Friday, 12 February 2010

Defining Stalinism

What is a Stalinist? It's a word that gets bandied about the left a lot. The Communist Party of Britain are often described as Stalinist. So is Cuba, China and North Korea. Even our very own (state-cap) Socialist Workers' Party has been described as such. Is Stalinism merely abusive shorthand for authoritarian practices in the labour movement, or is a more precise definition possible?
Shane on the ever-green Leftist Trainspotters discussion list has had a stab at a definition. He writes:
Stalinist is the proper appellation for self-described Marxists, Communists, or Socialists who practice or apologise for, in regard to the present and/or the past, extremely repressive or totalitarian oppression of the workers and peasants and intellectuals by self-described Marxists, Socialists, or Communists.
I think that's a pretty good starting point for a definition. It reminds me of a similar cursory attempt by Ralph Miliband in his entry on Stalinism in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. He writes "... the terms 'Stalinism' and 'Stalinist' have been given a loose and highly pejorative meaning, notably on the left, and ... denote dictatorial, arbitrary and repressive modes of conduct by leftwing individuals and regimes" (1991, p.517).

But there remains two stubborn problems neither definition addresses. Most Trotskyists have no problem defending many actions of the early Soviet Union but obviously would bristle at being compared with those that continued to speak for the USSR after Lenin's death.

The second is a certain fuzziness over what constitutes the defence of the USSR and similar regimes, and an apology for them. Like the parties of official communism, Trotsky lauded the achievements of the Soviet Union in the 1930s in his
The Revolution Betrayed and made a case for defending it on the basis of its 'proletarian property forms' (planned economy, absence of the law of value, etc.). Does this make him an apologist for Stalin's regime? Similarly in a series of interesting posts on the former East Germany (see here and here for example) on Socialist Unity, Andy Newman has tried painting East German society and its regime in its full complexity, which includes acknowledging progressive economic and cultural features despite the repressive character of one party government. Is that apology or analysis?

Where do you draw the line? Can 'Stalinism' be spoken of scientifically or does it break down as a meaningful category when applied to anything other than Stalin's dictatorship at the height of its powers? I'm interested to see what readers think.


jgw said...

How about defining it as a variety of state capitalism: capitalism disguised as socialism?

Everyones Favourite Comrade said...

In the case of a scientific explnation of the term is there a differienation between using the word to decribe a regime and on the other hand when reffering to individuals or a party?

But even to define differences along these lines simply complicates things further

Mark P said...

I think that this is precisely the wrong way to look at Stalinism - at least if we are discussing it as a political movement rather than as a social forum.

Loose remarks about any authoritarian or dictatorial behaviour on the left as "Stalinist" is a loose way of using language. In such a context it serves as an all purpose pejorative. "Fascist" is often used in a similar way, although it too has more precise meanings.

Stalinism is a distinctive political movement, with a history stemming from a split in the Marxist movement, based on the following ideas:

1) Support for some or all of the bureaucratic dictatorships.

2) Support for the notion of "socialism in one country".

3) A stages theory of revolution in the third world.

4) A popular front or cross class approach to movements in the developed world.

5) Defence of Stalin himself, which varies from hagiography to more weasel worded defences which involve criticising "mistakes" or "excesses" within a broadly supportive framework.

Now, not all of these ideas are supported at any one time by every Stalinist trend or organisation. More "left" variants of Stalinism sometimes oppose the Popular Front. In more recent decades, more respectable trends tend to ramp up the criticism of Stalin himself. But broadly speaking these are useful issues to look at when assessing whether or not some organisation is "Stalinist".

modernity said...

What Mark P said.

But you could add it is a multifaceted word, which also could mean someone who is inclined to use the methods, approaches and tactics employed by various 20th century Communist Parties, these include but not limited to:

the fixing of meetings;

manipulation of organisational procedures to achieve political aims;

suppression of dissenting views;


Eddie Truman said...

Really good, useful, piece and agree with comments by Mark P and Modernity.
I'm guessing that's sensible Mark P, not the other one.

TGR Worzel said...

Pardon my ignorance, but does it really matter whether somebody is Stalinist, Trotskyite, Blairite, Brownite, Thatcherite, Marxist...

I remember your blog posting from not so long ago Phil, referring to Monty Pythons the Life of Brian and their skit about the Peoples Judean Front, the Peoples Front of Judea etc..

