E.P. Thompson


Socialist Humanism

An Epistle to the Philistines

(Summer 1957)

From The New Reasoner, No.1, Summer 1957, pp.105-143.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF file from the Website of the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The standpoint of the old materialism is ‘civil society’; the standpoint of the new is human society or socialised humanity.” – Marx, 10th Thesis on Feuerbach

“The poet said to the bureaucrat: Man creates by the laws of beauty. The artist creates the heart’s face: an image of all that’s human. But he said: I’ve no time to argue – though it sounds like a deviation – Desk-deep in class war on the eighteenth floor I’m making the Revolution.” – Tom McGrath

OUR ISLAND is one of the very few provinces of Europe which has not in this century suffered from civil or international war upon its own soil; and which has escaped the consequences – gas chambers, “quisling” regimes, partisan movements, terror and counter-terror – which have coloured the outlook of whole nations, East and West. It is very easy for us to fall into insular, parochial attitudes, and therefore necessary that we should commence any discussion of the future of socialism by reminding ourselves of some of the larger facts of our time. For two hundred years the pace of technological and social change has accelerated to an unprecedented degree, and nuclear fission and automation promise an even more rapid acceleration. In the past few years several continents which – fifty years ago – were on the periphery of civilisation, have entered the arena of international politics. In the past fifty years more human beings have been killed in war than in any comparable period. The fact that, in the past ten, these wars have abated in extent, although not in intensity (Korea, Indo-China, Kenya, Algeria), indicates less any change of heart than mutual fear of the overwhelming killing power of atomic weapons. The only reasonable deduction from all these facts is that mankind is caught up in the throes of a revolutionary transition to an entirely new form of society – a transition which must certainly reach its climax during this century.

This is confirmed by the emergence upon one quarter of the earth’s surface of a new society, with a new economic structure, new social relations, and new political institutions. The fact that British socialists do not like all the features of this society has no bearing upon the fact of its existence. It was obviously only short-sightedness which ever led socialists to conceive of the new society stepping, pure and enlightened, out of the fires of the old. Who should be surprised, when we recall the tormented history of the past fifty years, that the new society has sprung from the fire, its features blackened and distorted by pain and oppression?

But the future of British socialism may be very much affected by the understanding of and feelings towards the new society of British socialists, since it has always been their faith that socialism was not only economically practicable but was also intensely desirable; that is, that socialist society would revolutionise human relationships, replacing respect for property by respect for man, and replacing the acquisitive society by the common weal. It was assumed that all forms of human oppression were rooted, ultimately, in the economic oppression arising from the private ownership of the means of production; and that once these were socialised, the ending of other oppressions would rapidly ensue.

“So easily might men gette their living,” wrote More, “if that same worthye princesse lady money did not alone stop up the waye betwene us and our lyving ... Thys hellhounde creapeth into mens hartes: and plucketh them backe from entering the right pathe of life ...”

If, then, British socialists find features of the new society in the East repugnant, and find in them evidence that new forms of oppression – economic, physical and psychological – can perfectly well take root in a socialist society, a number of consequences will follow. Some will cease to be socialists, or to desire to take any active part in working for the new society. Others will lose confidence in the revolutionary perspectives of socialism, take a more limited and humdrum view of human potentialities, and hence cease to struggle for that transformation in men’s values and outlook which socialists once thought possible. If it is true that we are in a period of revolutionary transition, then such reactions are likely to strengthen capitalist society, prolong the transitional period, align the working-class movements in the West alongside the dying order and thus enflame international disagreements, and,as a consequence, harden and perpetuate the oppressive features of the new society. Moreover, it is evident that British socialists who see men who claim ‘Marxism’ as their guide, banner, and ‘science’ perpetrating vile crimes against their own comrades and gigantic injustices against many thousands of their fellow men, will assume – and have assumed – that the ideas of Marx and Engels are useless or even dangerous, that they leave out of account essential points, that they give a false view of ‘human nature’, and that, although Marxism may have imparted a fanatic fervour to Russian and Chinese communists, a sense of acting as the instruments of destiny, nevertheless the ideas of Marx and Engels give as false a view of reality as did those of Calvin. But if this natural assumption is wrong, then British socialism is weakened at its weakest point. Pragmatism may take the British labour movement through another few years; but it will not prove adequate to dealing with the increasingly complex problems of this period of transition.

It is my contention that the revolt within the international Communist movement against ‘Stalinism’, will, if successful, confirm the revolutionary confidence of the founders of the socialist movement. And if this is so, it must be of the profoundest importance to British socialists, since it will restore confidence in our own revolutionary perspectives.

Stalinism as an Ideology

‘Stalinism’ is, in a true sense, an ideology; that is, a form of false consciousness, deriving from a partial, partisan, view of reality; and, at a certain stage, establishing a system of false or partially false concepts with a mode of thought which – in the Marxist sense – is idealist. “Instead of commencing with facts, social reality, Stalinist theory starts with the idea, the text, the axiom: facts, institutions, people, must be brought to conform to the idea.”

There is another approach to Stalinism, which sees, it not as an ideology so much as an hypocrisy [1]; that is, the largely hypocritical speeches and quite different practices of a bureaucratic caste in Russia, concerned with the maintainance and extension of their privileges and interests; and the similar speeches and actions of their “stooges,” “dupes,” etc. outside.

This is a mistaken view. First, it underestimates the strength, inner logic and consistency of Stalinism, a common feature in all mature ideologies. In doing so, it fails to present a serious theoretical confrontation, and instead (as one must with a hypocrisy) descends to personalities or to abuse of ‘the personality.’

Second, it overlooks the fact that many features of ‘Stalinism’ ante-date J.V. Stalin by many years, ante-date the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Russian bureaucracy. For example, the dogmatism which in the Soviet Union has taken on institutional form is kin to that with which Engels took issue in the British and American labour movement in the 1880s [2]: and anti-intellectualism finds its forerunner in the French ouvrierisme. Third, it fails, to explain the way in which Stalinist concepts and practices have struck root in countries where – so far from drawing nourishment from the privileges of bureaucracy – the Communists who espoused them have had to face only ostracism, hardship, imprisonment, or death for their pains. And this is confirmed, not only by the pattern of orthodoxy, but also by the marked similarities in the forms of revolt against that orthodoxy, appearing during 1956 in America and Poland, in Hungary, India, and in the Soviet Union itself. Fourth – and of most importance – such an approach tends to be infected by one of the cardinal falsehoods of Stalinism: the attempt to derive all analysis of political manifestations directly and in an over-simplified manner from economic causations, the belittling of the part, played by men’s ideas and moral attitudes in the making of history.

Thus we must view Stalinism as an ideology – a constellation of partisan attitudes and false, or partially false, ideas; and the Stalinist today acts or writes in certain ways, not because he is a fool or a hypocrite, but because he is the prisoner of false ideas. But this is not to suggest that Stalinism arose just because Stalin and his associates had certain wrong ideas. Stalinism is the ideology of a revolutionary elite which, within a particular historical context, degenerated into a bureaucracy. In understanding the central position of the Russian bureaucracy, first in developing and now in perpetuating, this ideology, we have a great deal to learn, from the analyses of Trotsky and even more from the flexible and undogmatic approach of Isaac Deutscher and others. Stalinism struck root within a particular social context, drawing nourishment from attitudes and ideas prevalent among the working-class and peasantry – exploited and culturally deprived classes; it was strengthened by Russian backwardness and by the hostility and active aggression of capitalist powers; out of these conditions there arose the bureaucracy which adapted the ideology to its own purposes and is interested in perpetuating it; and it is clear enough now to most people that the advance of world socialism is being blockaded by this bureaucracy, which controls the means by which it is attempting to prevent – not a new ideology – but a true consciousness from emerging. In Russia the struggle against Stalinism is at one and the same time a struggle against the bureaucracy, finding expression in the various pressures for de-centralisation, economic democracy, political liberty, which are becoming evident. But – important as this – we must not allow the particular forms which this revolt is taking in Russia and in Eastern Europe, to obscure the general character of the theoretical confrontation which is now taking place throughout the world communist movement. Stalinism did not develop just because certain economic and social conditions existed, but because these conditions provided a fertile climate within which false ideas took root, and these false ideas became in their turn a part of the social conditions. Stalinism has now outlived the social context within which it arose, and this helps us to understand the character of the present revolt against it.

This is – quite simply – a revolt against the ideology, the false consciousness of the elite-into-bureaucracy, and a struggle to attain towards a true (“honest”) self-consciousness; as such it is expressed in the revolt against dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism which feeds it. Second, it is a revolt against inhumanity – the equivalent of dogmatism in human relationships and moral conduct – against administrative, bureaucratic and twisted attitudes towards human beings. In both sense it represents a return to man: from abstractions and scholastic formulations to real men: from deceptions and myths to honest history: and so the positive content of this revolt may be described as “socialist humanism.” It is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, the Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism. It is socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism, faith in the revolutionary potentialities not only of the Human Race or of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but of real men and women.

The ‘Disease of Orthodoxy’

The revolt appeared first as a revolt against dogmatism. “Common meetings and political action of students and workers were the most outstanding feature of the October days in Poland.” records Oscar Lange:

“The students had read the classical works of socialist theory, the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The reformers in the 16th century compared the reality of the Papal Church with the teaching of the Bible; in the same way, our students compared the reality of the Stalinist version of socialism with the teachings of Marxism and Leninism ... That criticism was pretty devastating; the conclusion was the need for a new way of building socialism in our country.” (Monthly Review, Jan. 1957)

Searching for the roots of dogmatism – the imposition of a system of authorised pre-conceptions upon reality rather than the derivation of ideas from the study of reality – the revolt (especially among the intellectuals) turned against institutional ‘Zhdanovism.’ The claims which reached their zenith in the period of Zhdanov’s ascendancy can be recalled in the words of the Modern Quarterly (1947): “Zhdanov ... speaks as a Marxist philosopher who has a world view embracing, not only politics and economics, but ethics, art, philosophy, and every phase of human activity.” Since the Central Committee of the CPSU – or more accurately Stalin and Zhdanov – were the accredited masters of this “world view” it fell to them to exert a despotic authority upon the nation’s intellectual and cultural life. The controlled intellectual life breeds dogmatic orthodoxy as a matter of course. “The establishment of an iron control not only over works of art, but over the very process of creation,, signifies a loss of confidence in the artistic intelligentsia” – so write two Soviet philosophers, in Voprosy Filosofi, November, 1956:

“Even now ... confidence has not been fully restored. As in the past, it is only the officials of government departments, among whom there are numerous time-servers, who enjoy full confidence. It is true that of late there has been a slight change – theatres have been given the right to draw up their own repertory plans ... but unfortunately this still applies only to the classics and not to works on contemporary subjects.”

