Skip to main content

On "Stalinism" [Part 1]

Yesterday at work, when I passed a poster advertising the schedule of one of the many marxist reading groups on campus, I was reminded about my intention to post something on Stalin/Stalinism that would be more substantial than my Trotsky-Stalin Mimesis piece from 2011, and more serious than my Young Stalin joke post that over-inflated my blog stats for a few months.  The reason I was reminded about my intention to post on Stalin/Stalinism was because, according to the poster on campus, the first scheduled reading of this generic marxist group was entitled something like "Stalin's Betrayal of the Russian Revolution" with a cartoon depiction of Prophet Trotsky giving Evil Uncle Joe some sort of verbal smack-down.  Beyond the obvious fact that a reading group focused on a sectarian interpretation of history––and whose theory is dependent on this sectarianism (i.e. no Trotskyism would survive if you remove its mimetic double, "Stalinism", that it itself has golemized)––will just produce a sectarian grouplet with unremarkable theory and near-cultish practice, there is also the fact that the now banal Trotskyist discourse of the Russian Revolution is remarkably similar to the bourgeois discourse of the Russian Revolution and Stalin.

Here is what Stalin thinks of your bourgeois discourse.
This image of Stalin is on the men's washroom door at a bar in my neighbourhood.

(A caveat… None of this is to say that specific marxist tendencies should not explain their theoretical line-struggle with other tendencies, or that holding to a specific theoretical tradition amounts to sectarianism, but only that the over-eager repetition of the whole "look out for Stalinism" thing has become as cartoonish as an actual "Stalinist" (i.e. of the Hoxhaite variety) talking about Trotsky's betrayal and the "social fascism" of Trotskyism.  While I am not suggesting that these opposing tendencies should stop talking about their interpretations of history and reach some sort of liberal unity, I am only suggesting that an educational focus on the-bad-person-who-betrayed-the-revolution as part of a recruitment strategy strikes me as quasi-dogmatic.)

Leaving aside my annoyance with this discourse of Stalin/Stalinism, encountering this discourse yet again was a good reminder of why we need to think through the historical problems raised by "Stalinism" and, in doing so, develop a critique of this phenomenon that is a critique from the left rather than from the right.  While it may be true that there isn't really such a thing as "Stalinism" as a theoretical body of thought (despite the Trotskyist claim to the contrary, Stalinism as "socialism in one country," that I have critiqued in my document Maoism or Trotskyism), there is still a phenomenon that, for the sake of convenience, we can stamp with this name.  Although my contention is that this phenomenon is something that is not reducible to the label of Stalinism, and would have still existed even without Stalin, in some ways it is appropriate to use this name because of its ossification during a historical process in which the figure of Stalin was involved.

So what is this thing called "Stalinism" if it is not reducible to a coherent theory, let alone the Trotskyist definition of "socialism in one country"?  For even if we dispense with this straw-person theory that was never the theoretical terrain of those who were branded "Stalinists", we are still left with a phenomenon that most people who use this word pejoratively seem to think possesses some sort of meaning.  If we can give this phenomenon any sort of concrete expression, then it would have to be the kind of party organizing and structure that emerged in the Soviet Union under Stalin and was characteristic of every Marxist-Leninist organization that aligned itself with the Comintern.  That is, the kind of monolithic, top-down, highly disciplined, and bureaucratized party that was produced by the historical necessity to defend the first socialist revolution.  After all, when someone or some organization is branded as "Stalinist" this is usually synonymous with saying "authoritarian" or "overly centralized".

While it would be a mistake to moralize about this phenomenon––since the proper historical materialist approach would be to understand it as necessitated by historical circumstances as an attempt to answer the problem of defending the dictatorship of the proletariat so as to accomplish communism––I am of the opinion that it is a phenomenon that consistently returns to haunt anti-capitalists movements, even those who mobilize against the memory of Stalin. Moreover, the only way to exorcize this ghost is to accept its historical necessity, understand why it emerged (rather than simply castigating it as the product of a single and supposedly "evil" man), and thus push beyond this terminal point of the terrain of Leninism.

