Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2016

Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

The other day I got a FB message from a comrade in Pakistan:

which reminds me, comrade, i wanted to ask you about Timothy Snyder’s work and some related issues

i read your critique very carefully (or at least i hope i did), and i do have his book – i haven’t read it in its entirety, but im familiar with his main framework

my question mainly is along these lines:

if we are to come to grips with the legacy of Stalinism, how do we do it?

where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?

and can we sustain such a damning indictment, as communists, while still salvaging ANY progressive/radical/revolutionary/virtuous/politically-worthwhile elements from the Bolshevik experience and the soviet union’s history?

or is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

i remember a discussion with xxx at one point, where he was basically saying (unless i got him wrong) that he agrees with Snyder’s framework broadly and that we cannot underestimate the brutality of soviet domination of the ‘eastern bloc’

can you point the way to some sort of way to approach all this?

To start off, I should mention that I launched a Yahoo listserv called The Soviet Legacy that was devoted to discussing exactly such questions. The list withered on the vine mostly for the right reason–namely that people got tired of trying to figure out when and why things went sour in the USSR. In fact I created the mailing list to shunt such conversations off of the Marxism list where I try to emphasize current events. It is not that I am averse to discussing Soviet history, only averse to hearing the usual litany from sect members bent on foisting their analysis on the rest of us.

For a different approach, I’d recommend Tony McKenna’s new book on Stalin titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this year.

It benefits from a wide range of sources both left, center and right. For me, it was a real eye-opener since my understanding of Stalinism emerged out of a fairly narrow part of the political spectrum, namely Leon Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher who the American Trotskyist leader regarded as a kind of crypto-Stalinist despite his obvious Trotskyist sympathies.

In terms of Snyder, I have to confess that I have never read any of his books. Some people who I have a lot of respect for speak highly of “Bloodlands” but I doubt that I will ever find the time or motivation to read it even though it obviously has a lot of scholarly material on the Ukraine, a subject that like Syria is of interest to me. I make a point of reading everything that Snyder writes about Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, where he is a regular contributor, but tend to rely more on my own interpretation of the Euromaidan drawn from reporting in the bourgeois press and Marxists both inside and outside of Ukraine such as Chris Ford.

But let me hone in on your key question: “is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?”

This is probably the most complex question of the 20th century and one that piles contradiction upon contradiction as you begin to study the effect that the USSR had on world politics. For example, in the late 80s I was involved with a project called Tecnica that sent programmers and other skilled professionals and tradespeople to Nicaragua and then expanded into a program for Africa focused on the ANC, which was then in exile.

In the 1980s the USSR was supplying Nicaragua with most of the military aid it needed to fend off the contras who relied in turn on Reagan’s “legal” and illegal support network. Without such aid it is likely that the Sandinistas would have been ousted from power a lot sooner than 1991. That military aid helped the government defend clinics and schools that were designed to eliminate poverty in the countryside.

When the USSR began implementing “perestroika”, the first thing to go was solidarity with Nicaragua as I pointed out in an article I wrote about 20 years ago:

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

Analogously, when I traveled to Zambia in 1991 to consult with the ANC over the feasibility of Tecnica expanding into Africa, I was struck by the evidence of Soviet assistance to the liberation struggle that was mostly manifested by young members relating to our team about the education that they had received in Soviet colleges.

But in addition to the engineering and medical training they got there, it was obvious that they also got an education in class collaboration that facilitated the neoliberal turn of the ANC. So you get a bundle of contradictions. Soviet aid made it possible for apartheid to be abolished and for Jonah Savimbi’s contras to be defeated in Angola while at the same time it helped to consolidate a state power in South Africa that dispatches mostly Black cops to kill unarmed workers.

In the early 90s, the wing of the left that was most committed to “socialism from below” formulae saw the end of Communism (or Stalinism, if you prefer) to be an unqualified good. Susan Weissman wrote an article for Against the Current titled “The Russian Revolution Revisited” that epitomized this outlook:

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable. Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes. On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force. With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return. Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist? Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism. It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution. It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

I do not agree first of all that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist and find such comparisons invidious whether they come from a Marxist like Weismann or a liberal like Timothy Snyder. The key criterion is mode of production. Nazi Germany operated on the basis of a capitalism that required forced labor and totalitarian rule. In the 1930s the USSR had some of the same features but once WWII came to an end, many of the worst features of Stalinism began to decline and deepen further after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev was committed to eradicating the worst features of the system while maintaining its underlying distortions that were necessary to ensure bureaucratic privileges. Could anybody imagine a softer and kinder Nazism? I can’t.

Gorbachev hoped to go even further. He conceived of a Soviet state that would resemble the Scandinavian system even though he never really came to terms with how it was based on its integration into the world imperialist system as I tried to point out in a series of articles on Sweden.

Even though Perestroika was responsible for the sell-out of the Nicaraguan revolution, I can easily imagine Gorbachev being far more responsive to the just demands of the nationalities Snyder writes about in “Bloodlands”. It was American imperialism that helped to create the economic disaster under Yeltsin that sapped Russia’s morale and led to the rise of Putin. This is not to speak of the encroachments of NATO that despite my identification with the Ukrainian struggle were provocations that enabled Putin to portray himself as a defender of Russian sovereignty.

The problem with the Assadist/Putinite left, of course, is that it can’t see the conflict between the USA and Russia dialectically. Because Ukraine now seeks closer ties to NATO (in the years before Euromaidan all Ukrainian politicians opposed joining NATO), the “anti-imperialist” left justifies Russian troops operating in Luhansk and Donetsk. A more nuanced analysis is required.

Let me conclude with a passage from the conclusion to Tony McKenna’s book that I urge everybody to read:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nation- ally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light. The “white” counterrevolution, aided and abetted by the powers of the capitalist West, was sufficiently strong such that it could drag the Soviet democracy into the mire, that it could drown it in blood – by decimating the proletarian masses who had provided its backbone in the fury and frenzy of civil war; but at the same time the revolutionary movement, the child of the new epoch, still had enough vim and vigour in its organism to kick out and push back its antagonists. Reaction was unable to restore the old regime, but revolution was unable to secure the new one. The Bolshevik Party had remained in power, had survived the civil war, but was now bereft of the living proletarian democracy which had breathed life into it; hence the party structures, bled dry of the social substance which once infused them, immediately began to ossify. A bureaucratic caste began to develop which was in some way able to raise itself up above the competing class interests of the revolutionary proletariat and bourgeois and feudal reaction – interests which had fought each other to a standstill.

This then, was the historical genesis of Stalinism; it was the effects of the counterrevolution channelled through what was left of the beleaguered structures and remnants of proletarian power which then, in a truly necrotic fashion, began to revive and assume new form; the sclerotic, remorseless, murderous aspect of a zombified bureaucracy. I have also hoped to demonstrate, in the course of this book, that Stalin’s political persona cannot be apprehended outside this context.


August 21, 2016

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 10:46 pm

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

Among the motivations given for writing such a book in the preface, McKenna refers to an interview featuring “a cultural commentator of the left.” (I am pretty sure you can guess who this is.) Since an image of Stalin accompanied the interview, McKenna was prompted to consider the implications: “Now, if this same person had been snapped before a picture of Adolph Hitler – Stalin’s contemporary and fellow student of mass murder – there would have been, I suspect, a universal clamour of outrage, and quite rightly so. But the fact that he was posing before a picture of Stalin went rather unremarked upon, at least on the part of the left.”