Clearly a society which inhibits, the emergence of ideas in this way must find itself in increasing difficulties, economic, political, international. How does it come about that after forty years of ‘Soviet power’ the seats of knowledge (except technological and related sciences) should be filled by placemen, scholastics, and –

“... the lofty, servile clown,
Who with encroaching guile, keeps learning down.”

Anti-intellectualism has deep roots within all working-class movements. It arises, first, from that intense loyalty to party or organisation (and consequent suspicion of the individualist or nonconformist) which is a necessary quality if the working-class is to be welded into an effective political force. Second, from the hostility of revolutionaries to the ideas prevailing in the ruling-class; and to those intellectuals who share its outlook and privileges and purvey its ideas. Moreover, in any socialist revolution there is bound to be a tension – and in a backward country like Russia an exceptionally acute tension – between the values of collectivism and individualism. Where the possibility for the free expression of the creative personality has existed only for the few, and has co-existed with the savage exploitation of the many, it is inevitable that the period of transition towards a fuller creative life for the many will at the same time limit the possibilities of life for the few. These tensions between individualist and social values, between collective discipline and that intellectual initiative which in the end must always arise from the individual, are inherent in the conflict between dying bourgeois and emergent socialist society It is also to be expected that in any period of revolutionary change, the magnitude of the problems, the fervent inspiration of the times, will lead to the discouragement of speculative thought, to a literature of engagement, to a science with a practical utilitarian cast – such demands will inundate the socialist intellectual from outside, and he will feel the same promptings from within.

These tendencies, then, are to be expected in the phase of transition, although there are other, quite contrary, tendencies both within working-class life and within the socialist tradition. But the tendencies are present, can be inflamed within certain historical and social contexts, and therefore can the more easily be expressed in the initial stages of building socialist society in both institutional and ideological forms. Stalinism found the institutional forms by eliminating opposition, imposing bureaucratic control over all intellectual activities, and destroying (both within and without Russia) democracy within the Communist Party, under the rigid structure of ‘democratic centralism.’ At the same time Stalinism congealed into rigid ideological form those very partisan or fragmentary concepts which express the outlook of a revolutionary elite leading classes both bitterly exploited and culturally deprived. Lenin, in the aftermath of revolution, foresaw the dangers:

“People dilate at too great length and too flippantly on ‘proletarian culture.’ We would be satisfied with real bourgeois culture for a start, and we would be glad, for a start, to be able to dispense with the cruder types of pre-bourgeois culture, i.e. bureaucratic or serf culture, &c. In matters of culture, haste and sweeping measures are the worst possible things.”

But in the process of transforming Russia’s backward peasantry into an advanced industrial society, Lenin’s warning was swept aside. Stalinism glories in partisanship, and prefers the ideology, the false consciousness, to the true consciousness which Marx and Engels devoted their lives to free from the trammels of the false. The struggle to attain towards an objective understanding of social reality was denounced as “objectivism”, a betrayal of revolutionary class commitment. As we shall see, Stalinism converted the concepts of “reflection” and of the “superstructure” into mechanical operations in a semi-automatic model. The, conscious processes of intellectual conflict were seen not as agencies in the making of history but as an irritating penumbra of illusions, or imperfect reflections, trailing behind economic forces. The ideas of critics or opponents were, and are, seen as symptoms of bourgeois conspiracy or penetration, targets for abuse, or fear, or suspicion. Hence it was easier to abolish the economic category from which the ideas arose – the old intelligentsia, the national minority – than to change their minds and their way of life. Hence, in the West, the intense self-distrust of the middle-class communist intellectual, the abasement before the “instinctive” lightness of working-class attitudes, which (commencing in a valid self-correction of attitudes arising from limited and partisan bourgeois experience) swings to its opposite and hangs like a smoke-pall of inhibitions preventing sturdy and confident intellectual growth. Hense also the most extreme, and almost pathological, forms of anti-intellectualism are found, not among militant proletarians, but among middle-class intellectuals who have become self-twisted into Stalinist apologists. Stalin at least “believed in” his own ideology. Stalinism, in the era of Kruschev, has lost all confidence in itself. Thus Pravda (December 26th, 1956):

“It would be a mistake to think that bourgeois propaganda does not influence the minds of Soviet people, notably those of the youth. Some comrades have misinterpreted the recent changes in the Party line ... Imperialist reaction mobilises the whole arsenal of lies and calumny for a fresh crusade against the Marxist-Leninist world view. The reactionary press is full of lying phrases about so-called national Communism, with the sole aim of misleading the labouring masses. Under the influence of this propaganda, and from an unwillingness or inability correctly to analyse current events, some wavering elements are abandoning Marxism-Leninism or trying to revise it.”

But Stalinism no longer knows what “it” is. How much easier if the people had no minds, if the “superstructure” was cut out and society was all “base”: then this clumsy business of reflection could be done away with. Ideas are no longer seen as the medium; by which men apprehend the world, reason, argue, debate, and choose; they are like evil and wholesome smells arising from imperialist and proletarian cooking. One wonders whether the editors of Pravda ever speculate upon what Marx was doing all his life, in his gigantic effort to bring his concepts into rational order.

This economic automatism certainly is not Marxism. Over the years some Western Marxists have developed a kind of split mentality. On the one hand they have tried to develop creatively the flexible “ideas of movement” of Marx and Engels; on the other, they have failed to face the fact that Stalinism spoke in a different tongue. They have been aware (for example) that the Soviet Encyclopedia is full of the most blatant distortions of history and crass reductions of the ideas of outstanding thinkers and writers of the past into terms of their class origin, &c.; but they have shrugged this off as the vulgarisation of a few hacks, and refused to concede that this flowed from the essential character of the dominant ideology in Soviet society. We should reflect that ideas are handled roughly by parties, institutions, social processes. The ideology of Victorian laisser faire millowners was not the same thing as the thought of Adam Smith and Bentham; the middle-class seized on certain ideas only – and these often imperfectly understood – and adapted them to their own interests. Much the same has been true of “Marxism” in Soviet society. The Soviet industrial manager is no more a disciple of Marx than was Mr. Bounderby a disciple of Adam Smith.

But this is not only a question of the vulgarisation of ideas. Economic automatism found increasing expression in Stalin’s writings, and stands fully revealed in his Concerning Marxism in Linguistics. Marx derived from the study of history the observation that “social being determines social consciousness.” In class society men’s consciousness of social reality, when viewed from the standpoint of historical effectiveness, takes its form from the class structure of that society; that is to say, people grow up within a social and cultural environment which is not that of “all men” but that of certain men with interests opposed to those of other men: they experience life as members of a class, a nation, a family. But this is not an automatic reflex in the individual’s mind; he both experiences and – within the limitations of the cultural pattern of his class (traditions, prejudices, &c.) – he thinks about his experience. Obviously men with similar experiences think differently: all sorts of weird, crazy, remarkable ideas are thought up; outstanding individuals, like Shakespeare or Marx, certainly do not “reflect” their class experience only. “Reflection” (in this context) is a term describing social processes (and one with unfortunate connotations); it can be observed in history that men with the same economic interests and class experience sift and accept those ideas which justify their class interests, forming from them a system of partisan, partially false ideas, an ideology. Those ideas which do not suit the interests of any effective social grouping are either stillborn, or (like More’s “Utopia”) remain suspended, without social effectiveness, until new social forces emerge. But it is of first importance that men do not only “reflect” experience passively; they also think about that experience; and their thinking affects the way they act. The thinking is the creative part of man, which, even in class society, makes him partly an agent in history, just as he is partly a victim of his environment. If this were not so, his consciousness would indeed trail passively behind his changing existence; or he would cease to change:

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstance and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that circumstances are charged precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated.’” – (Marx, Third Thesis on Feuerbach)

In all their historical analysis Marx and Engels always kept in view this dialectical interaction between social consciousness (both active and passive) and social being. But in trying to explain their ideas they expressed them as a make-belief ‘model’, the “basis” of social relations (in production) and the “superstructure” of various branches of thought, institutions, etc.. arising from it and reacting upon it. In fact no such basis and superstructure ever existed; it is a metaphor to help us to understand what does exist – men, who act, experience, think and act again. It turns out that it is a bad and dangerous model, since Stalin used it not as an image of men changing in society but as a mechanical model, operating semi-automatically and independently of conscious human agency. Thus Stalin declared the “superstructure”:

“is connected with production only indirectly, through the economy, through the basis. The superstructure therefore reflects changes in the level of development of the productive forces not immediately and not directly, but only after changes in the basis, through the prism of the changes wrought in the basis by the changes in production.”

This is, of course, ludicrous: it is scarcely translatable into human beings at all. An idea is not a reflex of a gasometer, no matter through what “prism.” This reduces human consciousness to a form of erratic, involuntary response to steel-mills and brickyards, which are in a spontaneous process of looming and becoming. But men are conscious of themselves: this “economic base” is made up of human actions – labouring, distributing, selling – and if by their actions they change their relations with one another (some becoming owners, others serfs) they are bound to experience this too, and it will very much affect their ideas. But because Marx reduced his concept of process to a clumsy static model, Stalinism evolved this mystique wherein blind, non-human, material forces are endowed with volition – even consciousness – of their own. Creative man is changed to a passive thing: and things, working through prisms, are endowed with creative will. Man’s role is to serve these things, to bring more and more productive forces into being:

“The superstructure is created by the basis precisely in order to serve it, to actively help it to take shape and consolidate itself, to actively strive for the elimination of the old watchword basis, together with its superstructure.”

How far we have come from real men and women, from the “educators and the educated”! Hence Stalin’s statement that historical science “can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology.” This is nonsense. Scientific techniques may be used in the study of history, we may speak of employing a scientific method, but we will never attain to a precise science of history, like a natural science, because of man’s creative agency. No “basis” ever invented a steam engine, or sat on the National Coal Board.

