Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2016

Ben Norton completes his Stalinist turn

Filed under: conservatism,Fascism,Spain,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Ben Norton

When someone posted a link to Ben Norton’s attack on George Orwell, my first reaction was to shrug it off. Ever since the lad got fired from Salon for what some speculate as violating their rules against writing for other publications, he has lost his bully pulpit for spreading Assadist lies. (Who really knows if he was canned for writing an article for Intercept? I doubt it was incompetence since Salon’s bar is set rather low in that regard.) Although I have my own problems with Orwell, I was more interested in Norton’s rather crude and reactionary take on Trotskyism that amounts to a defense of Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution. It has been quite some time since I have had to bother with writing about the Spanish Civil War. To kill two birds with one stone, I hope to demonstrate how Norton has capitulated to Stalinism as well as to make some points about how Franco achieved his victory. Considering the fact that Bashar al-Assad is today’s Generalissimo Franco, it is not surprising that Norton can get Spain so wrong.

Norton writes:

Apologists insist Orwell simply “sold out” later in life and became a cranky conservative, yet the story is more complex. Orwell had a consistent political thread throughout his life. This explains how he could go from fighting alongside a Spanish Trostkyist militia in a multi-tendency war against fascism to demonizing the Soviet Union as The Real Enemy — before returning home to imperial Britain, where he became a social democratic traitor who castigated capitalism while collaborating with the capitalist state against revolutionaries trying to create socialism.

If you take the trouble to clink the link for “a social democratic traitor”, you’ll discover an article written by Norton in 2014 that has not a word about betrayal. In fact, it is the sort of Dr. Jekyll politics he adhered to as a member of the ISO until he turned into Mr. Hyde at Salon. The article, titled “George Orwell, the Socialist” makes useful points, among them:

Schools prefer propagating binary ideological thinking: “Orwell was opposed to Soviet ‘totalitarianism,’ therefore he was not a ‘socialist,’ therefore he was a capitalist, therefore he supported the capitalist West,” the unspoken logic habitually goes. Orwell’s opposition to capitalism is almost never presented, nor is his advocacy of (democratic) socialism.

It is not only schools that prefer propagating binary ideological thinking. It is also the neo-Stalinist left that has rallied around Bashar al-Assad, including Norton, Max Blumenthal, Rania Khalek, Yoshie Furuhashi, the Socialist Action sect, John Rees et al. By reducing the war in Syria to a geopolitical chess game in which the USA is responsible for everything that has gone wrong, they let Putin and Assad off the hook.

Most of Norton’s article refers to “Animal Farm”, a work that was widely viewed as Cold War propaganda but that was primarily about the Stalinist counter-revolution seen in metaphorical terms. There are some on the left who view it this way, including John Newsinger who defended Orwell’s politics in a 1994 book. Norton characterizes the Orwell who wrote a “snitch” letter to British censors as “the first in a long line of Trots-turned-neocons”, including Christopher Hitchens, yet there is little evidence that either Orwell or even Hitchens had much in common ideologically with men like Paul Wolfowitz or Robert Kagan who were ferociously neoliberal.

For the most part, it was ex-Communists rather than ex-Trotskyists who helped to shape Cold War ideology, such as the six men whose “confessions” can be found in “The God that Failed”: Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright. By comparison, Orwell never wrote anything like this in his later years unless you believe that “1984” and “Animal Farm” were ringing endorsements of Washington and London. In “1984”, the world was divided into hostile camps with London just as culpable of totalitarian control as Moscow. With respect to “Animal Farm”, let’s not forget that the farmers invaded their former realm in exactly the same manner as the 21 invading armies sought to destroy Soviet power.

I have my own problems with Orwell, especially his snitching, but he has much to offer the left. Just read “Homage to Catalonia”, a work far more useful than the Daily Worker articles from 1936 that Norton is channeling. I can say the same thing about Alexander Cockburn, who Norton cites in his article as an authority on this tarnished hero of “the non-Communist left”. I have learned a lot from Cockburn just I have learned a lot from Orwell. I can forgive Orwell for his snitching just as I can forgive Cockburn for allowing CounterPunch to turn into a haven for Islamophobes like Mike Whitney, Andre Vltchek and Pepe Escobar.

