Stalinism, the left, and beyond: a symposium

Submitted by AWL on 14 September, 2010 - 2:47 Author: Neville Alexander and others

Editorial: Sean Matgamna

Part 1 ( PDF 6.4 mb, p7-16)

Neville Alexander
Neal Ascherson
Tony Benn
Greg Benton
Robin Blackburn
Cornelius Castoriadis
Tony Chater
Vladimir Derer
Terry Eagleton
Michael Farrell
Al Glotzer

Part 2 – Boris Kagarlitsky's contribution (PDF, p18-19)

Part 3 (PDF 5.9mb, p17 -28)

Al Glotzer (cont.)
Fred Halliday
Boris Kagarlitsky
Jim Kemmy
Ernesto Laclau
Ronnie MacDonald
Livio Maitan
Ralph Miliband
Alec Nove
Michel Pablo (Raptis)
John Palmer
Jozef Pinior

Part 4 (PDF 5.1mb, p28 - 36)

Maxime Rodinson
Paul Sweezy
Nina Temple
Hillel Ticktin
Michel Warshawsky
Ellen Meiksins Wood

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

Dickens' picture of the eve of the French Revolution sums up the atmosphere on the left now after the collapse of Stalinist in Europe neatly. Perhaps too neatly.

The left is liberated. The left is bewildered. The left is vindicated. The left is historically refuted. Socialism is dead. Socialism is reborn. Which left? Which socialism?

The views of the editors of Workers' Liberty will be found in the editorial in this issue and in the paper Socialist Organiser, our weekly sister publication. We give over most of the space in this issue to a symposium on the fall of European Stalinism and the consequences for the socialist left.

Our contributors cover a very wide spectrum, ranging from, say, Neal Ascherson on the right, to people like, say, Michel Warshawsky on the left, whose revolutionary socialism is pretty much identical to our own. The texts in this magazine are transcripts of interviews conducted by Mark Osborn in the three weeks up to 14 February. Some are online below; all are in the pdf.

Crisis was made in the mid-'20s
By Neville Alexander

Neville Alexander is a South African socialist and former Robben Island prisoner. Associated with the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action, he is the author (under the pen-name No Sizwe) of the book One Azania, one nation.

We see the roots of the current crisis in the ex-USSR in the mid- to late-20s. The turning point was the victory of Stalinism and the victory of what was called ‘Socialism in One Country’. There were great economic and, particularly, political implications of this turn. The Russian working class and the Bolshevik Party were destroyed. Secondly, we would trace the failure back not only to the suppression of the freedom of the Soviet working class, but to the lack of production of consumer goods. The technological revolution was not extended to that sector of production. These two factors, taken together, explain why the Soviet Union fell behind. Therefore, the crisis we see now was inevitable.

We have been accused of being agnostic on the question of the nature of Soviet society. Frankly, we do not know. We know Stalinism is not capitalism. But in a sense the question: is this a deformed workers’ state? is anachronistic. Even though it may be evasive, we have generally tended to accept the formulation that these are transitional societies. Of course, this means they can fall back towards capitalism but also have the potential, depending on the international situation, of moving into a socialist stage.

The point here is that nothing is irrevocable in history. If we describe these societies as transitional we are implicitly saying they are post-capitalist. I accept the logic. But this does not mean they can not revert to capitalism. A lot depends on international developments.I think we have seen that. The reversion to capitalism has become possible.

Nevertheless, for us, there is no question about the centrality of the Russian Revolution. We believe the October Revolution continues to be the most important event in world history. In building a new international socialist movement, there is no doubt that we have to go back to the period of 1917-1924 to see where our starting points should be.

Our view is that in the advanced capitalist countries, the so-called actually existing socialist societies have discredited socialism. In the minds of most workers — in fact, most people — those societies were equated with what socialism was supposed to be. This was a real setback. In countries like South Africa, socialism continues to be not just relevant but popular. But we have no doubt at all that because of the hegemony of the black nationalists, the socialist movement continues to be a minority current. But it is there, and it is important.

