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Albert Gates

Books in Review

Variation on a Theme

(May 1950)

From New International, Vol. XVI No. 3, May–June 1950, pp. 186–188.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Theory and Practice of Communism
by R.N. Carew Hunt
The Macmillan Co. $2.75.

The great concern of bourgeois ideologues about “communism,” its theory and practice, is quite understandable in a world so sharply divided between capitalism and Stalinism and permanently threatened by war. So patent is the irreconcilability of these two forces that to elaborate upon them in this review would be to impose upon the readers of the NI.

There is no doubt, however, that one of the difficulties the bourgeois world encounters in its struggle against Stalinism is the failure to understand properly the post-revolutionary phenomenon in Russia. If Russia had remained truly socialist and internationalist, that is to say, had the present regime faithfully carried out the principles upon which the Russian Revolution was based, it is difficult to see how world capitalism could exist today. The degeneration of the latter, epitomized by two world wars and an almost endless world economic crisis, could not have withstood the force of genuine socialist economic and political progress. Moreover, a socialist and internationalist Russia would have stood before the world as the great hope for human progress, lighting the way toward social, economic and political freedom.

But the force of Stalinist Russia has produced something quite new in the world today. While capitalism continues to decay, socialism has not advanced (quite the contrary) and Stalinism has experienced an expansion that has surprised not only the bourgeoisie, but the anti-Stalinist adherents of the idea that Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state” or some form, however distorted and mutilated, of the “invading socialist society.” The bourgeoisie holds this latter theory, too. There is no doubt that while some of the leading bourgeois thinkers recognize in Stalinism a non-socialist monster, they for the most part affirm their antagonist as Marxian, socialist and internationalist.

The theoretical and intellectual spokesmen of capitalism try repeatedly to prove that Russia is socialist and Stalin its Marxist leader. They find confirmation for their views in the many writings of ex-Stalinists, social democrats, backsliders from socialism, and a host of former “friends of the Soviet Union” who have gone to great pains to “prove” that Stalinism is bolshevism, and that Stalin is the Lenin of our times. The New International has had to deal with these experts in confusion, ignorance and willful distortion on more than one occasion.

The difficulty in the struggle against Stalinism is that the world at large and almost the entire anti-Stalinist labor movement has accepted the Kremlin’s description of itself. Stalin proclaims that Russia has completed its socialist development; it is now preparing for the complete communist stage of social development! His opponents say: yes, this is socialism! Given the decay of the world, ideological stalemate must result, for outside of the United States capitalism offers nothing to the people.

Mr. Carew’s book is a strange contribution to the theory and nature of Stalinism. It provides no enlightenment; rather, it contributes to existing confusion. The author begins with a formula: the theory and practice of communism was originally produced by Marx and Engels; this theory and practice was elaborated and extended by Lenin, and finally reached fruition in the life and deeds of Stalin. Thus the theory and practice of communism involves an examination of their application under changing circumstances from Marx to Stalin.

The book cannot but produce strange contradictions and paradoxes which the reader will readily see. The author sees them too, but their significance is somewhat obscure to him. There is no point in dealing with his outline of Marxist theory or his refutation of Marxism. The refutation consists in the main of threadbare critiques; it is more than a little wearying to read, in 1950 this kind of criticism of Marx and his theories from a person who presumably has a considerable acquaintance with the literature of socialist theory but who obviously misses its central ideas and development. It is precisely this failure which produces in turn the tortured analysis and understanding of Stalinism and the inability to place it in a historic setting or to understand its perspectives.

A few references, I think, will suffice to bear out what I have already said about the book. Following what the author undoubtedly believes is an annihilating criticism of Marxist philosophy, economics and politics, since he asserts repeatedly that one foundation stone after another is destroyed by this criticism, he adds, however, “any return to pre-Marxist social theory is inconceivable.” Why? Because all pre-Marxist social theory was of no value, and it remained for Marx to direct the attention of the world to what is real, vital and instructive in the understanding of our society. And yet ... yet, all of it is wrong in the main!

This isn’t the worst by any means. Carew is trying to establish the logical thread that leads from Marx to Lenin to Stalin. It would have sufficed had he written what is abundantly clear: Stalin came out of the bolshevik movement; he was the product of a degenerated revolution; he distorted, violated and vitiated its doctrines, perspectives and hopes, and transformed these into their opposite; he represents a new force, anti-capitalist, anti-socialist. It would then have been possible for Mr. Carew to deal intelligently with the phenomenon. But he did something else.

