The ideas in this article and those also linked to here are expanded on in the Workers' Liberty book 'The Left in Disarray' which can be purchased here.
Or read online:
- 1. Why is socialism in disarray? part i and part ii
- 2. What Stalinism Did to Socialism
- 3. The survivors of Atlantis
- 4. The poverty of "anti-imperialism" and today's left
- 5. Build a Revolutionary Party? What is a Revolutionary Party?
- 6. Does socialism make sense in the 21st century?
1. Stalinism was utopianism
We have seen that Stalinism was a form of “utopian socialism” — totalitarian utopian socialism — on a vast scale. The name which its advocates gave to that utopianism was “Socialism in One Country”.
The Marxist project of subverting and overthrowing advanced capitalism from within gave place to the Stalinist project of building up backward Russia in a long-term competition from outside with advanced capitalism.
In that work, the Communist Parties, which had been founded in and after the First World War to overthrow capitalism, now had only the role of supporting the USSR, in every and any way necessary. If socialism was to be built “in one country”, then there would, by definition, be no other socialist revolutions for a whole epoch.
That meant supporting the Stalinist ruling class — of whose system the 1938 founding programme of the Trotskyist Fourth International wrote that it differed from fascism only “in more unbridled savagery”.
This core utopianism shaped and reshaped everything else. I will list the main ways in which it transformed or negated Old Socialism.
2. Absolute anti-capitalism: reactionary-romantic a-historical anti-capitalism
We have seen that for Marxists advanced capitalism is the irreplaceable mother of our socialism. And not a good mother: a poisonous old harridan-spider who eats her own young! Or tries her best to!
There were communists before Marx and Engels. There were utopians and blueprint-peddlers; there were also activists such as Auguste Blanqui, for whom Marx and Engels had great and well-merited respect. But the Blanquists’ idea of the road to communist revolution was that, whenever the revolutionary communist secret society had enough guns, gunpowder and fighters to put up barricades and rise in rebellion, it would do that at the first politically favourable moment.
They had no idea of the necessary evolution of capitalist society, of its forces of production, as the irreplaceable ground-preparer for socialism; no idea of the necessity of the social, intellectual and political preparation of the proletariat through both capitalist evolution and communist education and organisational work, to make it able to seize power and replace capitalist society with working-class socialist rule.
Marxism sees the rise of bourgeois society and of the bourgeoisie on the ruins of feudalism as a great step forward for humankind. Among other things, it began to prepare the objective prerequisites of socialism. It created bourgeois freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion. (It is true, of course, that those freedoms, those “Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, were not won by the female half of humankind for many, many decades after they were won by men).
The bourgeois revolutions were usually won by the efforts of the plebeians, and the “bourgeois” freedoms were won, or their extension to the whole of the people was won, by the efforts of the working classes.
Reactionary anti capitalism or absolute anti-capitalism in the 20th century was two things close to what the Communist Manifesto, in the 19th century, called “reactionary socialism”.
Socialism became possible only when capitalism had created a mass proletariat and created means of production which, liberated of the drives and unreason of capitalism, can create abundance for all in the basics of life.
The programme of abolishing bourgeois society depended on whether or not that society was advanced enough and objectively capable of generating something better and more progressive than itself. On a world scale, in the 20th century, it was. In Russia, though the workers could and did take power, it was not.
The Bolsheviks’ conception of the Russian revolution was that the spread of the revolution to advanced capitalist Europe would link Russia to advanced worker-ruled societies, of which Russia would then become a backward appendage. The implication embedded in Socialism in one Country was the opposite of that.
Now Russia would advance and develop and grow towards socialism on its own strength. The Bolshevik Left Opposition criticised the cutting off by Stalinism of the world market from Russian development. Autarky became a fixed principle of other Stalinists — in China, for three decades over the “high Stalinist” period, for example.
And for the Stalinist movement the programme of abolishing advanced bourgeois society, objectively ripe for socialism, was a commitment to create... a replica of a Russia where Stalinism had wiped out all the conquests of liberty and the human and democratic rights of the citizen — and of economic enterprise — and replaced it with Stalinist totalitarianism. In France this programme was sometimes called the policy of “liberticide”. That is what it was. Reactionary anti-capitalism: an “alternative” development to capitalism that was in a thousand ways, and not least in terms of liberty and democracy, a regression to pre-capitalist society.
3. The suppression of the working class viewpoint and class politics and its replacement by a sectarian-utopian outlook
The axis on which everything now revolved was not the class struggle, not the education of the working class, not the development of working-class political independence, not the centrality of the working class, the protagonist of “old Socialism”, but whatever would best serve the USSR. Class criteria were obsolete.