It is, then, a poor model which in Stalin’s hands led into dangerous abstractions. Ideas hostile to socialism or to Stalinism were seen as the last desperate rallying of an old “superstructure”: it is far easier to be inhumane if one takes a non-human model. This gross fear of unorthodox thought informing a bureaucracy with the means at its disposal for manipulating opinion and eliminating dissent has brought some socialists to the point of despair. It seemed possible that the human potential of socialist society might be constricted into some monstrous bureaucratic-military form when men were on the very threshold of entering into the classless society; a constriction which might delay the human fruition of socialism for centuries, or even lead on to its own destruction. The dialectical interaction between men and their social environment which Marx saw as the dynamic force of history appeared to be frozen. But (Blake’s warning): “Expect poison from the standing water.” “Our view shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.” (German Ideology) The creative act by which men, themselves the product of their circumstances, change these circumstances in their turn, and thus change themselves, was impeded by a false consciousness buttressed by the organs of state and involving a falsification of historical evidence upon a gigantic scale. Ideas were explained away, had no reality, except as symptoms (passive mirror-reflections) of class being – on the one hand, “weapons” of the proletariat; on the other, evidences of bourgeois penetration. If unorthodox ideas appeared, it was the business of the OGPU to furnish evidence of the “conspiracy” which they must “reflect.” We learn to our cost that ideas are indeed real and material forces within society: that false, warped, fragmentary ideas can leave their evidence in the thronged corpses, the barbed-wire encampments, economic dislocation and international conflict. We re-learn (what Marx surely understood) that man is human by virtue of his culture, the transmission of experience from generation to generation; that his history is the record of his struggle truly to apprehend his own social existence; and that Marx and Engels, through their discoveries, hoped to assist in the liberation of men from false, partial, class consciousness, thereby liberating them from victimhood to blind economic causation, and extending immeasurably the region of their choice and conscious agency. Hence the concept of mankind mastering its own history, of socialism bringing “pre-history” to an end, and – by enabling mankind to approximate more closely than ever before to a true self-consciousness – enthroning for the first time the human reason and conscience:

“man –
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself ...”

And Marxism itself is not (as Stalin described it) “the scientific expression of the fundamental interests of the working-class,” but (in nature) “means no more than simply conceiving nature just as it exists without any foreign admixture” (Engels): and (in social reality) the struggle to attain towards a similar objective self-consciousness (without the foreign admixture of class ideology) by changing men of their own changing existence. The Soviet Encyclopaedists have forgotten the continuity of human culture, that man’s true knowledge and self-knowledge has advanced through the zig-zags of the distorted and the partisan. What has advanced has not been a “weapon,” or a dialectic, or a new class-bound ideology, but the sum of the knowledge of man.

What is a ‘Mistake’?

The first feature of Stalinism, then, is anti-intellectualism, the belittling of conscious human agency in the making of history; and the revolt against it is not the revolt of a new ideology but the revolt of reason against irrationalism. A second feature of this revolt, equally challenging, equally hopeful, is the revolt against inhumanity, the revolt against the dogmatism and abstractions of the heart, and the emergence of a warm, personal and humane socialist morality – moral attitudes always present in the rank and file of the communist movement and within Soviet society, but distorted by Stalinist ideology, institutions, and bureaucratic practices.

Throughout the world, East and West, people are asking the same questions. By what vile alchemy do some communists, who spring from the common people, struggle, sacrifice, and endure incredible hardships on the people’s behalf, become transformed into monsters of iniquity like Beria and Rakosi – lying, slandering and perjuring, destroying their own comrades, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, deporting whole nations? Communists are asking of their own leaders, the people are asking of Communist Parties, would you also act like this if you were in power? Are those minor “mistakes” which we have witnessed – character assassination, dissemination of ‘wrong information,’ bad faith – signs that you also would follow the same pattern? Like old Lear in the storm, humanity regards; the leaders of world communism and cries out: “Is there any cause in nature that breeds these hard hearts?”

Stalinism is incapable of giving any answers to these questions. The Stalinist apologist simply throws his hands across his eyes and refuses to recognise their existence. Thus George Matthews:

“For Marxists every political decision is good or bad according to whether or not it serves the interests of the working people and the cause of socialism.” (World News, 30th June 1956)

Thus John Gollan:

“If you disagree with your opponent’s political line, it is easy enough to call it ‘immoral.’ But what has this to do with Marxism and, the determining of a class position on events?

“The moral estimation flows from, and cannot be separated from, the political estimation.” (World News, 9th March 1957)

How many and how unaccountable, it seems, have been the wrong “political estimations” in the past thirty years! And by what standard can we be sure that they are wrong? Can we be sure only by the evidence of “practice” which Rakosi – at length and after much diligence – procured: when the people are tormented and infuriated beyond endurance and break into revolt? Let us bring to these abstractions the criticism of life: for example, the trial of Traicho Rostov.

Rostov was born in 1897, shot in 1949, rehabilitated in 1956. Secretary of the Bulgarian CP both during the underground struggle early in the war, and in the three years after liberation, he was condemned to death as a traitor, saboteur, wrecker and agent of British intelligence. His trial differs from the general run,

in that Rostov refused to plead guilty in court. A vignette from the trial sets the tone. In 1942 the leading members of the underground central committee in Sofia were arrested and condemned to death. Rostov’s sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, although most of his comrades were executed. This fact was alleged as proof of his having broken under police methods and become an agent. Interrogated by the President of the Court, Rostov explained that Mladenov, the authority who had announced to him the commutation of his sentence, did so on higher orders:

Rostov: ‘Mladenov stated .:. that the Minister of War ... asked him ‘How many death sentences were being provided for in the trial?’ He replied that about 9 or 10, not definitely, were being provided for. The Minister of War had asked him: ‘On Whom?’ He had begun mentioning their names and having pronounced the first six names, coming to the seventh, i.e. to my name, the Minister of War had said that six were enough, but from the seventh on, i.e. from Traicho Rostov on ...

The President: ‘One moment, please. Do you know who might have taken steps before the Minister of War ...”

Rostov: The Minister of War had stated that this was being done ... on the order of the King.’

The President: ‘Do you know to what this care on the part of the then King might be due ?’

Rostov: ‘I did not ask, Comrade President. (Laughter in the hall) I asked no one on this matter. I did not undertake any investigation.’

The President: ‘But you maintained now, that your conduct there was the conduct of a Communist?’

Rostov: ‘Yes, it was.’

The President: ‘Why did the King then show this peculiar concern for you, but showed no concern for the other friends of yours, who, as you have said, were much less active than you? Have the Prosecutors any questions?’

“Have the Prosecutors any questions?” For, as the trial unfolds, all are prosecutors: the President, the co-defendants, the lawyers for prosecution and for ‘defence.’ Every random fact – a chance encounter with Tito in Moscow in 1933, an accidental visit to the house of the head of the British mission, past party decisions – is woven into the fabric of a monstrous slander. Before the war “he advanced hostile, left-sectarian Trotskyist ideas in relation to the peasants ... and helped the monarcho-fascist power.” After the war, as Chairman of the Economic Planning Commission, he was responsible for every economic dislocation – the closing of a lemonade factory here and a bread shortage there – which might have aroused discontent among the people. The man who is thus robbed of his honour and accused of betraying his own life’s work is excluded from the witness box, and his ‘defence’ handed over to a counsel who commences by apologising for “defending” such a traitor, and concludes:

“Comrade Judges, it is my duty to declare before you in accordance with my conscience: as a lawyer, as a citizen of our Republic and as your true assistant, evaluating all these data ... I admit that indeed the facts of the indictment are proved ... This is the revealed truth.”

The defendants are allowed a ‘last plea.’ One by one they come forward: “Citizen Judges, I plead guilty ... I deeply repent.” Once again, Rostov broke the pattern:

Rostov: “I consider it the duty of my conscience to declare to the Court and through it to Bulgarian public opinion, that I have never been at the service of British Intelligence, that I have never taken part in the criminal conspiratorial plans of Tito and his clique ...

The President: What do you want of the Court?

Rostov: ... that I have always had an attitude ...

The President: What do you want of the Court?

Rostov: ... of respect and esteem for the Soviet Union.”

A co-defendant is hustled forward to denounce Rostov once more as “the chief organiser and leader of the anti-State conspiracy ... coward ... traitor.” This time the President does not intervene.

And what did Rostov “want of the Court”? Justice would have been too much to have asked for. What equal is there for the bitter irony with which this man, twice tried for his life before a court in which there was no justice to be found, replies to the Judge, “I did not undertake any investigation.” But we – we surely must undertake some investigation into the moral conduct of his accusers? What moral touchstone impelled Rostov to defend, before a court of unjust Communists, the honour of his conduct as a Communist? Why should he feel it to be the “duty of my conscience” to uphold this honour, when all around him were conscienceless?

This is not a case of some chance injustice committed in the heat of revolutionary ferment. Excesses of violence in times of class confrontation, the vengeance of popular anger against quislings and collaborators – such actions can be understood, or justified, as the rough justice of the people. But the Rostov case – which is symptomatic of a thousand other actions – is a case of a deliberate, carefully-conceived act of injustice. It is in no sense an accident of passion. Its intention is plain. The removal of a political opponent is only a minor objective. It is as. important to rob him of his honour as of his life. The purpose, first, is to deceive the people. As such, the action corrupts not only all those who take part in the betrayal and the deception: it will result, also, in tendencies towards the corruption of society. Its further purpose is to create a climate of fear and suspicion, within which the manipulators of power can intimidate opposition; and especially opposition from within the ranks of the Communist Party, where many of the most principled and courageous socialists will be found.

Confronted by such facts as these, the Stalinist argument as to the identity of moral and political “estimation” falls to pieces. No doubt Rakosi or Beria may have “estimated” that such actions were “in the interests of the working-class”: they temporarily strengthened the power of the state, stampeded the people into “monolithic unity,” drove terror into the hearts of opponents, and so on. But we are concerned not with the “estimations” of the initiators of these actions but with the moral degeneracy which such actions reveal. “Wrong theories” do not frame-up, slander and kill old comrades, but wrong men, with wrong attitudes to their fellow-men. For Kruschev to tell us that Stalin “believed” he was defending the interests of the working-class is beside the point. The scourges of mankind, from Genghiz Khan to the agents of the Inquisition, believed themselves to be instruments of some ultimate good; history may bestow a tithe of its compassion upon them, but the rest is reserved for their victims.

We feel these actions to be wrong, because our moral judgements do not depend upon abstractions or remote historical contingencies, but arise from concrete responses to the particular actions, relations, and attitudes of human beings. No amount of speculation upon intention or outcome can mitigate the horror of the scene. Those moral values which the people have created in their history, which the writers have encompassed in their poems and plays, come into judgement on the proceedings. As we watch the counsel for the defence spin out his hypocrisies, the gorge rises, and those archetypes of treachery, in literature and popular myth, from Judas to Iago, pass before our eyes. The fourteenth century ballad singer would have known this thing was wrong. The student of Shakespeare knows it is wrong. The Bulgarian peasant, who recalls that Rostov and Chervenkov had eaten together the bread and salt of comradeship, knows it is wrong. Only the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist” thinks it was – a mistake.

Questions of Morality

Surely after committing – and condoning – such “mistakes” as these, Marxism is condemned to the derision or disgust of history?

