6.Bolshevism, Marxism and the Russian Revolution
Bolshevism, in power in Russia after 25 October (7 November) 1917, and taking the lead in establishing a new, Communist, International – the “Third International” — tried to reorganise the old socialist movement that had collapsed at the outbreak of war in 1914. Bolshevism and the Communist International saw themselves as the continuator of the best of the old movement — those that had held to their principles when European bourgeois civilisation broke down in 1914 — armed for the new time of open revolutionary battles.
The Bolshevik Communist International picked up many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French, British, Irish and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites and Jim Larkin, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly — all in previous socialist activity and theorising that was healthy, all that was above all indominatible in its commitment to the workers’ cause and in its will to fight the class struggle to working class, socialist victory.
This was at the start a living movement of self-respecting, experienced militants. It conducted its affairs according to reason; it took it for granted that honest differences of opinion inevitably arise even among very like-minded people honestly pursuing the same goals, and that they can only be resolved by reason, discussion, and democratic decision-making.
All present-day notions of both would-be left and the anti-Bolsheviks of socialist and communist popes possessing infallibility — and the power of coercion to compel compliance — arose in the era of triumphant Stalinist and bourgeois reaction. Every member of Lenin's Bolshevik party Central Committee of October 1917 had opposed him at some turning point or another, some of them even on the October insurrection itself. Trotsky too found himself opposed by all his close comrades at one point or another.
This is how Lenin, writing in 1907, defined the relationship between party democracy and majority rule in action.
“The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings.”
The Bolsheviks denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller, direct democracy of workers' councils and only in the name of a better more potent democracy Their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and perverted into an absolute and unconditional disparagement and dismissal of “bourgeois democracy” and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.
The Russian working class, in its unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers' councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions (or, to put it at its weakest, pro-tem solutions) to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers. The Communist International was experimenting, exploring, drawing provisional balance sheets when it was cut down by the Stalinist counter-revolution against the 1917 working-class revolution. But by the time of Trotsky’s death at the hand of Stalin’s assassin on 21 August 1940, the great socialist tradition had dwindled down to a few tiny organisations in, perhaps, a couple of dozen countries. It would dwindle further. Stalinism, which cut it down, would for most of the 20th century dwarf and overshadow socialism.
7. Old socialism and Stalinism
Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks did not believe that socialism was possible in the ex-Tsarist empire, backward and historically retarded, as it was. What they believed was that the workers could take power there, and make the first in a chain of revolutions that would encompass the advanced countries where socialism was possible. As Rosa Luxemburg, who was also the Bolshevik's friendly critic, wrote in 1918: “The fate of the revolution in Russia depended fully upon international events. That the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution is the clearest proof of their political far-sightedness and firmness of principle and of the bold scope of their policies”.
The working class revolutions in Europe — Germany, Italy, Hungary — between 1918-1923 were defeated. In isolation, the Stalinist mutation, a new form of class society emerged with collective property owned effectively by a privileged elite of exploiters of the working class and the farmers, who, in practice collectively “owned” the state which owned the economy. It triumphed by way of a bloody one-sided civil war against the workers of the USSR, and against the resistance of those Bolsheviks who held to the ideas under which they had made the October Revolution, Trotsky and his comrades. After World War Two Stalinism spread, rolling into Eastern and central Europe on the caterpillar tracks of Russian tanks and in Yugoslavia, China and other states by Stalinist organisations at the head of peasant armies winning civil wars.
“Socialism” after the victory of the bourgeoisie in the west and of Stalinism in the USSR and in the Communist International, was no longer the rule of the working people in aworld created by advanced capitalism, as in Marx’s and Lenin’s conception of socialism it had to be, but the rule of an oligarchy over the producers in underdeveloped or even pre-capitalist societies, with the historical mission of undertaking the development of those societies to what advanced capitalism had achieved. Values were turned inside out and upside down.
