As the present economic and financial crisis deepens, more working people and other sections of society will undoubtedly come to question the continuation of the capitalist system. However, exactly at that point they will be confronted with the spectre of Stalinism and Russia. This phenomena and its practice in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, will be used by pro-capitalists of all spectrums, to discourage any projected ideas or attempts of going beyond capitalism. For this reason it is essential that anti-capitalists understand, not only the specific practice of Stalinism, but its connective tissue with the vanguardist tradition of Bolshevism/Leninism and its further roots in sectarianism. This article offers a short introduction to this problem.
It is a fact that over the last seventy years a dark shadow has hung over the vision of an egalitarian post-capitalist society. This shadow was first cast by Bolshevik sectarian intolerance, but it became darkest under the regime of Joseph Stalin. Stalin and his followers were certainly not anti-capitalists even though many of them thought they were and declared so. Their self-deception came about by the fact that they often oppressed the owners of private capital. However, in practice and particularly during Stalin’s rule, they became nationalistic activists who purged themselves of all humanity in pursuit of state-capitalist economic, political and military power.
Stalin and the Stalinists turned a distorted anti-capitalist theory into dogmatic assertion and they tried to subordinate the world anti-capitalist movement to their own needs. They also displayed bitterness and poisonous hatred in dealing with rival anti-capitalists and even with their own members who dared to criticise them. They were often boastful and arrogant and had an unshakeable belief in their ‘correctness’ despite the contradiction between that conviction and the actual developments taking place. All these characteristics are those of sectarianism. (See article ‘Sectarianism and the General Strike’ at this blog.). Stalin frequently claimed to be a Leninist and a follower of Marx, but this latter assertion was also a delusion.
It is certainly possible to find evidence to support the claim to be following Lenin, but he was definitely not in the revolutionary-humanist tradition of Karl Marx. In fact when sectarianism is considered in some detail it is clear that the phenomenon of Stalinism was political sectarianism with full control of, and support from, state power. It was thus a form of sectarianism writ large. Yet Stalin was not the sole originator of sectarianism nor the only supporter of authoritarian state capitalism. If one examines the published volumes of Lenin from 1917 to 1923 before his illness and death in 1924, among other things, it is possible to identify the following repeatedly mentioned views.
1. Socialism could only be realised on the basis of a highly industrialised, centralised, planned state-run economy.
2. Workers could not be considered trusted until they were tested and approved by the Bolshevik Party.
3. Workers would have to voluntarily accept the work discipline ordered by the state planners or be forced to accept it.
4. Workers and peasants were by and large too uncultured to run their own affairs.
5. The politics of Bolshevism/Leninism alone must guide all aspects of economic, political and social life.
In the article, ‘Marxists against Marx’ (on this blog) and in the book, ‘Revolutionary-Humanism and the Anti-Capitalist Struggle’, I have detailed a number of the authoritarian positions of Lenin which indicate more than just a thin edge of subsequent Stalinist dictatorial practices. Of course, under Stalin, state terror against its own citizens was pursued to extraordinary lengths and depths of depravity. Even former close colleagues, for example, were tortured and killed on his orders, by his many supporters. As a former admirer and disciple of Stalin and later Soviet Leader, Nikita Kruschev remarked;
“Many of the leaders of our Party and our country were wiped out. Where had men like Molotov or Kaganovich or Mykoyan been when Zinoviev, Kamenev, Trotsky, Bukharin and Rykov were running the country? Almost the whole of the Politburo which had been in office at the time of Lenin’s death was purged.”(Krushchev Remembers. Penguin. Page 102.)
Roy Medvedev, a Soviet academic also concluded in ‘Let History Judge’ that, “..these were not streams, these were rivers of blood..”. The fact that Stalinism was a distinct political tendency is born out by the evidence that it did not disappear when Stalin died in 1953. Indeed, it continued as a sectarian tendency throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. During that period it polluted and weakened practically every struggle it became involved with. It was alive and well (or perhaps we should say alive but still sick) in 1993, forty years after Stalin’s death. In the Daily Worker of April 2, 1993 appeared the following sectarian assertion;
“Our central aim is to re-forge the Communist Party of Great Britain. Without this Party the working class is nothing; with it, it is everything.”
This group of alleged anti-capitalists were the inheritors of the Stalinist tradition. Their paper, the Daily Worker, had previously supported, state-control of economics, politics and social life in the Soviet Union. For decades they, and their comrades had silently or vociferously, supported Stalin’s every twist and turn, every show trial, every massacre, every Gulag and every incident of torture. Yet as the above quote illustrates, they were not just passive followers of the sectarian megalomaniac Stalin, they were active sectarians in their own right. They did not always need to be instructed by Stalin, they knew exactly how to continue being sectarian. Note that even in the 1990’s forty years after Stalin’s death, they considered that without them ‘the working class was nothing’.
This assertion displays the almost complete sectarian arrogance and patronising contempt for working people. So elitist was the public stance of this group that they reversed the real relationship between a class and those which sought to represent it politically. Yet in that particular ‘vanguardist’ tradition, they were not alone. Many 20th century Maoist and Trotskyist groups held to a similar, if not as publicly declared position as this. In actual fact it is more true to say that without the working class and non-sectarian anti-capitalist activists, this particular Party, or any other for that matter, would be nothing. Nothing that is, except an inconsequential sect.
Stalinism is now largely dead as a political tendency. It has hardly any roots in working and oppressed communities. However, its sectarian sub-soil, from which it developed has not yet been finally cleared and sanitised. Modern, political sectarianism, more often than not, adopts a more benign posture seeking to ‘lead’ the working and oppressed classes – for their own good. Many sectarian groups, still cling tenaciously to the neo-Leninist position that their political leadership alone – organised as an eventual ‘party’ – is capable of correctly leading and guiding (ie controlling) the struggle against capital and any subsequent re-construction.
Perhaps in a short article on Stalin and Stalinism a final word should be left to Stalin himself. Writing at the height of the purges, when up to a thousand people a day were being shot on his orders, when concentration camps full of diseased and dying workers and intellectuals were being worked to death, Stalin was able to state;
“We communists are people of a special mould. We are made of special stuff. We are those who form the army of the greatest proletarian strategist, the army of Comrade Lenin. There is nothing higher than the honour of belonging to this army.” (History of the Communist Party. Foreign Languages Publishing. Page 268.)
Special stuff indeed! It takes very special people to distance themselves from their own humanity, throw away all morality, bury any feelings of guilt and lie, cheat, torture and murder – or look the other way. Thankfully there are very few people who are of such special stuff, but sadly there are some in every community in every part of the world. Indeed, this type of self-elected leadership of a ‘special mould’ now seems to have gravitated to religious sectarianism, where all the above characteristics are manifested against their own religious communities who think differently and against the members of other religions.
It is clear that any really positive and fruitful anti-capitalist movement will need to confront any remaining Stalinists and the contemporary benign political sectarians with the full implications of their tradition. The idea of any form of political control now and in any post-capitalist form of society, needs to be confronted well in advance of such developments. For as Marx warned;
“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of every evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of the evil not in the essential nature of the state, but in a definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx/Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3 page 197.)
We now have the experience of the Bolshevik-led Soviet Union which confirmed the prognosis of Marx with regard to the political mentality; “..the keener and more lively it is, the more it is incapable is it of understanding social ills”.
Roy Ratcliffe (August 2012.)