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Albert Goldman

Harry Lang and Criticism of the Soviet Union

(June 1935)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 4, June July 1935, pp. 18–25.
Transcribed and Marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The almost unanimous reaction of members of the Socialist party against Harry Lang’s articles in the Hearst press dealing with conditions in the Soviet Union is conclusive proof that the party will take a correct attitude in defending that country whenever it will be attacked by its enemies. The baiting which the Socialist parties the world over have been subjected to by the Stalinist Bureaucracy, through the Communist parties of the various countries, has not succeeded in pushing the vast majority of the membership of those parties into the camp of the enemies of the Russian workers. The theories of social-fascism and the united front from below, the inconceivable slanders hurled at both leaders and rank and filers of the Socialist parties, the disruptive and destructive tactics of the Stalinists would ordinarily tend to alienate the working class masses, not under the influence of the Communists, from Soviet Russia; but fortunately for the revolutionary movement and for the country of the Russian workers, the members of the Socialist parties have almost, instinctively, if not theoretically, made the necessary and correct distinction between the country of the Russian proletariat and the Stalinist bureaucracy keeping the Russian workers under its heel.

At present, we need not worry that the militant members of any Socialist party will refuse to defend Russia against the attacks of any imperialist country. The sympathy of all conscious workers for the Soviet Union is threatening to go to such an extreme that they will forget to make the distinction between the Soviet Union and the Stalin clique in control and refrain from criticizing the harmful and dangerous actions of Stalin and his servile followers for fear of harming the Soviet Union. That kind of an attitude, carries as much danger as the attitude of bitter hostility to the Soviet Union because of the insane tactics of the Stalinists.

Necessity for Criticism

Revolutionary Socialism was born out of a criticism of capitalist conditions and capitalist theories. It can live only by virtue of constantly criticizing itself and subjecting everything including its own theories and tactics to a critical analysis. Let revolutionary socialism cease to be critical and it becomes a dogma incapable of fulfilling its historic task. To approve everything that is done in the Soviet Union or even to keep quiet about those things which we do not approve for fear lest some harm come to Russia because of our criticism is an attitude which no revolutionary socialist can accept. That attitude not only does not help the Russian workers but is dangerous to their cause and to the cause of the revolutionary movement all over the world.

No more loyal and more revolutionary socialist ever lived than Rosa Luxemburg and yet while she was in a German prison she criticized the Bolsheviks for some of their tactics. It turned out later that she was misinformed about what was going on, but that does not alter the fact that she did criticize them at a time of civil war and foreign intervention. It is only under Stalin that the theory of the infallibility of the leadership of the Soviet Union came to prevail and criticism of that; leadership of the considered as “counter-revolutionary.” To surrender the right and obligation to criticize what any leadership does anywhere is to surrender what should “be the most outstanding characteristic of all revolutionary socialists, insistence on critical analysis and intellectual integrity.

There are some who are worried lest the criticism which we level at Stalin and his satellites might furnish ammunition to the enemy. Will not the capitalist press pick up our attacks and use them to confuse and antagonize largo numbers of people? It is highly questionable that a correct criticism from a revolutionary socialist can be used by the reactionaries for their own purposes. Because a criticism from a revolutionary viewpoint draws revolutionary conclusions highly dangerous to the reactionary forces.

But even assuming that here and there the capitalist press will pick up and distort a criticism of conditions in the Soviet Union by a revolutionist. the harm that this might bring is infinitely less than the harm which is bound to result to the revolutionary movement if we keep silent with reference to those conditions which should not exist and which are largely the result of the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union.

Essential to Distinguish Between Things Criticized

It is all a question of the purpose of the criticism and whether or not it is intended to discredit the proletarian revolution or to aid it. And furthermore it is a question of what is criticize whether the things attacked are the inevitable accompaniment of a proletarian revolution in a backward country under unfavorable conditions or whether the policies of the bureaucratic regime are attacked, policies which are unnecessary and harmful to the cause of the Russian and the world revolution.