What in old socialism had been attributed to the actual working class, was now attributed to the USSR and its rulers.
For all practical purposes the “working class” was a cipher, a notional thing in whose name another class, the Russian bureaucratic autocracy, acted.
In the 1930s this approach led to blocking with the German Nazis against the Social Democrats. At various periods in the mid-1930s and after the creation of cross-class Popular Fronts in France, Spain, Britain and other countries became the goal of the Communist Parties.
What were Popular Fronts? With or without the formal involvement of the Communist Party, they were the broadest possible bloc of middling or right-wing and labour or socialist parties, around the axis of a very limited programme (and for their “communist” supporters mainly a negative one: anti-fascism).
In Britain, the CP wanted to include the Labour Party, the Liberals, and the “progressive wing” of the Tory Party in the broad alliance. As Trotsky pointed out, this put them to the right of the Labour right wing, who wanted a Labour government.
The truth is that even right wing bourgeois liberals were comparatively progressive compared to the Stalinist parties, whose victory would have led to the replications of the Russian Stalinist regime. But our concern here is with the influence of the Stalinists in pulping the idea of a class politics among a broader left — their influence on people like Nye Bevan, for instance, the late-40s Labour minister who founded the NHS, who was expelled from the Labour Party as a Popular Frontist in 1939.
The Stalinists perverted the idea that in history the bourgeoisie plays a progressive role and made it something entirely arbitrary: a given bourgeoisie was good or bad, historically progressive or reactionary, depending on its relations, for now, with the USSR. They even found good and bad, patriotic and traitorous fascists!
In France, the CP appealed to “patriotic” French fascists — that is, those French fascists who were not hooked up with Nazi Germany — to join their popular front. The consequence of the Popular Front period was the abandonment and destruction of even nominal commitment to independent working-class politics.
The later Stalinists found “good” bourgeoisies primarily in the Third World countries emerging from colonialism, but also, for example, in the 26-County Irish state. The bourgeoisie there was wretchedly stunted, and in social and political terms very reactionary, relentlessly grinding down the proletariat of the cities and towns.
It preened itself in the heroic light of the Irish rebellions which itself and its ancestors had played no part in, or opposed and denounced. (For example, the Irish Independent, the paper of the Catholic-nationalist bourgeoisie, after the suppression of the 1916 Rising, had called on the British to shoot the wounded socialist and trade-union leader James Connolly).
It allowed the Catholic hierarchy to run the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, not excluding clerical-fascist Franco Spain. It lived by exporting meat — cattle and people, hundreds of thousands of people, wretchedly educated, cast adrift on the tide.
But it was out of step with Britain because of the partition of the country. Decisively it took a neutralist line in foreign policy, standing out against great pressure to let NATO have bases in the 26 Counties. You couldn’t be more “progressive” than that!
So for decades the Stalinists — in Ireland and among the Irish in Britain through the CP’s Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association — devoted themselves to promoting the idea that the Irish bourgeoisie ran “the most progressive state in Western Europe”.
4. The “party of a new type” was substituted for the working class as protagonist
For Marxists, though party and class are not the same thing, there is an unbreakable link between them. “The Communists… have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole,” as the Communist Manifesto puts it.
Not so the Stalinist parties. The Communist Parties were “Bolshevised” in the early mid 20s, and completely remoulded by the end of the decade. The idea of “the party” now became “the party of a new type”, an entity distinct from the working class, as the protagonist in the socialist revolution. The “parties” were Stalinist armies — in some countries, very large armies — operating with mechanical discipline under the command of Moscow.
The Jesuits demanded “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience” from their militant priests. With Stalinism, “discipline and obedience”, and often poverty, and unlimited self-sacrifice, came to be the prime qualities of the militant in its parties. The old idea of the party member as an educated, self-respecting, thinking militant, retaining the right and the duty to think and argue and dispute even while acting as a disciplined executor of the democratic will of the majority of the organisation or of the elected leadership acting within its proper competence — that was condemned as “petty bourgeois”, or as “Trotskyite” sabotage” of the proletarian movement.
Working class “discipline” now meant adherence to the “party line”, whatever it was, and the surrender of every old working-class and socialist position, loyalty, instinct, conscience, to “The Party” and its leaders. For them, political life came to be an endless succession of Jacob-like acts of obedience to a savage God — but where God in the Bible relented, sparing Jacob’s son, Isaac, once Jacob had agreed to cut his throat as a sacrifice to him, the Stalinist Moloch demanded that the blood be drained and many millions of Isaacs eviscerated on its altar.
