Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2016

Do 1500 year old theological debates explain Stalin? Roland Boer’s latest nonsense

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

Roland Boer

The Australian theologian and Joseph Stalin publicist Roland Boer is a rather ubiquitous figure on the left. He has turned up on Yoshie Furuhashi’s blog (aka MRZine) and the journal of the British SWP. He was the recipient of the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for a book titled “In the Vale of Tears: On Marxism and Theology”, the final installment in a five-part series that for some unfathomable reason has earned plaudits from people such as Paul LeBlanc. This book has been published by Historical Materialism (and republished in paperback by the ISO). Since his admirers (except for Furuhashi) have shown a marked aversion to Stalinism, it is a bit of a mystery why they seem to overlook one of his main activities—blogging at Stalin’s Moustache. For some on the anti-Stalinist left, the blog appears harmless. Scott McLemee put it this way in a November 2014 Inside Higher Education column:

Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”

Frankly, there is an ideological significance to the blog, whatever you make of the moustache. In fact, Roland Boer is one of the Internet’s prime sources of Stalinist ideology alongside Grover Furr and some of the more obscure websites associated with tiny sects hoping to breathe new life in a moribund movement. At one time, someone like Boer would have had a lot more traction. When SDS self-demolished in the early 70s, there were any number of Stalin imitators such as Mike Klonsky and Robert Avakian who after crawling out of the wreckage would have hoisted Boer on their shoulders. Ironically, his biggest admirers today happen to be people with a heavy commitment to anti-Stalinist politics. Go figure.

I doubt that anybody would spend money on a Roland Boer book, especially the HM hardcover that goes for $167. But if you have a morbid curiosity in how he ties theology to Stalinism, I recommend a look at his article “A Materialist Doctrine of Good and Evil: Stalin’s Revision of Marxist Anthropology” that appears in an online journal titled Crisis and Critique whose latest issue is devoted to an examination of “Stalin, what does the name stand for?” I will be returning to some of the articles that appear in this issue but want to direct my fire now at Boer’s article that is a travesty of biblical proportions—speaking theologically.

Boer’s case for Stalin rests on an analogy with the debate between two important figures in Christian theology, Pelagius and St. Augustine. Pelagius, a critic of St. Augustine, made the case that human beings were capable of living without sin as a result of exercising free will. St. Augustine, a firm believer in original sin, considered Pelagius a heretic. (Since I wrote a BA thesis on St. Augustine, I am more familiar with his ideas. With respect to Pelagius, we only know him through excerpts found in the Christian polemics aimed at him.)

For Boer, there are two phases of Stalin’s career, the first that mapped to Pelagius and the second to St. Augustine. The Pelagian phase was reflected in Stakhanovism, a form of labor exploitation in Stalin’s Russia that Boer regards as exemplary. The Augustinian phase was reflected in the post-Kirov assassination period when Stalin resorted to mass arrests, show trials and other forms of terror that were necessary because there were many Russians who acted treasonously just like Adam and Eve.

It goes without saying that this is pure madness. Leaving aside Boer’s dubious analogies and brazen justification for Stalin’s barbaric rule, there is zero engagement with the Marxist method in his article. Essentially, Boer is a historian of ideas. His interest in Stalin is not in what he did but in what he said. The article is overflowing with citations from Stalin’s writings, all in the interest in supporting the author’s analogies. And when he does stray a few inches from this methodology, the results are shockingly in defiance of historical accuracy.

Boer pretty much admits that he is not interested in Soviet history. In a section subtitled “A New Human Nature” (the term human nature is a tip-off that this man is not a Marxist), he says that the details of “the dual industrialisation and collectivisation drive, embodied in the two five-year plans from 1928 to 1937” are are not “my direct concern here”. Well, who can blame him? Why try to come up with counter-arguments to Isaac Deutscher who he describes as engaging in “ritual denunciations” of the failures of the forced industrialization? (What a fitting tribute to the man whose name adorns the prize Boer received.) That would divert him from his real task, which is to calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

He moves directly into a defense of Stakhanovism that he regards as both an expression of pure socialism and a modern-day counterpart to the Pelagian heresy of over 1500 years ago:

