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.