Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Deepen the Critique of Stalinism

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. IV, No. 12, December 1980-January 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Dear Editor,

An essay by Paul Costello in the July-August issue of Theoretical Review has helped clarify my dissatisfaction with your recent article, “Soviet Invasion Deemed Necessary”. Costello’s piece is a critique of the pamphlet by ex-Guardian editor Irwin Silber, on which your article had been partly based.

While agreeing the U.S. left should support the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDP) against the U.S.- and Chinese-backed reactionaries, Costello criticizes Silber for shallow analyses of l)the errors of the PDP, and 2) the motives and implications of the Soviet invasion.

What Silber (and the MT article) see as tactical mistakes, Costello shows are rooted in a Stalinist model of socialist construction, “a conception of socialism which sees the masses as simple pawns in the hands of a State administration, a conception which substitutes government resolutions for ideological struggles, and dispatches military battalions in the place of propaganda teams.” To this model, Costello counterposes the Leninist (and Maoist) strategy of forging a worker-peasant alliance based on persuasion and application of the ”mass line”.


As the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin advised over 6 decades ago: “The main thing now is to advance as an immeasurably wider and larger mass, and only together with the peasantry, proving to them by deeds, in practice, by experience, that we are learning, and that we shall learn to assist them, to lead them forward.”

Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese Communist Party’s late chairman and one of the great revolutionary thinkers and practitioners of our time (although his teachings now appear to be in disfavor with the current rightist leadership in China), reaffirmed Lenin’s previous advice and put it into practice in China. This signified an advance for the socialist movement worldwide as well as for China’s own internal development and its influence in the world. Mao wrote:

Commandism is wrong in any type of work, because in overstepping the level of political consciousness of the masses and violating the principle of voluntary mass action, it reflects the disease of impetuosity.

And, again from Mao: “In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily ’from the masses, to the masses.’” (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, “little red book” edition, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1969: pp. 127-129.)


On point 2, Silber states, “In order to assess the actions of the USSR, one needs first to determine what kind of society it is and. what general policy or line guides its development.” Herein lies a major weakness of Silber’s analysis. Other than glibly asserting there are “serious shortcomings and formations in the theory and practice of Soviet socialism”, Silber appears unable to describe, much less analyze, the implications of a revisionist party holding state power.

Thus, by his own criteria, he is in a weak position to assess the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And his essay is convincing evidence of this.

Silber does take four pages in which he reduces the revisionism in Soviet foreign policy to the “theory of peaceful coexistence”. And since the Soviets are now using violence in Afghanistan, this is obviously not a revisionist policy. This is where Silber capitulates to revisionism. While Silber is vague on the problems of revisionism in power in the USSR, he is totally silent on the dangers of Soviet revisionism holding state power in Afghanistan. He is so enamoured with the “proletarian internationalist” essence of the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, that he has abandoned his own internationalist duty of pointing to the revisionist character of the Soviet party and the dangers of allowing this power to cross national boundaries at will.

Silber further argues that because the USSR is a socialist country, it follows that its interests and those of third world liberation struggles are “fundamentally” in harmony. On the surface, the logic seems plausible, until the same logic is applied to socialist China, whose party has entered into an alliance with U.S. imperialism, and who backs reactionary dictators more often than liberation struggles.


In the Costello-Silber debate, we see the foreshadowing of an upcoming debate between those who uphold Marxism-Leninism (and the main thrust of Mao Tse-Tung thought) and those who have yet to break with the Stalinist caricature of it. Silber, for his part, upholds Stalin’s line as “theoretically sound”, and denounces use of the term “Stalinism” as a “negative concession” to the U.S. capitalist class. On the other hand, he has no problem in defining “Maoism” as an all-sided “retrograde trend” historically similar to Trotskyism.


The debate has called into question the alleged break made by the “Trend” with both dogmatism and revisionism. The breaks could scarcely be adequate, as it is impossible to adequately critique revisionism without first analyzing the policies of Stalin. Any definition of “anti-dogmatist” that includes Stalinist concepts cannot really break with dogmatic thinking.

Indeed, the break that needs to be made (and Theoretical Review alone in the U.S. “new communist movement” appears to be trying to do this) is with Stalinism. This is not merely an academic or esoteric exercise; Stalinism has distorted our understanding of socialism, democratic centralism, the role of the party, the nature of the Soviet Union, socialist construction, the use (and abuse) of history, Marxist philosophy and even linguistics! Unless we root out Stalinism from our ways of thinking, and our very ways of seeing, the American communist movement will remain peripheral and largely irrelevant to American political life.

–B.D., Honolulu 12/80