Professor G.D.H. Cole has drawn, once again, this conclusion. “The entire structure of Communist ideology rests,” he declares, on the belief that “there is in the real world no morality except class morality”:

“It was therefore justifiable and necessary for the proletariat to use any method and to take any action that would help it towards victory over its class-enemies ... If Communists abstained from certain kinds of action treated as ‘unmoral’ by bourgeois moralists ... they did so solely because they thought them more likely to harm than to further the revolutionary cause.” (New Statesman, 20th April 1957).

Such events as the Rostov trial and the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution reveal “the foundations of Communist philosophy nakedly exposed in action.” “Real” Communists may quibble about the tactical – or political – expediency of such actions, but they have no grounds for moral revulsion. Those who feel such revulsion are not “real” Communists, but are left-wing democratic socialists who do not, at bottom, accept Marx’s ideas.

In phrasing his argument this way, I think that Professor Cole mis-states the nature of the conflict now taking place within the world communist movement. The premise which he advances (“class morality”) can certainly be derived from certain writings of Marx and Engels, and more especially of Lenin, but it is certainly not the whole of their meaning, implicit and explicit. And the conclusions derived from it are – it seems to me – an accurate summary, not of “real” Communism but of the partisan ideology of Stalinism, which emerged in particular conditions and which has never been co-terminous with the whole communist movement. Hence it may equally be said that this conflict is the revolt against the ideology of Stalinism, and a struggle to make explicit the true, humanist content of “real” Communism.

This distortion of moral values also finds a root in the conditions of revolutionary struggle. It is easy, in our parochial island, to forget these conditions: the repression of the Commune, 1905, civil war and famine, the massacre of Shanghai, the fascist terror. I recall the experiences of some of those Bulgarian partisans, with whom my brother fought. One – a young peasant – had had all his hair torn from his head, when beaten in the fascist police station; a friend had been thrown alive into the boilers of the Sofia police; another had disappeared, leaving no trace, until his signet ring and gold teeth had been found in the drawer of a police agent. This collaborator had poured acid into the wounds of partisans. That man had broken under indescribable torture and been forced to enter the service of the police. The movement was penetrated by agents. Men lived in exile, underground, in daily fear of arrest ...

Such facts emphasise the crucible within which Stalinism – with its emphasis on hard, completely selfless, unbreakable, steel-like qualities – was cast. Stalin, over Lenin’s bier, was engaging in neither rhetoric nor hypocrisy: “We Communists are people of a peculiar cut. We are cut out of peculiar stuff ...” Men were killed, betrayed, deserted: only the Party went on. The comrades themselves might be anonymous, unknown to each other. In storm and defeat, in concentration camp and partisan detachment, there grew up that intensity of self-abnegation, that sense of acting as the instrument of historical necessity, above all, that intense loyalty to the Party, as the summation of both personal and social aspirations. In Spain, in China, in Greece, in Yugoslavia, such Communist virtues signed the human record with nobility. Such virtues define the “conduct of a Communist.”

But Stalinism, itself bred from such storm, turned these virtues into instruments of destruction. The centre of moral authority was removed from the community or the conscience of the individual and entrusted to the Party. Loyalty to Party bred hostility to all ‘factions’ or non-conformists. A partisan ideology was buttressed by partisan moral attitudes: loyalty to Party and Cause displaced loyalty to particular human beings. Hence the phenomenon of the great purges when Stalinism found enemies in every street, and – in the name of the Party – friend denounced friend, husband denounced wife. Hence those victims who went to their deaths self-accused – even, in some cases, convinced of their own ‘objective’ treason – in the name of loyalty to the Party. Hence, the demoralisation of Communist victims, who found the strength to endure fascist tortures but who entered the jails of the OGPU divided against themselves. And yet all this human oppression took place under the slogans of Communism. The victims were forced to confess to betrayals of communist principles and “communist conduct.” By this alchemy human qualities were transformed into their opposites, loyalty bred treachery, self-sacrifice bred self-accusation, devotion to the people bred abstract, administrative violence.

This, then, is the soil of social reality which fostered the growth of those immoral features which have congealed in Stalinist ideology. Together with anti-intellectualism, they are embodied in institutional form in the rigid forms of ‘democratic centralism’ of the Communist Parties. These remove the centre of moral authority from the individual conscience and confer it to the leadership of the Party. Even in Britain, extremes of loyalty, identification of the Party with personal and social aspirations, reveal themselves in attitudes towards the critic who threatens to break the “unity of the Party” of intense hatred, which are rarely displayed towards the avowed enemy – the capitalist. Such attitudes are, of course, to be found in all factional squabbles in isolated religious or political sects; where – as in China or Italy – the parties have mass membership, so they are moralised or humanised by the moral attitudes prevalent among the masses of the people. But the most serious thing is that these humanist values (which always and in every country inform the feelings of the majority of the Communist rank and file) do not find expression in Communist orthodoxy; whereas destructive, partisan, anti-humanist and abstract attitudes have found sanction, perpetuation, and even glorification in Stalinist ideology.

Professor Cole has delineated this ideology in outline; although I think it is not so much an amorality (the ends justify the means) as an immorality (a predisposition towards morally repugnant means, an abstract instead of concrete attitude to men) which finds expression in Stalinism. Its ideological form arises, once again, from the mechanical expression of the “superstructure-base” relationship; because (Engels) “the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary,” Stalinism attempts to short-circuit the processes of social life by disclosing “economic necessity,” by asserting economic, i.e. class, interests as the only real sources of human motivation. [3] This entirely mistakes man’s nature, as revealed in his unfolding history. The Stalinist is fixated by Pavlov’s dogs: if a bell was rung, they salivated. If an economic crisis comes the people will salivate good “Marxist-Leninist” belief. But Roundhead, Leveller, and Cavalier, Chartist and Anti-Corn Law Leaguer, were not dogs; they did not salivate their creeds in response to economic stimuli; they loved and hated, argued, thought, and made moral choices. Economic changes impel changes in social relationships, in relations between real men and women; and these are apprehended, felt, reveal themselves in feelings of injustice, frustration, aspirations for social change; all is fought out in the human consciousness, including the moral consciousness. If this were not so, men would be – not dogs – but ants, adjusting their society to upheavals in the terrain. But men make their own history: they are part agents, part victims: it is precisely the element of agency which distinguishes them from the beasts, which is the human part of man, and which it is the business of our consciousness to increase.

Nowhere is this deformation of thought, seen more clearly than in the Stalinist attitude to the arts. At bottom, the Stalinist simply does not understand what the arts are about: he can see “good” or “bad” political ideas (“content”) expressed in artistic form: but he is puzzled to understand why it is necessary to dress them up in this way – except as a kind of salad-dressing to make political theory more palatable, or else as forms of entertainment, amusement, relaxation. Thus the Stalinist can make speeches about cultural amenities under socialism; there will be more three-decker concerts, more editions of the classics; these will “enrich” the people’s leisure. But the understanding of the arts as the supreme expression of man’s imaginative and moral consciousness, as media, through which men struggle to apprehend reality, order their responses, change their own attitudes and therefore change themselves – all this escapes from the categories of Stalinist mechanistic thought. Hence the enforced abasement of the moral and imaginative faculties before the seat of political judgment. Hence political judgment is not envisaged as the – unattainable but approximate – summation of those moral, imaginative, intellectual processes which are carried on throughout a society; but as the adjustment of human beings to the dictation of expediency or of “economic necessity.” If their consciousness can be adjusted as well, so much the better; and this is the role assigned to the arts.

This, then, is the second decisive feature of Stalinist ideology: like all ideologies, it is a form of “self-alienation”; man forgets himself in abstractions, he is delivered over to the State, the Party, the sanctity of public property. Is Professor Cole right to say that this is “real” Communist theory, and can logically be derived from Marx? There is colour for this view to be found, first, in the failure of Marx and Engels to make explicit their moral concepts, and in the passive connotation sometimes attached by them to the concept of “reflection” (as opposed to “cognition”). Second, in the tone which they adopted within particular – and now easily forgotten – historical conditions in their polemics against various forms of “utopian” and “idealist” theories. But implicit within their historical method, explicit in their own moral evaluations, there is a total rejection of such moral nihilism.

Much confusion starts from Engels’ statement in Anti-Dühring:

“As society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class lias become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has been on the whole progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.”

It is important to realise that this statement commences with an observation derived from the study of history: it is not a statement about what morality is, or ought to be. Past moralities have not been the same thing as class interests; they have justified or challenged these interests. It is self-evident that if the moral concepts dominant in a society challenge the interests of the ruling class, these concepts must either be without effect upon conduct (and express themselves in mysticism, retreat from action) or they must be revolutionary in implication. This then is a statement about the actually observed moral conduct of men in history; although, as such it demands qualification in that men’s moral consciousness may profoundly affect the form in which social antagonisms find expression, may mitigate or exacerbate their conflicts, in the same way that the degree of approximation to reality of their intellectual concepts will affect the course of history. [4] Timon of Athens did not sway capitalism from its course but it helped to ignite the mind of Marx; Blake’s Songs‘ did not end human exploitation, but may have influenced the treatment of children in industry. Moreover, only casuistry could argue that Shakespeare or Blake were “reflecting” the future interests of the working-class. They were the tongues which – within the limitations of their time – spoke for humanity.