The place of “socialism” in history, the very shape and sequences of history as hitherto conceived by Marxists was radically revised. The idea of what the socialist militant was and did was turned inside out. Socialism was no longer, as in Marxism it had to be, necessarily the offspring of advanced capitalist society, impossible without what advanced capitalism achieves in history, not least the creation and social education of a working class that would create socialist society.
Where the Bolsheviks had believed only that the Russian workers could take power, as part of a wider social revolution in advanced capitalist Europe, this was improved, to the belief that the main task of socialism, following the experience of Stalin's “socialism in one country” Russia, was to do what capitalism had done in the “advanced countries” — to develop backward countries and enable them to catch up with and outstrip the advanced countries of capitalism.
“Socialism” became a thing of savage self-contradiction. “Marxism” became a pidgin religion whose paradoxes, conundrums and mysteries-of-the-faith could properly be understood only by those who approached them with the right “method”, frame of mind, and “dialectical” adaptability — those able to understand the special new meanings that now inhered in old words.
8. Socialism as state slavery
A bureaucracy collectively “owning” the state had expropriated the workers in the USSR, depriving them of all rights and using them far worse than the workers in any capitalist countries were used, worse, even than in Nazi Germany (as Trotsky wrote in the programme of the Fourth International, in 1938). It turned them into state slaves or (as Trotsky wrote in 1939) semi-slaves.
The new ruling class continued to call itself communist and Marxist; it defined and camouflaged its own savage rule over the working people as the rule of the working class over society; it represented its anti-socialist and anti-working class revolution as the living continuity of the October revolution.
By repeated purges, ideological bamboozlements, and by bribery and corruption, they took control of the Communist International, the powerful international network of revolutionary working-class organisations made up of people who had rallied to the Russian revolution.
Stalinism, totalitarian utopianism – and this is centrally important for what concerns us here, the state of socialism today — was in its role in the history of political institutions and ideas above all a movement of social and political misrepresentation and parody. The gap between what it was and what it claimed to be would, on the stage, have been a comedy of the blackest humour; in life it was stark tragedy that engulfed enormous masses of people.
In the USSR, and later in other Stalinist states, they ran fake trade unions, fake parties, fake elections, fake rule by the working class, fake national autonomies, and fake, utterly fake, socialism.
Stalinism, in its account of itself and what it was doing, was a gigantic historical masquerade, sustained for nearly six decades.
“Communism” changed in the 1920s and 30s from being a genuine revolutionary working-class movement into a series of totalitarian organisations in the capitalist states,working to serve the USSR and its leaders. Their own local leaders aspired to become what in the USSR the “communists”, the bureaucratic ruling class, were. They created immense ideological confusion in the working-class movement. They isolated the Left Opposition, and later the Joint Opposition of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Krupskaya, and the international movement, led by Trotsky, from the mass army of would-be communists, who saw in the Stalinist parties the local battalions of the Russian Revolution.
At first they used subtle political misrepresentation. Then they used violence and repression. It became increasingly reckless and intense, until in the years from 1935 onwards, it culminated in mass murder in the USSR, in Spain, and, on a much smaller scale, in other countries. At the end of World War Two, Stalinists in Vietnam and Greece massacred Trotskyists and assassinated individual Trotskyists and other socialist opponents in France, Belgium, Italy and the USA.
Throughout fascist and then Stalinist-ruled Europe, the cadres of Bolshevism, Trotskyism, were murdered. They did splendid deeds here and there in that Europe, for example in producing Arbeiter und Soldat, an underground paper for the German workers in uniform in the army of occupation in France, (an enterprise which cost the lives of two dozen Trotskyists, most of them German soldiers).
But those were mere episodes only, not part of, or harbingers of a great socialist movement. At the end of the Second World War Stalinism loomed in the world as a great and expanding power, surpassed only by the USA.
The USSR in 1939 made up a sixth of the world. At the end of an expansion which reached its peak with the proclamation of the Stalinist People's Republic of China in October 1949, but would not end until the Russian defeat in Afghanistan (1979-89), Stalinism controlled one-third of the surface of the earth.
It had mass parties, which were the main parties of the working class in a number of capitalist countries, France, Italy, Indonesia, etc.