Socialism is an important pole of attraction in the mass movement. So you have the two sides: the position in the advanced capitalist countries and the situation in the ex-colonial world. Although our organisation has not got a finished position - it is an ongoing debate — I can give you an analogy for the way forward. In a way we have to get back to the First International where workers’ organisations the world over got together on the basis of their experience, on a bare empirical reality of the experience of capitalist exploitation, begin to put together a cohesive strategy against the world capitalist system. This is where we have to start. What implements we have to use to do that, whether we join, for example, this or that socialist international are in part tactical issues.We need a non-sectarian approach to international socialist currents. We feel people are wandering around with a schema for the solution of the world’s problems. We have to start from the point where each national socialist formation has got peculiar problems -— even though there are obviously general principles arising from the capitalist mode of production which are common to all.

Marx was wrong about class
By Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson is a journalist, and author of The Polish August: the self-limiting revolution, an account of the rise of Solidarnosc.

I do not think we will ever see Stalinism again. As to what is currently happening there is, in a way, a crisis of frustrated development. People are being mobilised in order to modernise. Behind this is a sense of backwardness and political dissolution. There is a powerful will to overcome and catch up.

Catching up is not always seen as joining and merging. The form in which Russians, when and if they talk about politics, still think that the ideal Russia would not be like a western society. If you say: “what will it be like? Will it be capitalist or a new form of socialism?”, I can never seem to get a satisfactory answer. All I ever seem to find is an affirmation that there are huge material and human resources that are unused; that Russia has become a backward nation sinking into the Third World and what is required is a leap forward.

I can see many reasons why this situation occurred. But the Bolshevik Revolution is over. The French Revolution is over. You can argue whether it ended in1793 or 1815, then popping up again in 1830 and 1848. But it ended. There was a time when you could say: 1789 is over. Now we can say the Bolshevik Revolution and the experiment has ended.

Lenin thought that his revolution would last for ever. He was wrong — as was Marx about the development of class. Marx’s main predictions about class development are more of an analysis than a prophecy. Things, for reasons he could not have foreseen, have turned out differently.

Revolutions are always about the same things. They are about unjust distribution of property, about political tyranny. They are about a mass impatience with the way of governments. This will happen again. And when it does, there will be resemblances to the Bolshevik Revolution. Some of its principles are principles which will always be here, like the dream of absolute equality. A lot of the conceptions are just too good to die. People will always strive for these things.

I am an old liberal progressist. As people become more intelligent and better educated, they do change. One thing is wonderfully clear: in the last ten years, people in Western Europe have become much more cowardly, especially soldiers. That is very good news! This comes out of the Gulf War and the Falklands War. People are much less gung-ho about risking their necks, or even killing others, except where it can be done mechanically, at the press of a button, covering thousands with sand.

This trend is irreversible. It is a good sign. The human race advances two steps forward, one step back towards greater equality. The great danger now in Eastern Europe is that these societies will fall back into a previous historical arrangement. You will get greatly developed Western Europe and beggarly Eastern Europe, whose role is to provide raw materials, cheap labour, and fruit and veg.

Will this happen? My feeling is that it probably will not. Firstly because the development of modern, multinational capitalism is able to move outside nation states and relocate itself. The heartlands of Western Europe are pricing themselves out of manufacture to such an extent that the East has a chance.

And, strangely, the posthumous victory of some Communist attitudes, in Eastern Europe will help. insofar as people believed in Communism in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, it was as a means of development. The appeal was of an autarkic system where industrialisation was forced in order to catch up with the west. There would never be a situation in which a vast rural population would be dependent on a few industries.

I think that Trotsky and Lenin’s ideas of socialism are over. However, the kind of analysis Marx made is as good now as it ever was. That way of looking at society is still the right way. You can remove the dialectic as an extremely antique way of saying things; remove the prophetic element in Marx which is plainly wrong. But Marx’s general analysis will plainly survive. What will always survive is the important part of Marx — that he was a revolutionary. He wanted the oppressed of the world to rise up and strike a blow.

We need a vision of society in which people will be more equal; where people combine in order to be stronger and improve their standards of living and make new institutions to preserve justice. This is all to do with socialism at a very basic level. This will continue as long as the human race exists.

