Sunday 9 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, Stalinism, and the Cold War Boilerplate

As if proof were needed that stupidity isn't the sole preserve of the right, along comes Jonathan Jones with a new angle in the anti-Corbyn effort. His target is the slight whiff of Marxism surrounding Jeremy's campaign. Because - gasp - the 's' word is getting more traction these days, it's time we "have to face up to what was done in the name of an extreme version of socialism in the 20th century." Quite what the road to the gulag has to do with the Labour leadership contest beats me.

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."


Boffy said...


While I agree with the general intent and content of your post I can't agree with this.

"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."

Unfortunately, that simply wasn't true. here is what Trotsky says,

“There were over 150,000 soldiers in Petrograd. There were at least four times as many working men and women of all categories. Nevertheless for every two worker-delegates in the Soviet there five soldiers. The rules of representation were extremely elastic, and they were always stretched to the advantage of the soldiers. Whereas the workers elected only one delegate for every thousand, the most petty military unit would frequently send two. The grey army cloth became the general ground-tone of the Soviet.

“But by no means all even of the civilians were selected by workers. No small number of people got into the Soviet by individual invitation, through pull, or simply thanks to their own penetrative ability. Radical lawyers, physicians, students, journalists, representing various problematical groups – or most often representing their own ambition. This obviously distorted character of the Soviet was even welcomed by the leaders, who were not a bit sorry to dilute the too concentrated essence of factory and barrack with the lukewarm water of cultivated Philistia. Many of these accidental crashers-in, seekers of adventure, self-appointed Messiahs, and professional bunk shooters, for a long time crowded out with their authoritative elbows the silent workers and irresolute soldiers.

“And if this was so in Petrograd, it is not hard to imagine how it looked in the provinces, where the victory came wholly without struggle.” (Trotsky – History of the Russian revolution p 234-5)

Trotsky presents this as though the Bolsheviks transformed these bodies after February 1917, but they only transformed them to the extent that the Bolsheviks were better at organising their own "authoritative elbows" to obtain control of them. Its always been a question I have wondered about of exactly which workplace was it that Lenin, Trotsky and so on were employed in, from which they were elected to the next highest body, so as to reach the peak of this hierarchy?

In reality, we see it all the time. During the Miners Strike, there were lots of people who got on to Miners Support Committees who were not workers, there were plenty of Anarchists, students and so on, who wangled their way on to Miners Wives Support groups and so on. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, only that we shouldn't pretend it is the height of democratic organisation.

For example, as Trotsky says in his History, the only reason Lenin argued for All Power To The Soviets, was because he thought they could exercise control, but Trotsky points out that Lenin had argued that if they could not exercise such control, they should shift their focus to the Factory Committees, where they did have majorities.

For Lenin, as for Cromwell, it was not about democracy, but organising your strength in the most effective way to ensure victory. Its always the problem of a revolutionary class being forced into a premature political revolution, and needing to rely on a minority vanguard rather than its own overwhelming social power, and ability to rule in its own name.

Speedy said...

As usual you use Stalin to cover for the crimes of your heroes Lenin and Trotsky, yet both were also steeped in blood. You cite "events" as an excuse for the Bolshevik actions, yet as the war broke out directly after they seized power (your "event", presumably) you have no evidence that they were the peace-loving democrats of your dreams - certainly thereafter (indeed, the day after) they began ruthlessly eliminating anyone who stood in their way. Yet Stalin was Lenin's chosen man from way before the revolution to (almost) the last - Lenin had no problem with his gangsterism, and indeed applauded it. The kulaks were only ever seen as an interim measure, and under Lenin were just as likely to have been eventually done away with.

Not that this has anything to do with JC, but the apologetics you Trot out are pretty lame... ;-)

Igor Belanov said...

You have really made the mistake of treating his argument seriously.

The disturbing thing is that there are people that consider themselves to be Labour supporters who consider the word 'socialism' to be a smear.