The propensity to reason and to think politically beyond the decision to submit to “discipline” and rationalise “the line”, variously and repeatedly, was eradicated in the militants of such parties and in the parties as collectives. Stalinist “democratic centralism” meant military-style discipline and hierarchy in any and all conditions, with politics essentially the province of the leadership only — and, ultimately, in all essentials, of Moscow only. There was no provision for what members would do if the leaders were mistaken. Only Moscow could anoint and remove a CP leadership.
5. Annexation of the Marxist criticism of capitalism to the Stalinist — not the socialist — programme
In the beginning of modern socialism is the Marxist-communist critique of capital and capitalist society. It consists of a negative and a positive side — the negative criticism of what exists, and the positive alternative, the socialist programme of working class self-emancipation.
The positive proposals are, for Marxists, extrapolated from the criticism of capitalism. Marx refused to make any detailed picture of the future post-capitalist society, dismissing the idea as utopianism. The future society would evolve out of the expropriation by the workers of the expropriators (the bourgeoisie), and out of the society in which that revolution was made. We have seen what Lenin wrote of that aspect of Marxism.
But the Marxist critique of capital, rooted in advanced bourgeois society and the needs of the working class in that society, and the Marxist working-class programme, can be separated. The positive working-class Marxist programme can be cut away from the negative criticism and condemnation of capitalism.
The programme of another class can be attached to the anti-capitalism — indeed, of a number of other classes or fragments of classes. Fascism, for example, demagogically criticises capitalism, attributing what it denounces to “Jews”, “Jewish finance”, etc.
Among people still calling and thinking themselves communists, valid criticism of capitalism and of capitalist democracy can be combined with positive support and advocacy of worse. Stalinism was worse.
One consequence of the combination was the creation among communists of a comprehensive dualism that was a political split personality. Things given heartfelt condemnation in capitalist society were defended in the Stalinist world.
Genuinely indignant at wrongs and ruling class crimes in Britain, would-be communists simultaneously defended similar and far worse things in the USSR, China, etc. The less worldly-wise simply denied what they didn’t want to know; the sophisticated ones might, in a lucid moment, have summed up their attitude like this: the concentration camps, jails and torture chambers of a socialist state are not the same thing as identical things that, under capitalism, are damnable.
Stalinism took over and demagogically exploited the Marxist and communist criticism of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, and put its own programme, its utopia, itself, and a drive to replicate the Russian system in the place of the Marxist programme of expanded democracy and working-class self-ruling socialism.
Where communists criticise bourgeois democracy, we criticise it for not being really mass democracy. We criticise not representative government, but the limitations, class bias, one-dimensionality and hypocrisies. We counterpose to it mass democracy, direct self-rule.
Even the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, for Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party, meant only the dictatorship of the working class, a class dictatorship of the mass of the people, exercised democratically, by way of what Lenin called “a state of the Paris Commune type”. It meant “dictatorship” only in the sense of political rule outside the existing laws that protect the bourgeoisie and bourgeois property, overruling those laws and old norms where necessary by direct force.
Disparaging bourgeois democracy, Stalinism counterposed to it not working-class democracy but lawless perpetual bureaucratic dictatorship. Where the communist programme stipulated, and socialism as a social system required, a collectivised economy run and owned democratically, the Stalinists put in its place a collectivised economy run by a totalitarian autocracy.
The “communist” parties, building support as critics of capitalism, complemented that critique with a non-socialist, Stalinist alternative, much of it, as we will see, derived from what had been the social and political Right.
The Internationale, insisting on the basic truth of Marxist socialism — “the emancipation of the proletariat must be the work of the proletariat itself” — declares:
“No saviour from on high deliver us/ No faith have we in prince or peer/ Our own right hand the chains must sever/ Chains of hatred, greed, and fear”.
Stalinism counterposed to that a “leader” principle. The cult of individuals, in the first place of Stalin, followed by many other Stalins, including Mao and “Fidel”, became in the Stalinist system as intense and all-pervasive as it is in fascism. It is often now forgotten that even Stalinist leaders in countries like France, the USA, and Britain had their own miniature cults, around people like Thorez, Browder, and Pollitt.
7. Substitution of “Party-Marxism” for Marxism
Restating the basic idea of the old socialism and communism, in the programme he wrote for the Trotskyist movement in 1938 Leon Trotsky insisted that it was a cardinal rule for Marxists to “be guided”, not by the interests of “the party”, but “by the logic of the class struggle”. There is at any given moment an objective truth, and for Marxists it cannot be dismissed just because it is inconvenient to “the party”.