9. Lenin and Anti-Utopian Marxism: the creative tension between science and utopianism
Marxist socialism and “political socialism” in general, the socialism that proposed to revolutionise capitalist society from within, rose necessarily on the grave of “utopian socialism”, the socialism that proposed to create socialist societies in colonies in some wilderness and compete from outside, by building a better society in parallel with capitalism, which one day it would supercede. Today the Marxist project itself is dismissed as utopian in the sense of unrealisable. Stalinism was a form of utopian socialism; so to an enormous extent is the would-be left.
One of the best accounts of the “anti-utopian” nature of authentic Marxism is Lenin's “State and Revolution”, written when he was forced to go into hiding in the middle of 1917. It is both demonstration and exposition of what living Marxism is.
The book is an argument that the leaders of the pre-1914 socialist movement had falsified the ideas of Marx and Engels on the state, and an attempt by the analysis of texts to re-establish what they really thought. An exercise in arid scholasticism, one might expect. Scholasticism, it is not. It is the opposite of that.
Lenin analyses the old texts to discern and establish what Marx and Engels really said. He traces the development of their opinions on the state towards the conclusions they drew from the experience of the Paris Commune, in 1871, namely, that the revolutionary working class could not simply take over the old bureaucratic state machine — the civil service, the army, the police — and make it serve them: the workers would, following the example of the Communards, have to break it up and replace it by a “Commune state”, self-administering working class democracy, without a permanent state bureaucracy; a self-armed people instead of a standing army. He relates the views of Marx and Engels, and the way their views evolved from point to point, to the experience that shaped those views. He assesses and judges their views in the light of those experiences and uses their method to shed light on his own situation.
For instance, Marx had thought that there could be a peaceful revolution in Britain and America — and perhaps, Holland, about which he felt he knew too little to judge. To the view put forward by Karl Kautsky, who was a scholastic in Marxism, that that settled it — Marx thought there could and therefore there could be a peaceful revolution in those countries -- Lenin counter-posed Marx's method, his way of arriving at that conclusion. To establish whether the opinion formed by Marx and Engels half a century earlier might still be valid, he analyses the way the institutions of these countries have evolved.
Why, he asks, did they think what they did then? He reconstructs their reasoning from their writings. Britain and the USA then had nothing like the typical state bureaucracy of the European countries, had small armies, and no great military-bureaucratic apparatus of state. He asks: is that still true? He establishes by concrete argument, from the facts, that it is not.
Repeatedly he argues — and this is what most concerns us here — that Marx and Engels were not utopian socialists, not panacea-mongers, advocates of ideal solutions plucked out of their imaginations, not advocates of an ideal world, but empirical scientists of society, who extrapolated from the actual world, from its tendencies and possibilities, building on the experience of the working class (especially of the French workers who had made or lived through a number of revolutions). Lenin explains why he thinks it is permissible to take that necessarily limited experience as representative.
(Incidentally, nobody who takes Lenin's way of working seriously, applying Lenin's way of approaching the work of Marx and Engels could be both a consistent “Leninist” and a “Leninolator”, or any other sort of “olator”. Consistent Lenin-olatry would carry its own antidote and thereby be its own negation!)
Within Marxism there is forever a tension between the empirical, scientific, sociological basis and the extrapolations and pre-figurations spun from them, which, of course, when they seem desirable, come to encompass hopes and feelings.
At which point might an extrapolation or projection that is considered desirable, and in which, therefore, people have invested their emotions and their lives, need to be revised in the light of subsequent experience? At which point might the governing ideas about the nature of capitalist social reality have to be abandoned? At which point might some or all extrapolations need to be jettisoned? What role would jettisoning some or all of the basic ideas or the extrapolations play in the contemporary class struggle? Would the jettisoning — prematurely or entirely mistakenly — by the Marxists work to defeat a desirable development, work to help the bourgeoisie in the class struggle with the workers? These of course are questions in the realm of judgment, opinion, argument, "character": there is no one answer at a given time.