While reminding young activists, especially those with misplaced USSR nostalgia, about how Stalin’s record violated the fundamental principles of socialism, the overarching need for such a book is to help us understand why class exploitation is deeper now than it has been since the Great Depression. In the movement that developed against the “one percent”, it is useful to understand how the capitalist class got a free hand in pushing the economic program of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to the hilt and that held sway in 2011. When “state socialism” became discredited and so dysfunctional in the 1980s that working people rose up to dismantle it, often under the leadership of former Soviet officials who hoped to impose Milton Friedman’s economics on an unsuspecting nation, there is a need to get to the roots of how this turn of events was possible. As McKenna makes abundantly clear, this was a function of the infant Soviet republic’s weaknesses that were deepened by an imperialist invasion and Stalin’s adroit ability to exploit them to his own bureaucratic advantage. A degenerated bureaucratic system simply lacked the leadership to inspire and guide revolutionary movements in Spain, Germany and elsewhere. It is a depressing tale but one utterly necessary to absorb.

Using that part of his brain that feeds off of his novel-writing ambitions, McKenna hones in on Stalin’s character development. If you are going to write about a villain, you need to render his or her psychological complexity. That is the difference between Melville’s portrait of Captain Ahab and 98 percent of the novels on display in airport bookstores except, of course, for Stephen King.

Joseph Stalin was a product of Georgian peasant culture, a proud and ancient civilization that has been dominated by Russia for centuries both under Czars and the Kremlin, including both under Stalin and under the capitalist “reformers” who have prevailed since 1990. A product of extremely repressive seminaries, Stalin rebelled against his background and searched for any trends in opposition to the stifling status quo. For youths over the past 150 years, this has often led to Marxism.

In Stalin’s case, the materialist strain in Marxism was most welcome since it was the dialectical opposite of the Christian theology being forced down his throat. But without a broader cultural leavening, such materialism can often devolve into a vulgar Marxism in which the entire world is reduced to base economic motives and self-interest. McKenna writes:

In Stalin, then, an intransigent, faithless materialism was first translated into the ideological contours of a Marxism which preserved the flavour of a religious scholasticism albeit one voided of God; such a political education was then crowned by a first-hand masterclass delivered by the authorities on the mechanics of repression. How to exert pressure when required or how to maintain a secretive and implacable demeanour, to cajole and flatter, while seeking to undermine – all in the pursuit of a brutal naked control.

Most of us who have a modicum of familiarity with Stalin’s career know that he was involved with bank robberies to help fund the Bolsheviks. But the facts are that he never participated in the robberies themselves; he only orchestrated them. This was consistent with his tendency to remain in the background where he was more comfortable. When debates were taking place about revolutionary perspectives following the 1905 revolutionary dress rehearsal, Stalin not only became restless but felt alienated from the working class movement itself. It was too disorderly and unpredictable. Stalin always had a preference for order, even if it was to be imposed from above.

The disdain for the mass movement was a hallmark of Stalin’s career in the Bolshevik party. Never a leader of the working class after the fashion of Zinoviev or Kamenev, his preference was managing internal party affairs, a role that would prepare him ideally for the retreat of the mass movement in the aftermath of the Russian civil war.

When he became Commissar of Nationalities in 1918, he took the steps that alienated Ukrainians and that led to the smoldering resistance that both sapped the Soviet Union’s defense as well as thwarting the possibility of a revolutionary Ukraine that would stand shoulder to shoulder with other Soviet republics. Although Lenin’s policy was not without its flaws, they were far better than those of Stalin who remarked dismissively of Ukrainian aspirations: “Enough playing at a government and a republic. It’s time to stop that game; enough is enough.”

Within seven years, the growing strength of the bureaucracy, the failure of socialist revolutions to triumph in Western Europe, and the general exhaustion of the most conscious ranks of the working class created a framework for the triumph of Stalinism and the adoption of “socialism in one country”. In describing this process, McKenna uses an analogy that both describes its inner logic and displays his literary imagination:

In the natural world there are several species of wasp that have happened upon a unique incubation system for their young. The adult insect waits until it finds another creature – a fat, healthy caterpillar, for example – before stinging its target, and secreting its egg inside the caterpillar’s body. The egg, over time, hatches, and the larva begins to develop, gorging itself on the healthy, pliant flesh of its host; effectively consuming the creature from the inside out. First the non- essential organs are nuzzled upon, and then, eventually, the larva works its way through the caterpillar’s fundaments, until what is left is merely the husk of the former creature, barely clinging to life, before the fledgling wasp bursts out through the shell of its body destroying it once and for all. The bureaucratic tendency within the Bolshevik Party was so powerful, was so resilient, for it developed in much this way – incubated in the life forces of the party itself, emerging from the inside out, enfeebling its host, draining it of its resources.

In the conclusion to “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine” there is an analysis that to my knowledge has never been advanced before. While most writing on Stalin and Stalinism are focused on the USSR and its retrograde impact on the world revolutionary movement, McKenna takes a step back and puts into the context of the challenges standing in the way of making a socialist revolution. In essence, the analysis evokes Gramsci’s observation that “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”

In the conclusion McKenna grapples with the disappointment the left experienced when Syriza capitulated to European bankers and when Jeremy Corbyn failed to use his power as Labour Party leader to force his MP’s to vote against the Conservative Party’s motion to take military action against ISIS in Syria. These defaults of leadership prompted him to summarize that “In both cases the decisions that were finally enacted favoured the proclivities of a small elite; the modes and forms of democracy, then, had proved to be profoundly undemocratic.”

Why was the will of the majority thwarted in each case? Why do politicians continuously disregard the wishes of those who elect them? For McKenna, the key to understanding this is within the nature of representative democracy, a form of government that we tend to forget as a legacy of the bourgeois revolutions.

We are, through the very forms and structures of social existence, acculturated into the belief that the essence of democracy – the only possible kind of democracy – consists in voting for a selection of besuited, immaculate wealthy figures whose discussions about our future take place in vast regal buildings fortified by every level of security. Such individuals and groups are elected every four or so years to act as our political guardians, but their lives and their interests seem so remote from our own. And yet, it seems to us this is what democracy truly is.

This was a departure from the original understanding of democracy that existed in Athens under Pericles. Even if there was slavery and many other abuses, there was rule by the people (demos) that prefigured Marx’s largely misunderstood or outright misrepresented dictatorship of the proletariat.

By effectively destroying Soviet democracy, Stalin made it possible for bourgeois democracy to get a new lease on life. Without mentioning Gramsci, McKenna virtually quotes him at the end of this passage that occurs close to the end of his book:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nationally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light.

Of course all this leads to the inevitable question of what is to be done. Familiar with the Trotskyist movement that made rejection of Stalinism the centerpiece of its program, McKenna finds it wanting even though much of his analysis is based on Trotsky’s writings, as well as that of Isaac Deutscher, the most respected defender of his ideas outside the ranks of the Fourth International.

What kind of party do we need? What are the parameters of its program? Who are its allies? What is the kind of global framework that will advance the cause of worldwide revolution, the perspective advanced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that Stalin rejected?

If I may be permitted to offer my own views, I would argue that a new approach to revolutionary struggle must be adopted, one that is much more in sync with that understood by the movement’s founders. While often seen as a second fiddle to Marx, I think that Engels summed up the need perfectly in an 1847 article titled “The Principles of Communism” that was structured as replies to various questions, including “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” Engels’s reply:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.