One thing is it to sympathize with the wailing of an old aristocrat who laments the loss of his privileged position and another thing altogether to decry the Suppression of all democracy for the working class. To point to the low standard of living amongst the Russian masses without an explanation that the cause of such a low standard is due to the backwardness of the country and to the lack of aid from the working classes of the west is one thing; to describe the unnecessary hardships of the working masses in Russia and place responsibility upon the Stalin regime for its adventurous policies with reference to the tempo of industrial development during the latter part of the first five year plan is a criticism on a different plane. To mention the difference in the standard of living between the officialdom of the party and of the G.P.U. on the one hand and the lower paid category of workers on the other is a correct criticism, provided one explains that in a transition period between capitalism and Socialism differences in standards of living are bound to exist, but that the differences existing In the standards between different sections of the population in Russia are out of proportion and reflect the irresponsible powers of the higher officialdom.

One type of criticism is harmful and the other beneficial to the interests of the working class revolution.

Lang’s Attacks Reactionary

Measured by every conceivable standard, the articles of Harry Long in the Hearst press are nothing short of a vile attack on the Socialist movement of the whole world. Coming at a time when there is considerable darker of an attack by Germany against Russia, at a time when Hearst is in the midst of a wild campaign to discredit the revolutionary movement in this country and. above all the failure of Lang to make distinctions and explanations, the articles if road by any workers would tend to create tremendous confusion and antagonism not only towards Russia but towards the whole socialist movement. Hearst knew what he was about when he printed the articles; Lang, we must presume, also knew what he was doing when he resurrected those articles, printed some time ago in the Forward, for Hearst. The reactionary Hearst, however, got what he wanted; Lang got more than he bargained for in the form of the hostile reaction of Socialists.

But here it is necessary to clarify issues and make distinctions.

For a Socialist to write in the capitalist press is perfectly legitimate. Provided what he writes furthers the interests of the revolutionary movement. Many great socialists, Marx himself for that matter, wrote for the non-socialist press. It would indeed be a great thing if the capitalist press were to print all articles written by revolutionary socialists. Only a fanatic would object to writing revolutionary articles for the enemy press. It is not the place where the article appears but the consent of the article that is important.

Trotsky’s Criticism Revolutionary

The Stalinists point to the fact that the capitalist press accepts article’s from Leon Trotsky as conclusive proof that he is the “spearhead of the counter-revolution.” But anyone not blinded by factional hatred reading Trotsky’s articles in the capitalist press would readily admit that the revolutionary movement is not harmed in the least by those articles that on to contrary many who are hostile to the Soviet Union because they do not understand what is going on there begin to understand and “become friendly – not to Stalin it is true – but to the ideas represented by the October revolution.

Why does the capitalist press accept articles from Trotsky if the effect is favorable to the revolutionary idea? To look upon the capitalist press simply as an instrument of the ruling class to befuddle the minds of the working masses is a mechanical conception verging on the absurd Only at a moment of great revolutionary upheaval does the ruling class press become so careful about its content that it ceases, to pay attention to circulation. Under normal circumstance the element of circulation is an exceedingly important factor and if an article by a well known individual will add to the circulation, it might be printed regardless of the revolutionary character of that article. Only recently, McFadden’s magazine “Liberty” published an article by Trotsky wherein the latter showed that the difficulties experienced by communism in Russia would not exist after a working class revolution in this country and that there would be no such tyrannical bureaucracy In the United States as there is in Russia.

No wonder that the publishers took care to insert a boxed announcement that James Davis, ex-secretary of labor, would write an answer proving that Trotsky does not tell the truth.

If Lang’s articles were of the sort that Hearst would, be compelled to reply to, no one would criticize him for writing on the Hearst press. We must repeat: If we keep in kind the contents of the article, the purpose of the article, the purpose of its publication both of the writer and the publisher, and to effect the article has upon the readers, we can decide whether it was wrong to have such an article published in the capitalist press.