Although Maoism has made much to do about the "party of the new type" in an attempt to over-step the problem of Stalinist organization, past maoisms (Mao Zedong Thought, anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism) have often fallen back into the monolithic and mechanical party-building process.  That five-headed symbol of Mao Zedong Thought––Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao––is a metaphor of this kind of haunted Maoism.  If we want Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, though, we have to accept that there is no such thing theoretically as Stalinism while, at the same time, accepting the phenomenology of Stalinism.  Most importantly, any true over-stepping of this Stalinist phenomenon should be able to defend the Soviet Union under Stalin against the banal anti-Stalinism that is shared by reactionaries, liberals, anarchists, and some marxists; at the same time, and as aforementioned, it needs to critique this phenomenon from the left.

Before suggesting a way in which to critique this phenomenon from the left, and arguing why this is important, I want to make a demarcation between this type of critique and the (all too common) critique from the right that masquerades as marxist or even anarchist.  That is, the whole "Stalin was a very bad man who betrayed the revolution" discourse is a way of examining history that, usually in the interest of proposing a pure communism, lapses into historical idealism rather than remaining squarely within the analysis provided by historical materialism.  At its very worst, this discourse uncritically accepts the highly questionable narratives of reactionary cold war historians, such as Robert Conquest, to go so far as to suggest that Stalin was responsible for genocide and was thus at least as bad as, if not worse than, Hitler.  This kind of Animal Farm understanding of history tends to shut down any sort of critical debate about the Soviet Union under Russia due to its acceptance of an uncritical bourgeois moralism and an unwillingness to question historical accounts that were produced during the Cold War by unapologetic conservative historians whose job was to smear communism.  While I am not arguing that we should instead just base our understanding of this period of history on the work of someone such as Grover Furr (but at the same time I am not necessarily saying that Furr is wrong, or should not be read––I think he should be read by those who would dismiss his claims without having engaged with his research), I am questioning the way in which a common sense discourse of communism has sunk into our consciousness to such a degree that we are angry if we are ever asked to think critically about its core assumptions.

Or take, for example, another critique of Stalin and the Soviet Union that is raised by well-intentioned leftists and that simply reproduce the whole liberal "totalitarian" theory: Stalin collaborated with Hitler before joining with the Allies in fighting fascism.  Thankfully, good Trotskyist historians think that this claim, based on an intentional misreading of the history around the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, doesn't hold water.  For example, Isaac Deutscher in his book Stalin (which is a Trotskyist and definitely not a pro-Stalin biography) is pretty clear that this pact was the result of the Soviet Union's failure to convince the other European states to work together to defeat fascism (because many of these states, especially Britain, hoped that the Nazis would destroy the Bolsheviks) and thus a political maneuver to give the Soviet Union time to develop a war economy.  That is, as Deutscher and pretty much every serious scholar on this issue has pointed out, the Soviet Union under Stalin was indeed planning to fight fascism (and evidence of this is that, when it did enter the war, it led the war against the Nazis and was responsible for the majority of the losses and victories), so the pact should be understood in the context of military tactics.  The reason we now have a discourse that flies in the face of serious historical scholarship is because the imperialist camp, post-WW2, realized that, since the Soviet Union was primarily responsible for the defeat of fascism, they were dealing with a propaganda victory of communism over capitalism and so had to develop their own counter-propaganda: totalitarianism, Stalin's Soviet Union collaborating with the Nazis but then conveniently "switching sides" because of their totalitarian cunning, and thus no distinction between communism and fascism.