It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.

While it is unlikely that the final struggle will take place in my lifetime, I am positive that capitalism has entered a critical phase when those nations that Engels refers to as “civilized” will be reaching such a barbaric stage that working people will be forced into collective action spanning borders for the simple reason that the existing social system will have become an existential threat. The constant harping on borders, the rise of fascist-like movements from the USA to Hungary, the growing assaults on the environment, the threat of nuclear war, nihilistic terrorist attacks fed by desperation, and a thousand other threats to humanity and the natural world lead to a call for action. Under such conditions, we must build a movement that is hostile to the “organization men” like Stalin and that attracts the best of the class-conscious working class fighters. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Lenin advocated in “What is to be Done”.

April 26, 2016

Stalin, Stalinism and crypto-Stalinism

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:35 pm

I have just finished plowing through the articles about Stalin in an English-language online journal out of Kosovo titled “Crisis and Critique” that is put out by the Dialectical Materialism Collective. Despite the Stalinist leanings of co-editor Agon Hamza, the articles are “fair and balanced” as they say on FOX news. I want to offer comments on some of the more interesting on both sides of the Stalin debate and then offer my own thoughts on the question posed by the journal’s editors: “Stalin: What does the name stand for?”

Let me start off with the anti-Stalin pieces. First among them is Lars Lih’s “Who is Stalin, What is he?” As most of my regular leaders know, Lih is a Lenin scholar who has made the case that Lenin only sought to build a party in Russia modeled on Kautsky’s party in Germany, something I strongly agree with. Since Lih is an adjunct music professor in Canada, it is not surprising that most of his article is devoted to commentary on compositions by Prokofiev and Shostakovich that are part of the Stalinist canon. Shostakovich’s “Song of the Forest” is actually quite beautiful and can be heard online:

In keeping with his musical background and occasional performance in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, Lih cannot resist comparing Stalin’s view of himself in “The Short Course”, a numbingly stupid self-justification of his policies written in 1938, to the Lord High Chancellor’s aria in “Iolanthe”:

The law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I, my Lords, embody the law.

Paul Le Blanc’s “Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism” is one of the best things I have read by him in quite a long while. It combines personal and political reflections, informed by his experience as a Red diaper baby who evolved first into an SDS’er and then into a Trotskyist.

He believes that it is entirely possible that his first name was a tribute to Paul Robeson and Joseph, his middle name, to Stalin. Like a marital hygiene book kept out of the sight of children, his parents kept a collection of Lenin’s writings on the upper shelf that he surreptitiously studied in the 1960s.

But the most interesting part of the article deals with his encounters with George Brodsky, who was his mother’s uncle and a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade. It would be worthwhile in my view for Le Blanc to expand on this conflicted relationship at some point since it is quite perceptive politically and psychologically:

I was stunned that George saw this massively-documented critique of Stalinism [the Khrushchev revelations] as an assault on all that he was. I insisted this was not true, but in the crescendo of argument I asked: “If we were in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time, and I was making these criticisms of him, would you turn me in?” With fury he asked: “What do you expect me to say to that?” I honestly responded: “I expected you to say no.” He just looked at me, and I realized that for him to say such a thing might have been a lie. This flowed from a political culture that he had embraced and that had shaped him as a political person.

The irony is that George himself, had he for some reason sought refuge in the Soviet Union upon leaving Spain in 1937, would most likely have perished. In the book American Commissar, a veteran of the Lincoln Battalion, ex-Communist Sandor Voros (at the time official historian of the Fifteenth Brigade), had written this description:

. . . Luck finally led me to George Brodsky who had been denounced to me by most of those early arrivals as the worst example of the behavior of Party leaders and commissars in Spain.

When I located him, George Brodsky was being kept in seclusion awaiting repatriation. I found him a broken old man although barely in his thirties. He wouldn’t talk to me at first, he had been pledged to secrecy. When I finally induced him to confide in me, he not only talked, he spilled over.

His account was not quite coherent – he was still unnerved by his experiences, his eyes would dissolve in tears from time to time as he pleaded for my understanding. . . .

Evgeny V. Pavlov’s “Comrade Hegel: Absolute Spirit Goes East” is a brilliant historical survey of debates within Soviet Marxism that eventually trailed off into Stalin’s elevation of “dialectical materialism” into a kind of state religion. It begins with an examination of Plekhanov’s use of the term that was also deployed heavily in Lenin’s polemic against Bogdanov. Both Plekhanov and Lenin considered Hegel to be essential for understanding Marxism.

After the triumph of the Russian Revolution, Marxist academics engaged in a fierce debate over whether dialectical materialism could be applied to the sciences as well as history and society. The leaders of each tendency were students of Plekhanov but differed over the degree to which it could be universalized. Lubov Akselrod represented the “mechanists”, who were for the independence of science while Abram Deborin spoke for the “dialecticians” who considered Engels’s “Dialectics of Nature” as a model for their approach. Supported initially by Stalin, Deborin obviously won the debate in a somewhat bureaucratic fashion. This did not prevent him from eventually being purged by Stalin for his “Menshevizing idealism”. In his boneheaded “Short Course” alluded to above, Stalin came up with his own version of dialectical materialism that lacked the subtlety of either Plekhanov or Lenin. Pavlov writes:

With materialist dialectics as its method and materialism as its ontology, Stalin’s theoretical insertion summarised previous discussions and laid the cornerstone of the future edifice of Soviet Marxism as diamat. Diamat is a metaphysical system, an ontological construct that, as “mechanists” justly accused “dialecticians” of doing, creates a philosophy of everything. As Z. A. Jordon aptly put it in his presentation of Stalin’s philosophical contribution to Marxism:

While Marx tried to show that the laws of social development makes the fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat equally inevitable, Stalin set out to prove that these events are indeed inevitable because the laws of social development are derivable from and determined by the evolutionary laws of the universe. Stalin turned into a philosopher to give the Party a cosmic pat on the back.

Another must-read is Bill Bowring’s “Cromwell, Robespierre, Stalin (and Lenin?): Must Revolution Always Mean Catastrophe?”, a title that in and of itself would invite a closer look. Bowring is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Historical Materialism and a human rights lawyer who has defended people in Russia and Turkey.

Bowring’s article was prompted by a footnote in Hannah Arendt’s “On Totalitarianism”:

Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography. (New York and London, 1949), is indispensable for its rich documentary and great insight into the internal struggles of the Bolshevik party; it suffers from an interpretation which likens Stalin to—Cromwell, Napoleon, and Robespierre.

This leads Bowring to take a close look at Thomas Carlyle, a reactionary defender of Cromwell, and François Furet, an ex-Marxist who was a strong influence on the Political Marxists for his revisionist take on the French Revolution. Furet regarded Robespierre as a totalitarian, just like Lenin.

Bowring came to this conclusion after a close examination of the texts:

What is perfectly clear is that neither Cromwell, nor Robespierre, nor Lenin, could become an icon or avatar for the reactionary and historically outmoded regimes they helped to overthrow. Stalin had none of the personal characteristics of the three leaders examined in this article. He was a revolutionary, and a leader of the Bolshevik Party. But his trajectory was to destroy utterly that which he had helped to create. That is why the present Russian regime seeks to elevate him to the status of the murderous Tsars of Russian history.

Turning to the pro-Stalin contingent, I should begin by mentioning 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 Christianity.