This is the source of Marx and Engels’ humanism, which glows through all their writings and sustained them in their heroic intellectual discipline. It springs from anguish at man’s self-divided, self-defeating history. “Everything civilization brings forth is double-edged, double-tongued, divided against itself, contradictory.” (Engels). But throughout history, man, the undivided conscious agent, is emergent. It is not the same “man” at any point in history, though there are elements of human experience – before death and old age, birth, sexual experience – little influenced by class environment, and in this soil the arts take their root. But there is no quintessential “human nature,” “no abstraction inherent in each separate individual,” in all times and all societies. Rather, as history unfolds, as men make their own nature, there is a constantly developing human potential, which the false consciousness and distorted relations of class society deny full realisation. Hence Marx and Engels’ constant reference to the powers “slumbering within” men; we know these powers to be present, from outstanding individuals, from periods of history in which creative energies or special aptitudes spring forth, almost without warning. Hence their repeated forecast of a “really human morality,” “purely human sentiments,” relations between men as opposed to relations between things. Hence their confidence that socialism – the abolition of classes – made possible the assertion of man’s humanity, of his potential nature, of that which is specifically human in man: victim no longer of nature or of himself, but a conscious moral agent. “Man is the sole animal capable of working his way out of the merely animal state – his normal state is one appropriate to his consciousness, one to be created by himself.” (Dialects of Nature)

It is an axiom of some philosophy to-day that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, a moral imperative from a statement of fact. But from where else are moral concepts derived than from the “is” of man? Men’s actions spring from the kind of people they are; they are what they are as a result of their environment and their ideas, including their moral ideas; judgments made on their actions are made by other, different, people. But men in class society are divided against themselves. They would like to have peace, but they get war; and so on. The quarrel between man’s potential and his actual social existence expresses itself in frustrations, neuroses, moral corruption, if suffered passively. “He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence,” wrote Blake. In his youth he imagines himself adventurous, heroic, a passionate lover; he ends up reading the News of the World and watching Liberace on ITV. But if met actively, rebelliously, this quarrel is expressed in moral idealism, aspirations for a changed social existence, which gives rise to purposive social action. [5] Hence as, again, Marx and Engels repeatedly asserted – moral judgments cannot be derived from abstract precepts and commandments, but only from real men and women, their suffering or well-being, frustrations and aspirations. Such judgments are bound to congeal into precepts, some of limited validity, and attaining towards a “universal” validity in class-less society. But the precept “Love One Another” did not prevent world war between Christian nations: and the precept “Interests of the Working Class” did not prevent tens of thousands of working people from being caught up in the great purge. What is important, in class society, is to judge the men behind the precepts, and the effect of their conduct upon other men. What does one judge with? One judges as a moral being: one responds with one’s moral consciousness, itself the product of environment, of culture, and of agency. This is to say that moral judgments are never easy; because they are not abstractions, but are concerned with real men and women, they are as difficult as life. Nor is this relativism; man’s moral consciousness has evolved in as real a sense as his intellectual consciousness.

This consciousness comes to the point of expression, above all, in the direct and concrete perception of the artist; responding to the real quality of the life about him, evaluating this beside past culture, ordering his responses into forms which operate upon men, change their attitudes and their moral being in their turn. Thus the insights of Williams Morris, his discoveries about man’s potential moral nature, were not icing on the Marxist gingerbread, but were complementary to the discoveries of Marx. Thus the Stalinist ideology, which reduces the moral consciousness to class relativism, or to Pavlovian behaviourism, forgets the creative spark without which man would not be man. By inhibiting the expression, at all levels of society, of this moral consciousness, Stalinism leads men to the denial of their own nature. The “end” of Communism is not a “political” end, but a human end; or rather, the end of man’s transition from the animal, the beginning of man, the assertion of his full humanity. As such it is an economic, intellectual, and moral end; the conscious fight for moral principle must enter into every “political” decision; a moral end can only be attained by moral means. But this cannot be envisaged as taking place solely within the structure of “monolithic” party. The political leader may not have the gifts of the artist; the artist will make a, poor political tactician. We must think, less in terms of principles, than in terms of social process. Stalinism will not be checked by electing poets to the Central Committee of the CPSU. The poet (let us say) must respond to the feelings of people, write poems which make them aware of their aspirations, change their attitudes, and thus colour the political conduct of the people. Such processes as these, side by side with institutions and legal codes, are guarantees of the liberties and moral health of a people. It is not without significance that the worst frenzies of the purge came after the deaths of Gorki and Mayakovsky. It is no accident that Stalinism reserved its special hatred for the artist. A Kruschev Constitution will indicate the end of Stalinism no more than did the Stalin Constitution. One Dudintsev and the response among the people to his work is a more potent sign.

Man’s moral being cannot be sold into slavery to political expediency. The revolt against Stalinism is a revolt of the human conscience against this warped and militant philistinism. It is to be expected that it is through the conscience of the artist that this first finds expression. Thus Tibor Dery:

“As a writer my main concern is man. My criticism begins when I see man unhappy, especially when I see men and women suffer unnecessarily ... They [the Hungarian CP leaders] build and function on suspicion and distrust. They underestimate the people’s sense of honour and its moral force; its capacity to think and to create.”

In a thousand ways real life contradicts the empty exhortations of Pravda: “rotten elements” are seen to be men of integrity and courage, “enemies of the working class” to be honest students and working people, the paternal party functionary to be an ambitious, egotistical prig. Those pressures for conformity, in an exhausted, post-revolutionary, largely peasant society – symbolised in the appalling declension from Makarenko’s early vibrant Road to Life to his later, ‘Victorian,’ Book for Parents – and expressed in reactionary tendencies in education, social life and sexual morality – are beginning to break up. The fundamental moral consciousness of the people is unimpaired; the aspirations from which the socialist movement sprang grow stronger, not weaker. The relations of men in production are distorted by bureaucracy, but they do not conceal the potentials of socialist democracy. In Moscow and Leningrad the students and young people have found their rulers out. They have been given the jam of culture, in row upon row of ‘classics’, and it has turned to ashes in their mouths. They can bring Aeschylus and Tolstoy into criticism of Kruschev, the clown who sits on history’s steeple. They are turning to their own living writers, and the writers are turning to them, seeking a relationship no longer impeded by the monolithic party. Direct lines of communication are being laid. Thus Vasek Kana, the Czech writer, declared:

“The factory workers are my closest friends. I was born amongst them, I have remained loyal to them, and above all it is before them that I wish to ease my conscience. Did I help them when they needed my help? Did I protect them against those bureaucrats who sat round a green table and ordered them to produce absurd norms? Did I defend them when their criticisms brought down moral and material reprisals upon them? ... Did I condemn a system of leadership based more often than not on lack of trust in the people? ... Did I publicly condemn the self-styled leading cadres’ who behaved like lordlings? Did I stand up against those self-styled ‘organisers’ who organised our life in such a manner that one could no longer live?”

The people are beginning to heal themselves, and no amount of talk of “demagogy” and “revisionism” can halt the process, which will show itself in changed attitudes, changed relationships, changed responses, above all in changed men.

Stalinist ideology – this partisan consciousness, of a revolutionary elite, born in conditions of indescribable hardship, encumbered by mechanistic errors to which Lenin contributed – arises from and perpetuates the class-attitudes of hatred, and brings, in turn, hatred and suspicion into its own midst. Engels had confidence in “that morality which contains the maximum of durable elements ... the one which, in the present, represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future: that is, the proletarian.” (Anti-Dühring) The best features of the labour movement in his time, with its international outlook, its assertion of the brotherhood of man, its emphasis upon the dignity of labour, its pursuit of knowledge and culture, justified this confidence. “It has quickened and given life to feelings of a broader sympathy and brotherly trust, has increased the intelligence, elevated the moral tone, and brightened the life of all who, having regard for themselves and love for their fellows ... have thrown in their lot in the battle of labour against capital.” (Gasworkers’ Address of 1889) Such a morality, rooted in the strong social ties of the pit, the union, common industrial struggles, should lead on to the outlook of “socialised humanity.” But such a morality contains also the attitudes of hatred to the enemy, utter repudiation from human fellowship of the blackleg or scab, vigilance against the agent or collaborator. Stalinism neglected the first group of attitudes, and exalted the second. Thus George Hardy, a British veteran of many bitter struggles, records in his memoirs a speech delivered in Shanghai in 1951:

“As an old ’un I took the liberty ... of reminding my hearers that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. ‘The enemies,’ I said, ‘have not given up. They still exist in Shanghai and must be rooted out.’ This brought the audience to their feet, shouting slogans and raising their right hands.”

Vigilance is necessary, and certainly in China, with Chiang-Kai-Shek and the US Fleet off the mainland. But the constant heightened emphasis on vigilance, upon “ruthlessly smashing,” “stamping out,” etc., all opposition, can – without effective institutional safeguards and freedoms – be used as a dangerous instrument of power to silence criticism, as Chinese leaders now admit.

Tom Mann, on his many international missions, did not speak this language of “rooting out,” “smashing,” and “ruthlessness.” He trusted the working people to display a morality superior to that of their oppressors. He – and others of his generation – were not afraid to speak, not only of the virtues of militancy, but also of fellowship, brotherhood, and even of love. After half a century of butchery, fascism, the betrayals of 1926 and 1931, this last word raises an immediate and cynical reaction even in Britain; but men have made this word also in their history, and there is no other which we can use. Socialism is the expression of man’s need for his fellow men, his undivided social being, and hence it must find expression in love, even when attained only through the throes of class hatred and conflict. In the humanism of Marx’s own writings there is an ultimate compassion, within which the partisan passions are contained. As he declared, in his Preface to Capital:

“Since I understand the development of the economic structure of society to be a natural process, I should be the last to hold the individual responsible for conditions whose creature he himself is, socially speaking, however much he may raise himself above them subjectively.”

This is not to deny all moral criteria; for men have a region of moral agency, all the same. Nor can the compassion which flows from understanding have much influence upon action in certain historical contingencies – in war, confronted with fascism, in extreme industrial conflict – when men must be partisan. Nevertheless, the methods of violence inescapable in such contingencies must never be glorified; the Christian precept, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” must re-assert itself whenever and to the degree that contingencies allow. And the judgment on such “contingencies” is not apolitical judgment, but a moral judgment also. The political criminal (the fascist thug, the agent, the AVO torturer) must be tried for his criminality, not for his class origins or political affiliations. Those whose anti-social behaviour constitutes a danger to their fellow men must be re-educated, not left to rot in camps. Wrong ideas must be fought with right ideas, not by liquidating the men who hold them. Such attitudes of compassion did indeed find their expression in the early years of the Russian revolution; they find their expression in China today.

This understanding that socialists work to liberate all humanity from the stunting antagonisms of class never left Marx or Engels’ minds. I have before me the unpublished draft of the principles of the North of England Socialist Federation, annotated in Engels’ hand. The original (by J.L. Mahon) reads: the Federation “aims at abolishing the Capitalist and Landlord class, and forming the workers of society into a Co-operative Commonwealth.” But Engels amends it as follows: “aims at abolishing the Capitalist and Landlord class, as well as the wage-working class, and forming all members of society into a Co-operative Commonwealth.” (My emphasis). So slight a change, but so significant today! Socialist humanism places real people once again at the centre of its aspiration. It remembers the precept of Timon: “Men are born to do benefits.” And what else is the “economic base” of socialism but men doing benefits to each other, and thereby enriching themselves? Stalinism seeks to freeze the “dialectic” into an orthodox, enforced collectivism. But social existence in the Soviet Union, people’s new feelings and aspirations, conflict with this orthodoxy. New men and women are arising who seek to create a society, not of stagnation, but where the false dialectic of class is replaced by the human quarrel between the actual and the potential, between the boundless aspirations of life and the necessary limitations of the particular, the concrete, the personal. They seek to make men whole.

