What was Stalinism in power?
Platypus Review 119 | September 2019
The following remarks were given at the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Communist University on August 22nd, 2019.
2019 MARKS 30 YEARS since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the unravelling of the Soviet Union, and the ejection from political power of Stalinist parties in the Eastern bloc. For those on the Left at the time, it was perceived variously as a traumatic disaster, or as a partial and temporary setback, or as an opportunity, and even a cause for rejoicing. Writing in the newspaper of the UK Militant Tendency in January 1990, Peter Taaffe described the uprisings and unrest taking place in Eastern Europe as a vindication of Trotsky’s hopes for a political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, heralding the onset of what he described — for a brief period, admittedly — as the “red 90s.” At about the same time, writing in The Leninist, a less sanguine but nonetheless hopeful Jack Conrad identified the crack-up of the Soviet bloc as a “pro-capitalist reaction” and a counterrevolutionary setback, while nevertheless looking forward to a time when such reaction “inevitably gives way to a new period of revolution.” And for others, of course, the USSR, as a supposed example of “actually-existing socialism” in practice, had — perhaps like the elevated prominence of Sanders and Corbyn today — done something akin to pushing the so-called Overton window to the Left, providing an important counterweight to right-wing hegemony, with its demise therefore having been a tragic disaster.
Interestingly, the terms of these initial Left responses to the end of Stalinism in power have been followed in a somewhat similar pattern ever since, even while the social phenomenon of the Soviet Union has disappeared in the chronological rearview mirror. Speaking on a recent Platypus panel marking the 50th anniversary of 1968, Hillel Ticktin argued emphatically that there was always, historically, clear red water between the Left and Stalinism — that, having “destroyed the revolution” in 1923-1927, Stalinism was “nothing to do with the Left” and nothing to “beat ourselves up about.” Ticktin critiqued Trotsky for having the notion that the problem of Stalinism “did not go the whole way back” — that there was anything potentially redeemable lingering within Stalinism or the Soviet Union. For Ticktin, the effects of the Stalinist counterrevolution have in some respects lessened with its disappearance as a major political force, giving certain grounds for optimism for the Left today.
Conversely, we are also faced today with what the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has called the “New Stalinism” — the taking up of Stalinist iconography and ideology amongst a number of predominantly young Left activists. While this can seem merely like a collection of semi-ironic, pseudo-nostalgic affectations for a distant past, “Marxism-Leninism” and “Maoism” is nonetheless intoned with a degree of seriousness, and more importantly is often used as an ideological justification for, for instance, communitarian activism, and what has been described as “base-building."
In passing, it is worth noting the strange historical irony of a veteran Leftist like Ticktin’s thorough rejection of Stalinism coexisting with the attempts of young Leftists, likely not even born before 1989, to embrace it — clearly the problem represented by Stalinism has not straightforwardly faded away with the passing of time, but has periodically returned on the Left, albeit in weaker and more degraded forms. Indeed, given the persistence of this variety of Left responses to Stalinism in the face of the seeming absurdity of insisting on a political line today towards a social entity that no longer exists — the USSR — Stalinism would seem to present a deeper problem than one of merely having the correct “line” on, for instance, the class nature of the Soviet Union.
This confusion, taken as a whole, can perhaps be used as an opportunity for reflection on the question of Stalinism, as an ideology and a political force, and in particular its historical relationship to the Left and to Marxism. This is something Platypus has been attempting over the course of a reading group this summer entitled “30 Years of 1989: What Was Stalinism in Power?” The “ending of the Stalinist ice age” in 1989, as one Leftist recently described it to me, metaphorically brings to mind the Khrushchev Thaw of the mid-1950s and the international crisis of Stalinism, both within and between the Stalinist regimes and on the Western Left. Similarly to 1989, for many Leftists, de-Stalinisation appeared as a traumatic crisis as well as an opportunity — unlike in 1989, however, it opened the door to the formation of a “New Left” in the West, which at its best attempted to reckon with and overcome the debilitating legacy of Stalinism.