Domenico Lusardo and the journal’s co-editor Agon Hamza wrote articles that were less objectionable than Boer’s but shared the same flaw, namely to make an amalgam between anti-Communism and legitimate critiques of Stalin. For such people, it is out of the question to write worshipful bile in the Boer style so it turns into a flanking technique that leads inevitably to the conclusion that Stalin was an authentic voice of Russian socialism.

I only knew Losurdo by name before reading his article titled “Stalin and Hitler: Twin Brothers or Mortal Enemies?” but his arguments had a familiar ring. He has apparently been writing many books and articles over the years taking exception to Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism that puts Hitler and Stalin on the same plane. For Marxists, the problem with Arendt is that she has no understanding of the class dynamics that led to a bureaucratic tyranny in Russia. Her emphasis is on ideology rather than the material forces such as civil war and economic isolation that fostered the growth of a bureaucratic caste.

In order to prove that Stalin was different than Hitler, he alludes to the Nazi racist extermination of “untermenschen” that supposedly was diametrically opposed to Stalin’s policy:

On the other side, Stalin welcomes and supports the cultural rebirth of the national minorities of Eastern Europe that have been suppressed for so long. Telling are the observations that he made on the X. party congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921: “About fifty years ago all Hungarian towns bore a German character; now they have become Magyarised”; also the “Byelorussians” experience an “awakening.” This is a phenomenon that is supposed to capture the whole of Europe: From the “German city” that it was Riga will not become a “Lettish city”; the cities of the Ukraine will “inevitably be Ukrainianised” and will make the previously dominating Russian element secondary. And constantly Stalin polemicizes against the “assimilators,” be it the “Turkish assimilators,” the “Prussian-German Germanisators” or the “Tsarist-Russian Russificators.

Like Boer, Lusardo is more interested in what Stalin said than what he did. Instead of going by his words, he should examine his deeds—ones that Lenin found so smacking of Great Russian Chauvinism that he resolved to fight him from his sickbed within months of his death.

Agon Hamza cowrote “On the Organisation of Defeats” with Gabriel Tupinambá, a Brazilian academic sharing Hamza’s devotion to Althusser and Zizek who are quoted liberally throughout a rather silly article. The final page of the article ends up making a point that I have heard many times over the years, especially from academics unfamiliar with Soviet history:

…Trotsky wants to present Stalin as a deviation from the initial aims of Bolshevism and from the aims and goals of the October Revolution. But, is that the case? Let us take the case of the brutal collectivization carried out by Stalin from 1928. For Žižek, this was the true act – in the sense that it meant a wager, with no certainty of success:

If we really want to name an act which was truly daring, for which one truly had to “have the balls” to try the impossible, but which was simultaneously a horrible act, an act causing suffering beyond comprehension, it was Stalin’s forced collectivization in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s.

Having the balls, indeed. Further evidence that Zizek is the stupidest man alive speaking in the name of Marxism.

* * * *

I am not sure if Stalinism exists today but a good case can be made that crypto-Stalinism does. I see displays of it every day on the Internet. It has the same logic as the original but is applied to a Kremlin whose symbol is a Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star rather than a hammer-and-sickle.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the CP’s were certainly a lot different than they were in the 1930s. The Khrushchev revelations opened the doors to a more critical way of thinking inside its ranks while the social democratic dynamic that had set in during the Popular Front turn had only become accelerated. If anti-Communists had a relatively easy job raising the bugaboo of a Stalin plotting to take over the world, the image of the doddering Brezhnev hardly inspired fear.

The last blast of hardcore Stalinism took place in the aftermath of the breakup of SDS. A number of sects like Mike Klonsky’s October League and Bob Avakian’s RCP emulated the “Third Period” CP rather than Gus Hall’s party, blending the ultraleftism of the 1920s and early 30s with Maoism, which in a very real sense was the same thing as the “Third Period” up until Nixon visited China.

By the late 80s most of these self-styled bids to breathe new life into Stalinism had collapsed, going into terminal decline just like the Trotskyist SWP. The cause of the collapse was the same, whatever position they took on Stalin. They failed to relate to the American working class on its own terms. The belief that a socialist revolution led by a Leninist party was on the agenda defied not only the objective conditions but Leninist tactics that would have dictated a course of action flowing from the existing class struggle rather than fantasies.

Today old school Stalinism is pretty much kaput. Back in 1996 the Marxism list that preceded Marxmail was invaded by supporters of the Shining Path in Peru who used language that was ripped from the pages of the 1930s Comintern. When the Shining Path collapsed, they faded away.

All this was part of the general retreat of the left that was caused in part by a decline in the mass movement, the dissolution of the USSR as well as our own mistakes. As the class struggle ebbed in places like the USA and Britain, the left began to prioritize anti-imperialist struggles that did not really pose the need for implantation in factories and mines. If socialist revolution seemed off the agenda, then at least we could work to oppose NATO or American intervention in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Nicaragua or Angola.

Inexorably, the decision to oppose imperialist intervention required unremitting opposition to anybody who lined up with Washington or London. I only began to think past these antinomies when I reevaluated the Miskito rebellion against the FSLN. When I was a Nicaragua solidarity activist, I made no distinction between them and the Honduras based contras who were the dregs of Somoza’s army. Using the resources of Columbia University’s library, I discovered that the Atlantic coast conflict in Nicaragua consisted of shades of gray rather than black and white.

As should be obvious from what I wrote about the Miskitos in 2001, my efforts were directed at understanding class relations in Nicaragua rather than through the prism of the Cold War where one tended to take sides based on who the USA supported or opposed:

The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.

These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.

That was written 15 years ago. Nothing has dissuaded me since then that this is the best approach to take. Stalinism was a reductionist politics that arrogated to itself the right to kill Trotsky for having the impudence to criticize Stalin in the bourgeois press. Its bastard offspring crypto-Stalinism would never resort to such measures. Instead it works tirelessly to justify the Kremlin and its allies being able to kill with impunity any group of people unfortunate enough to be praised by Nicholas Kristof or Samantha Power.

In the final analysis, abandoning the rigid dichotomies of crypto-Stalinism is a major task facing the left. Like any other obsession, it is difficult to overcome but overcoming it is essential nonetheless. Just as smoking is a threat to our physical health, crypto-Stalinism is a threat to the health of the left. Let’s resolve to quit it starting today.

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.”

October 13, 2015

Socialist Unity censors me

Filed under: Stalinism — louisproyect @ 12:18 pm

This is a blog in Britain that boosts the reputation of Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Bashar al-Assad and other notables. Its most frequent posters are Andy Newman and John Wight, who has come under scrutiny here. Recently Wight wrote a critique of Richard Seymour and myself on Socialist Unity after which I attempted to reply. Four days and it is still sitting in a moderator’s queue:


Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 8.10.28 AM

I suppose I am fortunate that I am only censored. If these people had state power, I probably would have been tortured or killed by now.

October 7, 2015

Richard Seymour on John Wight

Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:21 pm

(From Facebook)

John Wight

Christopher Hitchens

An unabashed mobilisation of ancient colonial binaries, with Russian imperialism cast as the guardian of secular, modern, liberal civilization against a barbarian ISIS. Its author has stated the upshot of this perspective quite explicitly: “kill them all”. Or, to put it another way, exterminate the brutes.