But in Stalinist politics, everything inconvenient to the USSR and its parties was buried under lies, under an enormous accumulation of lies.
Marxism, as a guide to analysis, and reason itself, were replaced by Authority — party authority, the authority of party leaders and ultimately of Moscow. They laid down the line, sanctified selected texts, interpreted those they blessed, and told the comrades what, “dialectically”, they meant “here” and “now”. This was Stalinist “Party Marxism”.
Mystification and mumbo-jumbo became a central part of the “Marxism” of the Communist Parties. “Marxism” came to be the esoteric knowledge of a secular priesthood who alone could decide what it meant and what adherence to it implied in politics for any given situation.
The Catholic Church has a name for those of its doctrines that defy the rules of logic, things that, by everyday standards and to the untutored human mind, are outright gibberish. The “Trinity”, the dogma that God is both one divine person and, simultaneously, “three divine persons in one God”; or the belief that though the bread remains bread by every test of human senses, still each little piece of bread really is (is “host to”) the real body and real blood of Jesus Christ — these are “mysteries of religion”. They belong to a higher order of things. The bishops know better; the cardinals understand. The Pope is guided by God himself in these matters. These things are beyond you and your puny reason, little man!
That is what the Stalinists said too, in their own way. Their term for it was “Marxist dialectics”. Dialectics, the logic of motion and development, the logic that puts formal logic in its real, evolving, moving, changing, context, became in the Stalinist system an ever-shifting swamp of moral, political, social, historical and intellectual relativism.
It all depends, comrade! Stalin’s 1939 alliance with Hitler is an outright betrayal of the anti-fascist struggle? Not at all! As the Great Stalin said: “Germany did not attack France and Britain; France and Britain attacked Germany, and it is they who are responsible for the present war”. Put it in context and you will see that objectively Hitler has capitulated to the Soviet Union: that is the inner dialectical meaning of the Hitler-Stalin pact, comrade! (See for example R Palme Dutt’s editorials in the Communist Party journal Labour Monthly in the months immediately after the Pact. And the report of the February 1940 “anti-war” conference of nearly 900 labour movement people: Labour Monthly, March 1940).
Strike breaking is outright treason to the working class? Not at all: strike-breaking is in this situation the highest form of class consciousness! As Harry Pollitt, the Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, put it: “Today it is the class-conscious worker who will cross the picket line”.
At least we can be certain of one thing: the big capitalists and the financiers are in all circumstances the enemy? It depends, comrade! It depends. In the period of the US-USSR alliance, Earl Browder, secretary of the Communist Party of the USA proclaimed that he would gladly shake the hand of the notorious and hitherto much hated financier J Pierrepoint Morgan. Class treason? Not at all, comrade! It flows from the Russian-US alliance. And there is nothing more central to the cause of socialism, and therefore to the cause of the working class, than that. Is there? Browder’s proclamation is the highest form of class consciousness!
Things are not always what they may seem to you, comrade little man!
And so on. And so on. In fact, it was an eternal metaphysical dance of rationalisation around whatever the Russian autocracy did and said. Only an autocratic, Great Russian chauvinist state, deeply hostile to the workers outside Russia, as to those inside Russia, could have demanded from the Communist Parties in the capitalist states such a self-gutting mode of existing and operating. It pulverised and destroyed the norms and standards of socialism and of working-class democracy. It did the same with the standards of reasons and intellect on which Marxism stood and which it needed if it was to sustain and renew itself.
In 1936, 1937 and 1938 Stalin put the surviving leaders of the Russian October Revolution on trail as traitors. Most of them were shot.
Now CP members had to accept as an all-defining article of their socialist faith an absurdity as mind-bending as the doctrine of the Trinity — that all the leaders of the Russian revolution in 1917 and after, except Lenin and Sverdlov, both safely dead, and one or two others, and Stalin, “Lenin’s faithful disciple”, had been agents of hostile foreign government. Accept it or break with “The Party”, The Revolution”, and “Communism”.
Russia and its rulers, whoever they were, whatever they were, whatever they did, could do no wrong. That conviction was the lodestar. Philby in 1933 saw very clearly how things were — and faced the implications. So, if less lucidly, did vast numbers of other would-be communists.
The “cadre” of the CPs, good decent well-meaning people most of them, initially honest but insufficiently self-examining militants surrendered themselves body, mind and soul, to “The Party”. They became in politics de-politicised political sleep walkers. The true portrait of a mainstream 20th century “revolutionary” is that of a rigidly controlled, and rigidly self-controlled, “communist”, whose functional politics was a blind loyalty to the government of a foreign country and to a political apparatus, the CP, its franchised local representatives, both of which were thought to embody socialism and could be trusted to lead the workers on to socialism. “The Party of a New Type”, comrade!
