Duncan Hallas

The Stalin Phenomenon

(May 1977)

From International Socialism (1st Series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Stalin Phenomenon
Jean Ellenstein
Lawrence and Wishart £4.95 hardback £2.00 paperback

BACK in the 18th century, when people protested about the way in which Peter the Great had built St Petersburg – 100,000 serfs died building it – Voltaire replied: ‘Yes, but the town does exist!’

Thus Mr Ellenstein, ‘a leading French Communist ... a university teacher, a professional historian, joint Director of the Centre of Marxist Studies in Paris and author of a four-volume History of the USSR.’

What Mr Ellenstein is saying of course, is that the methods by which Stalin ‘built socialism’ in the USSR were bloody and brutal but, ‘socialism’ does exist. He says it at length and with a wealth of illustrative statistics and with a degree of candour about the bestialities of Stalinism that would have been inconceivable in a Communist Party author until recently. But he nowhere argues it.

That the USSR is ‘the first and most important socialist experiment in history’ is, for Mr Ellenstein almost a self-evident truth. Well, yes, St Petersburg was indeed built. Is that fact a vindication of the ‘progressive’ character of the Tsarist serf empire? We might as well say: ‘Back in the 3rd century BC, when people protested about the way in which Shih-Huang-ti had built the Great Wall ...’ For these monuments to the power of despots to mobilise and to direct vast armies of slave or serf labourers also undisputably exist.

Ellenstein’s attitude to the Soviet Union is very much like that of a liberal theologian to the dogma of the Catholic Church. Like God in the case of the liberal theologian, the ‘socialist state’ has to be accepted as unquestionable first principle. And given that gigantic assumption, this apologist for Brezhnev’s Russia is prepared, just like a liberal theologian, to be reasonable – well, fairly reasonable – about lesser matters. Especially if they concern the past rather than the present.

To be quite fair to Mr Ellenstein I must make it clear that at one point (page 178 and 179 to be precise) he does allow the reader to know that atheists, unbelievers in his faith, actually exist. ‘For a certain number of historians (Bettleheim is only the most recent example) the USSR is allegedly not a socialist or a workers’ state but a bureaucratic state in which a new class, the bureaucracy, supposedly suppresses and exploits the workers and peasants. This is why Bettleheim defines it as: “a special kind of capitalist state”.’

This heretical notion is swiftly disposed of with the aid, amongst other things, of a couple of quotations from Trotsky – yes Trotsky – and the statement that ‘these posts (in the bureaucracy – DH) could not be bequeathed.’ And that is the end of the matter. We are back to liberal apologetics.

It is not my business to defend Bettleheim but since Ellenstein has dragged him in you might have thought that he would at least have given his readers some inkling of why Bettleheim regards the USSR as capitalist. After all, it is quite simply: ‘changes in the legal forms of ownership do not suffice to cause the conditions for the existence of classes and for class struggle to disappear. These conditions are rooted, as Marx and Lenin often emphasised, not in legal forms of ownership but in production relations.’ (C. Bettleheim, Class Struggles in the USSR, p. 21 Emphasis in the original)

Bettleheim says that the central relationship of production in the USSR is the wage-labour/capital relationship characteristic of capitalism – and in that at least he is right, whatever idealist contortions he has to engage in to defend another despotism east of Moscow.

Now for a Marxist, even if he is not joint Director of a Centre for Marxist Studies, this fact must necessarily be the starting point. As Mr Ellenstein doubtless teaches his students, the historical-materialist method proceeds from relations of production to forms of property, the state, culture, ideology and so on; not the other way round. However, to apply this method, Marx’s method, to the USSR, leads to conclusions quite unacceptable to the French Communist Party – or the British one either – and so is impermissible to the intellectual camp followers of the ‘socialist world.’

This is harsh but, alas, it is also true. As Marxist analysis Ellenstein’s book is worthless. In spite of that fact – or because of it – it is likely to be an influential work. Mr Ellenstein writes in that calm, confident and apparently authoritative fashion which his British counterparts seem unable to match. Perhaps that has something to do with the nature of the French higher educational system. More likely it is connected with the relative strength of the French Communist Party. Ellenstein deploys, any of the facts familiar to readers of E.H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher to sharpen our understanding of the realities of the situation in the USSR in the 1920’s and, as has been already said, he tells some of the truth about Stalin’s reign of terror.

These are considerable merits in a book published by Lawrence and Wishart. The Jesuit, with his subtle arguments and sophisticated intrigue, was undoubtedly a less unpleasant opponent of those who sought to emancipate humanity from superstition than his Dominican predecessor whose arguments were the stake, the thumbscrew and the rack. The eighteenth century Jesuit might even regret that La Barre was broken at the wheel for questioning the virginity of the mother of God, just as Mr Ellenstein regrets the atrocities of the murderous ‘comrade’ Yezhov, Stalin’s executioner in chief at the height of the terror.

In the last resort, however, both Dominican and Jesuit depended on the same tyranny, the same profoundly conservative and counter-revolutionary establishment. And so with Mr Ellenstein. Brezhnev’s Russia is a totalitarian despotism which, under the forms of ‘socialism’ is the extreme opposite of a socialist society.

Last updated on 6 March 2015