One is reminded of peak Hitchens, and of the traditions of imperialist apologia that he more or less deliberately evoked. And one is impressed by how deep this goes in parts of the left. Of course, Russian imperialism is not defending secular liberalism; that’s not how imperialism works. And its targets are demonstrably much broader than ISIS. Of course, the Assad dictatorship is much more steeped in blood than ISIS at this point.

The colonial unconscious, even if it has no history, should be placed in historical context. In the aftermath of the Great Indian Rebellion in 1857, in which the British press reported (usually invented and embellished) atrocities on the part of the rebels, the response of British moralists was to blame “native fanatics”. Charles Dickens wrote that he would like to address the rebels with this threat: “it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with abominable atrocities’.”

When the British bombed Egypt in 1882, in response to anti-British riots, Gladstone argued that they at least ensured that “the fanaticism of the East” would not be able to kill Europeans “with impunity”. The same trope of native “fanaticism” was used to justify the war against the Mahdist insurgents in Sudan. And again in Iraq during the British Mandate, when Churchill called for the gassing of “uncivilized tribes”.

One could go on, and on. Of course, ISIS does not stand in some sort of relationship of succession to anticolonial movements. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ is, among other things, a pathology of the imperialist system, its symptom. However, it is simply not as accomplished at killing as the Assad dictatorship, and its imperialist backer. The logic of such displacements, in which ISIS embodies all of the intolerable excesses, the violence, irrationality and dysfunctionality of the Assad regime and the imperialist system into which it is integrated, is not difficult to discern. This simple gesture of moral-splitting and projection, is a constant feature of imperialist ideology. It allows one to side with the most relentless torturers, bombers and military despots. It allows one to call for more murder, and soon, sooner, soonest. It allows one to externalise evil, to say “kill them all”, with full confidence that the other side has a monopoly on barbarism.

Above all, by refusing to acknowledge a genuine Syrian opposition, by denying agency to anyone but ‘head-chopping fanatics’ and the dictatorship and its backers, it denies that there could be any rational, socially grounded reasons to wage a military struggle against the regime. The unconscious fantasy at stake here is that the regime has a matchless, unchallengeable right to rule; and the right to any means in its suppression of opposition.

September 14, 2015

Syrian refugees, Hungary and the “axis of resistance”

Filed under: Hungary,immigration,mechanical anti-imperialism,Soros,Stalinism,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Viktor Orban: member in good standing of the “axis of resistance”

It seems that a week does not go by without some incident in Eastern Europe involving the inhumane treatment of people who have fled Baathist terror in Syria.

For example, in the Czech Republic, cops wrote numbers on the arms of refugees in order to identify them, a chilling reminder of how Nazis tattooed such numbers on the arms of Jews in the death camps.

But it is Hungary that takes the cake apparently.

  • It put a razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia to keep refugees out.
  • It put up billboards (in Hungarian no less) warning anybody who made it through the razor-wire fence that “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!”
  • A TV news photographer kicked and tripped refugees running away from the police. The station she worked for was connected to the far-right Jobbik party that lines up with the “axis of resistance” on Syria, opposing “the systematic attempts of the West to find a casus belli for an armed intervention against the Assad government.”
  • At an internment camp for refugees in Hungary, cops threw bags of food to them as if they were hungry animals.

Since the refugees are only interested in making their way to Germany or Britain, the xenophobia is likely a strategy to mollify Hungary’s burgeoning ultraright groups like Jobbik and their voters. Key to success is the ability of President Viktor Orban to exploit simmering discontent over dire economic conditions. In fact this is exactly how German fascism succeeded. When economic disaster ruined Eastern European Jewry, the largely working class and impoverished small proprietors fled to Germany. Hitler then blamed “the Jews” for taking away German jobs.

It must be noted that Viktor Orban has recently joined the “axis of resistance” after the fashion of Jobbik. All across Europe ultraright parties with zero exceptions have showed solidarity with the Kremlin in its ostensibly “anti-imperialist” struggle against NATO, the EU, and Washington. This Red-Brown alliance is a revival of the National Bolshevist tendency of the early 1920s when a faction of the German CP advocated a united front with the incipient fascist movement.

Orban is now Putin’s closest European ally. While the bonds involve mutual economic interests, including Hungarian access to Russian natural gas at bargain prices and a willingness to back Putin’s pipeline project that would bypass Ukraine, there are also ideological affinities. He has nationalist pretensions casting himself as an enemy of neoliberalism. He has also followed Putin in cracking down on NGO’s and pressuring Hungarian media to follow his strong man rule.

For a fascinating account of Orban’s political evolution, I would recommend the Intercept article by Adam LeBor titled “How Hungary’s Prime Minister Turned From Young Liberal Into Refugee-Bashing Autocrat”. It seems that early on he was not kindly disposed to Russian domination, speaking at a Budapest rally in 1989 commemorating the death of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 revolution. In his speech he demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.

You don’t have to understand Hungarian to know that he was lambasting “Communist dictatorship”. Understanding which side of the bread was buttered, Orban hooked up with George Soros just before this speech was made. LeBor reports;

Orban was born in May 1963 in Alcsutdoboz, a small village 31 miles from Budapest. After graduating from high school he moved to Budapest to study law at Eötvös Loránd University. There he co-founded Századvég, a dissident social science journal.

He graduated in 1987 and joined the Central-Eastern Europe Study Group, which was funded by George Soros, the financier who had emigrated from Hungary after World War II. The following year Orban became a founding member of the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in Hungarian as Fidesz. The outspoken radicals quickly became the darlings of the Western media. They were young, smart and scruffily photogenic – Tamas Deutsch, another founding member of Fidesz, was a model for Levi’s jeans. Fidesz in its early years was a broad coalition, from near anarchists to nationalists. They all had one aim: to get rid of the Communists. Once that was achieved, like all revolutionary groups, the party began to fracture.

Having been born and raised in Hungary, Soros took a particular interest in his native land. He spent millions on cultivating a following among ambitious young politicians like Orban, paying for airfare and hotel costs in the USA where they were afforded red carpet treatment at Soros’s Open Society conferences. Soros was also shrewd enough to pay for photocopying machines that anti-Communist activists found crucial in their attempts in the late 80s to create a liberal pole of attraction against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Michael Lewis, by no means a critic of neoliberalism, traced Soros’s steps in a 1994 Guardian article:

IN 1984 Soros opened his first office, in Budapest, and began all manner of subversive activities for which he is temperamentally very well-equipped. “I started by trying to create small cracks in the monolithic structure which goes under the name of communism, in the belief that in a rigid structure even a small crack can have a devastating effect,” he wrote in Opening The Soviet System. “As the cracks grew, so did my efforts until they came to take up most of my time.”

Says Liz Lorant, who worked with Soros from the start: “It was the excitement of what we got away with [that is irreplaceable]. We got away with murder. [For example] at that time Xerox machines were under lock and key. That was the way it was. In Romania you had to register a typewriter with the police. Well, we just flooded the whole damn country with Xerox machines so that the rules became meaningless.” In short, by the time the dust settled over the Berlin Wall – boom! bust! – Soros had accumulated a highly-charged portfolio of gratitude. The Great White Gods of Eastern Europe – Havel, Michnik, Kis, Haraszti – were all in his debt. So were all sorts of lesser-known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office.