For all the historical faults and compromises of the party, even figures like MacDonald, Gaitskell or Jenkins would not have gone that far.

Phil said...

Speedy, Lenin and Trotters aren't my heroes nor do I think they were peace-loving democrats. What they were were revolutionary politicians who ruthlessly prosecuted the interests of the class they represented, up to and including summary execution. The key difference between them and Stalin was precisely that. Forced collectivisation and the terror was not about consolidating what Trotskyists call the "gains" of October: they were moments in regime stabilisation, in crystallising and perpetuating bureaucratic power.

Phil said...

I treated his argument seriously, Igor, because it was an opportunity to skewer the Cold War nonsense that is still occasionally paraded. We might know it's idiocy, but there are a lot of readers here who don't know a great deal about it.

Ken said...

Leon Trotsky [...] pointedly argued the main difference between Hitler and Stalin was that Stalin was more unbridled in his savagery.

No, he didn't. What he said was this:

'As in fascist countries, from which Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ, save in more unbridled savagery, only preparatory propagandistic work is possible today in the USSR.'

This was written in 1938, during or just after the gigantic spike of mass executions and repressions known as the 'Yezhovschina' or the 'Great Terror', and -- crucially -- several years before the Holocaust.

BCFG said...

We are often told that Corbyn's policies are bordering on lunacy, that that his policies are childish and that they cannot work.

But we are being told this by people who think spending £100 billion on a weapons that can never be used is a good use of money in an age of austerity, and that instead we should focus on cutting health care, education and the social safety net rather than cut the weapons system that we could not possibly ever use. Such is the state of grown up rationalism.

Long live childish lunacy!

cjcjc said...

I'm sure Lenin's victims would feel so much better than Stalin's, knowing that it was in aid of proper class interests and all that rather than perpetuating bureaucratic power. Angels and pinheads come to mind.

Phil said...

I must have missed the bit where I justified their actions.

Anonymous said...

After the massacres of the Paris Commune Marx probably believed there were times when extreme force was necessary, simply for self preservation.

Funnily enough the countless acts of terror carried out in the name of the bourgeois and capitalism seem to have escaped those who wish to point out the dangers of 'workers' governments. When people do think about these countless acts of terror they are usually dressed up as some sort of humanitarian act and all sorts of in depth analysis justify every last drop of blood, this is usually done by analysing everything but the dropping of the blood.

These bourgeois apologists are disgusting and we shouldn't take lessons on morality from these reprobates.

George Hallam said...

"There were two 'Reigns of Terror', if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the "horrors of the... momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror - that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

Mark Twain
'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' 1889

Roger McCarthy said...

Agree with Boffy re reality of Soviets.- which also and crucially massively over-represented workers (and soldiers)over peasants who whatever you think of them were the overwhelming majority of Russians in 1917.

The notion that endless upward delegation is intrinsically more democratic than parliamentarism at the scale of a Russia (so what happened when the Vladivostok Soviet wanted to communicate with their delegate 7,000 miles away at a time when the state was quite incapable of running a reliable telephone service?) also strikes me as intrinsically dubious.

asquith said...

I have found Simon Sebag Montefiore very illuminating in his factual and fictional works on the matter...

And as for Jezza, the latest outbursts of antisemitism from his camp only confirms my natural revulsion. Principled and honest he may be, but so was Dumbya Bush, you have to actually be right and sticking to your guns isn't a trait I'm going to welcome when you're aiming your guns at me and people dear to me.

As I believe I said, I have no great dog in this race. I am not a Labourite and am supporting Tim Farron. Liz Kendall may be economically more sane but she is not a social livberal or civil libertarian and I suspect her "economic liberalism" may be more about catering for big business rather than freeing the energies of individuals and communities and puttiing in place the underpinning of their prosperity.

On about Stalinist art, I can't help noticing that the USSR had a really magnificent anthem. Both in the English version by Paul Robeson and when the Red Army choir and orchestra were belting it out. I once saw a video of that kind of thing on a good manly Soviet Victory Day celebration.