The USSR and “The Party”, the USSR’s party, these were the fixed reference points in a world in which politics and policies were mere artefacts to be used, or jettisoned, as Stalin thought fit…
At each turn there was of course a shake out. But the hard core remained, and was continually replenished. They learned to think according to Stalinist “dialectics”. Everything was relative, forever in flux, in line with Russia’s foreign policy needs. These once-critically-thinking, rebellious, individually and collectively aspiring people surrendered everything to those they took for the pre-ordained leaders of the world socialist revolution — and by doing that, they became the very opposite of what they started out to be, working-class revolutionary socialist militants.
A whole new, reshaped mutant political species numbering many millions was made and bred all across the world. Details would be different from person to person, from country to country, CP to CP, but the twisted utopianism and corrupted personal idealism embodied in the “utopian socialist” fetish of the USSR, accepting it as the measure of all things, now and in the future, and its local CP, its vicar in a given country, its franchised sub-group, was common to them all. It was what made them Stalinists, whatever detailed politics they were promoting.
Millions revolted against capitalism and wanted to fight for socialism. Their political spirit and energy, mesmerised by the utopian delusion about socialism a-building in “Workers’ Russia”, was annexed, with their willing and sometimes fervent agreement, by the Stalinist movement, at the core of which was the Stalinist ruling class of the “USSR”. The revolt was transmuted into something else, into something other than itself, into its opposite.
The quotient of un-reason was kept at delusional level by the necessary self-defence of labelling as “bourgeois propaganda” all news and facts about the USSR, etc., that were uncongenial and in contradiction to the teachings of the Stalinist church.
The typical Stalinist-movement militant was depoliticised, irresponsible, crassly ignorant of the socialism she and he sought to serve, and therefore, an obedient tool in the hands of the Russian Stalinist ruling class and its franchised “Communist Parties”.
These were “communists” who — never mind what they thought they were — fought not for a cause and for principles consciously understood and used to measure societies, organisations, people, political events and themselves, but for a fetish. The fetish of the USSR and its “communist” parties throughout the world had in their minds and feelings replaced the great socialist cause and come to substitute for it. They might have adopted an inside-out version of the catch cry of Eduard Bernstein, the right wing “revisionist” of old socialism, who said: the movement is everything, the goal (socialism) nothing. Now the USSR and “the Party” was everything, the working class movement nothing.
W B Yeats’ play “Caitlin Ni Houlihan” tells of a Queen who surrenders her soul in the cause of her people. Generations of CP members did just that, without fully knowing that they did it, and without getting, without ever having had even a remote chance of getting, what they thought their self-surrender and self-sacrifice would bring — working-class socialism.
It is impossible not to sympathise and empathise with such people on a human level, and with their tragedy, which was also the tragedy of humankind in the mid-Twentieth Century. Impossible not to find something almost heroic in the doggedness of the best and — necessarily — least critical-minded and most self-hypnotised of them. That is what makes the story tragic — the terrible, murdering, effect on the cause which they sought to serve, of the depoliticised, soul and mind-surrendering, operationally mindless, way they worked for it.
But, even so, they were thinking, reasoning beings. They have equivalents now. They made political choices. Even if their thinking never got beyond the “Kim Philby position”, that “the USSR is the measure of all things socialistic”, and that “Stalin” — like the Catholic Pope when speaking from St Peter’s Chair on “matters of faith and morals” — “could not be wrong”, thinking people is what they were. They made choices which meant their own political destruction as socialists and contributed to the degradation and rot of socialism, so far for generations.
Two lines from a fine song by an unteachable Stalinist, Ewan McColl, about miners entombed in a pit disaster, almost sums up their tragedy:
“Through all their lives they dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.”
The present state of the labour movement — and much of the contemporary kitsch left — is the marking stone over the grave which they inadvertently dug for socialism in the 20th century.
8. Greatly strengthened one-sided, arbitrary, unstable pacifism
Socialists and communists are natural “pacifists”, in the sense that we want relations between states to be governed by reason and agreement and compromise rather than by war.
But to make a cardinal all-defining principle of pacifistic methods is to disarm peoples who can only win liberation or emancipation, or avoid conquest, by war. It is to preach support for the status quo until those in power can peacefully be persuaded to agree to change. And in history most pacifists have rallied to wars once they have started.