Accurate Picture of Russian Conditions Impossible Without a Theory

Is Lang truthful in his description of the incidents he claims to have seen while in Russia? Does he give an accurate picture of conditions in Russia? It must be stated categorically that it is impossible to give an accurate picture of what is going on in the Soviet Union without an understanding of the fundamental forces that influence the development of the working class revolution in the world in general and in the Soviet Union in particular. Without a knowledge of socialist theory and especially of the theoretical controversies that have been raging between Stalin and his opponents with reference to the problems confronting the Soviet Union and the world, revolution it is hopeless to attempt to evaluate conditions and Russia and to have any correct idea of the general tendencies of development in that country.

It has been said, correctly, that ninety-eight percent of the visitors to Russia come back with their presuppositions concerning conditions in that country confirmed. The contrasts are so many and so great that it is exceedingly easy to find those conditions which one expects. Tremendous construction and production and inconceivably bad quality; living conditions, for important people, that are as good as can be expected and desired, and for millions of workers an abominably low standard of living. Workers who are bitterly hostile to the regime. Peasants who tell you of the tremendous improvement in their conditions in comparison with the conditions existing under the Tsar, and peasants who shake their heads sadly and express longing for the days of old.

A devout communist visitor chooses those aspects of life in Russia which show the tremendous progress achieved since the revolution; a Harry Lang and Ripley see only those conditions which seem to indicate that the revolution was futile and brought only harm to the people. An impartial and accurate traveler might report everything in its true colors but without a knowledge of revolutionary theory would be lost in a maze of contradictions. It is necessary to distinguish and explain and one cannot do that on that on the basis of accepting the Stalinist mythology nor the vindictive distortions of Lang and other enemies of the Soviet Union.

What Lang reports might be the truth but if he does not mention that conditions have improved tremendously since 1933 and if he does not mention the phenomenal achievements in the development of industry his reports are only half-truths. Especially are his reports absolutely worthless if he does not distinguish between gains made as a result of the seizure of power by the Russian proletariat and the losses suffered since that seizure due to the bureaucratic Stalin regime.

Whom and What to Blame for Certain Conditions

Can one deny the tremendous suffering of the peasantry and the working class of Russia in the period when Stalin was insanely liquidating the Kulaks by administrative measures thus arousing such furious hostility amongst the peasants that they killed most of the live stock and caused hunger throughout the country? But whom shall we blame? The Bolshevik revolution, or the Initiator of the policy of forced collectivization, Stalin? Those who were most active in guiding the revolution were the very ones who objected to Stalin’s policy of collectivizing one hundred. percent of the peasantry regardless of the ripeness of conditions.

Recognizing the remarkable improvement in Soviet economy should not blind us to the fact that great harm was done to industry and to the workers in industry by the sudden change from an exceedingly slow to a dizzy tempo in industrial construction. And how can one understand the whole problem of the industrialization of Russia and whom to blame for the errors committed if one is ignorant of the controversies raging with reference to that problem within the Communist party? The answer to the argument that Stalin recognized his mistakes and slowed down the tempo of construction as well as the speed of administrative collectivization is that there were those who like Trotsky warned about these blunders before and not after they were committed.

Events in Soviet Union Concern All Socialists

Owing to the vicious attacks made on the Soviet Union by the right-wing Socialists there is the tendency on the part of many well-meaning members of the Socialist party to take an attitude of “Hands off the Soviet Union”, which in practice means endorsing everything that is done by the Stalin regime. Both from the point of view of theory and of practice that is an incorrect attitude.

