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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

saint-stalin

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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Anatolii Lunacharskii: Socialism, religion, and enlightenment

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Roland Boer has a new article out on Anatolii Lunacharskii’s controversial two-volume treatise, Religion and Socialism (1908, 1911). Lunacharskii was the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, in charge of education initiatives throughout the fledgling socialist republic. His campaigns to fight illiteracy, making secular education available in the most distant reaches of the union, were highly effective. Moreover, Lunacharskii’s tolerant temperament toward independent cultural and artistic groups — i.e., not forcibly unionized or centrally run by the state — during his tenure throughout the 1920s stands in stark contrast to the Stalinist policies established in the mid-1930s, which put an end to such associations and civil society groupings. Also, he was fairly receptive to new literary and aesthetic styles and movements, especially compared to the prescriptions handed down by Zhdanov et al. at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s first book is a study of the Commissariat of Enlightenment under Lunacharskii, and it provides an excellent institutional survey, as well as a portrait of the “Russian Faust” (a title given him by Mikhail Lifshitz).

Boer’s article with justice claims to be “first full engagement in English with Anatolii Lunacharskii’s near lost work, Religion and Socialism.” The reason the book is so obscure today is that it gave theoretical expression to the concept of god-building, an unusual tendency within prewar Bolshevism reviled by Lenin. Like many of the heresies that rocked the early Church in Roman Christianity, its contents are primarily known through texts written condemning it. Still, this point is easily exaggerated. It is not quite as rare as Boer makes it out to be. For example, in the gloss provided by his article:

Conditions: Lost and Found

Religion and Socialism is a work that has been lost and found. Its loss was hardly due to any lack of quality. The reason is, rather, its particular history. Lenin launched a spirited attack when it was published, persuading the editorial board of Proletarii to condemn it. Or rather, he lumped God-building in with the Left-Bolshevik interest in empiriocriticism and otzovism, as much for political as for theoretical reasons. Seeing the increasing appeal of these not necessarily connected positions among some younger and very articulate Bolsheviks, Lenin realized the need to quell the leftward push, thereby bringing philosophical questions to the fore. In hindsight, of course, he was probably correct, for a revolutionary push at the time would have generated an even fiercer reaction. But a side effect was the complete sidelining of Religion and Socialism. And given Lenin’s crucial role in the 1917 revolution and the subsequent establishment of communism in Russia, the few copies of the book were left to the dust and bookworms of forgotten archival corners.

The finding of such a work has thereby entailed a little sleuthing, for it has proved exceedingly difficult to find. The editors of the eight-volume Collected Works chose not to include Religion and Socialism in that collection. By contrast, the introduction to a separate volume, called Religion and Enlightenment, offers a statement concerning the waywardness of Religion and Socialism and cites Lunacharskii’s own somewhat halfhearted distancing from the work in his later statements. Religion and Enlightenment includes a wide range of material, including Vvedenie v istoriiu religii [Introduction to the History of Religion], lectures from 1918 which were reworked and published in 1923, and material that goes back to the early 1900s. Given this unfavorable early press and the subsequent Bolshevik victory, Religion and Socialism remained a work out of favor. A Yiddish translation of Religion and Socialism exists, but as far as the original work in Russian is concerned, only a few extant copies remain. The one in the National Library of St. Petersburg turned out to be too fragile to scan. Only after further inquiry (by my colleague, Sergey Kozin) was a copy found in the Lenin Library in Moscow. A high fee for scanning the two volumes resulted in a much-treasured copy being made, which is in our possession and is, to my knowledge, the only PDF version of it in the world. Since then, the text has been screened, converted into modern Cyrillic script (it was published before the 1917 language reform), and proofread. In addition to its republication in Russian, a translation is also planned.

An edifying tale, and evidence of his commitment. I do wish that Professor Boer had maybe approached me before sending his colleague on a wild goose chase to Saint Petersburg or shelling out a bunch of cash to the Lenin Library, however, because he might have saved himself some money. (The Lenin Library probably could use the funds, so it’s not too bad if viewed as a donation). Religion and Socialism has been available online for years now, free of charge, scanned by the University of Minnesota and Indiana University both. One page is missing from the second volume, but otherwise it’s all there. You can download them for free here, OCRed and everything:

Needless to say, I am less impressed by Lunacharskii’s god-building arguments than Boer. Lunacharskii has long been one of Boer’s favorites, alongside Ernst Bloch. His article does provide a very useful overview, though, even if the title is misleading. Misleading because it suggests that he deals with god-builders in the plural, whereas he really just deals with Lunacharskii in the singular (Maksim Gorkii and Vladimir Bazarov [Rudnev] are barely mentioned, if at all). Read it here.

  1. А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том I (1908)
  2. А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том II (1911)

Great to hear that a reissue in modern Russian is projected, as well as a translation into English. Boer brought up the 1921 Yiddish translation, published in New York, but forgot to mention the Italian translation prepared in 1973. In my next post, I’ll upload the full OCRed text of the document sans pre-reform orthography so that Russian readers can check it out. Though I should mention that the obsolete characters were removed in the copy/paste by a very crude find-and-replace method on Microsoft Office and not by painstakingly going through all 630 pages of the original in order to spell check.

For those who don’t know, Russian spelling was extensively reformed in 1917-1918 (by none other than Lunacharskii). The most important changes were

  1. the dropping of the hard sign “ъ” at the end of words, where it previously appeared in any word that otherwise would have ended in a consonant;
  2. the global replacement of “і” (the “dotted i” or “decimal i”) with “и” (i);
  3. the global replacement of “ѣ” (iat) with е (ie);
  4. a change in the genitive singular ending of adjectives, -аго becoming -ого, and -яго becoming -его.

Enjoy.

ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ (сидит на скамеечке) С РОДИТЕЛЯМИ ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ в рамке ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ Фотография. Таганская тюрьма1 ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ Фотография. Таганская тюрьма 2 Continue reading

Anti-Duhring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, I

Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality

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Image: Anti-Dühring
and Anti-Christ

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Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”

In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that draw inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (as in Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism),[48] “fundamentalism” (as in Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”),[49] or “theology” (as in Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology).[50] These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.

According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.”[51] Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.”[52] Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.[53]

To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo,[54] even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.”[55] (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.”[56] Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature. Continue reading