Socialists therefore came to see pacifism as a treacherous snare. The British pacifist opponents of the First World War did rather better than the old guard Marxists around Henry Hyndman, who self-blinkeredly supported the war as an international “police action” against German militarism. Even so, pacifism erected into the central pillar of a world outlook is for socialists a nonsense or a hypocrisy. So the Bolshevik Communist International taught.
For the Stalinists, pacifism was a force to be manipulated and appealed to against bourgeois governments, in any case when the USSR was the antagonist of their own country’s government. In Britain the CP used pacifism very successfully — advocating peace on Hitler’s terms — for the first nine months of World War Two, and less successfully for the rest of the 22 months from September 1939 to the invasion of Russia in June 1941.
Thus pacifism with all its ambiguities and contradictions was rehabilitated in the would-be revolutionary movement. It survives Stalinism.
II. The Stalinist social-economic synthesis: fusion of left and right
Elitist (Stalinist) ideas of both the class struggle and socialism are a contamination from the right. The condemnation of the left will seem to be the burden of this article, and thereby, intentionally or not, it will seem to be a talking-up of the right.
Not so. In fact the most damning thing about the Stalinist left and the kitsch-left now is that that it is all too often indistinguishable from the right — from the older reactionary right and from the invertebrate liberal left.
In fact the Stalin-remade “left” was not a real left. It was a synthesis that incorporated key elements of ideas that, before Stalinism, socialism had seen as core ideas of its enemies, of the right in instinct and doctrine.
Let us briefly examine some of the ways in which the dominant “left” became a fusion of bits of the old left and of the right, with ideas from the right shaping what in fact the would-be left was in politics.
1. Imperialist “anti-imperialism”
Marxists are consistent democrats. We are against the coercion, domination, and exploitation of one people by another; and therefore we are for the self-determination of nations, and where they want it and it is practically feasible for fragments of nations.
Where full independence is for practical reasons unfeasible (because of the geographical interlacing of populations), we are for the maximum autonomy for minority areas which want it. The Bolsheviks put it very well in 1913, in a resolution written by Vladimir Lenin:
“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making, and strife, it is attainable only under a consistent and thoroughly democratic republican system of government... the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”
The USSR itself was an empire in the same sense that Austro-Hungary had been up to 1918. A vast number of its people belonged to subject nationalities oppressed by the Great Russian minority.
Where the Bolsheviks had knocked down the walls of the Tsarist “prison house of nations”, the Stalinist counter-revolution erected them again.
In international politics the Stalinists emptied the terms “imperialism” and “anti-imperialism” of all “objective” content. They presented predatory Russian imperialism, ruled over by a savage and sometimes crazily chauvinistic autocracy, as the expansion of the socialist revolution, and therefore, by definition, right on everything over which its rulers — not the imaginary working class rulers, the real ones — clashed with the capitalist-ruled world or were criticised in it.
As vicarious Russian nationalists, the Stalinist parties were vicarious racists at the bidding of the Russian rulers. Toward Germans, for example in World War Two and afterwards, when 13 million Germans were driven west from Stalinist controlled Eastern Europe. The Yugoslav Stalinists massacred tens of thousands of Albanians when they occupied Kosova in 1945.
The Stalinists identified imperialism as only capitalist imperialism; and they identified advanced capitalism, ipso facto, as imperialism, and therefore historically reactionary. They educated the left to see the seizure, "ethnic cleansing", plunder and exploitation of countries as good or bad, imperialist or socialist, progressive or reactionary, according to who was doing it. It wasn't put like that - but there could be such things as as "socialist", "working class" ethnic cleansing, slaughter or exploitation.
This was an aspect of the comprehensive dualism and political split personality that still exists in the post-Stalinist would-be left, a malign legacy of Stalinism even to some of the "anti-Stalinists".
The Stalinists expunged from the left the very propensity to judge such matters according to observation, facts, reason, and principles of consistent democracy. It was the prerogative of the Russian (and for some, later, the Chinese or the Albanian or the Cuban) Caesar-Pope to decide such things.
Recently the Morning Star, the Stalinist paper once called the Daily Worker, which calls itself the "paper of the left" and which all varieties of labour movement dignataries write, conducted a vicious against the Tibetans, taking the side of China, which by some mysterious logic it seems to see, still, as a socialist state.
2. Stalinism's "hydra-headed" nationalism
Vicarious Russian nationalism was the core of the Stalinist movement. Lesser nationalisms were adopted too, in so far as they could be aligned with, or made useful to, the custodians of the greatest nationalism, the Russian ruling class.
