Chris Harman


A liberal apology

(December 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 71, December 1984, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Lenin and the end of politics
A.J. Polan
Methuen, £5.95

TAKE A simplistic right wing argument. Express it in the most convoluted language. Fill it out with all the most pseudy quotes from fashionable sociologists and philosophers.

That is the method of the writer of this book.

His central contention is that the greatest horror of our age is Stalinism. So much so that other horrors – the debt-induced famines in Africa, the US-backed murder squads of Latin America, the wars in the gulf and the Eritrea, the massacres in the Lebanon, mass unemployment, the threat of nuclear holocaust – do not receive a singe mention. And Stalinism, he insists, is an inevitable outcome of any attempt by human beings to totally change society.

Any such attempt, he argues, ignores the profound insights of people like Max Weber into the inevitability of bureaucracy in ‘modern’ society. ‘Realistic politics’ consists in seeing that only ‘powerful’ parliamentary structures can control bureaucracy.

The result is the whole system of terror which goes under the name ‘Gulag’.

The greatest threat to our age is the ‘myth of apocalypse’ – his term for the fight for freedom from famine, war, unemployment, and so on.

Lenin was responsible for Stalinism because he propagated this myth, claims Polan. And the responsibility does not even lie with What is to be done, as many liberals and social democrats have claimed, but with The state and the revolution. For it is here that Lenin ‘denies politics’ and suggests human beings can truly be free.

But it is not only Lenin who produced Stalinism by spreading this ‘myth’. He was but the last in a long line of dangerous thinkers, going right back through Karl Marx to Jean Jacques Rousseau.

We are enjoined to stand fast against this ‘myth’ and to hold firm to the limited changes possible in a liberal democracy, based upon the ‘literate culture’ of an ‘elite’ which accepts the ‘post enlightenment Helleno-Judaic-Christian subject’.

The argument is not new. It was propounded a generation ago by apologists for the first cold war, such as Talmon in The rise of totalitarian democracy and Popper in The open society and its enemies and The poverty of historicism.

Missing from the argument is any understanding of what truly drives forward present day societies, whether in the East or the West. That driving force is not some text from 1917, still less from 1760. Poland and Chile, the USSR and the USA, Britain and South Africa, China and the Philippines are all bound by a single dynamic because their rulers are all willing participants in a global system of competitive accumulation.

Global system

‘Totalitarianism’, the ‘gulag’, and even Weber’s ‘bureaucracy’ are by-products of the impact of this global system on particular societies at particular stages in their development. If you don’t see this, you can’t see why Khrushschev’s Russia differed from Stalin’s, why the ‘free world’ covers a terroristic dictatorship like Haiti as well as liberal democracy like Luxembourg, why Poland’s debt crisis is so much like Brazil’s.

Polan’s book is, in fact, quite inconsequential. It is what you might expect from a member of the liberal middle classes who has decided to separate himself off as much as possible from people who might have ‘apocalyptic urges’ in the face of a world of wars and famines.

But it is of a limited wider interest for two reasons.

First Polan himself (and at least three of the people he offers ‘gratitude’ to for helping him develop his ideas) was once a member of the International Socialists (the predecessor of the SWP).

He left 12 years ago as part of a grouping which denounced us for characterising Russia as state capitalist, for holding that Western capitalism did not then face imminent collapse, and for rejecting as mystical talk the theory of a ‘transitional epoch’. The various elements in the grouping split apart, to give us as well as Polan and his friends, the Revolutionary Communist Group (which now praises the virtues of Jaruzelski’s Poland) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (which moved quickly, once the miners’ strike had started from way out ultra-leftism to campaigning for a national ballot).

Polan has gone full circle to complete renegacy. Yet there is a continuity between Polan’s views now and his ideas back in 1972.

Those ideas, typical of much of the left, were based upon a glib acceptance of the ready made ideas about ‘socialist’ and ‘capitalist’ countries which did away with the need for any serious analysis of the real dynamic of any part of the world. It is this lack of real analysis which still enables Polan’s erstwhile comrades in the RCG and RCP to move off in such dubious directions.

Meanwhile Polan himself has turned the old glib ideas upside down, to move from the easy illusions of the early 1970s to the easy disillusion of the 1980s. His present day ideas are the mirror image of his old ones: where once the Eastern states were ‘transitional’, without a dynamic of their own, and therefore progressive, today they are still seen as being without dynamic, but as being ‘totalitarian’ and the greatest threat to humanity.

The second significant thing about Polan’s book is the way in which he has moved to his present ideas using the intellectual jargon that used to be associated with a school of academic Marxism – that of the structuralism associated with Louis Althusser. The Althusserian theoretical system enabled the academics of the post 1968 generation to dress up support for the easy certainties of Stalinism in a terminology which gave the impression of scientific rigour. No wits collapse is providing the ideological garbage needed by people like Polan.

Last updated on 8 October 2019