The West deliberately bankrupted the USSR
By Tony Benn

Tony Benn is the Labour MP for Chesterfield

The collapse of the old Soviet regime is bringing anarchy to Russia. That anarchy is being used by the West to create an opening for the exploitation of the Soviet working class. There is a potential market in the USSR, although not yet. And there is a cheap labour force.

A type of mafia is developing in some of the republics. Rouble millionaires are emerging from speculators. The probability is that we will see military-type capitalism in the USSR. Then the question arises: how much socialist resistance will there be? After all, the old regime – no matter what you say about it – was built around public values and public services. People will see these services go.

Now, there was nothing perfect about the old system. It was repressive and centralised, but it did improve working-class living standards a lot. I think that the underlying reasons for the crisis are a little more complex than are sometimes made out. The Russians spent between 30 and 70% of GDP on defence. I think that the western strategy to destroy the Soviet regime was to bankrupt them. This level of expenditure, no doubt, justified in their eyes by the threat of attack, forced them towards bankruptcy.

Now we see the problems of control of the army, navy and nuclear weapons. An angry, disenchanted, forcibly demobilised army can lead to gangsterism. These guys are trained to kill.

The question is: what will come out of the wreckage? The best guide at the moment is to look at Poland. I know Socialist Organiser supported Solidarrnosc – an organisation I always had some doubts about – but Solidarnosc threw up Walesa and a right-wing government.

It does not follow that the old Communists, who have been dissolved in Poland and the Soviet Union, were all tainted with Stalinism. Lower down the Party there were some decent people who did not like what was happening. These people may well reappear as democratic socialist.

Resistance to the changes could come quite quickly, a type of counter-counter-revolution. I hope there is resistance – or the fate of the people will be appalling.

The association of socialism with Stalinism? I do not think that British workers assumed that socialism meant totalitarianism. The right would like to tell us that socialism is dead; that is not true. The most popular issue in Britain is defence of the socialist health service. We should not allow ourselves to be demoralised.

At least the changes in the USSR mean that no-one can say: you are working for the KGB. That helps us. Objectively, this is a great period for socialism although subjectively, it is difficult.

I think democracy scares people at the top. All systems hate democracy. In the Labour Party it is the same. When we raised the issue of democracy, a large part of the PLP split off and formed the SDP. I think we should approach the whole socialist question through democracy. We need to spread power and encourage people to use it. My Commonwealth of Britain Bill is being extended to include legislation for workers' rights, industrial democracy and broadcasting.

What we should we say about the Russian Revolution and soviets? I have always opposed the Trotskyite view that said that in Britain we had a situation comparable to that in Russia. I am not saying it could not happen, just that it was was not happening. I was always afraid that a vanguard party, in certain circumstances, could seize power. Since it had no democratic authority it could be easily toppled. It would have no base of support. I think people are suspicious of the Trotskyite vanguard party idea. They say: if you were at the top, you would be like the current leaders. In fact, it is true that power corrupts everyone.

I have also never been strongly for great state corporations. There was a parallel between the nationalisation programmes in Russia and the social democratic programmes in the West. They were both centralised and secretive. Ian McGregor was a product of nationalisation just as the rulers in Russia were a product of their revolution. The Russians were not the only people who tried to do it all from the top.

Not so pessimistic about China
By Greg Benton

Greg Benton is a lecturer at Leeds University, editor of Wild Lilies, Poisonous Weeds: dissident voices from People's China and of Memoirs by veteran Chinese Trotskyist Wang Fanxi. He has been associated with the journal International Viewpoint.

There were some progressive elements in the Soviet economy despite its Stalinist political system. While I'm happy to see the destruction of Stalinism as a system of political rule, I do regret that capitalism and market forces are determining the way in which the Soviet Union is now developing. Now in the Soviet Union you have the prospect of a marriage of the worst features of Stalinism and capitalism in other words a political dictatorship and an economic rat-race. The main beneficiaries of the reversion to the market economy in the Soviet Union are the mafiosi who controlled the state until 1989.

