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On Stalin and Stalinism today

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Editorial note
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Watson Ladd’s recent review of the latest issue of Crisis and Critique, in which a number of authors reflect on Stalin’s contemporary significance, appears below. It’s a huge issue, and the collection itself comes to almost five hundred pages. Some of the articles are probably worth checking out, especially the ones by Lars Lih, Evgeni Pavlov, and Paul LeBlanc. (LeBlanc is easily the most credible political and intellectual historian within the ISO, largely because he comes from a tradition outside Cliffism). You can download and read Crisis and Critique 3.1 further down for free.

On a few points a disagree with Ladd somewhat, though for the most part I agree. For example, here: “The name [Stalin] means nothing. It can be deployed for a hundred different political purposes.” Here, if one ignores his subsequent qualifications of this point, Ladd almost seems to come close to something Doug Enaa Greene wrote in a since-deleted thread on the Kasama Project website a year or so ago:

One of the most useless terms thrown around on the left is “Stalinism” (statist and totalitarianism are two others that rank up there). Stalinism is often utilized as a swear word by leftists against anything they disagree with. And this means that Stalinism is used to refer to such differing figures, ideologies, movements and governments that it loses all coherent meaning. For example, I’ve known leftists who refer to both Mao and Deng as “Stalinists.” Never mind that these two figures had opposite politics (Mao led a socialist revolution and Deng reversed one). Some other examples of “Stalinism” are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Yet any commonality between these two parties disappears on closer inspection. The CPI (Marxist) is strictly parliamentary party which enforces neoliberalism and massacres workers and peasants, while the CPI (Maoist) is leading a revolutionary people’s war among the most oppressed masses, fighting the Indian state, including clashing with their “fellow Stalinists” in the CPI (Marxist), and establishing liberated zones of popular power. The list goes on and on…

As should be clear, when calling these wildly different figures, movements, and organizations “Stalinist,” deprives the word of all meaning (assuming it has one in the first place). What I am getting at here is that rather than looking at how these differing figures, movements, etc operate based on their own particular contexts, it is assumed that because they don’t fall under the label of the correct political line (whether Trotskyist, anarchist, etc) that they must be Stalinist. It is further assumed that by those using the label Stalinist that if you have the “correct” view on the nature of the inner-party debates of the Soviet Union in the 1920s or the class character of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, often derived from the work of Trotsky, that this can just be mechanically applied to completely different situation (the classic case is Maoism = Chinese Stalinism) without doing any investigation of that particular situation. Effectively this says that you don’t have to learn anything about one of the most important revolutions of the last century, set aside with a simple verdict. And the politics that comes out of this dismissal is bland and lifeless, unable to learn from any other experiences because all the verdicts are already settled.

Certainly, “Stalinism” refers to a group of sectarian traditions and theoretical bloodlines which are often at odds with one another. Sometimes seemingly opposite. But the same could easily be said for Trotskyism. Look at the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the UK, which verges on Zionist apologetics, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, which waves placards at rallies which declare: “We are all Hezbollah!” Yet both stand within the Trotskyist lineage, even if the former is mediated by the Shachtmanite-Matgamnan moment and the latter by the Cliffite-Callinican moment.

There are a number of common features that immediately stand out with regard to Stalinism: 1. first, and most obviously, the principle of социализм в одной стране [socialism in one country]; 2. second, and no less fundamentally, the elevation of the State to a semi-permanent Lassallean role as the guarantor that capitalism will never reemerge; and 3. the schizophrenic logic that brands parliamentary socialists as “social fascists” in one moment and welcomes alliances with bourgeois parties or outright reactionaries as part of anti-fascist or anti-imperialist popular fronts in the next.

Any Maoists who took issue with Loren Goldner’s perfunctory remark that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism” can take it up with the following image.

b-but-maoism-isnt-a-variant-of-stalin

Methodologically, and as a matter of course, Stalinism stood for the perversion of dialectic from an immanent logic used to critically grasp alternating and emergent conditions into an ex post facto rationalization of defeat. “Zigzags,” as Lenin called them:

The great Hegelian dialectics which Marxism made its own, having first been turned right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zigzags of politicians who swing over from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the Party, the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements and developmental factors belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals, but studies the inevitable turns.

At any rate, I don’t think that Marxists can simply disown Stalinism, as if it had nothing to do with the political precepts laid down by Marx. Those who take their inspiration from Lenin and the Bolsheviks can still less absolutely dissociate themselves from Stalin as an historical figure and Stalinism as a world-historic phenomenon. Dzugashvili had been a dedicated cadre and party operative for almost a quarter century, after all, by the time his faction assumed the reigns of power. However vulgar and buffoonish he was as a theorist, it is not as if he was simply an inexperienced interloper.

Obviously, I consider Stalinism monstrous. While Hitler was incomparably worse in terms of his crimes, Stalin murdered more dyed-in-the-wool Marxist revolutionaries than Hitler ever did. In that sense, the Gulag system should disturb us more than Nazi barbarism. Nazism was transparently right-wing, chauvinist, and genocidal in its intent. Communism was meant to herald the liberation of mankind — i.e., not a grim, self-perpetuating authoritarian interlude on the way to capitalist restoration. In a way, it would be a relief if the demise of the USSR wiped Stalin’s legacy clean off the record books.

Stalinism lives on. Just barely, though, eking out a miserable existence in “critical support” for rackets like the FARC, the Naxalites, or the PFLP. (This position the Trots and tankies have in common, but it is more a museum-piece of Cold War natlib than anything having to do with Lenin’s line, or even Zinoviev’s narrow interpretation of it as a prerequisite for entry into the Comintern). Ladd is right, however, that if Stalin’s name stands for nothing today, it’s “not because Stalin stood for nothing, but because what he stood for has been forgotten. As a period of politics on the Left, globally, the history of Stalinism has all but faded from view.”