Contempt for the People

Always life is more unexpected, arbitrary, contradictory, than the thoughts of the philosopher who abstracts and makes conceptual patterns, or the art of the poet who responds and organises his responses. But insofar as man is an agent, an “educator,” he changes himself according to his thoughts and values; he tries to make his own history according to the laws of logic and the laws of beauty. If his concepts are false, do not correspond to social reality, he will cause himself suffering; hence Marx’s insistence that theory finds its final test in action (a precept which demonstrates incontestably the total corruption of Stalinist ideology). But also, if he fails to fashion coherent concepts at all, he abandons his own creative agency; he becomes a simple pragmatist, who muddles along in response to one social contingency after another. This is also likely to bring suffering onto his head.

This fashioning of concepts, this disposition to act by their laws, is not something which is carried on in society just by thinkers and poets, not something which is done for the rest of society by “intellectuals.” We take examples from such people because it is in their activities – the systematised cultural disciplines within which they are engaged – that this human process (being – thinking and responding – becoming) finds its clearest point of expression. But every man is an intellectual and moral being. And here we come to a third distinctive feature of Stalinist ideology. Men, Marx held, develop their own nature in their labour, and in their relations with each other in the social act of labour:

“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.”

Initiation, regulation and control demand intellectual and moral agency. Men must understand the seasons, plan their crops, store their seed, enter into relations with each other in the sowing and the harvest. Man’s actions are human actions: and, also, “his own wants” are not purely animal wants, but human needs, physical, moral and intellectual. He needs clothes for warmth, and also for adornment; he needs shelter, but also “room to turn round in,” privacy, etc. In this resides the dignity of human labour, which Marx explicitly dissociated from “those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal”:

“We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” (Capital, I, iii, VII).

At root the Stalinist does not recognise this central fact. When he reads that men “set in motion” their heads, he conjures up a picture of men butting their heads against trees, or jerking them about as they lift weights. He conceives of the “economic base” as made up of things – ploughs, spinning jennies, shipyards – to which men are appended, and which they affect only by technical innovations. Stalin finds it necessary to remind his readers that:

“the development and improvement of the instruments of production was effected by men who were related to production, and not independently of men; and, consequently, the change and development of the instruments of production was accompanied by a change and development of men, as the most important element of the productive forces ...”

But this grudging recognition of the agency – in a technological sense – of “the most important element of the productive forces” is sternly qualified:

“The rise of new productive forces ... takes place not as a result of the deliberate and conscious activity of man, but spontaneously, unconsciously, independently of the will of man.” (Dialectical & Historical Materialism).

Stalin is led to this ridiculous conclusion by confusing the development of new productive forces (which is certainly the result of conscious, purposive action) with the compulsive social relations which arise involuntarily from this development. That is, Crompton and Watt and ten thousand others engage in deliberate and conscious activity; but they do not consciously will or foresee the train of social consequences which will flow from the changes they effect. But the Stalinist forgets that the “economic base” is a fiction descriptive not of men’s physical-economic activities alone, but of their moral and intellectual being as well. Production, distribution and consumption are not only digging, carrying, and eating, but are also planning, organising and enjoying. Imaginative and intellectual faculties are not confined to a “superstructure” and erected upon a “base” of things (including men-things); they are implicit in the creative act of labour which makes man man.

From this flows that feature of Stalinist ideology which can best be described as anti-democratic, inherently bureaucratic, alternately paternalist or despotic towards the people. To understand the social environment within which this false idea took root we must turn to the experts on post-revolutionary Soviet society. It arises, surely, in part from the outlook of a revolutionary elite, desperately aware of its historical mission and almost impossible tasks, operating within a society without long democratic traditions or experience of democratic institutions, and with a large part of the people indifferent or actively hostile to its ideas.

In this context we see the elite’s self-identification with the “superstructure” operating upon a material base of economic (but not moral, intellectual) needs or discontents. Hence the fetishism of heavy industry, and neglect of consumer needs; hence the bureaucratic administration of industry, the central planning of economic life so minute that in Poland (for example) even the number of cucumbers to be pickled was included in the Five Year Plan. The desperate backwardness of Russia, the compelling need to force the pace of industrialisation, created the climate within which these practices and ideas grew up; but they led to the ultimate contradiction of a socialist economy which, instead of releasing the economic, the creative, initiatives of men, inhibits them and cramps them, and therefore slows down its own economic growth. Hence that whole tissue of bureaucraticism revealed so dramatically in the Polish 8th Plenum:

“The working-class was not master in its workshops, in its name control was exercised by the representatives of the state – a bureaucracy often indifferent to the needs of the masses. The needs of the masses, their standard of living, did not determine our economic planning – but, on the contrary, they were determined by plans, which often, at the expense of the masses, were based on wrong assumptions. This is why in spite of great successes in construction, the working-class is so exasperated and disillusioned.” (Arthur Starewicz, The Polish Road, p.36).

But hence also a whole constellation of political attitudes, elitist, paternal, and anti-democratic, in Stalinist ideology. Hence the tone of Stalinist propaganda, throughout the world: the addressing of political demands almost exclusively to economic discontents, the belittling of the common sense, moral idealism, and political judgment of working people. Hence the ridiculous structure and strategy of the British CP which within the heart of an advanced political democracy, where above all it is the minds and consciences of the people which must be won for socialism, cannot help but foster within itself an elitist outlook. Despite all resolutions for building the “mass party”, the masses refuse to be politically convinced by the most self-sacrificing of economic actions alone. The mind of the people lies open; but the Communist stubbornly addresses himself to the “economic base.” The working man asks moral questions: the Communist only hands him a rent petition. Despite all the talk of “faith in the people,” despite all the exaltation of the “instincts” of the working-class (as men-things, economic base), Stalinism conceals a colossal contempt, a vast all-embracing attitude of patronage, towards working men and women. This is the political expression of Stalinism: its veiled hostility to democratic initiatives in every form. Man is an appendage to the “instruments of production”: the creative man at the heart of labour, from whom all instruments of production, all politics, all institutions flow, has escaped from the categories of Stalinist ideology.

Questions of Theory

The ideology of Stalinism, then, has three distinctive features: anti-intellectualism, moral nihilism, and the denial of the creative agency of human labour, and thus of the value of the individual as an agent in society. This is not the same thing as saying that Stalinism is “Marxism with three mistakes”; at a certain point – related to the growth of the Russian bureaucracy, the Third International, and Stalin’s own influence – dogmas and partisan class attitudes which ‘had been present in different degrees in the working-class movement crystallised into a systematised ideology, held together within a false conceptual framework. Although proclaimedly materialist, it partook of some of the characteristics of religion. Its symbol is the Lenin mausoleum. Its supreme ideologist was Stalin himself: and it found institutional expression in the CPSU and ‘in the practices of “democratic centralism” in other CPs. Its most systematic exposition is to be found, perhaps, in Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938): its institutional justification was provided by the Short History of the CPSU(B).

But the ideology of Stalinism cannot be laid at Stalin’s door alone. Several of its features can be traced to ambiguities in the thought of Marx and, even more, to mechanistic fallacies in Lenin’s writings. Marx used the word “reflection” in two quite distinct contexts. First, as a statement of the materialist standpoint: sense-impressions “reflect” external material reality which exists independently of human consciousness. Second, as an observation upon the way in which men’s ideas and institutions have been determined by their “social being” in their history. But the second observation does not follow from the first premise. It is derived from the study of changing society, whose premises “are men, not in, any fantastic isolation or definition, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions.” Because a sense-impression may be described (metaphorically) as a “reflection” of material reality, it by no means follows that human culture is a passive mirror-reflection of social reality. Whenever Marx and Engels discussed the processes of social change they made it clear that this was not so. But (because scientific research had only begun to open up such questions) they tended to leap the gap between one and the other, and to enquire very little into the problem of how men’s ideas were formed, and wherein lay their field of agency. The interaction between social environment and conscious agency (being – thinking – becoming) was central to their thought, and it was the neglect of agency which Marx saw as the weakness of mechanical materialism:

“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism ... is that the object, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or contemplation but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively.” (First Thesis on Feuerbach)

This gap, between the raw material of experience and the processes of human culture, has increasingly been filled in during the past hundred years, by research into psychology, language, semantics, the sociology of culture, the nature of the arts, etc. Whereas Engels stated that “materialism must assume a new aspect with every new great discovery,” Marxism in general has failed to take account of these advances, and – since the time of Lenin – has degenerated into’ ideology. For this, the uncritical acceptance of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism must take some share of responsibility. Lenin’s inspired political genius was not matched by an equal genius in the field of philosophy. In this work (now sanctified by Stalinism as a “basic text”) his concern with the first premise of materialism led him into a number of fallacies. Among these:

  1. the repeated lumping together of ideas, consciousness,thought, and sensations as “reflections” of material reality. (But a sense-impression, which animals share with men, is not the same thing as an idea, which is the product of exceedingly complex cultural processes peculiar to men).
  2. The repeated statement, in an emotive manner, that material reality is “primary” and “consciousness, thought, sensation” is “secondary,” “derivative.” (Partially true: but we must guard against the emotional undertones that therefore thought is less important than material reality. Man is a conscious being, not an animal being with a “derivative” consciousness).
  3. Lenin slipped over from Marx’s observation “social being determines social consciousness” to the quite different (and untrue) statement that “social consciousness reflects social being.”
  4. From this, he slipped over to the grotesque conclusion that “social being is independent of the social consciousness of humanity.” (How can conscious human beings, whose consciousness is employed in every act of labour, exist independently of their consciousness?)
  5. From this it was a small step to envisaging consciousness as a clumsy process of adaptation to independently-existing “social being.” “The necessity of nature is primary, and human will and mind secondary. The latter must necessarily and inevitably adapt themselves to the former.” (SW II, p.248). “The highest task of humanity is to comprehend the objective logic of economic evolution ... so that it may be possible to adapt to it one’s social consciousness ... in as definite, clear and critical a fashion as possible.” (p.376).

Thus the concept of human agency, of the “educators and the educated,” became lost in a determinism where the role of consciousness was to adapt itself to “the objective logic of economic evolution.” Human consciousness might thus be described as a form of innate behaviour pattern set in motion by economic stimuli, and with a very limited agency in making men conscious of their own innate adaptiveness. Such a pattern might be built within an electronic brain. Stalin’s references to the “organising, mobilising and transforming role” of ideas are always framed within such a context of more or less efficient responses to stimuli. Hence Marx’s common-sense view that man’s freedom is enlarged by each enlargement of knowledge (“Freedom ... consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature which is founded on knowledge of natural necessity.” – Engels) is transformed into the mystique of man’s freedom consisting in his recognising and serving “the objective logic of economic evolution”: his “freedom” becomes slavery to “necessity.” Thus from one fallacy we slip to another: a passive “reflection” cannot initiate, plan, make revolutions; Lenin, absorbed in philosophical nuances, forgot that Marx and Engels held that social being determined social consciousness, not because of any automatic “reflection,” but because in class society the compulsive nature of social relations gives rise to a conflict of wills, giving rise in turn to social changes which no-one wills. In forgetting this he removed the cause of social change from the agency of men to the agency of economic necessity. But this led on (in Stalin) simply to a new form of dualism, in which man’s consciousness is no more than the projection of a “soul” within matter, a “dialectic” within the instruments of production, the source of all change.