He asserts the fundamental continuity of theory and practice between the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels and the totalitarian bureaucratic collectivism of Stalin. That is the pattern of the book. At the same time, Mr. Carew falls into some insoluble contradictions which we will set forth below. Thus, on page 170:

Stalin seldom wastes his words. But he is a most dishonest thinker, who invariably tries to prove that whatever he is saying is just what he has always said. And although he has all the Marxist- Leninist texts by heart, there is always an element of distortion in his use of them. He uses, indeed, all the old slogans. Yet in fact he has so transformed Marxist theory that its founder would scarcely recognize it. A new turn has been given to the theory of revolution; the character of the party has been changed, and it has been converted into a centralized and all-powerful bureaucracy; the classical theory of the State has been virtually abandoned, although lip-service continues to be paid to it; an agrarian policy has been adopted which is contrary to Lenin’s teaching; equalitarianism has been utterly condemned; and finally, the growth of national sentiment has been encouraged.

Not a bad indictment by one who has never been in the Marxist movement and never felt the inherent humanity and internationalism of socialist theory and practice. Further on, the author illustrates how these alterations in the theory of Marxism produced an utterly new type of practice which had nothing in common with the conceptions and practices of Marx and Lenin. But still he fails to grasp the significance of all this for one good reason: he does not appreciate the meaning of the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky over the theory of “socialism in one country,” nor does he understand that the abandonment of socialist internationalism – which can be equated to Marxism – was the inevitable product of that theory.

Many things have been said to be the heart of Marxism. It depends on what you are discussing: philosophy, economics, the class struggle, etc. But if one were to summarize its world view, it could be said without contradiction that Marxism is characterized by its internationalist, socialist, and therefore democratic, perspectives which by their very nature preclude the adherence to and practice of nationalism, bureaucracy, totalitarianism, exploitation, class division, exaltation of state power, and so on. The theory of “socialism in one country” marks a rupture with all that Marxism stands for.

Thus, when Carew writes: “In a sense, indeed, it [socialism in one country] contained nothing controversial, as everyone agreed that socialism must be built up in Russia” and that “its importance lay in its implications and particularly the effect that its application would have upon the world revolution,” he misses the crucial point.

This point was central to the dispute with Trotsky, but Carew, like myriad predecessors, doubts that Trotsky could or would have acted differently from Stalin. Why? They have the same origin and essentially the same doctrines. One of the reasons Carew does not understand the crucial nature of the dispute over this question is that he accepts, at least in its theoretical aspect, the Stalinist version that the dispute was not over whether “it was possible to build socialism in a particular country, but as to whether it was possible to complete it ...”

But what is one to say today when Stalin and his satraps announce that socialism was completed in Russia more than ten years ago! Irrevocably completed, that is.

The author then proceeds to show the effects of the theory on the world movement of Stalinism, and without quite understanding his initial contradiction cites the destruction of socialist internationalism and the subordination of the world Stalinist parties to Russian interests. Then Mr. Carew shows in rapid succession what has happened to the Marxist theory of the state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the role of the party, the agrarian question, equalitarianism and nationalism. He concludes that there is obviously nothing in common between Stalinism and Marxism, except some of the language, tradition and trappings which have assumed a ritualistic character and act as a force to retain the support of great masses who mistakenly believe the former represents socialism and that Stalin continues the work of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

But Mr. Carew does little better than Stalinism. In the introductory chapter of his book, which is contradicted by the third part, he writes:

We have seen that the four apostles of Communism are Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, whose works alone possess authority, no others having ever been added to the canon of scripture. Chronologically they pair off, Marx and Engels being concerned with laying down the basis of communist theory and practice in the last century, and Lenin and Stalin with the application of their doctrines to the new conditions which arose at the beginning of the present century [it would be interesting indeed to learn what contributions Stalin made to Marxist theory during the first quarter of this century. – A.G.] Lenin developed Marxism in more than one direction, but broadly speaking it is true to say that his most important contribution was in the field of party organization and tactics; and that Stalin’s contribution has been his theory of “socialism in one country,” with all that this implies. We shall therefore first deal with Marx and Engels, and then with Lenin and Stalin. [Emphasis mine. – A.G.]

So you see, Stalin’s application of Marxism to this century is a theory which undermined the whole structure of Marxism! That is how a bourgeois thinker understands the profound struggle which Trotsky carried on in defense of Marx’s internationalist and socialist thought against Stalin.

Well, then, did Stalin prove he was right? Did he succeed where Trotsky and Lenin would have failed? Did he not demonstrate that much of Marxism and Leninism was utopian? Did he prove that the dispute was really whether you could complete, not merely build, socialism in one country? This is something for Mr. Carew to square and he does it by asserting that: “What the Russians have, in fact, introduced is not socialism, but state capitalism.”

This idea is neither a true nor an original invention.

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