Saturday 9 November 2019

The End of Stalinism

What an amazing contrast. The breaching of the Berlin Wall was greeted by ecstatic scenes right across the Western world. 10 years after and the party was still in full triumphal swing, being a decade into the end of history and a rapidly globalising world of dual sovereignty - capital was king, and markets our monarch. And then 10 years on, in 2009, the commemoration of the collapse of East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic to appease readers with a Stalinist fetish, was more downbeat thanks to the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Wall Street crash. And now, in 2019, events marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the USSR and its client regimes are even more sombre. Speaking in Berlin, Angela Merkel chose the occasion to remind everyone that democracy is not a given, and that universal values are menaced from the extremes. In an obvious swipe against the racist right in power in Hungary and Poland, and advancing even in Germany, it was nevertheless fitting in given how the GDR was a totalitarianism born out of the ashes of its genocidal other, which in turn was the (by no means inevitable) consequence of the collapse of bourgeois democracy.

From gloating to shame-faced apologia, that is some distance travelled in a blink of the historical eye. For those who weren't around during the Cold War, it is difficult to convey how different the world felt. For some, the tyrannies stretching from the Elbe to the Bering Sea were misrecognised as zones of workers' control, where capitalism had been suppressed (true) and something better ruled in its wake (not true). It was a comfort and an alternative, and helped keep generations of leftists going when things weren't great. And this suited the captains of industry and their cadres of paid ideologists quite nicely. To most people, including those in the labour movement, the likes of East Germany were a model alright, a model to avoid. For every Communist Party activist the Soviet bloc kept going, dozens, scores, hundreds found the idea of socialism repugnant. If socialism is nationalised industry plus a knock on the door at midnight, we'll stick with capitalism ta.

Yet while, perversely, so-called really existing socialism was a buttress for post-war Keynesian capitalism, the very existence of an alternative system in the East had put our own ruling classes on notice. The Russian Revolution was and remains the largest blow against capital to date, and though the revolution succumbed to isolation, bureaucratisation, and became one of history's most grotesque dictatorships, hard won victory over Nazi Germany and support for communists elsewhere saw Stalinism advance across the world after the war. And where it won, capital was largely uprooted, markets suppressed and and effectively closed to Western capital, with one or two exceptions. In other words, the existence of these regimes struck at the root of and challenged bourgeois property relations and with it the very basis of capitalism itself. For as long as global capitalism faced off against global Stalinism, bourgeois dreams were frequently interrupted by communist nightmares.

And so with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rapid collapse of the Warsaw Pact signatories and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself two years later, you can understand why Fukuyama's end of history thesis got such traction. Capitalism had been trembling at the very thought of the communist phantom since the 1840s, and all it took were gaudy consumerist baubles and the freedom to speak your mind to exorcise it - permanently. And so when we talk about the triumph of neoliberalism, its spread as the new common sense was greatly aided by the expiration of its collectivist nemesis. The various permutations of ruling class ideologies were "proven" by history, and everything associated with the fallen Soviets and socialism more generally didn't so much fade away as practically drop out of public consciousness altogether. And at the point Tony Blair assumed Labour's leadership, it was almost as if socialism had been uninvented, so thorough was its purge from mainstream politics. Consciousness was thrown back and its only now, with the rise of Corbynism here in the UK are we groping back toward a new class conscious politics.

This was characterised, as my erstwhile comrades at the Weekly Worker used to put it, as a period of reaction of a special type. i.e. One in which labour movements and their parties had not been physically liquidated but ideologically defeated. The decline of old-style industrial working class consciousness pre-dated the Thatcher/Reagan era, as well as the end of the USSR, but were greatly accelerated by both. No Soviets meant no alternative to free market capitalism. Worse, while the USSR and its clients discredited socialism in life they carried on doing so in death. With the brutalist politics to match the brutalist architecture, the Soviet Union committed the cardinal sin of any putative alternative - it failed spectacularly. Nevertheless, that period has come to an end. Political polarisation is a fact of life as the old fault lines push to the surface and burst open all over the world. Even if Labour loses the socialist genie's not going back into the bottle, and any incoming Tory government will have its hands full placating growing disaffection - especially from those at the sharp end of their policies.