(There is a reason that myself, and others critical of the "evil Stalin" discourse, tend to champion the work of J. Arch Getty and those other liberal scholars of that period of the Soviet Union who, at least within academia, are now seen as the primary experts in this area.  We have disagreements with Getty's theoretical understanding of things, because Getty and that group of scholars are not communists, but we think it is important to read serious historical scholarship that, while never praising Stalin and being quite critical, also shuts the door on so much of the unsubstantiated anti-communist "scholarship" that was quite often justified by appeals to conservative authors of fiction such as Solzhenitsyn and Koestler.)

Outside of these obvious replications of reactionary history, the entire "Stalin betrayed the Russian Revolution" approach to history is, as I know I've suggested elsewhere, not a very historical materialist approach to history.  History's momentum is not produced by the actions of "great individuals" but is rather the product of social classes, and though this movement sometimes throws individuals to the forefront of history this does not mean that these individuals are themselves the prime movers of historical conjunctures; rather, they are ciphers of other complex social forces.  Even if I was to accept that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a "degenerated workers state" (which I don't, though I think it is a critique worth examining), I could not accept that this degenerated workers state was the product of Evil Stalin kicking out Good Trotsky and remain a historical materialist.  Whatever problems existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, that would be transformed into clearly revisionist problems under Khruschev, there is no way that these problems are reducible to a single man and I think it is doubtful that they would not exist had Trotsky won the line struggle and purged Stalin.  After all, there really is nothing in Trotsky's theory or practice that proves otherwise.  Moreover, once we reduce the historical account of the eventual failure of the Soviet Union to the business of Stalin versus Trotsky, we will not be able to avoid an eternal sectarian exchange that is incapable of providing anything useful for our understanding of theory and our revolutionary practice––for the "Stalinist" can respond to the Trotskyist, and with the same amount of evidence, that "Trotsky betrayed the Russian Revolution" by claiming he was a wrecker.

All of this is to say that critiquing Stalin/Stalinism from the position of an often unconscious acceptance of the "totalitarian" discourse is neither historical materialist nor useful.  One of my good friends suggested that it might be reducible to a kind of "scapegoat" politics where, assuming that the masses have already accepted anti-communist ideology, seeks to undermine this anti-communism by blaming all of communism's supposed evils on a single person: "But that was just Stalin and we don't like Stalin––we're 'true' communists!"  So maybe there are short term benefits that can be gained from what, at least in my opinion, is historical dishonesty… And yet these short term benefits need to be compared to the long term drawbacks of beginning with an endorsement of bourgeois ideology and, in this endorsement, promoting a platonic communism that can never be achieved because it cannot possibly be brought into being in the real world of messy social relations.  It is far better to find a way to critique our past failures without lapsing into this kind of idealism and, by foreclosing on the rightist way of explaining Stalin/Stalinism, producing a critique that is useful for organizing.

[to be continued in a later post…]


  1. Good post overall, but it's important to note that Trotskyists don't blame the fate of the Russian Revolution on "one bad man," i.e. Stalin. As laid out in "The Revolution Betrayed," Trotsky's analysis was very much a materialist one that looked at the balance of class forces in the USSR after the Civil War and concluded that the weakened state of both the proletariat and bourgeoisie led to the domination of the bureaucracy over Soviet society. Stalin, with all the prestige of an old Bolshevik, was the perfect figurehead to defend the interests of the bureaucracy (much of whom he appointed, so there was a mutual benefit).

    For some reason lately I've been reading a lot more articles by pro-Stalin communists. I've said before that if I had been a communist in the first few decades after 1917 (before Stalin's death, the uprising in Hungary and the ascension of revisionists like Khruschchev), I probably would have been a "Stalinist" myself. Without the benefit of historical hindsight, the desire to defend the first worker's state at all costs could easily blind one to its faults.