As for Hitchens, despite Cockburn’s deep animus for him, the two had something in common with each other when it came to “jihadists”. The difference between them on Iraq in 2003 and Syria after 2011 is paper-thin, after all. Both of these journalists were all too ready to back outside intervention when it came to defeating “al Qaeda” even if it was being administered by a MIG rather than an F-16. In 1980, Cockburn wrote a Village Voice column that stated: “I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets. and unspeakably cruel too.”

Nobody’s perfect, not even Ben Norton whose musings on Syria—and worse his ghoulish tweets—are informed by the same Orientalism as Cockburn’s Voice article. I can say this, however. If Norton lived for a thousand years, he never would be capable of writing a single sentence that would rank with Orwell or Cockburn.

There are three paragraphs in Norton’s article that really stick out like a sore thumb, combining his more recent turn toward the Assad/Putin/Iran reactionary bloc with more traditional Stalinist ideology:

Sure, the USSR did a lot of objectionable things, but it was also the only large country in the entire world that supported the Spanish Republicans in their fight against fascism (excluding a bit of extra support from Mexico). The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

Orwell’s politics are social chauvinist in the rawest sense. It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

Let’s start with the rather stupid observation: “The Soviet Union understood that one cannot have a revolution if one cannot even defeat the fascist counterrevolution first — a lesson many on the left still have not learned today.”

I have no idea whether Norton understood what happened in Spain when he was a properly educated ISO member and now rejects it or simply was too intellectually challenged to ever understand the material available to him from state capitalist sources. Or maybe he was just too shallow to ever bother reading something like Tony Cliff’s “Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star”.

As it happens, Norton’s business about defeating the fascist counterrevolution before making the revolution is virtually word for word the same as Spanish Popular Front Prime Minister Largo Caballero’s “First we must win the war and afterwards we can talk of revolution.”

Largo Caballero, who was supported by both the Communists and anarchists, sought to restore bourgeois normalcy in Spain as the first step in defeating Franco. This meant first and foremost eradicating all forms of “dual power” in Spain that were substantial.

Workers and peasant committees had to give way to the rule of the central government as Cliff reports:

IN THE WEEKS after 19 July 1936 struggle continued between proletarian power – in the form of factory and militia committees on the one hand, and the Republican government on the other. The latter won.

One further step to consolidating the power of the bourgeois state was taken on 27 October – a decree disarming the workers.

Steps were also taken to restore the bourgeois police.

In the first months after July 19, police duties were almost entirely in the hands of the workers’ patrols in Catalonia and the ‘militias of the rearguard’ in Madrid and Valencia … The most extraordinary step in reviving the bourgeois police was the mushroom growth of the hitherto small customs force, the Carabineros, under Finance Minister Negrín, into a heavily armed pretorian guard of 40,000.

On 28 February [1937] the Carabineros were forbidden to belong to a political party or a trade union or to attend their mass meetings. The same decree was extended to the Civil and Assault Guards thereafter. That meant quarantining the police against the working class …

By April the militias were finally pushed out of all police duties in Madrid and Valencia.

A comparison Franz Borkenau made of an impression of life in Spain between a first visit in August 1936 and a second in January-February 1937 is very instructive:

The troops were entirely different from the militia I had known in August. There was a clear distinction between officers and men, the former wearing better uniforms and stripes. The pre-revolutionary police force, asaltos and Guardia Civil (now ‘Guardia Nacional Republicana’), were very much in evidence … neither guardia nor asaltos made the least attempt to appear proletarian.

A further vivid description of life in Barcelona at the end of April 1937 comes from the pen of George Orwell:

Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, there were recurrent shortages of this and that, which, of course, always hit the poor rather than the rich. The restaurants and hotels seemed to have little difficulty in getting whatever they wanted, but in the working-class quarters the queues for bread, olive oil, and other necessaries were hundreds of yards long. Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of bare-footed children were always waiting to swarm round anyone who came out and clamour for scraps of food. The ‘revolutionary’ forms of speech were dropping out of use. Strangers seldom addressed you as  and camarada nowadays; it was usually señor and UstedBuenos días was beginning to replace salud. The waiters were back in their boiled shirts and the shop workers were cringing in their familiar manner … In a furtive indirect way the practice of tipping was coming back … cabaret shows and high-class brothels, many of which had been closed by the workers’ patrols, had promptly reopened.

