Jonathan's piece, of course, assumes a great deal. Foremost is that no one on the left has contemplated what the experience of the Soviet Union and its demise means for socialist politics. He speaks of this in hushed tones, like he's the first to raise this vexatious issue. It's almost as if social democracy in Western Europe - even in its lefter, statist variants - didn't define itself against the bureaucratic "socialism" of the East. Or that revolutionary socialists and anarchists failed to believe Stalinism was an excrescence of and barrier to socialism. Or that most of Europe's Communist Parties were peopled exclusively by those for whom the USSR was the land of socialist milk and honey. Or that no literature from the Marxist stable tried to come to grips with Stalin and his successors. It makes you wonder what Jonathan would have made of Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and leader of the International Left Opposition, who pointedly argued the main difference between Hitler and Stalin was that Stalin was more unbridled in his savagery. All this stuff is joined by revisions and reworkings of what Marxism is about, and is easily accessible. We have the internet - the days of hunting down well-hidden radical bookshops are long gone. Is Jonathan ignorant or arrogant? Alas, I'm not in a position to say.
This prefaces Cold War boilerplate which, warmed up 26 years on, smells a bit iffy. You've heard it all before - Marx was a nice man, but his theories led to horrendous crimes and brutal dictatorships. And far from outlasting capitalism, communism [sic] collapsed in ignominy as the young people of the East put commodities before Komsomol, markets before Marxists. Socialism was out and capitalism was in. Is there anything wrong with this picture?
The first is Jonathan's handling of the relationship between ideas and reality. If one holds, for example, that the DNA of the gulag is to be found in Marx's writings or, more properly, Marx's remarks on a temporarily successful workers' uprising in his lifetime; then there's some explaining to do. If Marxist ideas are a rod of iron determining the outcomes of historical processes, why is it the majority of workers' parties that lay claim to his ideas from the late 19th century on became, in all essentials, little different to Labourism in Britain where a) Marxism never had much purchase and b) steady-as-it-goes constitutionalism ruled the day? As one Marxist party went down the route of revolution while all the others stuck with reform, using a logic analogous to the cold war arguments, today's social democratic parties have a stronger claim to the logical culmination of Marxism than what happened in Russia by their sheer preponderance.
As materialists, we know the world doesn't work like that. Marx was a revolutionary democrat. And so were the Bolsheviks. Lenin's April Theses were a call for the Bolsheviks to orient themselves to the workers', peasants', and soldiers' councils that had sprung up all over Russia after 1917's February Revolution. These bodies were more democratic and accountable than the most representative of representatives democracies. The neighbourhood or workplace council elected the next layer of delegates to a sub-regional/industrial council, which elected the next layer, all the way up to the highest council in the land. The Bolshevik programme was radically democratic because it wanted to place power in the hands of these councils. "All power to the soviets" was more than just a slogan: it was a statement of intent, and that it what the seizure of power that October set out to accomplish. What went wrong? Events ...
For people like Jonathan, politics are ideas, debates, compromises, and resolutions. It is those things, of course. But first and foremost politics is always and forever about interests. There are deep philosophical differences dividing the Tories and Labour, for example, but these are symptomatic of an irreconcilable tension between the constituencies these parties ultimately represent. Most of the time these interests compete peacefully, in politics, in the Question Time studio, in the press, on the doorstep, etc. A revolution, however, is the occasion where the clash of interests break into the open and are only resolved more or less through violent means. Either the regime brought to power by the revolution wins, or the counterrevolution drowns it in blood. Understanding how a revolutionary socialist party with a democratic programme and an extremely democratic internal life that allowed for factions and factional presses - a bit like the Labour Party now - became an organisation overseeing the establishment of a totalitarian society around a grotesque personality cult requires a paying of attention to what happened in the revolution and subsequent civil war, and the actions of all the key decision makers. For example, the present character of Iran's Islamic Republic state owes more to the circumstances of its birth and its subsequent history than the holy text it claims fealty to. Similarly one will look in vain for the Soviet Union in the pages of Capital.
Hence there is a fundamental naivete to Jonathan's discussion. A naivete that actually whitewashes Stalinism because he abstracts it from the living, breathing material processes that gave it life. For him, the USSR - the gulag, the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the liquidation of the kulaks - these were examples of what the "far left did to human souls when it actually got a chance to engineer them." In other words, Stalin was brutal but misguided. He aimed to engineer socialist human beings through forced labour and state-sanctioned terror. This is bullshit. Stalin's crimes and those of his underlings were about power. The knock on the door at two in the morning wasn't because people were insufficiently socialist. They were actual and imagined opponents of the bureaucratic apparatus erected on the ashes of revolution. Some even got a bullet or a lengthy stay in the gulag if an NKVD officer took a fancy to their apartment. The kulaks were smashed not because they were a danger to the revolution, but because this class of rich peasants represented a potential opposition to the burgeoning state apparatus, to Stalin's unchecked power, of the consolidation of a range of interests served by running society in a certain way. It had as much to do with molding socialist people as Jonathan's discussion is relevant to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign.
It's my polemic, and I'll cheap shot if I want to. A couple of other points Jonathan might wish to ponder before making ill-advised forays into further red-baiting.
1. You've got to take the smooth with the rough. The markets Jonathan heaps praise on wouldn't be anywhere near as robust if it weren't for the red juggernaut that is China. Yes, the China run by an authoritarian Communist Party, and whose economic miracle rests on the state exercising tight control over key sectors of the economy - including finance. If the Soviet Union is Marx's legitimate child, surely a global capitalism dependent on China's dynamism is as well?
2. Jonathan writes "I am a Labour centrist supporter not out of cynicism but out of principle, because I believe the only ethical politics of the left today has to be moderate, reasoning, and sceptical." How nice. Then please explain how this kind of "ethical politics" sees its latter day saint providing spin advice for a brutal dictatorship? I am entitled to argue the logic of moderation leads one to cashing the cheques of unpleasant despots?
Image: "Stalin's love brightens our children's future."