As Angela Merkel made her remarks at the designated graveside of East Germany, she did so as her system is imperilled by stuttering growth rates, a long-term swing against the power of capital, the law of value, and the nature of property, an inability to provide a decent, rounded standard of living for millions in the advanced countries, and its systemic culpability for climate crisis. Socialism is back, and communism is more than just sassy memes on the internet. Looking back on the disbanding of the Stasi, the dismantling of the wall, and the disintegration of a superpower bloc from the vantage of 30 years, their passing into the pages of history is starting to look more like a clearing of the air. And this, comrades, means our politics can soar to undreamed of heights without the burden of tyranny weighing us down.

Image Credit


Speedy said...


So what you're saying is that now the practical application of 'socialism' is out of the way we can get back to enjoying the fantasy? That may explain the forthcoming Labour manifesto.

We have the social democracies of Western Europe largely thanks to the USSR - the Americans were prepared to support their development (financially) as a bulwark against the USSR, so thanks, Stalin.

You may say I'm a miserablist but I'd say the future appears to be moving in precisely the opposite direction - towards ever more entrenched capitalism. Europe require the wealth generated by its engagement with global capital to finance its social settlement. The EU, which the UK is about to leave, provides a critical mass of wealth and influence which staves off the worst excesses of global capital. I'm talking about the real world, of course, not some WTF fantasy land.

My understanding of Labour-socialism, is to harness capital toward the benefit of the people. In the current circumstances, I'd say the EU albeit imperfectly delivers. Yes, there remains massive inequality and lack of opportunity, but no people are not starving (as my relations did) and are protected by a minimum of rights. There is real, grinding poverty - particularly in the UK - but there is also greater social protection, particularly in a 'failing' state like Germany than ever before.

The route to greater equality and less inequality is through accepting reality not embracing fantasy - a sort of fundamentalist faith - the EU is more right wing because the people have voted for more right wing parties. A Europe in which social democrat parties were in power in Germany and France may not have allowed the fate of Greece, indeed, developed a proper federal banking system.

These are the boring details that lead to real political change for the better. Simplistic slogans end in the gulag.

TheOnlySanePersonOnPlanetEarth said...

Reading this post is a bit like watching BBC news, you can only be more stupid after it.

Erm, stick to what you know, like sociology, not that you do much of that!

Boffy said...

" Even if Labour loses the socialist genie's not going back into the bottle, and any incoming Tory government will have its hands full placating growing disaffection - especially from those at the sharp end of their policies.

As Angela Merkel made her remarks at the designated graveside of East Germany, she did so as her system is imperilled by stuttering growth rates, a long-term swing against the power of capital, the law of value, and the nature of property, an inability to provide a decent, rounded standard of living for millions in the advanced countries, and its systemic culpability for climate crisis. Socialism is back, and communism is more than just sassy memes on the internet."

I'm afraid that this is once again Sismondist catastrophism not Marxism. It echoes the kind of argument for Socialism contained itself in the old Stalinist memes about "immiseration" and crisis contained in Varga's Law. The whole edifice collapses, as indeed did the Stalinist arguments and Varga's Law, after WWII, if economic growth accelerates rather than declines. It misunderstands and misstates the whole basis of the Marxist analysis both of capitalism, and of how it grows over into Socialism.

In particular, it misunderstands the actual nature of the crisis facing neoliberalism (conservative-social democracy). The background to the revolutions of 1848 was not economic crisis and secular decline. From 1843, the world's dominant economy, Britain, had entered a massive new boom. The financial crisis of 1847, was a consequence of that boom, combined with the crazy Bank legislation of the 1844 Bank Act that led to a credit crunch, in a similar manner as the financial crisis of 2008. The boom continued until around 1865-70.

Similarly, it was not economic crisis that led to the rise of new Unionism, the development of mass social-democratic parties at the end of the 19th century, but the onset of a new boom period from around 1890 that lasted until 1914-20. It was not economic crisis that led to a massive rebuilding of the workers movement after WWI, following its destruction in the 1930's and 40's, but the onset of the new post war boom. Indeed, the same factors could be seen arising as economic development came to MENA, and sparked the Arab Spring in 2011.