China isn't Russia, and the Chinese revolution happened in a different way from the Russian. The CCP started off in 1921 as a party committed to democracy and science. Its main leader Chen Tu-Hsiu was the founder of the May 4th Movement that campaigned for democracy and science. The people who joined him in the early party were formed by that experience and the CCP has always retained elements of a commitment to democracy, feminism and internationalism – for example, the Yenan opposition of 1942, the cultural revolutionary opposition of 1967-8, the movement at the Democracy Wall in 1979, and the Peking Commune in 1989. In all these instances distinguished and respected veteran communists have sided with people out to sweep away the political tyranny. Marxism in that sense is not discredited in China as it is in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Some of the doyens of democratic dissent in China are long-standing communists. This is an important difference between Russia and China.

In 1989 when millions of people were demonstrating on the streets of Peking it was rather hard to find a large number of people committed to the restoration of capitalism. I don't think the agenda of China's dissidents in 1989 bore more than superficial resemblance to that of the now-victorious opposition in the Soviet Union. The main target in China in 1989 was corruption in the party, which is why Gorbachev was such an important symbol for them in a way that Bush and Reagan could never be. Gorbachev seemed to represent to youngsters the possibility of reform within the system His presence in 1989 in Peking was one of the main factors in the spreading and deepening of the movement.

Obviously in the course of the movement new layers of young people came to the fore. People like Wuer Kaixi and Chai Ling, now famous in the West, together with their high-level supporters behind the scenes, would like to change China in a capitalist direction. The Americans put a lot of work into creating a mood, and cohort of people to embody that mood, in favour of free enterprise. But the credibility of these latter-day heroes of the Square has been destroyed since 1989. If the movement revives the older layer of left-wing dissidents will reassert themselves in China.

Economic reform was carried out in China several years before it was even seriously mooted in the Soviet Union. Chinese workers have a long experience of the effects of economic reform on their pockets. This is one reason why some of the panaceas proposed in the Soviet Union don't find the same adherence in China, where people are disenchanted by the attempts to sweep away their securities. These securities, particularly in the cities, are one of the main reasons why the system remained stable for so long in China. The Chinese revolution did not create a paradise, but it did create a place where workers could feel safe and at least relatively equal, and where their basic needs were looked after. So I'm not so pessimistic about the future of democratic and dissident politics in China as I am about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

China is now a post-capitalist society with some elements of socialism, distorted by a hideous political system that bears no resemblance to socialism. There are elements of socialism in the Chinese economy and in the cities in particular.

Are the ruling elements of the CCP a ruling caste rather than a class? I'm no longer really concerned with that debate. The ease with which the CP was squeezed from power in the Soviet Union would seem to suggest it was a thin veneer on society rather than a new class. It's not something I've given much thought to and I can longer see so clearly the practical implications anyway of one definition or the other.

Democracy and democratic revolutions took over 800 years to mature and even now they're flawed in many ways. Not until 1919 did we have full suffrage in this country and even now there are all sorts of problems with it. Socialism is a very new idea, and one can't expect miracles so soon. I think that if you look at China now and the social forces, a level of enlightenment exists that didn't exist in 1949. In 1949 the working class, the factory proletariat in China, numbered something like three million people. Now Hong Kong alone has three million workers. The factory proletariat is educated, literate and politically aware, far more so than it ever was in the past. China now has an educated sector from high schools and universities far greater than in the past. These are the people who spearheaded the movement of 1989.

There is an element of elitism in this group, but in the course of the revolution of 1989 students began to realise that it was important to admit workers into the Square, to encourage workers to organise themselves. This was a tremendous achievement of the movement of 1989, a realisation by latge numbers of students that alone they can do little and that they need support from wider sections of society. The lesson wasn't entirely learnt but I'm still quite optimistic.

The ground exists for discontent and a body of theory and ideas exist in China that can envisage non-capitalist reform of the system. The experience now in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is strengthening some Chinese in their determination not to go that way and not allow that sort of instability and crisis, which would be far greater in a country with China's level of economy an production than in the richer countries in Eastern Europe.

Don't try to save the term “socialism”
By Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis was one of those, alongside CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya, who argued in the Trotskyist movement in the late 1940s for a shift towards seeing the USSR as “state capitalist”. Later he launched the Socialisme ou Barbarie group; today he no longer calls himself a socialist. He has written under the names “Chaulieu” and “Cardan”. He lives in France and has also written extensively on questions of psychology.

