Bob Gould, 2002

Did Stalinism end in the 1950s?

Source: Marxmail, December 6, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Louis Proyect, the patient moderator of Marxmail, and I have a pretty sharp political difference about Stalinism. In my battered and rather well-lived world, to say that the communist parties ceased to be Stalinist in the early 1950s is retrospective fantasy.

It’s equally problematic to paint a picture of a world in which Fidel Castro pushed aside the old differences between Trotskyism and Stalinism, made a revolution and thereby produced a political model for socialist revolution, and by implication socialist construction, that socialists can follow if only they put aside sectarian dogmas like Trotskyism and Stalinism and model their activities on those of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas.

Let’s start with Stalinism. Western political culture is dominated by a version of the political events during and after the Russian Revolution, in which the activities of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in a more or less seamless way, produced Stalinism. The more right-wing and dominant version of this view of revolutionary history is the one of people such as Richard Pipes, the KGB general and ideologist Volgokonov and the current reactionary populist Martin Amis (while, as I’ve said in a previous post, some of the material in Amis’s Koba the Dread has some intrinsic interest, I’m in basic agreement with Paul Flewers’ fairly detailed assault on Amis’s historical plagiarism, and reactionary political intentions).

This right-wing historical paradigm, the now-dominant one in Western historiography and politics, is a simple-minded proposition that Leninism led to Stalinism.

More dangerous and counter-revolutionary from a Marxist point of view is the leftist, and often nostalgic Stalinist, version of the same story.

Many demoralised ex-Stalinists, or still-Stalinists, who have moved to the right like Eric Hobsbawm, simultaneously hold both right and left versions of the view that Leninism led to Stalinism. Throughout his memoir Hobsbawm pleads for understanding of the good intentions of historians and intellectuals like himself who supported Stalinism, at the same time having a strand in his reminiscences in which he clearly implies that Leninism led to Stalinism, while trying to maintain that he, personally, wasn’t really a Stalinist.

Hobsbawm uses all aspects of this narrative to consign the socialist project to the quaintness of history, and Hobsbawm’s political evolution is brought into sharp focus by his vocal support of the big shift of the British labour movement to the right. All this is very clear from the useful interview with him in the British Guardian on September 22.

The leftist version of the Leninism-leads-to-Stalinism story is expressed most clearly by the revisionist historians of the Russian experience, such as J. Arch Getty and Sheila Fitzpatrick, who try to minimise the scale of Stalin’s terror and minimise the responsibility of Stalin and the leading Stalinists by ascribing the terror to some sort of suicidal mania inherent in the Bolshevik project.

The bizarre postmodernist Marxoid, Slavoj Zizek, gives this version an erudite Lacanian psychological slant, in a favourable review in New Left Review in 2000 of Arch Getty’s latest book. At the time I wrote in white heat an assault on Getty and Zizek, which remains unpublished, to date.

Parallel with, and influenced by, these views there has been a controversy in US labour movement historiography between a group of revisionist historians who retrospectively idealise the US Communist Party, in conflict with other US historians, such as Theodore Draper and Nelson Lichtenstein, who have a much more critical view of US Stalinism.

The truth of the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement is that it was not a seamless, or even a painful, transition from one thing to a variant of the same thing. It was a counter-revolution, through and through. It represented a dramatic break with the main features of the Bolshevik Party and a break with the revolutionary perspectives of the Russian Revolution.

It created, in the Soviet Union, a new political culture that can quite properly be described as Stalinism, that remained dominant for many years. This Stalinist political culture came to dominate the Communist movement throughout the world. It was modified a bit in the Krushchev period between 1956-64 and modified again in the last two or three years of Gorbachev’s rule. For the rest of the period between about 1926 and 1990 the political culture of the Soviet Union was Stalinist.

In the Western Communist Parties, this high-Stalinist political culture was inculcated ruthlessly. I have described this for the Australian Communist Party, in my piece, The Communist Party in Australian Life and in my review of Stuart Macintyre’s book, The Reds.

A critical book in the imposition of high-Stalinism as the political culture of Communist parties in the West was The Short History of the CPSU(B) , written in large part by Stalin himself. This was the bible of Communist Parties in every country.

Other books important to the culture of high-Stalinism in Australia were The Great Conspiracy Against the Soviet Union, by Sayers and Kahn; People’s Democracies by Wilfred Burchett (published in Australia), and the early editions of my namesake L. Harry Gould’s book, A Marxist Glossary. At the centre of all these books was a fantastic, lying, counter-universe in which all the trials were truthful unravellings of vicious conspiracies perpetrated by spies who happened to be the overwhelming majority of the Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution.

The proletarian militants who made up the Communist movement in every country were overwhelmingly autodidact workers, and middle-class people, who read books and were influenced by them. In English-speaking countries, about which I know most, there was a complex, high-Stalinist political culture, which had a distinct ethos of its own and had enormous influence in the labour movement of the different countries.