Indeed, Stakhanovism of the 1930s was not only the height of the passion and enthusiasm for the socialist project, but it was also a very Pelagian phenomenon. In some respects, the movement may be seen as an effort to find a new form of extra-economic compulsion, particularly within a socialist framework. The problem of foot-dragging noted above, manifested in managers and workers blunting expectations by creatively recalibrating production quotas and expected work practices, led to a search for new ways of encouraging them to be part of the new project. Yet this is to depict Stakhanovism as primarily an initiative from above. Instead, it was a much more complex phenomenon, catching the government off-guard through the genuine expression of workers’ aspirations but then leading to a whole new policy framework. The result was the celebration of and encouragement to emulate the ‘heroes of labour’, modest and ordinary people who became models of a new type of human being. The names include, among many others, the coal miner Aleksei Stakhanov, the automobile worker Aleksandr Busygin, the shoe maker Nikolai Smetanin, the textile workers Evdokiia and Mariia Vinogradov, the railway train driver Petr Krivonos, the timber worker Vladimir Musinskii, the sailor and arctic explorer Ivan Papanin, the farmer Konstantin Borin, the sugar beet farmer Mariia Demchenko, and the tractor driver Pasha Angelina. A complex phenomenon it was, but my primary interest is in the outlines of the new person Stalin begins to see emerging, if not a new type of human nature characterised by the ‘will to socialism’, by ‘passionate Bolshevik desire’, by emulation as the ‘communist method of building socialism’, if not by Bolshevik ‘tempo’ and grit’.

If you are looking for any kind of detailed account of the role of the Stakhanovite in Soviet society, you won’t find it in Boer’s article. His main purpose is to put forward an ideal type, not to bother with the messy details of how such workers fit into the bigger picture of a society that was ruled by repression rather than moral appeal such as existed in Cuba during the early years of the revolution.

For a Marxist take on Stakhanovism, I recommend an article by N. Markin that appeared in The New International in February 1936. Titled “The Stakhanovist Movement”, it points out that the records achieved by the miner Stakhanov and the auto worker Busygin have to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt.

To start with, when the Soviet press blared the news that Stakhanov had drilled 102 tons of coal in one day, it failed to report that this was mainly the result of a reorganization of the work flow in the mine that divided the crew into drillers and non-drillers who were assigned the task of shoring up the walls, etc. Stalin’s flunky Grigol Ordjonikidze admitted as such to a Stakhanovist Congress held in Moscow: “It is sometimes thought that a single man [Stakhanov] produced 102 tons. This is not true. These 102 tons were produced by an entire brigade.” Markin also pointed out that the larger amounts of coal that Stakhanov drilled in a single day (while not 102 tons, were still in excess of the typical day’s result) could not be produced on an ongoing basis since the efforts were so exhausting. It would be like running a marathon every day.

The same issues arose with Busygin the auto worker:

The most famous record-holder after Stakhanov himself, Busygin (already mentioned above) finds himself in a similar situation. Hardly had the newspapers broadcasted the news of his records (Busygin, you see, has licked the smiths of Ford) when it turned out that Busygin, the very next day “was unable to work full speed, his drill not having been properly prepared”. On the following day Bosygin “stood idle for two hours because the section administration had not prepared the drill, and had not changed the dies”. Still a day later Bosygin remained idle for 1½ hours, and in addition to this he began producing a “completely waste product. It was established that there was a mix-up in the grade of steel in the supply section” (Pravda, Nov. 23 and 24, 1935).

Finally, what is missing from Boer’s discussion of Stakhanovism, a movement supposedly fuelled by ardor for communism, is that it was based on piece-work wages, a form of exploitation that Marx defined “as the form of wages most suited to the capitalist mode of production.” People emulated Stakhanov because that was the way you could afford food, clothing and other necessities of life. This led to differentiation in the working class, with an average worker getting 170 rubles doing the same job as a Stakhanovist who gets 400 rubles based on greater output. And all of this was in the name of transitioning from socialism to communism.