For instance, the German socialist Eduard Bernstein concluded in the late 1890s that, though the labour movement was a force for the evolutionary transformation of capitalist society, by way of cumulative reforms, the whole notion of proletarian revolution, of a socialist negating of capitalism had been invalidated by experience: “the movement”, he summed up his conclusions, is everything, the goal nothing.
Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, George Plekhavov, and many others, rejected that conclusion. They argued that Bernstein worked with a vulgar notion of evolution: real evolution necessarily includes revolutionary breaks, that Bernstein based himself on too limited an experience, that he was making an invalid induction.
In the Europe of two decades later, and greatly more so three decades later, as Bernstein was reaching the end of his life (1932) and Hitler was on the eve of taking control of Germany, Bernstein's thesis was unsustainable. Sixty years later it seemed valid again.
On the eve of World War One, Karl Kautsky, the leading Marxist of that epoch, postulated from the development of imperialism, a future “super-imperialism” that would peacefully organise the world. That idea did not win many supporters in the Armageddon of the World War, the succeeding international turmoil and the Second World War that broke our almost a quarter of a century after the first.
Ideas of smooth endless capitalist progress and prosperity formed in the last decades are now being toppled by the crisis that has engulfed us.
The point is that real Marxism is not utopia-mongering but rooted in the necessary evolution of capitalist society. What is “Marxist” at a given time can only be established by argument and, ultimately by the test of experience.
Stalinism, cutting adrift from the dominant currrents of history, flying in the face of the most fundamental Marxist ideas of the "shape" of history and of advanced capitalism as the nurturer of socialism and creater of its social and economic pre-requisites - Stalinism was a reactionary utopianism.
10. Stalinist Utopianism
Stalinism was a regression to pre-Marx “utopian socialism” — a bleak and strange mirage- utopianism on a gigantic scale, yes, but utopianism is what it was. Many of the features of Stalinism—like the collective-superman “Party of a new type” — could be understood by analogy with the traits of old utopian socialism.
The Bolsheviks knew and proved in practice that the Russian workers could take power; they did not “know” that socialism could be built in backward, and in addition civil-war-ruined Russia. They knew perfectly well it couldn’t.
That isolated Russia, in which the Bolsheviks clung to power, should be built up and its economy developed was self-evident. The anti-Stalinist Bolsheviks were pioneer advocates that this should be done. That it could be done as far as the building of socialism, a socialism more advanced than the most advanced capitalism in its economy and its social relations, occurred to nobody before the end of 1924, when Stalin formulated the idea and the programme of “Socialism in One Country”.
Russia would be built up out of its deep backwardness and outstrip the capitalist world? It was the programme of the old utopian colony-builders who attempted in some wilderness to start society anew, in parallel to existing capitalist society. Socialism would come, so to speak, from outside capitalism, not from inside, not by the working class in advanced capitalism taking power and building on what had been achieved. The Marxist objections to it were as many as the lessons Marx and Engels had drawn from the experience of the old colony-builders, Owen, Cabet, Thompson.
In practical revolutionary politics it was objected to by Trotsky and others because it implied that Russia would remain isolated for many decades, that there would be no socialist revolution anywhere in that time, that capitalist armies would not militarily “intervene” in the process and so on. It implied that the communist parties would become “frontier guards” in their own areas for the “Socialism in One Country” Russian state.
Totalitarian-utopian Stalinism unravelled all of the assumptions and concerns of the old Marxist movement. It redefined the role of parties — in Russia as the agent of development, outside Russia as a significant network for the “defence”. It displaced the working class as the protagonist in the socialist movement and offered as its substitute, The Party, which might be tied to the working class but then again, might not, but in either case was the decisive, the irreplaceable agency. It implied redefining the relationship of the “party of a new type” to the working class: not to educate in order to develop consciousness and political independence but objects to be manipulated and used.
B. The political content of the Stalinist counter-revolution
1. The Stalin(ist)-refashioned left
Stalinism was the opium of the 20th century socialists. Stalinism was religious.
