Ian Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian Birchall

Heretics in Communism

(Autumn 1994)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 255–6.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Theodor Bergmann and Mario Kessler (eds.)
Ketzer im Kommunismus: Alternativen zum Stalinismus
Decaton Verlag, Mainz 1993, pp. 383, DM 48

AFTER the collapse of Stalinism, the task of rebuilding a healthy Socialist tradition requires a critical assessment of the history of the movement, in particular of the various thinkers and currents that opposed Stalinism during its long period of dominance. As a contribution to this task, Bergmann and Kessler have edited a collection of 20 essays dealing with what they call ‘heretics in Communism’.

The editors have cast their net wide. Beginning with Luxemburg and Trotsky, they include not only oppositional figures such as Nin and Trotsky, but also ‘alternative’ currents within the bureaucracy itself, such as Khrushchev and Liu Shao-chi. The story ends with the Czech Communist Party and Gorbachev.

The book contains much valuable documentation. Whilst in general, the various authors are sympathetic to their chosen subjects, there is little hero-worship, and always a balanced attempt to assess weaknesses as well as qualities. But since the contributors subscribe to no common analysis, the whole question of ‘alternatives to Stalinism’ broached in the book’s title is left somewhat in the air. For some contributors, it is simply a question of alternative policies that might have been adopted by Stalin – or Mao or Dubcek – had they been a little wiser, or a little more humane. For others, Stalinism seems to be implied in the whole Bolshevik enterprise, and hence we have to start again, although no one seems quite sure from where (the final essay on Gorbachev ends with the words ‘On the road again’, but Canned Heat lyrics are scarcely likely to be the source of Marxist renewal). As a result, the book can be seen as no more than a collection of useful but unprocessed raw material.

Part of the problem is the varied nature of the figures dealt with. The opening chapters, on Luxemburg and Trotsky, add little new, but they do make it clear that for these Marxists, Socialism was to be defined by the self-emancipation of the working class, and that this was the criterion by which any alleged ‘workers’ state’ was to be judged. Tito’s revolt against the Kremlin and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech are significant historical events deserving of critical appraisal, but their protagonists had scant interest in workers’ self-emancipation, as the murdered Belgrade Trotskyists and the workers of Budapest could have testified.

It is also striking that in the broad range of ‘heretics’ treated, there is not one who developed any serious analysis of Stalinist society in terms of a form of class rule. There is no Serge, no Shachtman, no James, no Djilas, no Cliff, no Kuron and Modzelewski. Apparently, some heretics are too heretical.

But if the book as a whole fails to deliver its promise, many of its parts are of considerable value. All but the most erudite will have something to learn from the essays on Thalheimer, Arthur Rosenberg, M.N. Riutin (whose anti-Stalinist document of 1932 is reproduced), M.N. Roy and Robert Havemann. Whilst at first sight Frantz Fanon might seem out of place in such a collection, Hansen and Schulz make a good case for his work as an important contribution to Socialist thinking, fashioned in opposition to the betrayals of the French Communist Party. Fanon was not a black nationalist, and he stressed the role of European allies in the Algerian liberation struggle; he rejected Russian ‘state capitalism’ as a model for Third World development, and he had interesting views on the relationship of party and class. Now that the post-cooption of Fanon as a ‘Third Worldist’ is more or less dead, it may be time to look again at this important thinker.

Jones and Mitchell attempt to make out a case for Isaac Deutscher as the most important Marxist thinker of the postwar period. Deutscher’s historical skill and his great influence on those of us who came to Trotskyism in the 1950s and 1960s are unquestionable. But although the authors are scrupulous in recognising that Deutscher grossly overestimated the progressive nature of the Soviet economy (a four-hour working day by 1984), they still fail to make their case because of certain problems shared by most of the contributors to this volume. Firstly, they claim that had Deutscher lived to see the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he might have revised his optimistic hopes in the Eastern regimes’ capacity for self-reform. But on their own evidence, he could not have done so without abandoning his entire theoretical structure. Secondly, they commend Deutscher for his opposition to Trotsky’s founding of the Fourth International. Now Deutscher may well have been right that it was the wrong time to found a democratic centralist International. But the more profound difference was between Trotsky’s persistent determination to preserve an organisation, and Deutscher’s retreat into the ‘watchtower’. In a sense, Deutscher sums up the problem with this volume – most of its subjects either tried to reform the bureaucracy from within, or criticised from without from a position of isolation. Neither offers a way forward for Socialists today.

Ian Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21 May 2021