All that terms like Stalinist (etc) really are, are sticks to beat other people with.

Come to think of it, that's what politics is all about really; beating each other up in a slightly more sophisticated way than used to happen in the school playground.

Remember what used to happen if you were percieved not to be in the right gang at school...?

Life works so much better if we all rub along together and co-operate...

asquith said...

Well, Obama certainly isn't a Stalinist, because he's a Maoist.

Presumably he stopped being a Muslim in order to become one.

Dave Riley said...

The easy deployment of the term by those in the Trotskyist traditions annoys me no end as it is never scientific usage today . So here those from the IST tradition sotto voce called (past tense) the DSP "Stalinist" for supporting Cuba. By this rule, an ex-CWI devlopment like the SSP would have to be judged Stalinist for being keen on Cuba solidarity . So who you back is a sentence to falling under the Stalinist chariot wheel.

The other complication emanates form Trotsky's 1933 ruling that all Comintern parties were more or less Stalinist and un-reformable.I think that was dead wrong and in itself suggests the unfortunate 4th International penchant to make international rulings regardless of anything, such as indigenous variations. If you go back to the thirties country by country -- such as in Latin America (eg: Augusto César Sandino)-- the pope's ruling does not stand up.Nor does it stand up to Ho Chi Minh's activities in the same epoch....etc.

Then on top of that sentencing communist parties outside the Soviet Union to "Stalinism" obscures more elements that it teases out.That any of these parties may have been bullying and autocratic is not tantamount to Stalinism. But the whole International-party-of-revolution left has simply fallen into step behind the presumption that a tenuous association with bad habits is enough to reject all communist parties as creatures of Uncle Joe.

And if you step back and consider the purge prone Trotskyist sects -- the US SWP, Gerry Healy's WRP to name two -- the Stalinist communist parties don't have a monopoly on authoritarian party regimes.

As for the question of the GDR -- I don't know,but the way that a good section of the Trotskyist left has dishonestly treated the Cuba question only proves the more that this "Stalinism" is a shibboleth that is deployed to justify a sectarian existence regardless of the methodology of Marx. Hither and yon, the program and separate political and organisational existence is formatted by "river of blood" battlements.

When you get out from under that spectra the world is a very different place. But to let go the Stalinist epithet would mean that so many other formations in the world that come from a presumed Stalinist tradition can be embraced as comrades in struggle with different histories and experiences that are all part of the one dynamic.

The "Stalinist"marker in fact sentences the Trotskyists to the narrow circle spirit where the assertion by Trotsky that there is no other revolutionary current on the globe outside his 4th International is carried to obscene and farcical lengths.And the rigor with which he analysed the USSR in "Revolution Betrayed" is cheapened by this deploying of Stalinist labeling as an excuse for all things done bad in Marx's name.

Stalinism lives on because it justifies Trotskyism.... Stalinism is its bête noire.

Red Mike said...

You've raised an issue thats very close to my heart, I have often been derided as "Stalinist" but whenever I ask what it is that makes me one absolutely no answer, or an answer which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Dave Riley said...

Just on this point: 3) A stages theory of revolution in the third world.A further Trotskyist shibboleth is that "Permanent Revoltion" is revolutionary theory but a staged transitional process is not. This is a complex question, that you have to hit the books for, but it is a mistaken view than Lenin believed in "Permanent Revolution" -- April Theses or no April Theses.

But the Trotskyist equate staged concepts of revolutionary change as tentamount to Stalinism. And herein lays some of the difficulty the official Trotskyists have with the Cuban Revolution and the unfolding process in Venezuela. If you believe in or follow a "revolution by stages" concept then you must be  ipso facto Stalinist.

Oh if the world could be that simple!

Permanent Revolution as was  exemplified  in a few instances --such as the practical history  of 1919 Hungarian Revolution  (which Lenin attached in Left Wing Communism) -- is an utraleftist concept that the Trotskyists in the main have never been in a situation to test out. But you do see it utilized as strident arguments for the speed of change to be quickened in accordance with the buried  fob watch of Leon Trotsky.

This begins to explain why the certified Trotskyists have so much difficulty relating to events in Venezuela as they did in Cuba 1959-1961. Revolutions either go  their way or they are not a revolution worthy of the name.In the case of the 4th Interantional (as disctinct from the CWI and IST) -- while they may be hesitant about Chavez et al, they still defer to the process even though it contradicts their theory -- because they have enough sense to know a revolutionary process when they see one.