I strongly recommend reading Cliff’s entire chapter on Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution to get the whole story on how Franco achieved victory over a self-destructive Spanish Republic leadership as well as reviewing the Marxism Internet Archive’s very fine resource page  on the Spanish Civil War that include articles by Leon Trotsky and Felix Morrow whose “Revolution and Counterrevolution in Spain” can be read in its entirety there as well.

I am struck by Orwell’s description of how things were returning to normal. “The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages.”

Isn’t this exactly how some reporters describe life in Damascus except for those like Vanessa Beeley or Eva Bartlett for whom the working-class does not exist? As outright supporters of Syria’s Franco, this is understandable but what is more difficult to understand is how people like Norton, who at least demonstrates an affinity for the Popular Front’s desire for bourgeois democratic normalcy, would end up as a kind of fascist apologist.

What accounts for someone educated in Marxist politics (speaking charitably) such as Norton ending up adopting the anti-Marxist sentiments of Largo Caballero, whose opposition to socialist revolution was primarily responsible for Franco’s victory?

I would say that the left is dealing with neo-Stalinist tendencies today that share many of the same impulses as those demonstrated by the original. Norton writes:

Yet leftists like Orwell and his devoted followers continue to lament Kronstadt and revel in their ideological purity — while conveniently living relatively comfortable lives in Western imperialist countries that commit much more heinous crimes throughout the world every day.

This business about living comfortable lives in imperialist countries is pure demagogy as if Norton, who apparently comes from wealth himself, ever had to duck barrel bombs in hipster Brooklyn. With respect to “ideological purity”, this is a very telling complaint. What Norton is trying to say is that Marxism does not serve his goals. When class politics interfere with a career in journalism, why remain committed to them? The journals that he aspires to write for have little use for the sort of class rigor found in Leon Trotsky, whose ideas would only appeal to those who have made up their mind that socialism is the only alternative to barbarism, not the renewed Democratic Party called for in countless Salon, Huffington Post, Alternet, CommonDreams and Nation Magazine articles

Norton finally connects the dots between his Assadism and Popular Front Stalinism in the third paragraph cited above, issuing questionable statements such as this:

It is no coincidence that many of his avowed admirers today lionize and whitewash “revolutionary” extremist militias in Syria and Libya, while at the same moment violently condemning progressive revolutions in Cuba, Vietnam, and beyond as mere “Stalinist bureaucracies.”

One assumes that he is referring to the ISO here since it is the only group on the left of any significance that has opposed both Assad and the late Fidel Castro. But what evidence is there that the ISO admires Orwell? The only reference to Orwell in the entire ISO website is this: “As George Orwell said in Why I Write, good prose is like a window pane. He meant good writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to the ideas, facts and events that the writing is about.”

I believe that this makes perfect sense, even if the man who wrote the words was capable of exercising poor judgement in “naming names”. I only wish that Norton would have stumbled across this during the time he spent in the ISO since he is so flawed when it comes to drawing attention to ideas, facts and events in his sad attempt at professional journalism.

November 16, 2016

Where was Roosevelt?

Filed under: Stalinism,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm


Staughton Lynd

Radical America, July-August 1974
The United Front in America: a Note
by Staughton Lynd

Between the harsh and isolating politics of 1929-1933 and the bland and self-abasing politics of later years there thus came about an intermediate episode, full of interest for the present. Roughly it may be dated from the coming to power of Hitler and Roosevelt early in 1933 to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization in November 1935 and Roosevelt’s second campaign in 1936. The strategy of the Left in that time was, as Richmond rightly emphasizes, experimental and localized. It was not mechanically adopted after some overseas initiative. The best summary phrase for what was attempted then had it not acquired other, sectarian meanings would be the “united front from below”.

Minimally, this meant that rank-and-file workers associated with different Left tendencies should seek ways to act together against their common enemies. David Montgomery and Jeremy Brecher speak of the 1911-1922 upsurge when “the old lines dividing revolutionary groupings tended to break down, and their once-competing local members threw themselves into actual class struggle without regard to their former ideological and organizational hostilities”. (6) Something like this also happened in 1933-1935. In contrast to the later 1930s there were no union bureaucrats with whom one could hope to ally. Rather the felt need was for people active at the grass roots to join forces in collective struggle. This was the spirit responsible for the local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco in 1934.