For most people on the “anti-imperialist” left, Soros is a kind of archenemy symbolizing globalization, neoliberalism and all the rest. He is also a convenient symbol of liberal ignominy for the far right as the supposed puppet master behind Obama and the secret plans to transform the USA into a European-styled socialist state. Of course that is the paradox of George Soros. Like Fay Dunaway telling Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” that a woman was both her daughter and her sister, Soros is both a neoliberal shark and someone favoring European style socialism, which is in reality nothing but a welfare state and incapable of being realized today.

With Soros’s record of intervening in Hungarian politics through his well-funded NGO’s, it is easy to understand why Orban would have a free hand in cracking down on them. Many Hungarians must have gathered that Karl Popper’s philosophy probably had more to do with a fast buck then it did with promoting civil society and equal opportunity.

Five years ago Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal bank stock transactions in Hungary (a mere slap on the wrist.) It was his exploitation of short sales and other shenanigans from 2007 to 2010 that prompted the billionaire and major donor to my alma mater to confess that he was having “a very good crisis”, referring to the stock market crash that is still impacting countries like Hungary.

Like Greece, Hungary had huge debts when the crisis broke and like Greece has been scrambling to nurse the country back to health—a dubious prospect given the world economic situation. In late 2008 Hungary pleaded with the International Monetary Fund for $25 billion in emergency financing. In 2010 unemployment reached 11.4 percent while the economy shrank by 6.3 percent. It was such suffering that convinced voters to back Orban’s party that promised to wave a magic wand and make things right.

For those who think that a Grexit would solve Greece’s problems, it is worth mentioning that Hungary’s failure to be part of the Eurozone was no silver bullet as the NY Times reported in 2012:

Zoltan Zsoter, an 80-year-old retiree, would seem to be about as far from the world of currency speculation as a person can get. Yet he is an example of how the workings of the global financial system, amplified by the policies of a single political leader, can have a devastating effect on ordinary people.

Mr. Zsoter is one of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who took out home loans that must be repaid in Swiss francs or other foreign currencies like the euro. Such loans offered seductively low interest rates when times were good. But then the Hungarian currency plunged, causing Mr. Zsoter’s monthly payment to almost double.

“I live day to day,” Mr. Zsoter said. After defaulting on his loan, he pays 40,000 forints, or about $163, out of his monthly pension of 51,000 forints to stay in his modest Budapest apartment as a renter. “Sometimes I have to choose between buying either food or medicine,” he said.

Hungary serves as a cautionary tale for those who argue that Greece could regain competitiveness by reintroducing its currency. The drachma would plunge against the euro, the theory goes, and allow Greek products to compete on price with countries like Turkey.

So if Viktor Orban is facing intractable economic problems, why not scapegoat Syrian refugees or the Roma who have been the target of persecution for a number of years now? And meanwhile, the left that admires Putin would have all the reasons to back Orban who after all is sticking it to the EU.

According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, our species homo sapiens has a tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions like life and death or good and evil. This would likely explain the eagerness for so much of the left to divide the world between those forces aligned with the West and those with the East. Like a plot out of a Tolkien novel, the Evil West is always seeking ways to destroy the Good East. Instead of elves with bows and arrow, we have people like Pablo Escobar, Mike Whitney and Eric Draitser rallying around the “axis of resistance” to the fire-breathing dragons of the West. And god help any decent folk in the East who managed to get on the wrong side of an elite in their neck of the woods. Everybody had to understand that it was their half of the world, love it or leave it.

Ironically, Hungary was a symbol of this binary opposition way of thinking in 1956 when the population rose up over Russian domination. In the same way that sections of the left make all sorts of excuses for Assad today, the CP justified the invasion of Hungary in order to “defend socialism”.

But in fact it was Russian tanks that created the animosity in Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary that made it possible for George Soros, NATO, the CIA and the US State Department to get a foothold. By reinforcing bureaucratic rule in the name of “socialism”, ordinary people began to think positively of its opposite. In the most extreme example, Ukrainians regarded Stephen Bandera as a hero for opposing Soviet domination even if he was a fascist.

The bottom line is that the encroachment of NATO at the doorstep of Russia is a direct outcome of the encroachment of the Red Army on nations throughout Eastern Europe.

There was one Communist who was able to see through the lies. The Daily Worker, the British CP newspaper with the same name as the American paper, sent Peter Fryer to Hungary in 1956 fully expecting him to write articles that echoed the party line that Russia needed to quell a CIA-inspired plot. In other words, he was expected to write the same kind of crap that Max Ajl, Patrick Higgins and Adam Johnson are writing about Syria today. But Fryer obeyed his conscience rather than party bosses and filed reports that any radical journalist would be proud of. You can read Peter Fryer’s “Hungarian Tragedy” here. This excerpt shows that it doesn’t take much effort to see the similarities between Hungary in 1956 and the Arab Spring in Syria in 2011, no matter how it has been slandered in places like Jacobin, WSWS.org, MRZine and elsewhere:

But the crowds spoke also to me of their lives in this small industrial town, of the long years of grinding poverty, without hope of improvement, of their hatred and fear of the AVH [Hungarian secret police]. ‘I get 700 forints a month,’ said one. ‘I only get 600.’ said another. [1] They were ill-dressed, the women and girls doing their pathetic best to achieve some faint echo of elegance. They spoke to me about the AVH men. ‘They were beasts, brutes, animals who had sold themselves to the Russians.’ ‘They called themselves Hungarians and they mowed our people down without hesitation!’ ‘We shan’t leave a single one of those swine alive – you’ll see.’ They asked me what the West was doing to help, and some asked outright for arms. I for one do not regard these as counterrevolutionaries. If after eleven years the working people, goaded beyond bearing, look to the West for succour, whose fault is that? If the Americans are guilty of seeking to foster counter-revolution with the Mutual Security Act, surely the Rákosis and the Gerös are a hundred times more guilty for providing the soil in which seeds sown by the Americans could grow.

There was a general movement in the direction of the hospital, where an immense crowd had gathered, clamouring more and more insistently with every minute that passed for Stefko to be brought out to them. The German journalist and I were admitted into the hospital, where we met the director’s wife and a French-speaking woman who had volunteered to help with the nursing. It was here that I got for the first time reasonably accurate figures of the number of wounded. There had been about 80 wounded brought here, of whom eleven had died, and about 80 had been taken to the hospital at Györ. The need for plasma and other medicaments was desperate if lives were to be saved and so was the need, said the director’s wife, to end the tumult outside. A deputation from the revolutionary committee was interviewing her husband to demand that Stefko be handed to the people.

A few minutes later the director was forced to give in, and we saw a stretcher carried by four men appear out of a hut in the hospital grounds. On it lay Stefko, wearing a blue shirt. His legs were covered by a blanket. His head was bandaged. He was carried close enough to me for me to have touched him. He was fully conscious, and he knew quite well what was going to happen to him. His head turned wildly from side to side and there was spittle round his mouth. As the crowd saw the stretcher approaching they sent up a howl of derision and anger and hatred. They climbed the wire fence and spat at him and shouted ‘murderer’. They pushed with all their might at the double gates, burst them open and surged in. The stretcher was flung to the ground, and the crowd was upon Stefko, kicking and trampling. Relations of those he had murdered were, they told me, foremost in this lynching. It was soon over. They took the body and hanged it by the ankles for a short time from one of the trees in the Lenin Street. Ten minutes afterwards only a few people were left outside the hospital.