In the early 1930s, in chorus with the Nazis, the Stalinists campigned for German "liberation" from the victors in the World War. From the mid-1930s onwards, they operated with categories of good and bad, or worse and better, imperialisms, and, in effect, of good and bad peoples. The bad of one period could turn out good, and the good turn again bad. What was good and what bad at any moment depended on the USSR's alliances or desired alliances, and its antagonisms.
In the second half of the 1930s, Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, "the democracies" which had colnial and semi-colonial control of much of the globe, were the good imperialists. For 22 months before Germany attacked Russia in June 1941, the German Nazis who had overrun most of Europe in May-June 1940, were not imperialists but victims of the old imperialist powers, Britain, France, Belgium and Holland, who had forced war on them.
When Hitler invaded Russia, the Stalinists switched back to glofifying and helping the "democratic imperialists", now Russia's allies.
In their zig-zags from right to pseudo-left and back again, the Stalinists built up a repertoire, like a music hall artist of old, from which they could dust off old costumes and bits of political patter for new situations.
After 1945, they supported the restoration of the old empires in "their" old territories, the French in Indochina, for example (where the local Stalinists opposed it), and Algeria. Russia tried to take defeated Italy's old territory in Libya. It tried to stay in Iran, which Britain and Russia had jointly occupied in 1941.
In the 1950s and long after, the CPs of France, Italy, Britain, etc., campaigned against "Yankee imperialism" and for British, French, etc., "liberation" from the American "occupiers".
They did not succeed in pitting Britain or France against the USA, but they did, with slogans like "Yankee bastards go home!", poison sections of the European working class with root and branch anti-Americanism.
The Stalinists treated nations and parts of nations as they treated the working class and labour movements - as tools and instruments, pawns and diplomatic make weights for USSR foreign policy. For example, in the 1930s, they backed Croatian clerical-fascist nationalists — the Ustashe, who in the 1940s ran a genocidal puppet state under the aegis of the Nazis.
In place of the general principles of what Lenin called consistent democracy in such questions, they placed the general principle: support whichever nationalism and chauvinism best serves USSR foreign policy, and change sides when that serves Russian interests. For a large part of the 20th century, long after Hitler and the Nazis had been kicked into history’s abyss, they poisoned labour movements with an anti-Germanism that was indistinguishable from racism.
“Anti-imperialism” came to be riddled with double-standards, arbitrariness and frequent absurdity.
Trotsky observed at the outbreak of World War Two that both imperialist camps were telling the truth — about each other. The Stalinists told a lot of the truth about their enemies, and lies and justifications about their allies and looked-for allies. At any given moment only part of the truth was told about world imperialism.
“Anti-imperialism” as a conception, as a principle, and as a programme, became detached from its rational democratic core meaning and progressive political content, and came to be only an emotion-charged mystification.
There was widespread left-wing support for Russia’s own old-colonial style invasion of Afghanistan in December 1978. The syndrome can still be seen today when the rise of clerical-fascist terrorism in the forging-ground that Afghanistan came to be in the decade after Russia’s invasion is blamed on the USA, for backing the resistance, but not on Russia for invading and trying to annex Afghanistan and make it a colony.
3. Denigration of democracy and liberty as mere “bourgeois democracy”
The Stalinist and Stalinist-influenced “left” abandoned the core working-class fight to extend democracy. They abandoned what the Communist Manifesto summed up as the historic task of the working class — “to win the battle of democracy”, that is to win democratic control of society on the political level as the means to democratic self-rule in society and economy.
The bourgeoisie tells the people that liberty is inseparable from its own limited “bourgeois democracy”, thus trying to “sell” its gutted and severely curtailed democracy as the only way to preserve liberty. The Stalinist-influenced “left”, idealising the methods of the bureaucratic counter-revolution in Russia, broke with the very idea of liberty — vis-a-vis the state and, for minorities, society — except in demagogy against the capitalist ruling class.
This too was negativism, combined positively with its opposite — worship of Stalinist state-slavery, in which they accepted the same ground as the Old Right.
The Stalinists redefined democracy out of any concern with actual democracy. Where the extension of democracy was seen by the old socialists — including the Bolsheviks, before the exigencies of the Russian Revolution and its defence pushed them back — as essential for the education of the working class to become a self-ruling class, the Stalinists gutted “democracy” of all meaning.
They substituted double-talk redefinition. “Democracy” in Eastern Europe was full employment, low-rent housing, etc. Even if the claims for social benefits had been true about the Stalinist societies — and largely they weren’t — the argument would have been a negation of democracy as self-rule.