The downfall of the Stalinist tyranny in Eastern Europe and the USSR happened in a curious way, with the self-destruction of the ruling class. The Communist bureaucracy attempted reforms under Gorbachev but could never succeed, because the system was irreformable.

What will happen now is another matter. The situation is quite chaotic, even in Eastern Europe, and much more so in Russia itself. The heartening aspect of the downfall of the Stalinists was that in East Germany and Poland the people struggled against the Communist tyranny. The disheartening aspect was that as soon as the Stalinist regimes collapsed the people went home and stopped their activity.

There have been lots of illusions. People believed that as soon as they got rid of Communist rule there would be a rich, abundant consumer society. They wanted their image of what the West was like. Of course, the situation did not allow this – especially not in Russia itself. I do not see that the change will inevitably be to capitalism. In some countries that is quite probable; in Russia, I am not sure.

Why did the old system collapse? It was crazy from the point of view of instrumentality. Almost half the resources in the old USSR were devoted to military expenditure. Russian economists say that this spending is still 30% of GDP. If we assume that 20% of GDP is for non-productive consumption of the bureaucracy, and at least 20% for investment, that leaves very little for people to live on. Then, there was always the passive resistance of the people. And there were two great external shocks to the system in the 1980s: the Polish revolt and the Afghan resistance.

It was not mechanically certain that they would not go on. But we have the conjunction of the unpredictable – not accidental, but contingent – factors in history: a small group of people under Gorbachev undertook to change part of the system, they pulled the thread, and everything began to unravel. The system was a bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism which came about because of the totalitarianism of the Bolshevik party. The organisation of the Bolshevik party – so-called “democratic centralism” - was the rule of a small bureau. The Bolsheviks took power in a military putsch. October was not a revolution. The idea that it was a revolution is a lie.

The Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly where they had only 25% of the delegates. They imposed their own control on the Soviets, which became more and more of a mask. They suppressed the Kronstadt revolt. The bureaucratic dictatorship already existed in Lenin's time.

The greatest blow against the workers' movement, against socialism, and against freedom in general, was no accomplished by capitalism or by the Nazis. It was done by Communism. If you go to Eastern Europe and talk about socialism, you will probably be lynched. The people there will not hear a single word about socialism from now on. This also goes in Western Europe. That is the result of Communism. The revelations coming out now about the Stalinist systems – though for me they were not new facts – enable people to say “socialism was that! Totalitarianism! Any other regime is preferable!”

The prospects now are not very rosy. These feelings will hang over for a long time. People need time to digest the fact that capitalism is not a democratic regime, it is not economically fair, and it produces ecological catastrophes. People need time to discover that they can do something about capitalism. People need time to discover that doing something about it does not necessarily mean ending up with a Bolshevik party on their backs.

I do not use the word “socialism” any more. I am not trying to save the term “socialism”. What I aim at is an autonomous society where the collectivity is autonomous and makes its own laws and where individuals are autonomous. This means that individuals are free within the limits of laws that they make themselves. People are educated to be free and responsible.

I would not call this socialism because the term is irretrievably prostituted by the history of the last 70 years, both the history of Communism and that of the so-called social democracies in the West. We have seen Mitterand in France. In Britain you have had the Labour Party in government. Then you had the Tories. You may have Labour again. This is some sort of national football game, of no general interest for humanity.

People must create new organs of power in order to take over. These organs must be collectively run, with direct democracy. Federated across countries, these organs would form national instruments of power.

I talk of people rather than workers. Workers are only 20% of the working populations in the US. The working class will also be reduced to this proportion in the other industrial countries. We cannot have 20% of the population running the whole of society – unless it is done by totalitarianism.

The Polish general strike of August 1980 was run through factory strike committees. That was possible because Poland was a backward country. Poland still has 40% industrial workers, and so, by definition, it is a backward society.

I think that every member of the population, except for a small layer of 3-7% at the top, has an interest in change.

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WL16part2p16p27.pdf(5.59 MB) 5.59 MB
WL16part3p28p36.pdf(5.29 MB) 5.29 MB

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