    The reason I still lean towards Trotskyism is because I believe he simply had the best analysis of the Soviet Union. He explained many of the negative developments - the growth of the bureaucracy, mad zig-zags in policy, and (most telling in my mind) the shift of the Comintern from a revolutionary policy to one primarily concerned with defending the interests of the Soviet elite - and explained how these were rooted in the situation after the Civil War. He also predicted the potential for capitalism to re-establish itself in the USSR and offered a theoretical basis for this claim. To this day, I haven't seen a truly convincing explanation for the collapse of the USSR from non-Trotskyist tendencies.

    Even when I read articles like the one you suggested to me in which the Chinese Communist Party offers critiques of Stalin's policy, I feel that the outright lies they tell about Trotsky - that he was a supporter of fascism, etc. - tend to erode much of the authors' credibility (same as when I read articles by Hoxha).

    On the other hand, I can't deny that there's been a dangerous trend among some Trotskyists to allow their distaste for "Stalinism" to lead them to support truly reactionary positions. The worst example that comes to mind is the ISO and the Cliffites, who came to support the American effort in Vietnam, Solidarity in Poland, the mujahadeen in Afghanistan and radical Islamists today because of a shockingly flawed "lesser evil" mentality. Former Trotskyists-turned-neocons like James Burnham, of course, are on a whole different level.

    So while I believe Trotsky's analysis of Stalin was right in the end, I also think it's important that Marxists avoid falling into the trap of simply parroting bourgeois propaganda against Stalin.

    1. I am well aware of the Trotskyist argument about bureaucracy but I think this is ultimately reducible to "Stalin = bad man" and "Trotsky = solution". That is, I think it is not at all a historical materialist argument, or about social class, and is contingent on the great person view of history even if it pretends otherwise. This is why there are so many articles, workshops, books, etc. written about "Stalin's betrayal of the Russian Revolution" that emphasize the failure of the Russian revolution on Trotsky's ejection and Stalin remaining in power. Of course a bureaucracy assembles around Stalin, and this becomes targeted, but it is the bureaucracy that is only possible because of the failure of Trotsky to win over the CC and become the rightful heir to Lenin.

      I don't think Trotsky explained any of the problems of the Soviet Union correctly, nor had a really good understanding of the "mad zig-zags" of policy. The only thing approaching a good analysis of that period is the first two volumes of Bettelheim's work and that is about as far from Trotsky's analysis as one can get. Nor did he have really any proper theoretical understanding of why and how capitalist restoration happens since he lacked any understanding of the dictatorship of a proletariat as a class society in any meaningful way: I've discussed this before in my piece on Maoism or Trotskyism––Trotskyism is a theoretical dead-end and about as useful for historical materialism as a Newtonian is now for physics. Not that they cannot produce some interesting insights here or there, but it's theoretically bankrupt at the end of the day––just as "Stalinism" is.

      Moreover, the arguments made about Trotsky's supposed collaboration with fascists were positions that were thought to be correct at the time and there were reasons people believed them. Grover Furr has recently produced a lot of evidence to show that Trotsky collaborated with the FBI and fascists in Germany and Japan. Do I believe that this is correct? No, because I think it hinges on crude empiricism, and I think it is problematic to go down this road just as it is problematic to think that Stalin was a totalitarian as Trotskyists maintain. Were there good reasons for revolutionaries believing this about Trotsky at the time, especially in China? Yes, actually, there were. Rightly or wrongly, most revolutionary organizations saw Trotskyists as "wreckers" and there were reasons to think this was the case. Now historical hindsight being 20-20 and all, I would argue that this was an erroneous position. But because there was reason to believe it, because Trotskyism split the international, and because I think Stalin did win a line struggle against Trotsky that was important and that it was overcoming an error of which, at that time, Trotsky represented. Did this mean Stalin did not have his own errors? By no means, but it is important to place these things in context and not accept the narrative of "maverick Trotsky defies Stalin and restarts true communist theory" which is, at the end of the day, a narrative about great people in history.