The fact is that even since 2008, many parts of the globe have continued to grow rapidly. The US despite Trump's global trade war continues to grow at rates above 2%, and its employment growth is double what is required for steady rates of unemployment. European growth is hit by Trump's trade war, and its effects on China and Europe, along with the effects of Brexit. It is even more affected by the implementation of austerity, which deliberately dampens aggregate demand, and by QE, which deliberately acts to divert money away from the real economy, and into financial speculation, so as to restrict economic growth, so as to reduce interest rates, and thereby inflate asset prices.

But, these are ephemeral factors. The Law of value continues to operate, and drives capital according to the laws of capital and capital accumulation. Global economic growth is going to rise not decline, and with it all of the Stalinist and Sismondist arguments about immiseration and crisis will be destroyed once again. Stalinism has not disappeared. It still exists in Cuba, North Korea and elsewhere, but more significantly it continue as a pernicious reactionary set of ideas that continues to infect the labour movement, such as with Brexit.

Blissex said...

«A Europe in which social democrat parties were in power in Germany and France may not have allowed the fate of Greece,»

Indeed they did not, and enough with the idiotic idea that the greek story has anything to do with the left: what happened is that a predatory right-wing government borrowed colossal amounts (15-20% per year of GDP), spread it around their clients, boosting imports and GDP (by 15-20% of GDP), and were caught out, and in 2012 GDP (and imports) reverted to the level in 2004, when the greek economy was considered to be doing pretty well. In many other EU/Eurozone countries that did not borrow 15-20% of GDP per year the GDP was quite flat between 2004 and 2012.
The "solution" proposed by Varoufakis was to give his government an unlimited (in size and duration) overdraft at the ECB so the greek government could continue to "borrow" and distribute to their clients the same 15-20% of GDP as long as they wanted...

Most of the anti-german propaganda associated with this story was probably motivated by the Nordstream 2 project; that it was pure propaganda is clear to me from the curious fact that the same propagandists spent no time at all on the situation in Romania and Bulgaria, also heavily indebted countries, with 1/4 (one quarter) the GDP per head of Greece, that is far, far poorer than Greece was in 2004 or 2012.

BCFG said...

Marx on 1848:

"The potato blight and the crop failures of 1845 and 1846 increased the general ferment among the people. The famine of 1847 called forth bloody conflicts in France as well as on the rest of the Continent. As against the shameless orgies of the finance aristocracy, the struggle of the people for the prime necessities of life! At Buzançais, hunger rioters executed[67]; in Paris, oversatiated escrocs [swindlers] snatched from the courts by the royal family!

The second great economic event that hastened the outbreak of the revolution was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England. Already heralded in the autumn of 1845 by the wholesale reverses of the speculators in railway shares, staved off during 1846 by a number of incidents such as the impending abolition of the Corn Laws, the crisis finally burst in the autumn of 1847 with the bankruptcy of the London wholesale grocers, on the heels of which followed the insolvencies of the land banks and the closing of the factories in the English industrial districts. The after-effect of this crisis on the Continent had not yet spent itself when the February Revolution broke out.

The devastation of trade and industry caused by the economic epidemic made the autocracy of the finance aristocracy still more unbearable. Throughout the whole of France the bourgeois opposition agitated at banquets for an electoral reform which should win for it the majority in the Chambers and overthrow the Ministry of the Bourse. In Paris the industrial crisis had, moreover, the particular result of throwing a multitude of manufacturers and big traders, who under the existing circumstances could no longer do any business in the foreign market, onto the home market. They set up large establishments, the competition of which ruined the small épiciers [grocers] and boutiquiers [shopkeepers] en masse. Hence the innumerable bankruptcies among this section of the Paris bourgeoisie, and hence their revolutionary action in February. It is well known how Guizot and the Chambers answered the reform proposals with an unambiguous challenge, how Louis Philippe too late resolved on a ministry led by Barrot, how things went as far as hand-to-hand fighting between the people and the army, how the army was disarmed by the passive conduct of the National Guard, how the July Monarchy had to give way to a provisional government."

