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On "Stalinism" [part 2]

In the past, whenever the possible problems of Stalin/Stalinism came up, I simply deferred to the analysis made by the Communist Party of China during the "Great Debate" where, in the face of the Soviet Union's revisionism, they defended Stalin from rightist critiques while, at the same time, providing their own critiques.  And though I still believe this is a good starting point, I have also come to believe that more is required.  The problem with making sense of "Stalinism" as a phenomenological reality, and the possible errors this phenomenon (that we are conveniently calling "Stalinism") produces, is more than simply recognizing a general summary of Stalin's errors.  This is not to say that the above document is not useful; it provides us with some understanding of the phenomenon: it highlights the way in which the party under Stalin improperly understood line struggle and how to deal with counter-revolution; it notes that democratic centralism was improperly applied.  But since this document was aimed primarily at dealing with the onset of revisionism that, by turning Stalin into a scapegoat, was pushing through a counter-revolutionary agenda, it was not intended as a critique of that phenomenon that can possibly be called Stalinism.

So why we need to further think through the Stalinist phenomenon critically and from a properly left position, rather than ignore it altogether, is because this problem is not reducible to the figure of Stalin––though it is quite true that this problem crystallized during the Stalin period of the Soviet Union and this is why we brand it with his name.  We could imagine a possible world, as suggested in the previous post, where Trotsky was in command of the Soviet Union; since it seems doubtful things would have gone another way, we would then be calling this phenomenon "Trotskyism" (and perhaps Stalinists in this possible world would be like Trotskyists in our world)… The fact is that this is a phenomenon that necessarily emerged under the first dictatorship of the proletariat in an attempt to deal with the problem of capitalist restoration and fight for the continued socialist transformation of that society.  (As the above cited document argues, some of the errors that we call Stalinist "were scarcely avoidable at a time when the dictatorship of the proletariat had no precedent to go by.") Since the first world historical communist revolution ended up being determined by a party that was chaired by Stalin when it had to encounter these contradictions, the phenomenal experience of certain problematic aspects within that society can be named Stalinism.

These problematic aspects are paradigmatically articulated in a document entitled Elements of a Sum Up of the WCP where members of the Workers Communist Party, one of the largest communist organizations in Canada during the 1970s/1980s, attempted to make sense of their organization's unexpected collapse:
"Like many parties, the WCP was strongly influenced by J.V. Stalin's approach to the party. We uncritically absorbed Stalin's notion of the monolithic party, the 'general staff' of the working class, run like an army with its members totally unified in thought and deed, marching in step under the 'infallible wisdom' of the leadership and kept in line by the cadres. We shared Stalin's vision of democratic centralism which put extreme emphasis on centralism and considered democracy more or less a formality, a luxury that could seldom be afforded, rather than a strategic necessity to develop political line, correct errors, and give party members real control of their organization."
And this corollary statement:
"[The party was] strongly marked by a dogmatic and non-dialectical approach to Marxism, by mechanical materialism, and economic determinism bequeathed by Stalin to the communist movement. […] Our dogmatic approach blinded us to the importance of striving to develop Marxist theory to meet the realities of our society."
Here we have a precise summation of that problem that can be called Stalinism: the monolithic party that places centralism over democracy and thus, in the anxiety of safe-guarding the revolution or even a revolutionary movement, produces dogmatism and a mechanistic approach to theory and practice.  We do not have to work very hard to uncover evidence of this phenomenon in marxist organizations––even some anti-Stalinist organizations abide by this practice, though they would never admit that this is the case.  As I've already noted, the phenomenon precedes its ossification under the name of Stalin, but it is under the name of Stalin that it finds its most significant historical expression.

A baby Stalin in all of us... SO CUTE.

In the face of revisionism, not to mention counter-revolution, this phenomenon makes sense.  The desire to produce a party that is perfectly disciplined, centralized, and able to carry out the orders of a revolutionary central committee can appear necessary––especially in a context where the opposite means the liquidation of revolutionary organization.  After all, if those marxists who have developed their theory through Lenin agree that a disciplined and military party is necessary for making revolution, then the kind of party that could be called "Stalinist" appears to be the logical result of this agreement: the fully disciplined and perfectly unified vanguard party.  There is no reason to deny that this solution makes sense; it might even make more sense now after our experience of the dead-end produced by movementism that has produced, at least for those who have been honestly critical about this experience, a suspicion of everything spontaneous, undisciplined, and short-sighted.

So the point here is that Stalinism is a compelling error because it is arises in the attempt to deal with the error of a lack of discipline and organization.  Despite the attempts of those organizations that eschew Stalinism to locate this error in some nebulous critique of bureaucracy, the phenomenon of Stalinism still arises in the moment of unquestioned party discipline that has been uncritically inherited from the first dictatorship of the proletariat: a crude democratic centralism that, under the auspices of this name, results in monolithic party practice.  Here we must wonder how these parties that critique Stalinist bureaucracy could even avoid such a problem––especially since some level of bureaucracy is necessary in order to organize the complexity of socialism––when they still believe that the crude early twentieth century conception of democratic centralism is akin to a magical formula.  Here is where the cult of the leader emerges, or at least the cult of the Central Committee, and we are presented with a top-down and inflexible party structure that is haunted by the ghost of Stalinism regardless of all claims to the contrary.

Therefore, dogmato-revisionist sects participate in this Stalinist haunting that is reconfirmed with every mimetic denial… I have lost count of the times that I've heard Spartacist League cadre inform me, without any hint of irony, that the problem with the disintegration of the Soviet Union wasn't the class struggle that was mirrored in the party as line struggle but, in point of fact, was a failure to abide by proper democratic centralism.  But this (mis)understanding of democractic centralism is precisely the monolithism that we can name Stalinist––prior to over-bureaucratization, prior to the emergence of a leadership cult.  Beyond this mimesis, however, we can observe innumerable anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist parties collapsing or becoming stagnant due to the same practice, uncritically inherited from the Soviet Union under Stalin.  The WCP, cited above, is significant only insofar as some of its members were able to conceptualize the problems that led to its collapse; other organizations collapsed without this recognition or, even worse, degenerated into tragically dogmatic echoes of their former selves.

[to be continued…]