade unionists because, they did not show sufficient “vigilence” against the US occupation. The Stalinist “register” can be a useful way to dress-up right wing ideas in left-wing garb, e.g. when taking up an anti-migrant line. As we argued elsewhere: “The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office.”

Stalinism was the ideology of ruling-classes which for over fifty years had a powerful influence in the world. That is why it still has historical weight, still shapes political consensus on the left and is still grasped at by people trying to make sense of the world. It is one of the reasons why it is difficult to make arguments against Stalinism, and why Trotskyists look like “outsiders”, who, by not accepting this consensus, are trying to make life difficult for everyone else.

These views are seductive in another way. Unfortunately, because today’s Stalinist current is associated with people who have some power who have some influence in the labour movement, it has becomes popular, or tolerable to some newer people seeking to integrate themselves or to win positions in the labour movement.

Much more can be said, and should be said about how the Soviet ruling class brutally repressed the working-class and cauterised labour movements around the world using the language of Marxism and socialism as it’s ideology. To repeat, it was a powerful movement and the residual notion that it was somehow the champion of the oppressed not only lingers on, but is being renewed and can be renewed further through by helping to give Stalinist iconography currency. Unfortunately, that is how history works: residual ideas, the action plans of the dead, come back into circulation to serve the purposes of the living. As Marx said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

We must continually remind ourselves what this Soviet ruling class was and what it did: of the gulags it built, how it systematically murdered all its political opponents, its callous indifference to mass starvation as a result of its economic plans, at the licensed mass-raping of German women for revenge at the end of the Second World War. And so on. All of these historical events and many more are backed up by serious research and evidence; we have no excuse not to be clear on these points.

Workers’ Liberty often works with people who were members of or influenced by the Communist Party (Morning Star) in labour movement campaigns. Twenty years ago we worked closely with such people, and for a long-time very productively, in the Welfare State Network. But we never told ourselves lies about their political views, nor stood back from stating what is wrong with those views. Therefore we think we are in a good position to appeal to people on the left, people who maybe regard themselves as "not Leninist", or who are not sure about whether there is a role for Marxist ideas in the Labour Party, not to laugh along with the anti-Trotskyist jokes, but rather, to try to encourage debate on the underlying issues.

There is a wide spectrum of political traditions and current political beliefs among the people who now want to change the world and see it cleansed of oppression and exploitation. Many of us, including ourselves, see a great opportunity to fight back against oppression in a Corbyn-led Labour government. To make a good job of that opportunity we do need to unite, but not by way of dealing with our differences through abuse and puerile behaviour. Fighting to make the most of these opportunities means opening up thoughtful and comradely debate at every level, including on social media.

We need a movement that takes the historical crimes of Stalinism seriously and recognises its current manifestations. We need to be able to debate the historical record, from whatever our point of view, without fear of slander and abuse.

Comments

Support or worship?

When the Red Labour group posted a statement on its Facebook page criticising the Stalinist Red London page’s antics and record (see here), a lengthy discussion followed.

Although only three or four of them got involved, all the worst aspects of the Red London crew were on display. I want to focus on one aspect which is not the most “spectacular”, but I think in many ways the most politically significant and dangerous.

One of them wrote a small defence of Red London’s record, boasting that they “have defended Corbyn’s leadership from attacks both by the Blairite right and the Trotskyite ultra-left”. Think about this.

The Blairites have repeatedly undermined and on more than one occasion attempted to overthrow Corbyn. They have shown no hesitation whatsoever about not just criticising but viciously attacking him in the mainstream, and even the right-wing mainstream, press. They have treated him and his supporters as out and out enemies. What have Trotskyists done? All Trotskyist organisations, pretty much, have been supportive of Corbyn. The two Red London are most bothered about, Socialist Appeal and in particular Workers’ Liberty, have been actively involved in the campaigns to elect him leader, twice, and to defend him against the right. And in Labour’s general election campaign. Our support for the left leadership of the party is a matter of extensive public record and action.

So what is the poster talking about? It’s true that Workers’ Liberty has many and significant criticisms of Corbyn and his leadership. We have proposals we want the movement to take up, and by even raising them that implies differences with the leadership. We have not hidden any of this, quite the opposite. As always, we want to be clear and sharp. At the same time, despite the extent of our disagreements, the vast majority of our disagreement and criticism has been extremely friendly and measured. And in fact that is true across the Trotskyist/Trotskyish left. (I leave aside the sectarianism of groups like the SWP and SP towards Labour as a whole - that is a different issue.) Workers' Liberty is actively involved in the struggles of the Labour left, working with people of many different views.

In theory you could imagine a group which says it "supports Corbyn" but whose criticism is pitched in such a way as to amount to simple denunciation and indifference to the fate of the right-left struggle in the Labour Party. But that is not what we are discussing here.

That is not what Red London are bothered about. They're bothered about any criticism or even disagreement or even just stating a different view at all. Whether they actually believe that Corbyn is beyond criticism, or have adopted this as a stance, a badge of honour, a way of holding their little group together and attacking its adopted enemies, what they object to is the idea of a living, thinking movement that debates ideas and policies and holds its leaders to account.

That is why Red London and associated Facebook pages promote uncritical hero worship of Corbyn. It seems bizarre (Corbyn himself would surely object to it), but that is what is behind it.

All real socialists, of whatever stripe, should oppose this sinister approach, whatever their attitude to the various issues and debates in the Labour left.

Sacha Ismail

Social Democracy -- without democracy

Red London sounds like the typical social democratic organization that goes on and on about democracy but if you dare criticize the Great Leader of the Party -- unclean, unclean!

It's still the case that social democratic and Stalinist (and "kitsch-Trotskyist") practices, in bourgeois-democratic countries, have more in common than any such people would care to admit.