In 1920 the liberal-socialist Bertram Russell branded Communism as a religious movement akin to early Islam. That was not true then. The leaders of the Comintern, Lenin, Trotsky and others, dealt in fact, reason, logic, albeit leavened by daring extrapolation, and the will to attempt things of such enormous scale and scope that less daring people were intimidated at the very thought of what the Bolsheviks dared to do.
What was wrongly said of Bolshevism, falsely, unjustly, malevolently said, came to be true of Bolshevism’s grave-digger, Stalinism.
From now on, blindly, fanatically, incorrigibly, with the religious fervour of a death- and Paradise-obsessed Islamist devoutly fighting a holy war, in which he thinks only death can bring him advantages in a wonderful afterlife, “Communists” championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow, intolerant, ignorant elite. For the religious fanatic, a personal afterlife, for the “Communist” a socialist future life for humanity, for both of them delusion.
The story is well-enough known amongst political people. But Stalinism and Stalinism's characteristic traits are seen as things of the past, attributes of a dreadful time and of a dreadful movement — of the past. It is not a matter of the past: the political mindset and the habits of thought — and hypnotic thoughtlessness — fostered and entrenched by Stalinism over the decades of its domination of “left-wing” politics, still dominate the “left” long after the collapse of Russian Stalinism.
The Stalinist nature and origin of the characteristics dominant in the present day “left”, its characteristic mindset, its habits of thought and lack of thought, and its methods, are obscured by the fact that most of that “left” is made up of the seeming heirs of the great historical antagonist of Stalinism, Trotsky.
That Stalinist “left” came to be the predominant “Marxism”, and, with more or less distancing criticism of it, the common conception of socialism, for the two-thirds of the 20th century that remained after Stalin's counter-revolution was accomplished. The anti-Stalinist Bolshevik left was extirpated or marginalised, for generations, or transformed by the pressure of Stalinism and by its example. It was restyled out of all recognition.
Living in a political world hegemonised by Stalinism the old distinctions between what was “left” and what “right” — always imprecise and conventional as such terms are, and by their nature must be — was more or less destroyed. Major aspects of what had been the old left and the old right were merged; they began to crossbreed, producing often strange and unexpected hybrids.
The “left” today, including most of those with Trotskyist movement roots to them, grew out of the Stalinist revolution in the politics of “socialist” revolution which denuded it of class, of integrity, of method, of programme, of standards, of its own real history, and of its old objectives. That Stalinist counter-revolution in the politics of revolution took place on three fronts—social and economic in the USSR and political all over the world in the labour movement and on the left.
The difference between the old socialism and the movement reshaped by the Stalinist counter-revolution was not only in day to day activities and in programme, but in the mindset of “socialism”. The shift in mindset is the point here, because much of it still dominates the left.
As the capitalist world went into its deep mid-century economic, political, social and military crisis— a crisis that many, friend and foe alike, thought was terminal — fully a sixth of the world was already “socialist”: a parallel world was being created in Russia. In consequence, Stalinist influence came to be far wider than the labour movement and socialist and “Communist” circles”. It extended in the 1930s to the US liberal publications the Nation and the New Republic, the liberal daily in London, the News Chronicle, the New Statesman and the Labour left publication Tribune. Tribune was a Stalinist paper up to the Hitler-Stalin pact and World War Two.
Much was made of the contrast between the “communist” and the capitalist world. In the USSR there was planned progress, spectacular progress, not capitalist chaos and regression. There was no “mass unemployment”, no great slump, no economic semi-paralysis. The post-capitalist future was already in being and, as one liberal admirer, H N Menken reported after a visit, “I have seen the future and it works”. Many in the west who had scorned, rejected, or fought actively against the October Revolution of the Russian working class, rallied to the Stalinist counter-revolution and its statified economy — which had the “merit” that its waste and destruction were not blazoned forth across the world, as those of capitalism were.
Those — Trotsky and others, surprisingly few others — who pointed to the realities of Russia, to the semi-slave and chattel slave labour conditions, the helplessness before the all-powerful state to which the workers were reduced were shouted down and driven off the highways of public discourse. The virtual ignorance and indifference with which the liberal establishment as well as the broad left responded to the Stalinist terror and totalitarianism in Russia in the 30s is one of the oddest things in its history.
