Oh my darling, oh my darling,
Oh my darling Party Line,
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Party Line.
Leon Trotsky was a Nazi,
And I know it for a fact.
First I read, then I said it,
Before the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
(Anti-Stalinist song of the 1940s, to the tune of “My Darling Clementine”)
Fenner Brockway, the leader in the 1930s and 40s of the anti-war Independent Labour Party, tells a story from 1939 in his second volume of memoirs, Outside the Right (1963).
“From the beginning of the [Second World] war, Communist Party policy twisted and turned according to Russian interests, first pro-war, then anti-war, finally, when Russia came in on the side of the West, militantly pro-war. I heard of the Communist Party’s change from pro-war to anti-war [in mid-September 1939] from [CP leader] Palme Dutt, whom I met by chance on a train…
“[I met] a Manchester Communist the next day. He had not see the [CP paper, the] Daily Worker announcing the change of line, and I tempted him to extravagant support of the war. Then I handed him the Worker…”
That by way of introduction, and to illustrate the first of our list of the traits which characterise the Stalin-made “left”, and many of which have become traits of “Trotskyist” anti-Stalinists*.
1. Before the spread of the Stalinist plague, Marxist socialists were guided by adherence to the working class, to the class struggle, to the education of the labour movement and the working class in consistent democracy, working-class independence, and consistent anti-capitalist militancy.
As Trotsky summed it up in the 1938 programme of the Fourth International:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules of the Fourth International”.
In the epoch of Stalinism, nothing of this was left standing, as far as the CPs and the wide expanse of the left influenced by them were concerned.
In the place of it all was expediency — as defined by the Stalinist autocracy which ruled the USSR. There was nothing that could not be sacrificed, turned inside out, or stood on its head.
“The party” — the Communist International and its local parties, controlled and financed by the Russian ruling class — came to be everything.
Working class “discipline” now meant adherence to the “party line”, whatever it was, and the surrender of every working-class and socialist position, loyalty, instinct, conscience to “The Party’s” leaders.
Another song of the 30s and 40s, mockingly addressed to the American Stalinist leader Earl Browder, wearily, in mock lamentation, put it like this:
“We knows it, Browder,
We knows it, Browder,
Our line’s been changed — again!”
After Trotsky’s death the modus operandi of some “Trotskyists” developed similar traits.
With those “Trotskyists”, everything centred on the organisational interests of their party as understood by its leaders, or leader.
2. Marxism, as a coherent, integral outlook on the world, a guide to analysis and reason, was replaced by Authority — party authority, the authority of party leaders and ultimately of Moscow. They laid down the line, interpreted the sanctified texts, decided what of Marx or Lenin was “relevant” in any situation. This was Stalinist apparatus Marxism. It was a system organised and structured like the medieval Catholic Church, and centring on the same values of obedience, discipline and the surrender of reason.
“Discipline and obedience” came to be the prime qualities of the militant in its parties. The idea of the member as an educated, self-respecting, thinking militant, retaining the right to argue and dispute even while they acted as disciplined executors of the democratic will of the majority of the organisation or of the elected leadership — that was condemned as “petty bourgeois”.
The propensity to reason and to think politically beyond the decision to submit to “discipline” was systematically eradicated in such parties — and in “Trotskyist” parties that took their model of discipline, as many did, from the Stalinists against whom they fought.
Stalinist “democratic centralism” meant military-style discipline and hierarchy, with politics essentially the province of the leadership only — and, ultimately, of Moscow only.
These organisations were structured hierarchically like the Catholic Church, operating on the assumption that — on matters of political faith and morals — as Kim Philby almost put it, the leadership could not be mistaken. There was no provision for what members would do if the leaders were mistaken. Only Moscow could anoint and remove a CP leadership.
3. Mystification and mumbo-jumbo became a central part of “Marxism”, which became 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 special term to deal with the fact that some of its doctrines defy the rules of logic. By everyday standards and to the untutored human mind, they are outright gibberish. For example, the Trinity, the dogma that God is both one person and, simultaneously, “three divine persons in one God”.
Such things 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. They even had a term for it, “dialectics”.
Dialectics, properly the logic of motion and development, became in the Stalinist system a slippery, misty, ever-shifting miasma of moral, political, social, and intellectual relativism. It depends, comrade! You must see it in context and perspective.