Markin cites Trud, a Russian newspaper whose name means Labor, for the bitter conflicts that were arising between the two types of workers:

In the same number of Trud is related how two workers “conducted a malicious agitation against the Stakhanovist methods. Jagtirev sought to persuade the Stakhanovist worker Kurlitchev not to work. As a result the work on this section was impaired”. The Stakhanovists complain that it is only “when there is supervision that the work moves ahead.” (Trud, Sept. 24, 1925) In Odessa, in the heavy machinery construction plant, the worker, Poliakov hurled himself at the Stakhanovist Korenozh with an iron beam. Poliakov has been expelled from the trade union, driven from his job and it is planned to hand him over to a tribunal as an example. (Trud, Oct. 23, 1935) In Marionpole, in the Azorstal plant, two workers, Chisjakov and Khomenko were sentenced to four and two years imprisonment for having threatened to kill a Stakhanovist brigader.

All this is airbrushed out of Boer’s article, just as many Soviet era photographs were altered to exclude Bolshevik leaders who had gotten on Stalin’s wrong side. Although most of them had become “enemies of the people” long before the Kirov assassination, it was that event that prompted Stalin to launch a bloody repression against millions of Soviet citizens, as well as one man who had already been exiled: Leon Trotsky.

I should mention that the N. Markin referred to above was the pen name of Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son. Although the official cause of his death in 1938 was complications following an appendectomy, some scholars believe he was assassinated just like his father.

Boer’s explanation for what he calls “the Red Terror” is an exercise in disingenuousness. He excuses it as the appropriate if somewhat excessive response to an assassination of a Soviet official. However, once again he is not interested in whether Stalin was justified but instead how all this fits in to his Pelagus-St. Augustine toy model:

The trigger for the major demonstration trials of the 1930s was the assassination in December 1934 of Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Party branch. As with the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, this prompted the sense of an imminent coup and a vigorous response in seeking out the enemy within, resulting in the trial and execution of hundreds of thousands. The Red Terror reached a climax between 1936 and 1938: the trial of Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre (the Sixteen), of the anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre (the Seventeen), of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ (the Twenty-One) and of the generals (most notably Marshall Tukhachevskii). Eventually, many of the Old Bolsheviks were caught up in the purge, including Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky. In the purge of the Red Army alone, 34,000 officers were arrested (although 11,500 were reinstated), including 476 senior commanders. However, I am less interested here in the public relations disaster that the trials became, in the level of Stalin’s involvement, in the nature of the opposition bloc and Trotsky’s involvement, in the widespread debate they continue to generate, as scholars seek causes while (rarely) defending them or (mostly) condemning them in a way that curiously echoes some elements of Cold War propaganda. Instead, I wish to focus on the way they reveal a more realistic (and arguably pessimistic) assessment of the propensity to evil.

Yes, why would Roland Boer be bothered with whether 34,000 officers were arrested even if this made the USSR vulnerable to a Nazi invasion. That’s not nearly as interesting as establishing Stalin’s conversion to an original sin understanding of why recalcitrant Soviet citizens balked at Stakhanovism or rebelled against being forced into collective farms. Such people were obviously acting on their baser instincts, a necessary outcome of Adam and Eve eating the apple that the snake gave them.

Years ago I read Victor Serge’s “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” that is a fictional version of the Kirov assassination that is about as evocative of the paranoia and savagery of the USSR in the 1930s that you can read anywhere. There is an online version that is not exactly that easy on the eyes but I do recommend that you take a look at it.

Before saying anything about Kirov, it is necessary to establish what happened in the wake of the assassination attempt on Lenin. Boer elides the differences between this incident and the murder of Kirov for good reason. They have little in common.

Lenin was shot by Fanny Kaplan on August 30, 1918. She was a member of the SR party whose leader Alexander Kerensky had been overthrown seven months earlier. In the crackdown on the SRs, 800 were executed.

Missing from Boer’s article is the political context. Starting in 1918, the USSR was being torn apart by counter-revolution. Two months before Kaplan’s assassination attempt, the SR’s had joined with the Czechoslovak Legion to destroy the revolution. With Czarist officers like Kolchak, Denikin and Yudenich leading the White Army, it is not unreasonable to view 1918 as the first attempt to impose fascism in the 20th century. With the SR’s collaborating with a military onslaught that was killing peasants by the thousands and organizing pogroms against the Jews, you are dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances than those that faced Stalin in 1934.

I don’t want to go into too much detail on the Kirov assassination but will simply supply the relevant passage from Wikipedia that appears sound. How anybody can compare this incident to the attempt on Lenin’s life in a period of civil war that threatened to topple Soviet rule is beyond comprehension. But then again, to write idiotic articles trying to explain the tyrant’s reign in terms of debates within Christianity 1500 years ago belongs to abnormal political psychology to begin with.