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Seventeen ways of looking at Stalin

Watson Ladd
Platypus Review
№ 90,
10.1.2016

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Journal Review:

Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, editors
“Stalin: What Does the Name Stand for?”
Crisis and Critique 3, no. 1 (3.29.2016)1

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Stalinism’s impact is difficult to see in the world today. North Korea and Cuba limp along, sponsored by a capitalist China and caudillo-ist Venezuela, respectively. The official Stalinist parties in the Western world remain, at least on paper, but tend to throw support behind Hillary Clinton or the local equivalent. In one way or another, any examination of Stalin is thus historical — not a critique of a living political movement, but of a movement situated in a time remote from our own. The object of investigation is a legacy whose practical effect in the present is deeply obscure.

The journal Crisis and Critique has recently published a compilation of such examinations. In the introduction, editors Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza emphasize their desire to examine the politics that led to Stalin and shaped the period during which he lived, neither damning nor defending, and hoping to avoid the reduction of complex questions to the status of a single individual.

As Lars Lih points out in the first contribution, Soviet artists celebrated Stalin as a mythical figure, an ersatz czar who defended the Russian people. Indeed, Stalin invites a series of historical comparisons. By turns he is Robespierre,2 by turns a brute responsible for the failure of a revolution.3 For Domenico Losurdo, he is the Soviet Gandhi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.4 Enver Hoxha’s essay, which closes out the volume, does not need to mention Stalin by name to argue that he enabled the people to “write their own history,” and that we must stay to the course he laid out, if we wish to defend the revolution and achieve the political empowerment of the masses.

Elsewhere Stalin curiously recedes into the background. He becomes the pretext for a discussion about the metaphysics of language,5 or for an analysis of how his early seminarian experiences influenced the creation of the new communist man.6 Or the topic shifts to the philosophical school of dialectical materialism,7 analyzed without really taking stock of Stalin, who hovers quietly in the background. And there is the experience of those who lived under Stalinism,8 and the memory of the political struggles over revisionism and orthodoxy.9

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With all these views (and more) of Stalin represented in this volume, one might think that the subject, if not exhausted, had at least been opened up for inquiry. Unfortunately this is not the case, unless we want to understand the long shadow of Stalinism as only the latest in a line of tragedies. However, whatever else we may think of him, Stalin is far more than merely a Tamerlane or an Alexander Nevsky.

Continue reading

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Signs of rot

Kailash Sreeneevasin posted a great quote from Lars Lih today:

When I look back at this period — when you could say that there was a mass movement, a Marxist mass movement that was genuinely alive — what was it that was alive? It was a sense of a world-historical mission, that the proletariat was “the Chosen People” — this metaphor was made many a time, that this group of people was going to bring the world to a final goal. So that’s what I’m wondering: Is this sense of a world-historic mission alive today, even among the Left? This is what I’m asking you: Is there a genuine sense of this group having a mission and a real sense that it is going to happen? That was the baby that the Left has thrown out, keeping the bathwater, which is very useful — Marx’s analysis of this, class analysis of all this stuff. The bathwater is great! But the baby seems dead or gone. Does this sense of world-historical mission exist and must it exist in order for the Left to be anything like what it was? And is there a way of making it happen if it doesn’t exist? You can’t artificially insist that people believe in a mission like this — or even make yourself do it, if the belief isn’t really there.

Lih is asking the right questions. Just fifty years ago, the quasi-Trot historian Isaac Deutscher was able to confidently assert that

Marxism is not an intellectual, aesthetic, or philosophical fashion, no matter what the fashion-mongers imagine. Continue reading

Color photo of Trotsky (1940)

No “true” Trots, man

A response to Corey Ansel
on “authentic” Marxism

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IMAGE: Color photo of Leon Trotsky (1940)
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While I’m sympathetic to many of Corey Ansel’s criticisms of both the crisis-ridden Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and their recently-disaffected cadre, I am only sympathetic up to a point. The same goes for an earlier piece in which he sought to combat the various “neo-Kautskyite” critiques that have been leveled at the SWP’s brand of “Leninism” by figures such as Pham Binh, Louis Proyect, and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) like Ben Lewis, all of whom draw inspiration from Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. While Lih’s study provides an important corrective to readings that anachronistically project Lenin’s later disgust with Kautsky back onto their relationship prior to August 1914, something Trotsky himself pointed out in his short rebuttal “Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg” (1932),  the fact remains that Lenin sided on numerous occasions with Luxemburg against Kautsky and Trotsky against the Old Bolsheviks after this point.

Certainly Lenin and Trotsky — and yes, even Lenin-ism and Trotsky-ism — deserve to be saved from those who shamelessly vulgarize them, as well as from those who think they have discredited these figures or traditions by defeating such mere caricatures. But the truth of the matter is that no one can really be a “Leninist” today apart from the most general attention to discipline, organization, and more or less democratic or centralized elements. Lenin spoke about politics as something that could only meaningfully occur when the masses began being counted in millions, when space and time were measured in continents and epochs. In this sense, no one on the Left can be “political” today, if for no other reason that no workers movement exists on such a scale. Still less can one be a “Trotskyist,” especially as Trotskyism itself was only formed as a coherent body of doctrines subsequent to Trotsky’s exile, from the outside looking in. (In this sense the foundation of the Fourth International was in itself an admission of defeat, at least in terms of Trotsky’s former strategy of saving the Third International through the Left Opposition. This remains so even if its motives were noble). Continue reading