Stalin’s alliance with Hitler is an outright betrayal of the anti-fascist struggle? Not at all! 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!
Harry Pollitt, the secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, later advocated strike-breaking in the interests of the prosecution of the anti-fascist war. 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 Pollitt 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! 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 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.
Browder’s proclamation is the highest form of class consciousness! Things are not always what they seem, comrade!
And so on. And so on. In fact, it was an eternal metaphysical dance of rationalisation around whatever the Russian autocracy did and said. It pulverised and destroyed the norms and standards of socialism and of democracy. It did the same with the standards of reasons and intellect. It probably helped generate the invertebrate liberalism we still see around us — “everything is relative and nothing is fundamental”. Many of these liberals are ex-Stalinists, or ex-Trotskyists from a Trotskyism infected with the characteristic vices of Stalinism.
4. The working class, from being the protagonist of the socialist “story”, the raison d’être — its education and elevation the highest value of Marxist socialism — came to be a mere tool of those who claimed to embodied its interests, “the party”, in fact, ultimately, of the ruling class in the USSR.
Communism consists of a negative and a positive side. There is the negative criticism of what exists, and there is the positive alternative, the programme of the communists.
The positive side is, for Marxists, very much extrapolated from the negative side, the criticism of capitalism. But they can be separated.
The negative criticism of capitalism can have the positive Marxist programme cut away and another positive programme substituted for it. That is one of the central things Stalinism did — it took over and demagogically exploited the Marxist and communist criticism of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, and put its own programme in the place of the Marxist programme.
Thus, for example, where communists criticise bourgeois democracy, we criticise it for not being really mass democracy. We counterpose to it mass democracy. Even the dictatorship of the proletariat means only the dictatorship of the majority class in advanced capitalist society, a class dictatorship of the mass of the people, exercised democratically.
Disparaging bourgeois democracy, Stalinism counterposed to it not working class democracy but bureaucratic dictatorship. Where the communist programme stipulated a collectivised economy run, and owned, democratically, the Stalinists put in its place a collectivised economy run by a totalitarian autocracy who exploited the working people. And so on.
The result is that among people calling themselves communists and even “Trotskyists”, valid criticism of capitalism, and of capitalist democracy is often accompanied by positive support for worse.
5. Marxists are consistent democrats. We are against the coercion of one people by another; and therefore we are for national self-determination. Where that is for practical reasons impossible (because of the interlacing of populations), we are for the maximum autonomy for minority areas which want it.
As the Bolsheviks put it in 1913: “In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making, and strife, it is attinable 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 Stalinists treated nations and particules of nations as they treated the working class and labour movements — as tools and instruments, pawns and diplomatic makeweights for USSR foreign policy.
For example, in the 1930s, they backed Croatian 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: what best served USSR foreign policy. For a large part of the 20th century, long after Hitler and the Nazis had been kicked into history, they poisoned the labour movements they influenced with an anti-Germanism that was indistinguishable from racism.
For many decades they did the same with the USA.
They backed the Zionists and Israel in 1947–8 — 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 plans of British imperialism in the Middle East. Then they did an about-turn, in 1949 and thereafter, for similar motives of power politics.
And then they filled the left with an “anti-Zionism” that implied and embodied an outright hostility to most Jews alive. Its effects are still with us, especially on the “Trotskyist” left.
Only a few years after Hitler and the Holocaust they made Arab or Islamic chauvinism, and anti-semitism, everywhere “respectable” and good “anti-imperialism” by demonising the Jewish nationalists, the “Zionists”, and equating them with the Nazis.
They operated, in effect, with the idea that there are good and bad peoples, peoples deserving democratic rights, and peoples so vile 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 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 other solution to such conflicts.
6. They emptied the terms imperialism and anti-imperialism of all “objective” content. It was not only that they presented predatory Russian imperialism as the expansion of the socialist revolution.
They did that and thereby began the process of identifying imperialism as only capitalist imperialism, and educating the left to see the seizure, plunder, and exploitation of countries as good or bad, imperialist or socialist, depending on who was doing it.
But they also expunged from the left the very propensity to judge such matters according to observation, 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) pope to
decide such things.