Louis Proyect’s idea that the CPs stopped being Stalinist in the early 1950s is a fantasy. When I and many others in Australia, Britain and the US broke from Stalinism after 1956, this Stalinist political culture was still dominant in the left wing of the workers’ movement. I’m not imagining the intense hostility of previous associates when they discovered someone like me had linked up with the Trotskyists.

We had joined the “Trotskyite splitters and wreckers and the CIA” from the point of view of Stalinist workers, which was very painful for me because many of them had been associates and friends. Several people who surf Marxmail have expressed amazement to about the personal venom of the attacks on me by the DSP supporter, Alan Bradley. If you want to get a flavour for the Stalinist attitude towards dissidents and Trotskyist, even up to the mid-1960s, try to imagine Bradley’s abuse 50 times multiplied.

I have, sitting in front of me, a book published by Penguin in 1986, and LaFont, Paris, in 1979. It is In the Name of the Working Class, by Sandor Kopacsi. It’s his vivid memoir of being a young Communist militant in Hungary in the 1950s, ending up police chief in Budapest during the Nagy reform period, and throwing in his lot with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

For his pains he was kept in solitary confinement by the regime for quite a few years, and yet despite these experiences his account of the lead-up to the Hungarian Revolution, and of the revolution itself, is a mature and careful one. There are hundreds of books written by people like Kopacsi who were caught in the Stalinist meatgrinder. This machine, in the deformed workers’ states of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, kept grinding well past the early 1950s, to which date Louis seems to assign the transformation of the Stalinist movement in the West into a kind of leftist version of Social Democracy.

Artur Landon and Rosemary Kavan’s books on Czechoslovakia give some idea of the atmosphere of Stalinism in that country up to 1989. In the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Stalinism was a forceful and powerful structure, system and ideology up to the time it was overthrown. It was a powerful ideological force in the left of the labour movement in the west until it collapsed in most countries, and it’s still a political force in a number of countries.

The largest Communist party that actually wins elections is the CPI (Marxist) in the Indian states of Bengal and Kerala and that party, a genuine mass party, is a thoroughly high-Stalinist political organisation to this day.

In the 1960s, Stalinism was challenged from the left in Britain, and to a lesser extent in Australia, by substantial Trotskyist formations. I was personally a participant in that challenge in Australia. The successful agitation against the Vietnam War, led by Trotskyists, weakened the grip of Stalinism even on many workers who had previously been antagonistic to the Trotskyists.

By mobilising a mainly youthful movement against the war, we acquired some authority and influence and were able to appeal to many Stalinist workers over the heads of their leaders. When I read through my ASIO file from the time, I’m a bit amazed at the amount of time we spent, as well as agitating successfully against the war, conducting agitation among the Stalinist workers on all the old political questions, and we won some of them over.

Looking back on the 1960s and 1970s it seems to me that to some extent we dismantled Stalinism in Australia and Britain, brick by human brick.

When I use the term Stalinism I’m describing the political system and culture that dominated the deformed workers’ states and still dominates Vietnam, China and North Korea, and the political culture derived from the mother culture in the USSR and China that dominated the left wing of the workers’ movement for a large part of that period.

When I describe individuals as Stalinists it’s meant politically, not pejoratively. I’ve known many Stalinists who were courageous, vigorous and ingenious fighters for the working class, and some even became kind-of friends, although remaining Stalinists, because common struggles sometimes bridge the deepest differences. From time to time, still, I find political blocs with unreconstructed Stalinists necessary in certain struggles, such as the current struggle against the war on Iraq. It’s not primarily a personal question.

It’s totally unscientific, however, to blend Stalinism relatively painlessly into some vague idea that it became Social Democratic. The Stalinist formations that moved politically towards Social Democracy retained all the centralised and authoritarian features of the Stalinist political culture, combined with a more right-wing political orientation.

It’s useful to contemplate the phenomenon of Stalinism in China, where there is now an authoritarian, centralised, ruthlessly hierarchical Stalinist structure and political culture. This Stalinist structure and political culture is extremely corrupt financially, and is spearheading the restoration of capitalism in China. It has become a kind of Stalino-capitalist restorationist force. In the 1930s Trotsky spoke of the Soviet Union in terms of the faction of Reiss and the faction of Butenko (the latter was a major capitalist restorationist within the Stalinist bureaucracy).

In China, Stalinism still rules, the faction of Butenko is triumphant and socialists and Marxists really have to take up the slogans and demands of an earlier historical period: the right to genuine trade union organisation, freedom of the press, freedom of political agitation, and even possibly some kind of constituent assembly. (In this matter I’m in total agreement with Eva Cheng of the DSP.)

In my experience, the 20th century didn’t include the seamless transition from Stalinism to a form of Social Democracy that Louis projects. It wasn’t like that at all. To reduce the conflict between the Left Opposition and Stalinism to some form of primarily sectarian conflict is to completely misunderstand the 20th century and it’s no use at all in reconstructing a viable socialist movement from the doldrums the movement is now in.

A thorough knowledge of the history and lessons of the Stalinist counter-revolution is a precondition for the rebirth of any serious socialist movement.