It is important to recall that despite Roosevelt’s great popularity when first inaugurated and again after the “second New Deal” of 1935-1937, in 1934 and 1935 there was much disillusionment with New Deal labor policy. The National Recovery Administration to which working people had enthusiastically responded in 1933 was renamed the “National Run Around”.

There is no way that the working-class mood of those years can be considered anti-fascist. What was to the fore was a growing disenchantment with liberalism and with Roosevelt. Those who, like myself, did not experience that time can, I think, get a sense of it by recalling the mood of SNCC activists and the northern black community in 1962-1964. Just as Kennedy was then criticized for rhetorically espousing civil rights, yet standing by while those who acted on his rhetoric were jailed, beaten, and killed, so on the bloody picket lines of 1933-1935 men wonderingly asked themselves: Where was Roosevelt ?

What one observes in the general strikes of 1934 is a happy fusion of the intransigence of the Third Period and the ability to widen an action beyond its initial protagonists. The typical scenario was for one group of striking workers to be beaten on the picket line, and then for the entire working class of the locality to walk off their jobs in support. Trotskyists in Minneapolis, Socialists and Musteites in Toledo, Communists in San Francisco all appear to have acted in a manner that avoided the sectarianism of the years preceding and the opportunism of the years that followed.

Electorally, the thrust of the Left in 1933-1935 was toward a labor party (not a people’s party). Throughout 1935 Communists and Socialists advanced this objective, Earl Browder and Norman Thomas appearing together at a Madison Square rally in the fall. The Central Committee of the Communist Party called for ‘a Labor Party built up from below on a trade-union basis but in conflict with the bureaucracy, putting forward a program of demands closely connected with mass struggles, strikes, etc., with the leading role played by the militant elements, including the Communists”. The Party, its Central Committee stated, “should declare its support for the movement for a Labor Party and fight in this movement for the policy of the class struggle, resisting all attempts to bring the movement under the control of social-reformism”. (7) As I have written elsewhere, the formation of local labor parties was endorsed by labor conventions and councils in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Toledo, and Paterson, New Jersey; local labor party tickets were formed in San Francisco, Chicago, and Springfield, Massachusetts; and in October 1935, strong support for a labor party was voiced at the annual AF of L convention.

In November sweeping Socialist victories were recorded in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Reading, Pennsylvania. In Detroit, Attorney Maurice Sugar, running for alderman on a Labor Party ticket, just missed election, polling 55,574. Speaking to an audience of 1500 in New York City, Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson of Minnesota predicted that a national farmer-labor party would make a bid for power in 1936 or 1940. As 1935 came to an end the Seattle Central Labor Council endorsed and affiliated with the Washington Commonwealth Federation; a Farmer-Labor Federation was formed in Wisconsin; the founding conference of the South Dakota Farmer-Labor Party was held; and Vice-president Francis Gorman of the United Textile Workers announced that forces working for a national farmer-labor party would open an office in the near future. (8)

The popular-front strategy which replaced that of the united front from below produced a qualitative change. The change did not happen all at once. Although the Communist Party hoped for a Roosevelt victory in 1936, it did not formally support him, and indeed declared publicly : “Roosevelt stands for capitalism, not socialism.” (9) As late as 1938 the Communist Party criticized “the inconsistencies and vacillations of the Roosevelt administration” and called for a ‘progressive realignment” based on beginnings such as the Farmer-Labor and Progressive parties of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the American Labor Party in New York, the Commonwealth Federations of the Pacific, and Labor’s Non-Partisan League. (10) Nevertheless the direction of change was clear. In 1935 the Party’s center of gravity was rank-and-file working people. By 1938 it was an amorphous coalition of so-called progressive forces. The united front was based on the rank and file, not on a “left-center” coalition with union bureaucrats. The united front was improvised on the basis of American needs, rather than following an international line. The united front attacked the Democratic Party, instead of supporting it as after 1936. The united front was a response to the promises and failures of liberalism, whereas the popular front was directed at fascism overseas. It may be, for reasons indicated at the outset, that there was no real possibility of a mass radical movement in this country in the 1930s. If there was such a possibility, the hope for it lay in pursuing to the end the strategy of the united front from below.