The founders of the socialist movement conceived of it as an international movement. Not because the proletariat of different countries were bound to help one another for some ethical or sentimental reason but because capitalism has created an international division of labor and the economic interdependence of the whole world. The working class of every country is vitally affected by the failure or success of the proletariat of any one country. It follows therefore that policies followed by a working class party in any one country should be of interest to, because they influence the existence of, the working class of every other country. The international character of the socialist movement actually means that a member of the Socialist party of Japan has a right and a duty to follow and to criticize the tactics of the Socialist party of Venezuela or any other country.

The proposition that what happens to the working class of any country is of tremendous concern to the working class of every other country should be questioned by no one after the Hitler victory which set into motion a wave of reaction throughout the whole capitalist world. It is clear or should be clear to everyone following current events that the workers of Russia were most affected by Hitler’s victory, Because of the fact that Russia is a workers’ country the failures and successes of the Russian workers are of greater importance to the world proletariat than the failures and successes of the working class of any other country.

Even accepting the point of view that it is possible to “build a socialist island in a capitalist world, that is, accepting Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country, a critical attitude to the policies of the Soviet loaders still remains necessary. A major premise of that theory, if not the only premise, is that after socialism is built in Russia the whole world, becoming aware of the existence of a terrestrial, paradise, would gravitate towards socialism with an irresistible force. Consequently the believers in that theory should watch carefully lest any mistake be made in the process of erecting the socialist edifice. But alas! that theory seems to have the effect of destroying all critical faculties with reference to the problem of revolutionary socialism and they who have uncritically accepted that theory have relieved themselves both of the necessity of thinking about Russia and of the necessity of struggling to achieve the social revolution in their own country.

Conditions in SU Affect Socialist Movement Everywhere

To revolutionary Marxists who understand that to save the Russian Revolution it must be extended to the most important capitalist countries of the world. everything that goes on in Russia must be followed closely and critically. We need not accept the official theory of socialism in one country to be convinced that conditions in Russia furnish powerful arguments for or against the socialist revolution in other countries. What a handicap revolutionists in capitalist countries are under when they are constantly compelled to explain why there is no democracy for the workers in Russia and why there are so many and such great distinctions in the living conditions of the different sections of the population. It is not so difficult to explain the low standard of living in the country which was economically undeveloped before the revolution, but it is exceedingly difficult to explain the existence of terror and the suppression of freedom of criticism seventeen years after the revolution and especially in view of the undoubted economic progress.

The harm that the communists have done to the revolutionary movement by exaggerating conditions in Russia is almost inconceivable. Hundreds of non-Russian workers during the first give year plan flocked to Russia after listening to verbal pictures painted of conditions in Russia by delegates who were given chicken for breakfast, dinner and supper. Most of those non-Russian workers either left Russia with disillusionment if not hatred in their hearts or remained there grumbling and sulking. Some no doubt became acclimated and wore satisfied. But the latter cannot undo the damage suffered by the Soviet Union by virtue of the return of American and other workers disillusioned and disgusted. And it is not only the Soviet Union that is harmed; it is not only the communist movement that is harmed; the socialist movement also must suffer because of the fancy exaggerations of the “friends” of the Soviet Union.

Criticism of the Stalinist regime from a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint cannot weaken the Soviet Union in the slightest. Its intention is to strengthen that country and its effect is the same. In the last analysis, the policies pursued by the leaders of the Russian workers are responsible for the strengthening or weakening of Russia. Criticism of wrong policies and bad leadership never does and never will harm the revolutionary socialist movement.

“Friends” of the Soviet Union, who give to every one of Stalin’s platitudes a profound revolutionary significance and who justify every one of his zig-zags, will be the very ones to run for cover when a serious attack against the Soviet Union will be launched. Critics of the Stalinist regime from a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint, who are called “enemies” of the Soviet Union, will defend the workers’ country not only against Lang, but also against the imperialists who are watching for the opportune time to destroy the Russia of the October Revolution. No one knows better than revolutionary Marxists that the destruction of the Soviet Union will set the clock of history back for many decades if not generations. But they also know that the real defense of the Soviet Union is the proletarian revolution in Europe and America.

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