Granted that the Stalinist  utilization of "revolution by stages" was an excuse to kowtow to the comprador bourgeoisie -- such as in China re the KMT, in Indonesia re Soekarno and PKI, etc -- that doesn't mean that revolutions in the Third World don't unfold by stages . Unfolding by stages is one thing but who leads the process is  another kettle of fish altogether.

So while I agree that a criterion of Stalinism is a strict and unwielding adherence to  a "stages theory"  usually in deference to the comprador bourgeoisie-- that theory was not the same as Lenin's  "stages theory". But that hasn't prevented Trotskyists elevating permanent revolution as the mark of true revolutionaries and even Lenin's  theoretical legacy   is reworked to fill the lie that he adopted Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution just so the October Revolution could happen.

(Irish) Mark P said...

Actually Eddie, that was the Mark P who apparently can't use a spellchecker. That first couple of paragraphs should have read as follows:

"I think that this is precisely the wrong way to look at Stalinism - at least if we are discussing it as a political movement rather than as a social form.

Descriptions of any authoritarian or dictatorial behaviour on the left as "Stalinist" are a loose way of using language. In such a context it serves as an all purpose pejorative. "Fascist" is often used in a similar way, although it too has more precise meanings."

As for sensible, I'm not sure which of us you consider sensible.

Mike said...

Stalinism: Applied Nihilism?

Marxist-Leninism/Stalinism are more Nechayev than Marx.

Nick Wright said...

Look, Stalinists betray the workers again!

Mark P said...

I see that Dave Riley is as verbose as ever. Pity that the content, a half-arsed defence of his own organisation's occasional slippages towards Stalinism, isn't of more interest.

How many ruling dictatorships is his tinpot little outfit sucking up to at this point? Cuba? Vietnam? How about the DPRK?

skidmarx said...

I think Mark P has said much of what I would want to. I'd add that it was common in the SWP to consider those who believed that state capitalist countries were deformed workers states to be halfway to Stalinism, and that the substitution of the power of the working class for that of a party claiming to represent them tended to seep into other areas of their politics. Right now I'm not paticularly wanting to get into an argument about whether this is right or wrong , just making an observation.
Iwould however like to challenge a couple of Dave Riley's comments:
because they have enough sense to know a revolutionary process when they see one.
Well you think it is, others think that it is worth supporting against imperialism but is still socialism from above with all the problems that brings.
Lenin's theoretical legacy is reworked to fill the lie that he adopted Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution just so the October Revolution could happen.
I'm not sure if the "lie" is supposed to be that that was the reason he adopted the theory, or that he never accepted it at all. Either way I wouldn't agree with your characterisation or your contention.
On the Andy Newman question I'll tread lightly, as he considers any suggestion that he is a Stalinist libellous, but I think the answer to Is that apology or analysis?
is the latter, when many of his claims about East Germany are knocked down by someone who wrote a book on the subject, just as his claims about the progressive nature of China are regularly shredded.

Dave Riley said...

The use of such terms as "slippage towards Stalinism" and " halfway to Stalinism" and then to throw in the standard "socialism from above" marker in order to equate that slogan with Stalinism* is precisely the muddle headed and dishonest argumentation in anti Stalinist mode that tries to pass itself off as Marxist polemics.

Is Stalinism merely an ideological current or is it concrete and material condition as Trotsky explained and explored it in The Permanent Revolution?

On top of that how is it that a failure to believe in Trotsky's concept of Permament Revolution tantamount to embracing Stalinism? And finally, since we would agree that Stalinism is a reactionary current historically through and through -- are we then to believe that any one who supports Cuba (and there are millions of those worldwide) also reactionary?

I don't want to hit you over the head with the two stage debate -- see this debate with Phil Hearse for an outline -- but you do need to do your homework to understand the issues.


* Since Venezuelan Revolution is denigrated as being "from above" is it also Stalinist?

Mark P said...


I'll note you didn't tell us how many bureaucratic dictatorships your group is currently sucking up to. Cuba and Vietnam I already know about. How about China, Laos or the DPRK? What do their rulers have to do to get some love from the DSP/SA?