November 8, 2016


Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

 Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

 Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen F. Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.


This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

October 28, 2016

Finding Babel

Filed under: Film,literature,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake

Responding to an aggrieved muzhik (peasant), Dyakov, the eponymous Reserve Cavalry Commander who was a former circus rider described by Babel as “red-faced with a gray mustache, a black cape, and wide red Tatar trousers with silver stripes”, promised that he could make this “lively little mare spring to her feet again”. The idea that the horse splayed out on the ground could be described as “lively” was almost an insult. The muzhik cried out, “Lord in Heaven and Mother of God. How is this poor thing supposed to get up? It’s on its last legs!”:

Dyakov’s ability to bring the horse back on its feet was like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead but all the more miraculous since it likely occurred. Most of Babel’s short stories were based on his experience as a war correspondent. He wrote:

“You are insulting this horse, my dear fellow!” Dyakov answered with fierce conviction. “Pure blasphemy, my dear fellow!” And he deftly swung his athlete’s body out of his saddle. Splendid and deft as if in the circus ring, he stretched his magnificent legs, his trousers girded by cords around the knees, and walked up to the dying animal. She peered at him dolefully with a severe, penetrating eye, licked some invisible command from his crimson palm, and immediately the feeble mare felt bracing power flow from this sprightly, gray, blossoming Romeo. Her muzzle lolling, her legs skidding under her, feeling the whip tickling her stomach with imperious impatience, the mare slowly and deliberate1y rose onto her legs. And then we all saw Dyakov’s slender hand with its fluttering sleeve run through her dirty mane, and his whining whip swatting her bleeding ranks. Her whole body shivering, the mare stood on four legs without moving her timid, doglike, lovestruck eyes from Dyakov.

“So you see-this is a horse,” Dyakov said to the muzhik, and added softly, “and you were complaining, my dearest of friends!”

Throwing his reins to his orderly, the commander of the Reserve Cavalry jumped the four stairs in a single leap and, swirling off his operatic cloak, disappeared into the headquarters.

Today, reading this story once again for the first time in fifty-four years, I am reminded of how important Babel was to me at the time. Like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, he was a portal into the world of modernist literature that still had an immense attraction for young bohemians in the early 60s. I never thought once about who Babel was or anything about the social reality he was trying to depict. All that mattered to me was Babel’s prose that could evoke the mysterious power of a Cossack resurrecting a dying horse.

read full article

October 26, 2016

Millennials and “unnatural” deaths under Stalin

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

I received this communication yesterday:

This almost comically red-baiting story seems to be making the rounds on the Internet:


Without in any way wishing to absolve Stalin of anything, it seems to me the framing here needs rebutting — viz., the article’s implicit assumption that the deaths for which Stalin was directly and indirectly responsible are more attributable to “the idea of communism” as such, than they are to “a disastrous and abortive attempt at realizing the idea of communism, by a monstrous lunatic, in a world dominated by other monstrous lunatics who will do absolutely everything in their power to fucking take you down if you even *think* about realizing the idea of communism in their fucking playground, you motherfucking pinko commie bastard.” Or words to that effect.

So, do either of you know of good pieces contextualizing deaths under Stalin with respect to “exogenous / non-voluntary factors” (my phrase; trying to figure this out as I go)? In other words, anything that makes a good-faith attempt at understanding and accounting for the various contextual factors (e.g., foreign subversion; natural calamity; etc.) that contributed to the dreadful actual legacy of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin — without whitewashing?

Again, just to be clear, I have no interest in absolving Stalin of anything whatsoever. Only in a sober rebuttal to those who would scapegoat “socialism as such” on the basis of Stalin’s crimes (or Mao’s for that matter), while feigning to pretend that “capitalism as such” remains untainted by those of the Rockefellers, Kroks, Bushes and Ramaphosas. Not to mention Hitler. (Oops.)

My reply:

The article appears in PJ Media, a website that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. It used to be called Pajamas Media and was a primary outlet for neoconservative ideology and support for the Bush administration, especially his invasion of Iraq.

The purpose of the article is to paint millennials as a bunch of idiots because they believe that George W. Bush was responsible for more deaths than Stalin:

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union suffered an estimated 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths,” with 34 to 49 million directly linked to the dictator. Under Bush, 6,648 U.S. service members died, and the number of Iraqis who died has been variously estimated at 112,114, 122,644, 151,000, and even 655,000. Even the highest number for Bush is roughly 700,000, while the lowest for Stalin would be 34 million.