In a healthy socialist environment these fallacies would soon have been sifted out from the rich harvest of Lenin’s political thought. But in fact the fallacies were seized upon by Stalin, systematised, and built into the framework of his thought. In Dialectical & Historical Materialism all sense of human agency, all understanding of the “educators and the educated,” has disappeared.

“If nature, being, the material world, is primary, and mind, thought, secondary, derivative; if the material world represents objective reality existing independently of the mind of men, while the mind is a reflection of this objective reality, it follows that the material life of society, its being, is also primary, and its spiritual life secondary, derivative, and that the material life of society is an objective reality existing independently of the will of men, while the spiritual life of society is a reflection of this objective reality ...”

The very mode of thought is idealist and mechanistic. Historical materialism is “the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life” (instead of the study of reality giving rise to, &c.); it is the “application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society” (that is, the principles are imposed on the phenomena). The understanding of process (“our ideas of movement”) is reduced to a vile physico-economic automatism:

“Hence the practical activity of the party of the proletariat must not be based on the good wishes of ‘outstanding individuals’, not on the. dictates of ‘reason’, ‘universal morals,’ etc., but on the laws of development of society and on the study of these laws”

– as if such “laws” of “society” exist independently of man’s rational and moral being. But the whole structure of thought is corrupt. Stalin, trained in a Greek orthodox seminary, was known as a “strong Marxist”: and he had, indeed, an inexorable logic in leading from false premises to false conclusions. The honest Stalinist does not repudiate Stalin; he opens Stalin’s works, is enmeshed in his logic, believes it, and then looks up and cannot understand the world. Surely Stalin’s ideas are right: there must have been slips, ‘mistakes’ in his practice? Let the reader return again to this work, and when amidst the blind automatism of productive forces, ask himself suddenly, “yes, but where are men? Where is the man that Marx described, using his head and his hands in his labour?”

“Such is the dependence of the development of the relations of production on the development of the productive forces of society, and primarily, on the development of the instruments of production, the dependence by virtue of which the changes and development of the productive forces sooner or later lead to corresponding changes and development of the relations of production.”

The Kruschev Era

The institutional form – democratic centralism – has already been much discussed and well analysed. [6] Independent of arguments as to the validity of this or that type of organisation to particular contexts, we should view the CPSU and in varying degrees other CPs as institutions adapted to the needs of an ideological orthodoxy. It is in the nature of an orthodoxy, that inhibits the emergence of unorthodox ideas, that it must have a source of infallibility, of revealed dogma, as the Catholic Church has its Pope. That is, someone must give the sign for change, someone must move on, or the institution will cease to respond to changing circumstances at all. If there is. a lurch, or someone on the lower rung moves first, everything may be thrown into disorder, as after the Kruschev speech (Togliatti, Thorez, etc.). Thus the cult of the personality arose from the ideology of Stalinism, and not vice versa. So Party functions, Congresses, etc., assumed the form of devotional exercises, reaching their dizzy zenith in Stalin’s reply to the debate at the 17th Congress (1934):

“Comrades, the debate at this Congress has revealed complete unity of opinion among our Party leaders on all questions of Party policy, one can say. As you know, no objections whatever have been raised against the report. Hence, it has been revealed that there is extraordinary ideological-political and organisational solidarity in the ranks of our Party. (Applause) The question arises: Is there any need, after this, for a speech in reply to the debate? I think there is no need for it. Permit me therefore to refrain from making a speech in reply. (Ovation. All the delegates rise to their feet. Loud cheers. A chorus of cheers: ‘Long Live Stalin!’ The delegates, all standing, sing the Internationale, after which the ovation is resumed. Shouts of ‘Cheers for Stalin!’ ‘Long live Stalin!’ ‘Long live the C.C.!’)

It is unfortunate that despite such unity it proved necessary that so many of these delegates should have to be shot. But it was through the denial of the role of individuals as agents in history, as initiators in the Party, that one individual took all of history as his role.

But false thinking on this scale repeatedly fails to produce results. The “social-fascists” turn out, after all, to be anti-fascists; Britain, after all, does not join hands with Germany in an anti-Communist crusade. Hence the constant “abrupt changes” in line. Stalin was not only an ideologist: he was also an extremely capable organiser and man of action, as his war leadership proved: indeed, in total war against the vilest expression of capitalism in history, ideology and reality were brought into a deceptive unity. But with the end of the war ideology no longer connected with real Hie. “The Stalinist oscillates between the axiom and ‘realpolitik’: dogmatism and opportunism. When the axioms cease to produce results, a ‘mistake’ is ‘recognised’.” But the cornucopia from which ‘mistakes’ flow in such abundance is never recognised. With Stalin’s death the ideology sustained a tremendous blow. It is still intact, although infallibility attaches to an institution and not a man: the apex of the orthodoxy is now the CC of the CPSU. But since Stalin’s death we have seen an almost manic oscillation between attempts to shore the dogma up, and concessions to reality. Kruschev is not a jolly pragmatist, doing what he thinks best by his own haphazard lights; he is the opportunist side of the Stalinist moon. The world is changing around him, and he does not understand why. He roars at Gomulka at the airport, and makes it up in Moscow. He denounces Stalin, and declares himself a Stalinist. He issues a statement on past ‘mistakes’ in relations between socialist countries, and smashes the Hungarian rising before the ink is dry. Such actions precede the end of a dogma; but a dogma in its last days is also unpredictable, ill-tempered, dangerous. “We are not saints,” declares Kruschev. That the world knows, but it indicates an advance in self-consciousness all the same. For Stalin believed in his own sainthood. Stalin viewed himself as the High Priest of historical necessity: Kruschev is too bothered patching up the holes to think sustainedly at all.

The world is changing because socialist people have changed. All this that I have described – the follies of thought and the corruptions of practice – were carried forward in the name of Communism. Stalinism has never been the same thing as the world Communist movement. The corruptions have enmeshed only those in the upper ranks of the inner bureaucracy. Stalinism has killed Communist thinkers, artists, and leaders of the working people,” but it has never denied Communism. The precepts of Communism – in rigid and fragmentary forms – have been taught to children in school; voiced in dull lifeless novels; committed to memory by the rank-and-file party member. The false consciousness was always encroaching: but it was always resisted by the people’s traditions, their experiences in life. In those countries where the great purge could not reach, there has been constant conflict within the communist movements between forces of health and corruption. Without the pressures of the OGPU and frame-ups, nothing could prevent practical experience, the humanist traditions of the socialist movement, the creative ideas of Marx and Engels, from resisting the spreading orthodoxy; only the inner party bureaucracies, nourished on Stalinist texts and involved in the network of international deception, became true ideologists.

But even from among these the pragmatic heretics – Gomulka, Tito, etc. – have constantly been thrown up. And in the Soviet Union new men and women have come on the scene. Where ideology, false consciousness, reigns, “the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary.” The instruments of production in the Soviet Union are socialised. The bureaucracy is not a class, but is parasitic upon that society. Despite its parasitism, the wave of human energy unleashed by the first socialist revolution has multiplied the wealth of society, and vastly enlarged the cultural horizons of the people; schools, books, concerts, technical institutes, art galleries – all these have multiplied also. The false consciousness of Stalinism now makes the bureaucracy – confronted by these enormous human energies – increasingly less capable of performing its function in planning and developing the national economy. On the one hand, economic and social frustrations develop; on the other, men and women struggle for a true, socialist consciousness, and seek to give it political expression.

Throughout the Soviet Union people – and especially young people – are sick to the point of nausea with the mumbo-jumbo of Pravda and of “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.” The “correct formulations” and ideological fatuities are contradicted by their living experience, and this gives rise to demands for common sense, decency, and humanity, such as find expression in Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone. Throughout the international communist movement a similar ferment is in progress. The outcome in the Soviet Union cannot be forecast.

Under certain circumstances, the revolt might take the form of a limited political revolution. It must certainly give rise to changed institutions and patterns of social life. This, however, can be said with certainty. One thing only today holds Stalinism in power in the Soviet Union – the fear of war with the West. International relaxation following upon Geneva brought with it internal concession, the return of more prisoners from the camps, the Kruschev speech, the Polish events of October, the Hungarian revolution. Stalinism, bringing precept to fact, identifying all opposition to itself as ‘counter-revolutionary,’ crushed the Hungarian revolt. But it could not crush the contradictions which gave rise to it. The Hydrogen Bomb, the soundly-based fear of aggression from American imperialism (which every day announces new advanced bases for atomic missiles) strengthens the bureaucratic and military caste, gives to them their raison d’etre, gives colour to Stalinist ideology, and at the same time weakens and confuses the fight against Stalinist ideology both in the Soviet Union and outside. The dismantling of Stalinism will not be assisted simply by swelling the chorus of anti-Stalinist abuse. We must understand – and explain – the true character of Stalinism, the new face of Soviet Society immanent within it. We must do what we can to dismantle the Hydrogen Bomb.

Men versus Things

So back once again to our parochial island. If this analysis is true, then the commonly-found attitudes of British working people to the Soviet Union – that it is “going the right way,” but has no democracy, “you can’t speak your mind,” and so on – have been more healthy than the uncritical allegiance of British-Communists. But this is not the whole truth. The rest lies in this. The Soviet Union is a socialist country, although this is not yet expressed in institutions, political conduct, or public morality. Out of storm, out of error, from a revolution that leapt a chasm of social development and encompassed a people without democratic traditions, there grew this ideology which has contorted the features of socialist man. But those features are human features; they are our features also; we see in them our own future. Hence the British Stalinist who accepts the contortions as “correct” and who distorts his own face into an imitative scowl: “There is no such thing as Marxism without the Communist Party.” Hence the Communist who becomes enmeshed in Stalinist ideology simply because he dare not look at those features as they really are, he must idealise them – if he looked, he would lose hope for humanity. Hence also a certain spiritual despair, a paralysis of will, a lack of direction, in the British labour movement; it has seen the Gorgon’s head and has lost the desire to move on.