The anti-Stalinist left was stifled. George Orwell’s account of his difficulty in getting his account of the Stalinist police terror in Republican Spain published is nowadays well-known. When Trotsky pointed out the elements of Jew-baiting in the Moscow Trials, he was denounced by even rightwing Jewish leaders. An example of just how topsy-turvy the old left-right polarisation became is the fact that Victor Serge’s report on the Stalinist counter-revolution was circulated in Britain by “The Right Book Club”, a weak would-be counterpoint to the Stalinist-controlled and very influential Left Book Club. Meanwhile, many on the political right approved of Stalin because he was destroying the Bolshevik left. Mussolini at the time of the Moscow Trials claimed Stalin as one of his disciples. Some Russian émigré fascists made the discovery that Stalinism was Russian fascism and Stalin their “Führer”.
It was in Russia that the future of humanity was, somehow, emerging, being forged by Stalinism. Miraculously, courtesy of the miracle-working Stalinist “Party of a New Type”, socialist Russia had leapfrogged ahead to show the more economically-developed countries the way to the future. By 1950 a third of the world was “socialist”. Countries like China, which were among the least developed, now appeared to be marching at the head of history’s column; the losers so far in the modernisation and industrialisation of the world, were turning into the winners, humankind's pioneers and leaders.
So tens and tens of millions of people all over the world believed. Stalinism’s success reshaped the thinking of the left everywhere. Even those who in Trotsky’s time had been the implacable critics and denouncers of Stalin’s Russia. The Fourth International had by about 1950 come to believe that Russia and the other states were irreversibly “in transition” to socialism. We are concerned here with the changes Stalinism brought in attitudes — political morality, standards of behaviour, mores, mindset of the left.
Why did the Stalinist counter-revolution bother to maintain an international “revolutionary” “communist” movement at all? It was of enormous value to the Russian state to have subservient movements in most countries and sometimes mass movements; legions of adherents and militant propagandists across the world such as no other state could match.
How exactly did the Stalinists achieve their “revolution in the politics of revolution”? What was changed? What was new in the socialist working class movement?
2. The politics of anything-goes expediency
In the place of all that the old socialism had done and tried to do, of the work of educating and organising the working class into political independence and anti-capitalist politics, now was put expediency — the brute expediency of the Russian ruling class. There was nothing in old socialism that could not be sacrificed, turned inside out, stood on its head.
The USSR and its external parties, controlled and, to a serious extent, financed by the Russian ruling class, came to be everything. The Stalinists concentrated all that was “nihilistic”, Jesuitical, Machiavellian into a world outlook in which rifled remnants of a bowdlerised Marxism were recast as the philosophy of manipulation in the service of the “socialist fatherland”, for use by the “Party of a new type”, which was in the jailed Gramsci’s unfortunate title for a work of genuine Marxism, “the Modern Prince — the new protagonist that replaced the working class.
Old agitational and propagandist techniques of manipulation were brought to new levels of perfection by the Stalinist rulers and their agents and allies across the world. Politics, history and, they thought, “History”, were freed from the primitive slavery to facts. Politics that were virtually fact-free and virtually truth-free became possible on a mass scale. Great political campaigns could now be and were lied into existence. To be sure, this was not something unknown before Stalinism; but the Stalinists, beginning with their lies about what the Soviet Union was, made it an all-embracing permanent way of political life.
Truth did not exist, only “class truth”, which meant “party truth”, which meant Russian bureaucratic truth, which meant anything they though would be useful. Consistency was a vice of lesser, unemancipated mortals. Now you could say and do anything and it was your political and moral duty to do whatever was most useful. Logic? Anything was logical so long as you got the “context” right and understood the “historical process”. It was all a matter of “perspectives”. Dialectics, comrade!
Truth? No such thing! There is no “objective” truth, only shifting, relative truth. And therefore? Applying the rules of Stalinist dialectics, and putting things properly in “context” and “perspective”, anything that is useful can be shown to be true. Morality? No such thing! What serves the struggle is moral. The end justifies the means.