I wrote later in my first, unpublished, dispatch:

After eleven years the incessant mistakes of the Communist leaders, the brutality of the State Security Police, the widespread bureaucracy and mismanagement, the bungling, the arbitrary methods and the lies have led to total collapse. This was no counter-revolution, organised by fascists and reactionaries. It was the upsurge of a whole people, in which rank-and-file Communists took part, against a police dictatorship dressed up as a Socialist society – a police dictatorship backed up by Soviet armed might.

I am the first Communist journalist from abroad to visit Hungary since the revolution started. And I have no hesitation in placing the blame for these terrible events squarely on the shoulders of those who led the Hungarian Communist Party for eleven years – up to and including Ernö Gerö They turned what could have been the outstanding example of people’s democracy in Europe into a grisly caricature of Socialism. They reared and trained a secret police which tortured all – Communists as well as nonCommunists – who dared to open their mouths against injustices. It was a secret police which in these last few dreadful days turned its guns on the people whose defenders it was supposed to be.

I wrote this under the immediate impact of a most disturbing and shattering experience, but I do not withdraw one word of it. Much of the rest of the dispatch was never received in London because the call was cut off after twenty minutes, and the first ten had been taken up by three different people giving me contradictory instructions as to the ‘line’ I should take. Mick Bennett insisted on reading me a long extract from a resolution of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. I had had enough of resolutions. I had seen where eleven years of terror and stupidity had led Hungary, and I wanted to tell the readers of the Daily Worker the plain unvarnished truth, however painful it might be. But the readers of the Daily Worker were not to be told the truth. The day after I had sent this dispatch they were reading only about ‘gangs of reactionaries’ who were ‘beating Communists to death in the streets’ of Budapest. The paper admitted in passing that ‘some reports claimed that only identified representatives of the former security police were being killed’. Next day Hungary disappeared altogether from the Daily Worker’s front page.

August 5, 2015


Filed under: Italy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 1:11 am

Palmiro Togliatti

Jacobin has an article by Stathis Kouvelakis drawing a balance sheet on the recent Greek events. I plan to be writing something on Greece before too long but will limit myself to something Kouvelakis wrote incidental to Greece that I found quite troubling:

The transitional program is also organically linked — this is something we learn from the inheritance of the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International and the subsequent elaboration by Gramsci and Togliatti [link] — to the goal of the united front, the rallying of all the forces of the block of the subordinated classes at a higher political and strategic level. It was this unifying approach implicit in the idea of a “government of the anti-austerity left” that fired the imagination of broad masses in spring 2012, enabling Syriza’s rise.

Togliatti? Transitional program? WTF?

The link in the quote above directs you to another Jacobin article about Togliatti written by Peter D. Thomas who apparently thinks that Perry Anderson was a bit off on Western Marxism, especially by including Gramsci. I don’t think that Anderson was off at all by claiming that the Gramsci industry in academia represents a detour into cultural studies but let’s leave that aside for the time being.

What I don’t get is Thomas and Kouvelakis’s enthusiasm for Togliatti, especially the latter’s linking him to transitional demands unless he is talking about something totally unrelated to Trotsky’s writings.

Meanwhile here’s Thomas on Togliatti:

I also think that Marxist theory in this period needs to be understood integrally and politically, that is, not simply in terms of theoretical productions (essays, books, etc.), but also in terms of the political impact of theoretical work. In that sense, the greatest Western Marxist theorist of the postwar period is not Sartre or Althusser or Colletti or any of the other figures discussed at length by Anderson, but instead, Palmiro Togliatti.

In addition to his own theoretical writings — of much greater value than is often supposed today — Togliatti was also a theoretician of politics engaged in creating a hegemonic apparatus that encouraged a profound and real dialectic and real critique of the politics of his period.

Whatever disagreements I might have with his substantive theoretical and political positions — and there are many — this should not preclude acknowledgment of his real importance as a theorist and politician with a real, mass impact on the politics of his time. The theoretical and political culture that Togliatti helped to shape in the Italian Communist Party, and in Italy more generally as this massive party’s sphere of influence radiated across the entire spectrum of the Left, was the example to which other leftists in Europe and around the world looked for inspiration.

All I can say is that if you are interested in the role of the CP in Italian politics, you are better off reading Paul Ginsborg’s “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” than this balderdash because after all you have to judge socialists on their deeds much more than their “theory”.

Paul Ginsborg:

In another area, the party’s attitude to the Soviet Union, mystification prevailed. In the 1950s the P C I was characterized by its Stalinism. At the most straightforward level this meant a slavish adulation of ‘Baffone’ himself. In Rinascita of 1948, reviewing Stalin’s work on the national question (of all things), Lucio Lombardo Radice had this to say: ‘Creative Marxist that he is, Stalin is not only a scholar of genius who analyses political and historical problems in the light of Marxist principles; he is certainly this, but he is above all the great revolutionary, the great builder who analyses relations in order to transform them, who studies problems in order to resolve them.'” On the occasion of Stalin’s seventieth birthday Togliatti wrote: ‘The role that Stalin has played in the development of human thought is such that he has earned himself a place which until now very few have occupied in the history of humanity.’

When the news reached Italy of Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Communist Party went into mourning. L’Unita’s headline of 6 March read: ‘The man who has done most for the liberation of the human race is dead’ The party’s grief extended to its lowest levels. Natoli has described how in the party sections of the poorest Roman borgate photographs of Stalin were surrounded by flowers and candles and local militants sat around as if commemorating a saint.42

As well as elevating Stalin into a father-figure of superhuman proportions, the party portrayed the Soviet Union as a society where the problems of democracy and social justice had been definitively resolved. In L’ Unitet of 2 February 1952 Mario Alicata wrote from Russia that ‘this is the first country in the history of the world in which all men are finally free’.43 As late as March 1956 we find Luigi Longo insisting that unemployment had been completely abolished in all the socialist countries, that wages and living conditions were constantly improving and that the ordinary working day was being reduced to seven or even six hours.'”

However, the most insidious elements of Stalinism were not the aberrant judgements on Stalin himself or the Soviet Union, but the attitudes that permeated the life and activity of the party at home. The tradition of uncritical adulation of leaders was only too easily transferred to Italy, where Togliatti seemed happy to allow absurd tributes to be paid to him by lesser comrades and exaggerated stories of his role in the early history of the P C I to be published in the party press.45 The habit developed, and even the finest brains in the P C I like Amendola and Ingrao indulged in it, of citing the writings of the historic leaders of the party, Gramsci and Togliatti, as if they were biblical texts to serve as sermons of the day.

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm


One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

March 9, 2015

Monthly Review’s split personality

Filed under: Greece,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:57 am

Monthly Review is one of the most important institutions of the left in the USA dating back to 1949 when two veterans of the Henry Wallace campaign decided that a new magazine was needed. One was Paul Sweezy, who I had the good fortune to meet over “brown bag luncheons” at MR’s offices about 20 years ago; the other was F.O. Matthiessen, the Harvard literary critic.

For a number of years I considered myself quite close to the magazine and its book-publishing wing, writing numerous articles hailing the ecosocialist analysis of John Bellamy Foster who assumed the directorship of MR after Harry Magdoff’s death.

All that came to an end when MR launched a online publication called MRZine and gave the job of editor to Yoshie Furuhashi, a one-time subscriber to Marxmail, PEN-L, and LBO-Talk, arguably the three most well-known mailing lists of the left. At one point or another she unsubbed from the three lists after deciding that the hostility toward her idol Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unbearable. Furuhashi, who was a relative newcomer to the left with a scanty publication record either in scholarly or popular journals, had come to the bizarre conclusion that Iran was “more socialist” than Venezuela. Her reviews were so at odds with both Marxism and common sense that a group of Iranian Marxists wrote an open letter blasting MRZine for publishing apologetics for Ahmadinejad’s dictatorship in 2006. Three years later Barbara Epstein resigned in protest from MR’s editorial board over the same issues.