From the mid-1930s onwards, they operated with categories of good and bad imperialisms. What was good and what bad at any moment depended on the USSR’s alliances or desired alliances. In the second half of the 1930s, Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, “the democracies” which had colonial control of most of the globe, were the good imperialists.
The Stalinists did their best to end struggle against them in the colonies, and opposition to colonialism at home.
When the Stalinists switched to alliance with Hitler, between August 1939 and June 1940, they saw and preached the hidden virtues of German imperialism. They endorsed and got the CPs to make propaganda for Hitler’s offer of peace to Britain and France — if he and Stalin could keep Poland, the trigger for World War Two. They got trade unions, Labour Party branches, and Trades Councils in Britain to back the Nazi call for “peace” on Hitler’s terms. In Britain, and the shameless impudence of it was typical of them, they called their “stop the war” movement after an episode in the history of Chartism in the 1830s — “the People’s Convention”.
When Hitler invaded Russia, they switched back to glorifying and helping the “democratic imperialists”, now Russia’s allies.
In the Cold War of the late 1940s and 50s they did their best to paint imperialist Britain, France, etc., as the victims of demon American imperialism, and made propaganda for their “national liberation”. They did not succeed in pitting Britain or France against the USA, but they did poison sections of the European working class with what we have learned to call “Yankophobia”.
And so on. In all these phases they told some of the truth. Trotsky said 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.
7. To the Stalinists, service to the USSR was their all-defining raison d’être. Their positions on things outside the USSR, though they would have to be presented and argued for on their own merits and demerits, were actually taken with an eye to something else entirely — what would best suit the rulers of the USSR at that particular time.
The result over decades was the substitution of all sorts of spurious but serviceable arguments, special pleadings, and above all demagogy, for Marxist reason and for socialist and democratic principle. The effect on the consciousness of the Marxists inducted into such an approach was a catastrophic loss of socialist and democratic norms, standards, rationality, and coherence. The only coherence was that of service to Russian
8. Since the axis on which everything revolved was not the class struggle, not the education of the working class, not the development of working-class political independence, but whatever would best serve the USSR, class criteria were abandoned.
Popular frontism took the place of even nominally working-class politics.
In the mid 1930s and at various periods afterwards, the creation of 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 middle or right-wing, and labour or socialist, parties, around the axis of a very limited programme (and usually 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.
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. It is still with us.
Where Maurice Thorez could only plaintively call for an alliance with “patriotic” French fascists against a greater enemy, Nazi Germany, it took the “Trotskyist” SWP and the
Mandelite International Socialist Group in present-day Britain to realise a popular front with fascists — with the clerical-fascists of the Muslim Brotherhood, through their offshoot the Muslim Association of Britain.
9. The Stalinists developed the idea that there are good and bad bourgeoisies.
Marxism sees the rise 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. The bourgeois revolutions were usually won by the efforts of the proletariat (or its then equivalents, such as the sans-culottes of late 18th century Paris) and the peasantry, and the “bourgeois” freedoms were won, or their expansion to the whole of the people was won, by the struggle of the working classes. But the bourgeoisie created the framework in which that was possible.
The Stalinists perverted the idea that in history the bourgeoisie plays a progressive role to mean that there are some good bourgeoisies; and it was entirely arbitrary: a given bourgeoisie was good or bad, historically progressive or reactionary, depending on its relations with the USSR.
The Stalinists found “good” bourgeoisies primarily in the Third World countries emerging from colonialism. The most crass case was perhaps that of the 26-county Irish state. The bourgeoisie there was a wretchedly stunted, and in social and political terms very reactionary, class, relentlessly grinding down the proletariat of the cities and towns.
It preened itself in the heroic light of Irish rebellions in which they and their ancestors had played no part, or opposed.
But they were out of step with Britain, which they blamed for the partition of the country. They took a neutralist line in foreign policy, standing out against great pressure to let NATO have bases in the 26 Counties.
That was what Moscow wanted. The result was that 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 proclaiming that the Irish bourgeoisie ran “the most progressive state in Western Europe”.
In fact they ran the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, not excluding clerical-fascist Franco Spain. They lived by exporting meat — cattle and people, hundreds of thousands of people, wretchedly educated, cast adrift on the tide. But yet they were wonderfully progressive and deserved the support of their workers and of all “progressive-minded” people everywhere; they deserved to rule over the Protestant workers of Northern Ireland — because they would not join NATO!