History? There is no “objective” history, only class history. Therefore? “History is only current organisational needs read backwards”, as one Stalinist professor put it. Therefore, to get the most useful history, select, suppress, construe, spin, mythologise, lie and misrepresent as much as necessary. Wherever Stalinists had the preponderant influence, there was a giant intellectual step backwards to the standards and norms of the pietistic, authority-fixated scholastic ideologues of the Dark Ages who saw nothing wrong in interpolating into ancient texts, for the greater glory of God and of the Church.
Wherever the Stalinist influence ran, it worked to falsify history. If it is true that those who do not learn from history are apt to repeat it, then those who have had their own and other history falsified simply can not learn from it: they have had their retrospective, their historical, eyes put out.
At different times Trotsky described this condition as “syphilis” and “leprosy”. In the summaries of the proper revolutionary communist approach which he wrote in the 1930s, the demand to be truthful and to “be true, in little things as in big ones” is always central. The fact that such a “demand” had to be made and that it was made only by a tiny pariah minority, as incapable of imposing the necessary norms of behaviour as they were incapable of doing what they knew had to be done to defend the working class, was one measure of how far the “Marxist” movement had fallen, how deeply it had regressed, and how much had to be done to restore its health.
Trotsky, a voice crying out of the grave of Bolshevism and old socialism contended against the anti-morality of Stalinism: “Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible. When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship of the 'leaders'.”
The Stalinists answered not with arguments but with lies, abuse, blows and bullets, and in Trotsky’s case, with an ice-pick through his skull.
Much of the popularly accepted history of workers' and other struggles is still today shot through with Stalinist myths, lies, anathemas and demonology: for instance, the Spanish working class revolution of 1936- 7, which was bloodily suppressed, is buried in the handed down concept from that time of “The Spanish Civil War” (in which the Stalinists and some other sensible people encountered a little local difficulty in Barcelona in May 1937, and dealt with it with the proper and necessary civil-war severity.)
There was, indeed, a Spanish Civil War, but there was also the most important working class revolution since 1917. There was never any honest self-criticism and analysis of acknowledged mistakes; there was no possibility of democratic discussion other than “discussion” authorized by the leaders from time to time.
The faculty for recognising and correcting mistakes atrophied, along with the old ideas of socialism. If everything is decided by what the rulers of the USSR think best serves them at a given moment, then starkly contradictory positions — the most notorious example: anti-Nazi, then pro-Nazis, then anti-Nazi again, in 1939-41 — may indeed have all been equally “correct” and all perfectly self-consistent from a Russo-centric point of view.
The Marxist standards of measurement were no part of it— the standards and criteria that have the working class and its social and political development at their heart. If they fall into disuse — or if the ascendancy of other criteria and standards makes their employment impossible — then we cannot recognise our mistakes and where we went wrong. The historical memory of the working class is destroyed, or worse, falsified, and that adds to the tremendous difficulties which its existence as the basic wage-slave class of bourgeois society, a society where 'upward mobility' is sometimes possible for some members of the working class, already places in the way of the working class developing an independent political identity.
Trotsky truly said that the revolutionary party — a real revolutionary party — is the memory of the working class. The Stalinist parties were the parties of enforced amnesia, hysterical delusion, of the substitution of historical myths and lies for the memory of a working class socialist movement which is truly itself, and knows what it is, and therefore has no need to lie about it, either to itself or anyone else, a movement which accumulates experience and learns, and unlearn, from its experience, and from its own mistakes as it goes along.
That is one of the reasons for the tremendous regression in working-class consciousness in the late 20th century. When George Orwell wrote about the “memory hole” in 1984, and about the systematic rewriting of history to get it into line with the eternally changing now, he invented nothing. He merely read off, and gave an imaginary physical expression — physically redoing and up-dating old newspapers — to what he saw happening in and around the Stalinism-infected labour movements and in the USSR.
Part two, in the next issue of Solidarity, will further anatomise the political characteristics of Stalinism and itemise those that still survive in the contemporary would-be left.