Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Stalin in 'Not a Nice Man' Shocker

As Paul observed yesterday there's been something of a decline in the liberal commentariat of late. Latest evidence of the trend comes courtesy from Monday's Comment is Free and the pen of James Marson. He demands the left must face up to Stalin's evil.

Speaking for myself, I'm never seen on
Stoke SP stalls without my Maoist overalls and bucketful of Stalin Society leaflets.

The core of Marson's argument is this:
There are three ways that people justify Stalin. First, he was a "successful dictator" in the second world war and the industrialisation drive; second, his record wasn't as bad as Hitler's; third, his ideology was more palatable.

The "successful dictator" argument is more or less the line that the Kremlin follows, with its glorification of the victory in the second world war and glossing over of everything else. But it is ahistorical to separate the bad from the good – they are both part of one whole.

The numbers game ignores the often-quoted words of Comrade Stalin himself: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Their ideologies may have differed, but Hitler and Stalin shared one thing in common – both were willing to sacrifice millions of individuals in the pursuit of their vision of perfection or harmony. Human life became a pathway to future aims; how many million sacrifices is indeed a statistic.

But what does it matter to those who died what Stalinism developed into? What does it matter to the dead and their families whether they were starved for being kulaks, shot for writing "nationalist" literature, thus impeding inevitable progress to socialist utopia, or killed for being Slavs and resisting the Nazis, thus making way for a perfect racial empire? It is surely less important why people were killed, than that they were killed. The fact that the apparent aim of Stalin's terrors – the socialist utopia – seems nobler to some than Hitler's vision of racial perfection, can offer no solace to those terrorised.
In conclusion, Marson argues the left is unwilling to face up to the devastation Stalinism wreaked on millions of lives. But if you ask me, Marson ought to get out more. Just like Andy Beckett's piece on the future of the left, it's completely clueless.

See, it's been many years since the far left in this country was dominated by Stalin's cheerleaders. If Marson had the slightest scintilla of knowledge about our movement, he'd know a sizeable chunk of Marxists were critiquing and condemning Stalin at the very moment his liberal left forebears were cooing over five year plans and Moscow show trials. If there's anyone who needs to face up to facts, it's him.

In fact the piece reads like a God that failed
mea culpa. If it's the case Marson has just realised Stalin wasn't a very nice man and the regime he presided over was the antithesis of socialism, then he should be afforded a very belated welcome to the real world. But being dazzled by the light of truth is no excuse for assuming the rest of the left is as dim as he.


Dave Semple said...

I don't know if you caught it, but an article of mine ( picked up on this sort of thing too - in fact it referenced that very article you quote: though mine was directed more at Norman Geras who slammed Slavoj Zizek for (my god!) saying some really mundane things that almost everyone on the socialist Left holds to be true.

The liberal commentariat really is getting worse: something to do with no social roots and the hegemonic accession of the Conservative Party I suspect.

Dave Semple said...

Incidentally, just had a look at the Stalin Society website: now that is detachment from reality taken to a whole new level. Apparently Stalin and Beria didn't order the execution of members of the Polish officer corp in Katyn forest - it was all the the Nazi Germans. Even those deaths which occurred inside Soviet prisons.

Charlie Marks said...

Ah, I see. Capitalism in chaos, unemployment soaring - what to discuss? Stalin.

Hey ho. At least we know where the liberals' priorities are...

Simon said...

'The numbers game ignores the often-quoted words of Comrade Stalin himself: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."'

This is a quote from a work of fiction, so much for doing his research.

'What does it matter to the dead and their families whether they were starved for being kulaks, shot for writing "nationalist" literature, thus impeding inevitable progress to socialist utopia, or killed for being Slavs and resisting the Nazis, thus making way for a perfect racial empire? It is surely less important why people were killed, than that they were killed.'

Excellent, so killing somebody who announces "I'm going to take this gun and shoot those Jewish school children" is the same as killing somebody because they happened to be a Jew?

You would think that with an article whose conclusion amounts only to "Stalin was evil" may at least contain a valid arguement, but alas it appears not.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Bollocks! What left? All on the left? Some of us? Only those that hold a candle for Stalin?

Fuck me, we should be celebrating the Left rather than beating ourselves up about the actions of a mentalist.

Entdinglichung said...

btw., the German version of the Stalin picture contains also the sentence "Stalin - das ist der Frieden!" (roughly translated "Stalin is peace!")

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Is peace of what?


Benjamin Solah said...

I agree that there aren't that many on the Left now that will defend Stalin, the individual.

But to a point, there are plenty on the Left that have been influenced by Stalinism and still hold true to some of the values like Socialism in one country and Socialism from above.

Manzil said...

...which is an entirely different kettle of fish than Stalinist 'values' like murdering everyone who disagrees with you. The more undemocratic and parochial elements of socialist thought have a more varied tradition than Stalin; it makes them our opponents, but not the monsters that the Guardian would like to suggest. Articles like the above, however, aren't arguing for a defence of workers' democracy and internationalism: they're just defaming anyone on the left who isn't prepared to prostrate themselves before the hypocrisy of the liberal guardians of public morals.

Simon said...

"socialism from above"

you mean as opposed to "socialism from below" Cliffism?

ModernityBlog said...


You are right, not many *directly* defend Stalin or Stalinism nowadays.

But you will occasionally find those that go on about the Hitler-Stalin pact as if it were some cunning trick, not the fool hardy miscalculation which allowed much of the conquest of Europe by the Nazis.

Or you'll find some praising the GDR, forgetting all of the nasty bits, etc

So there's little direct defence, but plenty of poor history surrounding WW2 which often gives Stalin too much credit.

Charlie Marks said...

Benjamin, if I might paraphrase avowed Stalinist Harpal Brar: "I'd have socialism in one street if it were possible!"

As for socialism from above - better than no socialism at all, I suppose. certainly sounds better than Socialism from behind - which could be quite painful.

Ms Chief said...

Was in China last month - and in Beijing was at the Ghost market. My chum bought a bust of Lenin but he went alongside a bust of Stalin. The market stall owner was determined to sell both of them. Because we couldn't speak CHinese and she didn't speak English I had to act out the atrocities of Stalin -much to her horror and the amusement of all the other stall owners. My chum nearly bought the bust to stop me getting arrested.

Anonymous said...

The theme Marson appears to be arguing is one that needs properly answering as it is a commonly held view:
1. Leninism/Trotskyism inveitably lead to Stalininist type dictatorship and repression.
2. War Communism, supported by Lenin & Trotsky, involved political repression, killing, property requisition etc. It laid the foundations for an opportunist to seize power at a later time as the precedent of dictatorship had been set.
I don't agree these are valid arguments but they need answering in the modern setting: what safeguards do socialists today have to stop a Stalin type demon aquiring power?

Phil BC said...

Tricky question and it is one I looked at through the prism of liberalism here - the dilemma facing a workers' state is a reworking of liberty vs security.

But there are some things worth bearing in mind. Stalinist bureaucracies were products of the material circumstances, social processes and historical contexts in which they emerged. In a society like Britain with an advanced infrastructure, a well educated sophisticated working class and - despite depoliticisation - ingrained democratic political habits it's unlikely a successful socialist transformation would degenerate into a dictatorship over the proletariat.

We are nowhere near that point at the moment. But preparing for a problem we can only apprehend theoretically I would suggest socialists continue to take democratic and liberty issues very seriously, fight for more democracy, transparency and accountability in labour movement organisations, assist workers wherever they enter into action and carry on creatively developing Marxism. The more open our movement is now the harder it will be for would-be bureaucrats to seize the reigns in the future.