Alexander Barmine, a Soviet official who knew both Stalin and Kirov, asserted that Stalin arranged the murder with the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, who armed Nikolaev and sent him to assassinate Kirov. The death of Kirov was used by Stalin to ignite the Great Purge, where supporters of Trotsky and other suspected enemies testified that they were guilty of such a conspiracy against the Soviet government and arrested.

However the Great Purge is generally considered to have begun in the second-half of 1936, more than eighteen months after Kirov’s assassination. Initial reactions to Kirov’s death from the Soviet leadership were muted and it was only later cited as a pretext to purge the party.

Author and Marxist scholar Boris Nikolaevsky argued:

“One thing is certain: the only man who profited by the Kirov assassination was Stalin.”

6 Comments »

  1. I don’t have a problem with people defending Stalin the politician and leader. Other than from a personal point of view I disagree strongly with their view.

    What I cannot accept is treating Stalin as a serious intellectual. I have a morbid fascination with Stalin and his collected works, and the last words that springs to my mind when reading him are towering intellectual. I guess his inner circle would have regarded him as a towering intellectual, as this was probably the safe option!

    Stalin was good at the sport of taking Trotsky down a peg or 2. i will give him that!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 19, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

  2. Stalin was good at the sport of taking Trotsky down a peg or 2. i will give him that!

    You really are a fucking mutt, aren’t you.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2016 @ 7:27 pm

  3. He’s an ideas man and facts don’t matter. Furr on the other hand is completely without ideas. This blindness is essential to what they are doing. It’s simply impossible to praise Stalinism when one considers it as a whole. So you have to either focus on questions like “did Ivan Ivanovich Pupkin starve to death (as some source claims) in 1932 or did he in fact die in 1938 from typhus?” or else go on a psychedelic trip like Boer does. One must avert one’s eyes from the bigger picture at all cost.

    Having said that, I do find Furr to be much more agreeable. He’s a sick individual, but insanity can be productive when it’s directed at very precise targets. Who else would tell us that the source Timothy Snyder cites on page 235 does not say what Snyder claims it says? Naturally if one believes that the anti-Communist narrative is essentially correct and in no way distorted for political purposes, stuff like this hardly matters. But if one believes that the distortions are substantial, going through verifying the truth line by line is highly important. But this sort of work is potentially very tedious and uncomfortable. People who have no sympathy for 20th century revolutionary movements have no incentive to engage in this kind of work. People on the far-left would often rather not touch the subject because it may become uncomfortable. This is not to say that professional scholars or sane leftists never critique anti-Communist historiography. The problem is that they do it less and less, and the output is simply too low these days. So it is left to the insane Grover Furr to comb through the mountain of claims looking for the slightest errors, which of course he finds. I can’t say I am happy that this work is done by someone who denies the Katyn massacre and believes that Yezhov was a secret opponent of Stalin. Nor do sympathise his aim of exonerating one of the worst regimes of the century – I’d much rather have him be an apologist for Communist movements outside of the USSR. It seems that Grover Furr’s intellectual journey began with the realization that much of the Cold War demonology of Vietnam was bulshit. He began digging from there and ended up in the sewer. But you take what you can get wherever you can get it.

    So that’s Grover Furr. Boer’s insanity has no redeeming qualities.

    Comment by Max — April 19, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

  4. I’ve had my own go at Timothy Snyder:

    https://louisproyect.org/2010/11/22/an-american-revisionist-historian/

    I also put up a guest post that is very good.

    https://louisproyect.org/2010/11/24/a-guest-post-on-timothy-snyder/

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2016 @ 7:31 pm

  5. I didn’t mean that in the sense of a pickaxe to the head. I was purely speaking in terms of Stalin’s written words.

    There is nothing wrong with being a mongrel incidentally, I suspect you are no more ‘racially pure’ than I am. But enjoy your conceipt.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 19, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

  6. […] that I have written at considerable length about the worst of them, an Australian theologian named Roland Boer who tried to explain Stalin’s rule in terms of debates within 5th century […]

    Pingback by Stalin, Stalinism and crypto-Stalinism | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 26, 2016 @ 5:35 pm


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