    2. Regarding that line struggle, could you explain the "error" that Trotsky represented and Stalin overcame?

    3. The error of the theory of permanent revolution. Harry Haywood reports on it here:

    4. Get a real job you damn commies.

    5. You're right: the job(s) I work must be imaginary. Teaching contract as a casualized adjunct professor, and taking on side jobs so as to pay the bills, are not "real". What's your job? Management, business owner, or some other position where you aren't producing any value but, instead, exploiting the actual labour of other people? Yes, that is such a "real" job... So either you're a parasite who lives off the fundamental labour of others, or you are someone who is trying to adopt the values of the parasites. Maybe you should understand the reality of your real job.

  2. Although each generation of people is shaped by the past that formed its existence, as they collectively engage in changing the world, they learn. Whether some individuals attempt merely to reproduce what they knew or whether other attempt to make something new, some individuals will generalize the practical knowledge they create in their struggles. Some from each class (even stratum?) will be first, so to speak, and others will be more articulate or perhaps even more perceptive. These individuals will be denominated leaders. The more powerful the historical materialist dynamic, the more powerful these "leaders" will be. In the case of a Cromwell or a Robespierre, they will be very powerful indeed. This can be falsified as a great man theory of history unfortunately. But the so-called greatness inheres not in the person but in the (always partial, since all knowledge is limited,) occasion. Nonetheless, actual history often hinges on these leaders. Omitting them is like a door without hinges.

    Respecting the originality of human action, where they do more than puppet the play of historical forces can be difficult. The effort to identify the material forces is always jeopardized by the power of preconceptions. Too often one discovers the old idealist prejudices. Real great man theories do this, turning the alleged great men (and they are men, always,) into the whole door, and the door jambs too, instead of "just" the hinge. If you reframe the issue into intellectual history, an excessive fixation on denying great men turns into a claim that Plato and Aristotle, or Descartes and Spinoza, were epiphenomena.

    As to Stalinism, I have thought for decades that attitudes toward Stalin and explaining Stalinism are pretty analogous to a bourgeois democrat's attitudes to Renaissance despots, Frondeurs, Egmont, Gustavus Vasa, Cromwell, Robespierre, Napoleon, Bismarck, Lincoln, that fellow down in Paraguay during the Gran Chaco War, etc.

    As to the insistence that actually existing socialism must have been worse than capitalism, that is and has always been purely propagandistic, since capitalism is all the noncommunist world. Actually existing socialism may include the north of Korea, but actually existing capitalism includes Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia.

    Looking forward to the completion.

    Steven Johnson

    1. Thanks for the comments. I agree with much of what you said in the first two paragraphs, and my comment about the "great leader" thesis of history is not meant to deny the importance of individuals who have, at certain historical conjunctures, become theoretical-practical revolutionary leaders. At the same time, the very existence of these people is contingent on the larger process of making history that they themselves are ultimately a product of. Moreover, there are reasons why some people have been more articulate and able to provide a proper concrete analysis of a concrete historical circumstances and others have not––this too is based on a lot of class factors, and Hisila Yami's work on proletarian feminism has discussed this to some degree.

      My problem, however, is that there are theoretical trajectories that fail to recognize these important figures as ultimately reducible to ciphers of historical/social circumstances and instead put too much emphasis on the "individual genius" of this or that figure. There has been a lot written about this in the MLM circles, as well as the problem it produces, mainly as a critique of the cult of personalities that have emerged around our revolutionary heroes and some trajectories' whole-hearted embrace and justification of the leadership cult. Of course, this problem is not limited to Maoism.

      I've written about this before on this blog, although I cannot recall the title of the pieces (which is why I didn't back-link), so I didn't feel the need to cover old ground on this issue.

      As for your last paragraph, I think it is pretty clear that I'm in agreement with you there as well.

    2. Ta-Nehisi Coates has had a couple of posts promoting a little post-mortem anti-Communist hysteria. Read the comments if you want to get another refresher in just how backwards people can be.

      Steven Johnson


Post a Comment