As the bourgeoisie identified democracy with liberty and with their bourgeois democracy, the Stalinists, concurring, condemned democracy and liberty as bourgeois and necessarily bourgeois.
The Stalinist left saw liberty as only a token, something of interest only when counterposed to their bourgeois enemies, only when used as a criticism of them, not as something which we must defend and expand, and not as an irreplaceable part of any socialist programme in which working-class action is central.
The Stalinist left saw liberty as only a token, something of interest only when counterposed to their bourgeois enemies, only when used as a criticism of them, not as something which we must defend and expand, and not as an irreplaceable part of any socialist programme in which working-class action is central.
The working class and plebeians in history are usually the creators of and fighters for the advanced democracy in bourgeois democratic societies. In an important sense, that democracy is a prefiguring element of socialist society within capitalism, and part ofThe Stalinist left saw liberty as only a token, something of interest only when counterposed to their bourgeois enemies, only when used as a criticism of them, not as something which we must defend and expand, and not as an irreplaceable part of any socialist programme in which working-class action is central.
The working class and plebeians in history are usually the creators of and fighters for the advanced democracy in bourgeois democratic societies. In an important sense, that democracy is a prefiguring element of socialist society within capitalism, and part of Communist Parties, in reaction to what the Social Democratic right did with democracy in the service of counter-revolution, also tended to glorify and erect into a norm the emergency civil war measures forced on the Bolsheviks in the course of the Civil War, in which Soviet democracy shrank and almost disappeared.
They tended to disparage democracy. That was part of an ultra-left infection, and a mistake, an understandable one, of the whole Comintern leadership.
All through its existence, the Stalinist movement oscillated between opportunistic and demagogic appeals to a classless democracy on one side, and utter contempt for any democracy on the other. Contempt, though differently expressed at different times, was continuous.
Democracy? Comrade, a society where there is no unemployment, no hunger, where rents are cheap and there aren’t any capitalists — that is more democratic than the parliamentary-democratic system: it is a higher form of democracy, a higher form of society. Even neo-Trotskyists could be found subscribing to this gobbledygook and repeating it (the influentialArgentinian “Trotskyist”, the late Nahuel Moreno, wrote a book to prove it as late in Stalinism’s political day as the end of the 1970s).
At the least, that could not but spread confusion. In practice it created utter chaos on the question of democracy in large swathes of the left. The Stalinists taught people that bourgeois democracy meant nothing to the working class.
4. Anti-semitic “anti-Zionism”
Anti-semitism, passed down through the ages in Christian society, is one of the basic social and political poisons of the twentieth century. The presently dominant “absolute anti-Zionism” on the “Trotskyist” kitsch left, defined not by just and necessary criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and advocacy of a Palestinian state but by demonisation of and commitment to destroying Israel, comes straight from Stalinism.
In this too the political spirit of the (anti-Jewish) Old Right prevailed.
The effects of the Stalinist poison injected into how the Jewish-Arab conflict is seen in the labour movement is with us still.
The Stalinists backed Israel in 1947-8 — in the UN, and the Stalinist state in Czechoslovakia, acting as proxy for the USSR, broke the international embargo on guns for the Palestinian Jews, because that disrupted the British plans in the Middle East. Then they did an about-turn, in 1949 and thereafter, for similar motives of power politics. They filled the left with an absolute “anti-Zionism” that identified Zionism with Nazism and grossly falsified the history.
Only a few years after Hitler and the Holocaust, the Stalinists made Arab or Islamic chauvinism, and anti-Semitism, everywhere “respectable” and good “anti-imperialism” by demonising the Jewish nationalists, the “Zionists”; by treating Israel as a historical aberration, an illegitimate and temporary spawn of history; and by equating the Zionists with the Nazis and attributed to them part at least of the responsibility for the Holocaust.
They operated, in effect and inescapably, with the idea that there are good and bad peoples— peoples deserving democratic rights, and peoples so vile, so imperialistic, so much puppets and tools of imperialism, that they and their rights do not come within the proper concerns of socialists. Demagogically, exploitatively, and one-sidedly advocating the rights of one side in various other conflicts, they had no concern with the idea that to reverse the roles between oppressed and oppressor is not part of a socialist, nor of any democratic solution to such conflicts.
5. A future, “other worldly” focus rather than a human-centric one
When the de facto goal and central concern of communism and socialism became not socialism and the development and education of the working class towards making a socialist society, then socialism was reduced to something parallel to the right’s worship of God, tradition, “order”, or, now, “the market” — with the promise that it comes right in the future. In both cases there was deception — indifference to life now.