I blame John Mage for imposing Furuhashi on the left. Mage, whose publication record is as meager as hers, is on the MR editorial board mostly tied to his custodianship of the MR foundation. Before his retirement he was an attorney representing the USSR in the USA and a member of the Lawyer’s Guild. As far as I know he fully supports Furuhashi’s mad ideological agenda. One imagines that Foster probably does not, although he obviously defers to Mage on personnel questions. Considering the fact that MR fired Ellen Meiksins Wood after a brief tenure running the book department and has allowed Furuhashi’s grotesque politics to be disseminated for over a decade, there is obviously poor judgment over these matters.

As opposed to Foster, Mage and Furuhashi, Michael Yates, who runs the book-publishing department, is a paragon of Marxist principle. It is reassuring that many people on the left who have grown disgusted with MRZine are smart enough to figure out that his sure hand keeps the publishing wing moored to the planet earth.

Lately MRZine has gone full-tilt-boogie on behalf of the KKE, the sectarian Stalinist party in Greece that refused to support Syriza after the fashion of the German CP’s disastrous “third period” policy in the 1920s, when it failed to make a distinction between social democracy and Nazism.

On almost a daily basis you can find tweets on MRZine linked to toxic attacks on Syriza, concentrated most frequently on finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Apparently Varoufakis passed muster with Furuhashi before he became part of the Greek government since she had published three of his articles, the latest appearing in 2012. But since Syriza took office, there has been nothing but vitriol.

The book department apparently has a different take on the finance minister based on this press release:

On January 25, 2015, the left-wing party, SYRIZA, won a stunning victory in Greece’s national elections. The new government, which says it intends to end the debilitating austerity measures forced upon Greece by the European Union, announced that the new Finance Minister is Yanis Varoufakis, a noted economist and good friend of Monthly Review (and MR author). We wish him well and trust that, unlike most economists, he will put his superb skills to work on behalf of the long-suffering Greek people and, indeed, all those oppressed by the policies imposed by the ruling classes of the European Union and United States.

MRZine’s ongoing campaign against Syriza mostly takes the form of tweets that reflect the POV of the KKE. Today you can find one linked to the blog In Defense of Greek Workers that makes an amalgam between Syriza and Golden Dawn. The blog is a bit of an oddity since it is written in English even though it is almost exclusively about Greek issues and obviously written by a Greek. The best way to describe it is as a scandal sheet aimed at Syriza. One can conclude that the bloggers behind it are very close to the MRZine’s addled sensibility since they were furious over Syriza’s support for the Syrian uprising against the Baathist goons. Frankly I was pleasantly surprised that despite Syriza’s tendency to support the Kremlin on Ukraine, it had the good sense to refer to the “barbaric regime” in Damascus. Good for Syriza, I’d say.

Let’s take a look at the case against Syriza on the Golden Dawn question. To start with, the In Defense of Greek Workers article includes a formulation that reeks of the German CP’s “third period”:

There is also the directly related question of whether SYRIZA and Golden Dawn really represent a clear, mutually exclusive choice. Is political reality in Greece interpretable in terms of the dilemma “SYRIZA or Golden Dawn” or is it rather that there is no dilemma, that the real formula for how capitalist power exercises itself at present in the country is in fact “SYRIZA and Golden Dawn”?

This is really quite something, not being able to distinguish between Syriza and Golden Dawn.

The main charge specifically is that Syriza has stood up for the right of Golden Dawn to function as a political party, including the right of its elected officials to serve in parliament. Before Syriza took power, the New Democracy had been cracking down on Golden Dawn—something Syriza objected to. The KKE-oriented blog complained:

On May 8 2014, SYRIZA MP Nikos Voutsis, speaking in an interview with the Real-fm radio station, returned to the issue of the imprisonment of Golden Dawn MPs and stated that the evidence the Greek state had collected against them was laughably inadequate and “had no chance” in court.

For a more sensible analysis of Syriza’s stand on such matters, I refer you to David Renton’s “lives; running” blog, where his latest article delves mostly into the bloc Syriza made with ANEL but includes some commentary on the Golden Dawn stance that is markedly more balanced than the one cited by MRZine:

Critics of Syriza to its left have taken umbrage at Syriza’s suggestion that elected Golden Dawn MPs should be released from custody to attend votes in Parliament suggesting that Syriza is extending too much deference to the right, and warning that Syriza may be cooling as to the prosecution itself. At this distance, it is impossible to know whether they are right about the prosecution itself (which is necessarily in the hands of the judiciary rather than the politicians) or these are the exaggerated fears of people who have committed themselves in advance to the narrative that Syriza will betray its supporters. But Syriza’s friends should be watching closely and urging the government to take no steps which help the fascists.

Needless to say, this is an attempt to understand Syriza rather than to sling mud at it. Syriza is in a very difficult position in Greece and trying to navigate a path forward against much more powerful forces–no easy matter as Renton reminds us:

Some of the Bolsheviks’ compromises went deep. As Isaac Babel pointed out, long ago in Red Cavalry (and as Brendan McGeever has shown again in research which, when it makes it into print, should be compulsory reading for anyone nostalgic for a time which never existed), these compromises included in 1918-1919 leaving local Soviet power in many areas in the hands of people who were murderously anti-Semitic. This approach proved temporary because the Civil War finished and there was then a struggle within the fragile Soviet regime to purge itself of these elements.

So, a compromise with conservatives or racists is always unwanted and undesirable (means and ends always interconnect), but may be necessary as a temporary device provided as a minimum that it is the right making the principal compromises and the direction of travel is towards liberation.

I can’t recommend Renton’s blog highly enough. This socialist scholar first came to my attention more than a decade ago when I learned that he shared my admiration for Harry Braverman, the co-leader of the Socialist Union with Bert Cochran. Braverman eventually ended up at Monthly Review after the “Cochranites” dissolved their organization in 1959. In an article titled “Against Management: Harry Braverman’s Marxism”, Renton writes:

If the American Socialist Workers’ Party was unable to understand the tensions within the Communist Party, then this was the sign of its sectarianism, which prevented the Trotskyists from becoming a real force on the US left. After the 1953 split, Braverman left the SWP and joined Cochran’s group, the Socialist Union. He worked on their paper, first titled the Educator and later the American Socialist for five years, until the paper was closed down. Later, he allied himself with the magazine, Monthly Review, whose contributors were drawn from a milieu of Maoists and former fellow-travellers of the American CP. It was also at this time that Braverman dropped the pseudonym, Frankel. Braverman remained a supporter of the Monthly Review until his death in 1976, holding to the gut class feeling, but also the political black spots of the orthodox Trotskyist legacy which had helped to shaped him.

When MRZine was first launched, the best hope was that it would have been an outlet for people like David Renton, a serious thinker who was capable of seeing political questions in their full dialectical complexity. It is really most unfortunate that it has become the playpen of Yoshie Furuhashi who like so many sectarians is not only uncomfortable with complexity but is susceptible to the kind of cartoonish reductionism that has tainted Stalinism since its birth in the 1920s.


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