It is a crass example of the destruction of all norms and values proper to socialists and consistent democrats.
10. Truth? No such thing! There is no “objective” truth, only 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. To the Marxist idea that means condition ends, and that therefore, if the end is the emancipation of the working class, then only certain means are permissible, they answered not with arguments but with lies, abuse and blows.
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, misrepresent as much as necessary.
The result was, wherever Stalinists had the preponderant influence, there was a giant intellectual step backwards to the standards and norms of the pietistic “historians” of the Middle Ages who, for example, saw nothing wrong in interpolating into texts, for the greater glory of God and of the Church, “evidence” to back up the Bible.
Wherever the Stalinist influence ran, it falsified 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 cannot learn from it: they have had their historical eyes put out.
Much of the popularly accepted history of workers’ and other struggles is still today shot through with Stalinist myths, lies, anathemas and demonology.
11. The facility for correcting mistakes atrophied. If everything is decided by what the rulers of the USSR thinks serves them at a given moment, then starkly contradictory positions — for example, anti-Nazi, then pro-Nazis, then anti-Nazi again, in 1939-41 — may indeed have all been equally “correct”.
The Marxist standard of measurement was no part of it. But that is the standard, those are the criteria, that have the working class and its development at their heart. If they fall into disuse — or if the prevalence 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, and that adds to the tremendous difficulties which existence as the basic wage-slave class of bourgeois society already places in the way of the development of the independent political identity of the working class.
Trotsky rightly said that the revolutionary party — a real revolutionary party, and not the Stalinist counterfeit — is the memory of the class. The Stalinist parties were the parties of enforced amnesia, of the substitution of historical myths and lies for the memory of a working class socialist movement which learns from its own mistakes as it goes along.
That consequence to the labour movement of Stalinism 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 imaginatively from what he saw happening in and around the Stalinism-infected labour movements.
Working-class history was for many decades in the “custody” of an international conglomerate of parties committed to lies and falsifications, and actively determined to prevent cognisance of real history. The effect is still with us today.
13. What is too casually referred as “democracy” in a country like Britain is to Marxists “bourgeois democracy” or, nowadays better perhaps, “plutocratic democracy”. There is a great deal wrong with it. Money usually determines control of opinion-forming media and electoral success.
Even so, the winning and where necessary the defence of even the bourgeois class-limited liberties and democracy which we have is always, in all circumstances, in the interests of the working class. That follows from the idea that the working class and its education, organisation, and political independence are the central questions.
Without liberty of press, assembly, organisation, and so on, and without the exercise of the maximum possible democracy under the bourgeoisie, the working class cannot learn, cannot develop, cannot grow spiritually, intellectually, and politically.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the reaction in Europe, in the first place the Social Democracy, misused the idea of liberty and democracy to serve the bourgeoisie against communism. For example, the Weimar Republic which they set up in Germany, and which paved the way for the triumph of the Nazis, was proclaimed to be the triumph of democracy — not bourgeois democracy, the Social Democrats insisted, but democracy, classless and the same for everyone.
That experience, and the limitations that are inseparable from all bourgeois democracy and plutocratic democracy, led the Communist International, in its early, revolutionary years, to disparage democracy. It was part of an ultra-left infection, but more than that. It was a mistake, an understandable one, of the whole Comintern leadership.
At the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern they began to repair the error when they adopted the united front (1921) and the idea of a workers’ government (1922).
Trotsky substantially corrected it in 1934 when he proposed the following for France:
“As long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie.
“However, we demand…
Down with the Senate, which is elected by limited suffrage and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion!
Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction!
A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker.
This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers’ power.”
All through its entire 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. They preached that in the Stalinist states they had “the most advanced democracy in the world, that their totalitarianism was better than the democracy under which the freedoms and liberties denied in the Stalinist states existed.
At the last, that could not but spread confusion. In practice it united with the relativism to create utter chaos on the question of democracy in large swathes of the left.
They taught people that bourgeois democracy meant nothing to the working class. Where a dictatorship — say, Nasser’s Egypt — nationalised and planned the economy and, better still, allied with the USSR, democratic liberties and a working-class movement were less
important than those things.