Obviously to answer the PJ article properly would require a book but let me take a shot at brief reply, including some resources that might help.

To start with, while Stalin was a mass murderer, the numbers PJ cites are problematic. While there are no citations in the article, it is likely that the reference for 56 to 62 million “unnatural deaths” comes from a book titled “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R.: 1928-1954” written in 1983 by a Soviet geophysicist named Iosif G. Dyadkin who had no training as a demographer. To start with, he counts 30 million deaths during WWII at Nazi hands as “unnatural” as they surely were. Just ask any survivor of the siege of Leningrad who can tell you that it was Hitler rather than Stalin who bombed Leningrad and other Russian cities.

It is very difficult to come to an accurate count of those “unnatural” deaths that can be clearly attributed to Stalin. Most of the people working in this field are diehard anti-Communists who wouldn’t think twice about exaggerating the numbers just as neo-Nazi ideologues like David Irving had a vested interest in minimizing Hitler’s concentration camp deaths.

In 1996 Chris Harman of the British SWP wrote an article titled “Thinking it Through” that dealt with mass killings by dictatorships. Since this group emerged out of the Trotskyist movement, you can be sure that Harman would be the last person to minimize the number of people killed by Stalin. He writes:

Some right wing historians have carried the argument a stage further. Robert Conquest, for instance, has claimed that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler (a figure mistakenly accepted by Roy Medvedev). It is only a short step from this to some German nationalist historians who argue that Nazism was a lesser evil than Stalinism. The century’s horrors originate then, not in capitalism, but in misguided attempts to overthrow it. It is an argument many socialists find hard to answer, as they recoil from the way much of the left used to apologise for Stalinism. Yet the argument is fundamentally wrong. The collapse of the USSR has opened up secret police files in Moscow for the first time. This has enabled historians like R.W. Davies (who co-authored some of the later volumes in E.H. Carr’s magnificent A History of Soviet Russia) and the late Alec Nove to initiate the first factually based discussion on exactly what was the death toll in Stalin’s Russia. Their conclusions point to Stalin’s regime being bloody in the extreme. There were 353,000 executions in 1937 and 239,000 in 1938. Over 140,000 people died during the deportation of minority nationalities between 1944 and 1948.

On top of this, the numbers of people in the ‘gulag’ of prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate in the camps of five to nine times that among the free population – implying perhaps two million deaths caused by ill-treatment and neglect over a 25 year period. Finally, the famine that was a result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to up to 5 million further deaths. But the discussion also leads to two other conclusions.

Such numbers strike me as much more plausible but that hardly lets Stalin off the hook. I am reminded of how horrific his Great Terror was from a documentary film I saw yesterday about Isaac Babel, arguably the finest novelist to have emerged out of the Russian Revolution. He wrote “Red Cavalry” that was based on his attachment to a Cossacks brigade fighting against the counter-revolution in the early 20s as well as “Odessa Tales” about Jewish life in the Ukraine. In 1939 he was charged with treason and executed, just one of millions in the 1930s.

For an unstinting analysis of the criminality of Stalin’s dictatorship, I strongly recommend Tony McKenna’s “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that will be available in a month or so. It is very useful in analyzing the underlying forces that led to millions being killed. I found the comparison with the Aztecs revealing:

One can discern, I think, a certain parity with the Stalinist phenomenon and the manner in which its bureaucracy was compelled to enact its own blood sacrifices. The difference lies only in this. If the Aztecs had failed to observe the ritualistic blood- letting, we are safe in assuming that the processes of nuclear fission which take place at the core of the sun would have remained indifferent to their lapse in religious piety, while the planets too would have been untroubled in their interminable, rolling motions. Not so with Stalinism however. If Stalinism had not launched an intermittent, cyclical series of purges, each one deeper and more far reaching than the last, then the Stalinist universe itself would have ground to a halt, col- lapsed under the weight of its own accumulated contradictions. The purges were as necessary to the internal dynamic of the political bureaucracy, as much as the mass repressions and the creation of the gu- lags were necessary to redefine the economic pattern of the country in and through a vast network of forced and slave labour. The two processes were in fact organically interlinked. Individual bureaucrats were able to fortify their positions by acquiring an increasing control over the means of repression which the Stalinist system used against the population in order to drive through its economic reforms and se- cure and bolster its own power. And yet, this very process generated a fundamental friction and destabilization of the bureaucracy itself – as its different elements were thrown into collision with one another in and through the marshalling of their own discrete powers and privileges. What we have here is what the greatest of all the classical German philosophers Hegel referred to as a “bad” or “spurious” infinite – that is, a contradiction whose solution simultaneously produces it anew at another level.