Is it inevitable that the new society must be torn out of the old, with a partisan ideology such as Stalinism? It might be argued that the Bolsheviks would never have held power in Russia, in circumstances of inconceivable difficulty, if they had not strengthened the steel of endurance and summoned emotional energies by developing to their extreme point the partisan attitudes of the proletarian elite. But because Stalinism is the ideology of a proletarian elite in such a context, it does not at all follow that the inevitably partial and partisan outlooks of other working class movements will give birth to new ideologies. False ideas there are bound to be during the transitional stage which Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat. But if we learn the lesson of Stalinism, they need not grow into a self-perpetuating system of falsities.

There might be some danger, in certain conditions and countries – and if the fall of the Soviet bureaucracy is long delayed – of the Trotskyist ideology taking root and, if victorious, leading on to similar distortions and confusions. Trotskyism is also a self-consistent ideology, being at root an “anti-Stalinism” (just as there were once anti-Popes), arising from the same context as Stalinism, opposing the Stalinist bureaucracy but carrying over into opposition the same false conceptual framework and attitudes – the same economic behaviourism, cult of the elite, moral nihilism. Hence the same desperate expectation of economic crisis, denunciation of movements – in the colonies or in the West – which find expression through constitutional forms, attacks upon the worldwide movement for co-existence. The best, most fruitful, ideas of Trotskyism – emphasis upon economic democracy and direct forms of political democracy – are expressed in fetishistic form: “worker’s councils” and “Soviets” must be imposed as the only orthodoxy. But Britain teems with Soviets. We have a General Soviet of the TUC and trades Soviets in every town: peace Soviets and national Soviets of women, elected parish, urban district and borough Soviets. Granted that these organisations must be transformed; but it is the people behind, or within, the institutions whom we must change.

The most striking thing about the British labour movement is that it cannot be said to have either a false consciousness or a true one: it has a hotch-potch, of capitalist ideas, humanitarian aspirations, working-class attitudes. We are a protestant people, distrustful of system-building: we have not suffered under an ideological orthodoxy, backed by the power of the state, for several hundred years. Our Labour movement, is guided, in the main, by pragmatism: which is not an ideology but a kind of fragmentary, piecemeal, fitful, true consciousness; it sees problems clearly, but not their relationship to each other. Therefore it tends to accept, or half-accept, a framework of capitalist ideas (the sanctity of NATO and the US alliance, the inevitability of the wages-prices-spiral, etc.) but to fight hard for certain principles and interests within it. It can at times see some problems very well, but cannot see how they arose, nor anticipate how they will change.

This pragmatism which, in a wry way, Engels admired, has served the British people a great deal better than most Marxists have been prepared to admit. Pragmatism combined with parochialism have served it least well in international affairs; and far more often than not they have served the colonial peoples very badly indeed. And yet even in international questions, Marxists tend to overstate the case; we should not forget that the British people played their part – with high, and conscious, morale – in turning the tide of fascism in Europe.

I am not dismayed, as some seem to be, by the refusal of a slump to develop. We should address ourselves as socialists to the context and people we find about us, and it is high time to get away from the idea that our views will only prevail, and the working-class seize power, through a final cataclysmic confrontation of classes, preceded by economic ruin. It is true that Marx expected some such outcome; but, on the other hand, he hailed the 10 Hour Bill as “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class” (Address to WMIA, 1864). Engels also encouraged the new unions to fight for the Legal Eight Hour Day and employ the machinery of State in the interests of the people; we have followed this road to the present day. The ferment of 1945 resulted in such victories for “the political economy of the working class,” that the capitalist class was almost fought to a standstill and held prisoner within its own state machinery. The British working class finds itself in its present position not because we have the “oldest and most cunning capitalist class in the world,” but because the capitalist class could not stop it. It has got no further because, being pragmatic and hostile to theory it does not know and feel its own strength, it has no sense of direction or revolutionary perspective, it tends to fall into moral lethargy, it accepts leaders with capitalist ideas. In Britain the new society is not – as in Russia – to be torn prematurely from the old, but is in many, features formed within the old. I don’t mean that we live in some halfway society, some “mutation” of capitalist society, some “late capitalist” phase which is almost socialism. We live in a capitalist society there is no need for qualification. The ethos or capitalism is the same, the drive for profit is the same, the tendency towards war against backward peoples is the same, the debasement of cultural values into commodities, the elevation of property above men, the putting of things (bases on Cyprus, higher profits, etc.) before human beings – all these are the same: but between the Americans and the H Bomb abroad, and the constant, stubborn, determined pragmatic pressure of the people at home, our capitalist ruling-class is hemmed in and cannot act as it would. Hemmed in, it could become dangerous, just as dying dogmatism is dangerous: Suez was a symptom: in the past few years irrationalism, religiosity, anti-humanist and vicious ideologies have been gaining ground among our middle-class. But the British capitalist class cannot do as it likes; however cunning, it has not got much left to give away, except the essential economic and political seats of its power. The working people of Britain could end capitalism tomorrow, if they summoned up the courage and made up their minds to do it. If they have lost the will, is it not just because there is full employment; it is also because, over thirty years, their hopes – and the hopes of many in the professional classes – in Russia have kept falling through. Working people in Britain still feel the social relations of capitalist society to be oppressive; but not so oppressive that they are willing to risk giving allegiance to a “Vanguard” which will establish a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” They are better suited as they are; but remaining as they are leaves them as proletarians with bourgeois aspirations, exploited acquisitive men.

The militant philistinism of Stalinism is matched by our own muted and sterile philistinism. The new thinkers have little to offer. Man is the victim of the Dollar Gap, the wages-prices spiral; his aspirations must be fitted to his pocket. They feel, uneasily, that something is missing: Thus Mr. Crosland:

“We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafés, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating-houses, more local river-side cafés, more pleasure-gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing-estates, better designed street-lamps and telephone kiosks, and so on.” (The Future of Socialism)

Yes, we want some of these things; but let us look a little more closely. Look first at the slapdash writing and the sensibility revealed: “open air cafés ... public houses ... hoteliers and restaurateurs ... eating-houses ... riverside cafés”; the American tourist’s dream. It is nice for an MP to slip out of the House for a full meal in a pleasure-garden; but are we sure this is what socialists mean by the “full life”? This is a bit more middle-class life all round; there is no sense of a socialist community; re-designed street lamps and kiosks but not factories and cities. And then it is a list of things: it tells us nothing about people – the values of the men and women eating the food, walking under the lights, wearing the clothes; the quality of the plays, the murals, the statues. Meanwhile we are warned from many sources of the cultural and human pollution of the mass media of commercialism:

“Inhibited now from ensuring the ‘degradation’ of the masses economically, the logical processes of competitive commerce, favoured from without by the whole climate of the time and from within assisted by, the lack of direction, the doubts and uncertainty before their freedom of working-people themselves ... are ensuring that working-people are culturally robbed ... The constant pressure ... becomes a new and stronger form of subjection; this subjection promises to be stronger than the old because the chains of cultural subordination are both easier to wear and harder to strike away than those of economic subordination.”

Thus Mr. Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy, p.200): and he concludes – addressing the working-class movement: “If the active minority continue to allow themselves too exclusively to think of immediate political and economic objectives, the pass will be sold, culturally, behind their backs.” (p.264) To which we may surely add this? Men do not want only the list of things which Mr. Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men. However fitfully and ineffectively, they want other and greater things: they want to stop killing one another: they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as the rivers carried their sewage and refuse through our nineteenth-century industrial towns: side by side with their direct economic interests, they would like to “do benefits” to each other.

Socialist humanism, East and West, is seeking to make apparent these aspirations, and to show the way to their fulfilment. Mr. Kruschev also promises the people more things: they ask for justice and reason, and he promises more automation. Like Mr. Crosland, talk of the full life makes him think of food: he is interested in brightening factory canteens. But creative men, their initiatives freed from slavery to profit or to bureaucracy, will soon enough see to their cafés and canteens. Philistinism, East or West, offers things but cannot satisfy men, because men are intellectual and moral beings. The ideologies of capitalism and Stalinism are both forms of “self-alienation”: men stumble in their minds and lose themselves in abstractions: capitalism sees human labour as a commodity and the satisfaction of his “needs” as the production and distribution of commodities: Stalinism sees labour as an economic-physical act in satisfying economic-physical needs. Socialist humanism declares: liberate men from slavery to things, to the pursuit of profit or servitude to “economic necessity.” Liberate man, as a creative being – and he will create, not only new values, but things in super-abundance.

This case now has a greater significance, both terrible and hopeful. Philistinism and blind class interests have evolved the biggest Thing of all, a Thing to end all things. Today man and this thing face each other. This thing is there because both capitalism and Stalinism have reduced human being to things, commodities or appendages to machines. But now men must look to something else – not a thing at all, but to the reason “and conscience of man. Without that creative being, his hands outstretched against the bomb, humanity must fail and Marx’s forgotten alternative be fulfilled: “the mutual ruin of the contending classes.”

And so throughout the world, men and women are growing angry at this culmination of four decades of war, gas chambers, concentration camps, napalm, political hypocrisy and arguments of expediency; the threat of this final thing is impelling into a new awareness man’s own self-consciousness, his knowledge of his own undivided humanity. As Lysistrata cried out, “We are all Greeks!” so now humanity cries out, “We are all men!” And the barbarians who press against our frontiers are the blind clashing of interests and the arid abstractions which steal us from ourselves. The bomb must be dismantled; but in dismantling it, men will summon up energies which will open the way to their inheritance. The bomb is like an image of man’s whole predicament: it bears within it death and life, total destruction or human mastery over human history. Only if men by their own human agency can master this thing will Marx’s optimism be confirmed, and “human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”


1. This is the general view of most Trotskyists: it would also appear to be the view of Kruschev, in his famous “revelations.”

2. e.g. “People who pass as orthodox Marxists have turned our ideas of movement into a fixed dogma to be learnt by heart and appear as pure sects.” (1891).

3. A comparison of the European communist press of thirty years ago with the Stalinist press which reached its apotheosis in the incredible For a Lasting Peace, For a People’s Democracy, shows the loss of moral and emotional energies, the replacement of man by resounding abstract nouns. Compare also our Daily Worker with the Chartist or early socialist press. If millions are spent on armaments, people must be shown that it raises the price of beer and fags; an appeal to their moral conscience is “idealist” or – if attempted – phoney and tongue-in-cheek. Hence also the dwindling appeal of Communism to young people, whose moral and intellectual idealism is not engaged.

4. Cf. Engels to Bloch: “political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas ... exercise their influence upon the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.”

5. I have argued this in my William Morris, esp. pp.827-841.

6. See Ken Alexander in The Reasoner, No.1: G.D.H. Cole and others.

Last updated on 22 July 2010