Just to be clear a general commercial and industrial crisis is an economic crisis! Boffy is talking bollocks again.

Anonymous said...

This is more or less what the far left was saying in 1990-4; that the collapse of the USSR and Eastern Europe meant that socialism was free to do whatever it pleased, the future belongs to US (that is, to an "us" which had consisted largely of people who sucked up to NATO and western capitalism "We may appear to be socialists, but we're not like those nasty people on the other side of the Wall -- we support you to the hilt without question!". Even Noam Chomsky got in on the act at the time.

We know how that turned out.

I'm afraid that I don't see any sign that socialism, or even leftish liberalism, is in any state to succeed on any level. If our society survives the next decade, I suspect it will be as a corporatist state, perhaps vaguely Chinese or even Putinesque in its format, but definitely not socialist or democratic.

Anonymous said...

"Just to be clear a general commercial and industrial crisis is an economic crisis! Boffy is talking bollocks again."

That would seem a reasonable conclusion on the basis of what you have claimed. Except, from what I can see, Boffy did not say that there was not a crisis in 1847. He said there was! You seem to have set up an Aunt Sally to knock down. What Boffy said was that the Revolutions of 1848 did not take place in conditions of secular crisis of stagnation. And, a look at the GDP data for 1840-1870 shows that that is correct.

You also seem to have been rather selective in your quote mongering. A look at what Marx, actually I think it was Engels that wrote this bit, says in addition to what you have quoted is this.

"At the close of 1842 the pressure which English industry suffered almost uninterruptedly since 1837, began to lift. During the following two years foreign demand for English manufactured goods increased still more; 1845 and 1846 marked a period of greatest prosperity. In 1843 the Opium War had opened China to English commerce. The new market gave a new impetus to the further expansion of an expanding industry, particularly the cotton industry. "How can we ever produce too much? We have to clothe 300 million people," a Manchester manufacturer said to this writer at the time. But all the newly erected factory buildings, steam-engines, and spinning and weaving machines did not suffice to absorb the surplus-value pouring in from Lancashire. With the same zeal as was shown in expanding production, people engaged in building railways."


"The government yielded to the general clamour and suspended the Bank Act on October 25, thereby eliminating the absurd legal fetters imposed on the Bank. Now it could throw its supply of bank-notes into circulation without hindrance. The credit of these bank-notes being in practice guaranteed by the credit of the nation, and thus unimpaired, the money stringency was thus instantly and decisively relieved. Naturally, quite a number of hopelessly enmeshed large and small firms failed nevertheless, but the peak of the crisis was overcome, the banking discount dropped to 5% in December, and in the course of 1848 a new wave of business activity began which took the edge off the revolutionary movements on the continent in 1849, and which inaugurated in the fifties an unprecedented industrial prosperity, but then ended again — in the crash of 1857. — F. E.]"

As I understand Boffy's argument it is not the crude economic determinism that you have put forward as an alternative, but is he same as that put forward by Trotsky, following on from Marx and Engels, that revolutionary outbreaks occur at points of conjuncture, where economic prosperity allows workers to rebuild and gain strength, which is then mobilised when a crisis erupts, but that during periods of secular crisis and stagnation, the conditions turn against workers, they become demoralised and defeated as happened in the 1920's/30's, and in the 1980's/90's.

Boffy said...


Thank you for your comments, which are more or less a correct statement of my argument. However, I would caution against bothering to respond to BCFG. He is just a troll. BCFG is just one of the persona he adopts. he uses DFTM, Socialism In One Bedroom, Dave, Chris, Brian B, Henry amongst others when he is assuming the persona of an ignorant pseudo Marxist, "anti-imperialist", as he has followed me across the Internet over the last ten years.

Before that, he used the persona of The Sentinel, when purporting to be a BNP supporter. He has also adopted the persona of an Austrian School Libertarian at other points. he doesn't even bother to hide the fact that he uses all these different persona any more, which is why he uses all of the various and ridiculous names that e has more recently added to his list of characters.

There is nothing to be gained from discussing with such people who have no genuine set of beliefs of their own, but for whom provoking pointless flame wars is just a form of entertainment. Its up to you, but I'd just let him get on with playing with himself.