Finally, I believe that the real cause of such “unnatural” deaths under Stalin was the invasion of the USSR in 1918. To start with, there are estimates of between 7 to 12 million casualties, most of them civilian. And among these casualties were the most committed revolutionaries of the working class who saw the preservation of the socialist government as in their class interests. When they died on the battlefield, the heart of the revolution was effectively removed, thus leaving a vacuum that former bureaucrats of the Czarist regime could fill because they had experience as functionaries. These people provided the social base of the Stalinist machine.

Wikipedia provides details on the economic costs of the civil war:

The Russian economy was devastated by the war, with factories and bridges destroyed, cattle and raw materials pillaged, mines flooded and machines damaged. The industrial production value descended to one-seventh of the value of 1913 and agriculture to one-third. According to Pravda, “The workers of the towns and some of the villages choke in the throes of hunger. The railways barely crawl. The houses are crumbling. The towns are full of refuse. Epidemics spread and death strikes—industry is ruined.” It is estimated that the total output of mines and factories in 1921 had fallen to 20% of the pre-World War level, and many crucial items experienced an even more drastic decline. For example, cotton production fell to 5%, and iron to 2%, of pre-war levels.

With such a devastating economic collapse, the Soviets were forced to make concessions to the peasantry that was growing frustrated with a lack of manufactured goods. With 20 percent of the factories destroyed, there was an urgent need to get production going again even on a market basis incorporated in the NEP. The NEP provided a temporary amelioration but at some costs.

From the very beginning, the so-called “scissors” phenomenon characterized the NEP. Trotsky first drew attention to this phenomenon of rising industrial prices and declining agricultural prices, which appeared graphically as an opened scissor, in the first few years of the NEP. It was attributable to the discrepancy between a shattered state-owned industrial infrastructure and a relatively thriving capitalist agricultural economy. The effect of the “scissors” was to cause the kulak to hoard farm products in an attempt to blackmail the state into cutting the prices of consumer goods. When the kulak hoarded crops, the workers went hungry and misery increased in the towns. This, in brief, was the pattern that would repeat itself until Stalin declared war on the kulaks.

The peasants had discovered that holding grain was more prudent than holding money. The state authorities could not make the peasants budge. At Rostov in the Ukraine the authorities issued an order to have the peasants deliver 25% of all flour delivered to state mills at a fixed price in 1924. The state was able to collect only 1/3 of the grain. The peasants withheld the rest.

In addition to the growing tensions between private growers and public authorities, tensions also arose in the countryside between the wealthy peasant and the overwhelming majority of poor peasants. The 1917 revolution distributed millions of small lots to the tiller, but their prospects were uncertain. In these mini-farms, horses were often nonexistent let alone tractors. Peasants used their own muscles to plow the land. Many of these mini-farms failed and the peasants became wage laborers on the kulak’s farms.

Were there any easy solutions to these contradictions? It is impossible to say since by the time they had mounted to the boiling point, the Marxists in the USSR had been silence or forced into exile. People like those at PJ Media believe that Russia would have been better off with capitalism. It was a lot easier to make such an argument in the 1950s and early 60s when the post-WWII recovery was still going strong.

That is not the case today when young people (the millennials) can’t find a job and are confronted by capitalist failure rather than what took place in the USSR in the 1930s. The rightwing is worried about the growing popularity of socialism, even if that only means the words used by Bernie Sanders that has little to do with what the Bolsheviks were trying to do in 1917. There will come a point when a new paradigmatic revolution takes place not in the periphery but in the heart of the advanced capitalist countries. As difficult the road we must travel to help such a revolution take place, we can at least be reassured that the task of overthrowing it will not be an easy task especially if the USA is where it takes place.

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.

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