As a way of framing this historical moment, the bulk of our summer reading group has been given over to contemporary journalistic and political pieces by Isaac Deutscher, from the period of the 1950s up to his death in 1967. Deutscher cut his teeth politically as a Left oppositionist within the Polish Communist Party in the early 1930s, nonetheless rejecting Trotsky’s call for the formation of a Fourth International in 1938 as hopeless and premature, opting instead to remain on the political sidelines as a journalist and academic, rather than participating as a revolutionary organizer. Nonetheless, Deutscher’s appraisal of Stalinism and the Soviet Union owed a great deal to Trotsky’s critique in The Revolution Betrayed, and in a sense his political inactivity allowed him access to certain insights which were denied or repressed by the organizational commitments of post-Trotsky Trotskyists. Crucially, Deutscher sought to maintain a dialectical approach to Stalinism, as simultaneously both a counterrevolutionary and a revolutionary phenomenon.
For Trotsky, the Stalinist counterrevolution was not to be understood merely as the flat negation or undoing of the October Revolution. Rather, the revolution continued within the counterrevolution, even in spite of the obvious brutality of social life in the USSR, and the distortions and vulgarizations of Marxism perpetrated by the Stalinist ideologues. Stalinism as the — dialectical — antithesis of Bolshevism nevertheless preserved and was conditioned by the historical memory of the October Revolution, even and especially where it seemed to violate it most egregiously. The profound unreality built into the bureaucracy’s understanding of the society it attempted to govern perversely reflected a deeper reality — that the dialectical self-understanding of the Bolshevik party as non-identical and indeed in a contradictory relationship with the state, the working class, and the masses in the revolution, had broken down in the face of an acquiescence to and rationalization of the failure of the world revolution. The doctrine of “socialism in one country” was the effect, not the cause, of this acquiescence. Stalinism attempted to subsume these acute contradictions of Soviet society into a monolithic conception of socialism, but could only maintain this ideologically through terror and violence, targeting both the supposed remaining “alien class elements” in the Soviet Union and, increasingly, seeking out and punishing the supposed “subjective” psychological treachery of the party members themselves.
Crucially, for Trotsky, the question of understanding what the Soviet Union was could not be understood in isolation from the question of where it was going and how to politically intervene in such change, as the subtitle of his book implies and as he explicitly spelt out in the dispute with Burnham and Shachtman in the late 1930s over the nature of the Stalinist regime. The fact that the Soviet Union was a regime of crisis management, in which its official ideology and its social reality were in acute contradiction, in fact pointed to possibilities for revolution bubbling under the surface. This is why it is important to emphasize Trotsky’s approach to Stalinism as one of immanent dialectical critique, with such acute contradictions within the phenomenal appearances of Stalinism pointing to unrealized potential and possibilities beyond themselves.
Of course, the Stalinist bureaucracy was not met by a wave of revolution in the aftermath of the Second World War, but survived and was able to consolidate and even expand itself and its global prestige in the 1940s and 1950s. Given Trotsky’s emphasis on the interrelation of the theoretical understanding of the Soviet Union and the grasping of political possibilities for actually changing it, this obviously threw the validity of Trotsky’s critique into question, presenting a conundrum for his followers in the 40s and 50s, whose analyses and prognoses tended to degrade and disintegrate into antinomical, one-sided poles of Stalinophobia and Stalinophilia, to borrow the language of the Spartacist League.
Through this lens, Deutscher’s appraisal of the reality and possibilities of Stalinism seems closer to a Stalinophilic understanding — he held out the possibility that Stalinism in both the East and the West might be reformable, especially in the wake of the Khrushchev Thaw and de-Stalinisation. However, this needs to be treated carefully, as Deutscher remained a fierce critic of the Stalinist bureaucracies and retained his sympathy for Trotsky. It is not the case that Deutscher was hoodwinked by, for instance, the apparent liberalization and increased living standards within the Soviet Union, or that he thought that Stalinism would progress in a linear manner in the direction of socialism. Rather, following Trotsky, Deutscher saw Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, for example, as expressing and further provoking a crisis within Stalinism, demonstrating its limits and potentially pointing to changes beyond them. In this admittedly weakened, ideological sense, Deutscher, like some of the better surviving elements of the Trotskyist tradition at the time, as well as (perhaps more contentiously) the Frankfurt School, attempted to preserve something of the original Marxist point of departure — the dialectical critique of capitalist modernity, to which Stalinism remained subject.
The final few years of his life might be seen as Deutscher’s attempt to pass on this critical tradition of Marxism to the New Left, particularly to the student activists who sought him out for his insights. It is more of a reflection on the New Left than on Deutscher himself that, in their interactions, Deutscher — for instance in his 1967 interview on “Marxism and the New Left” — can appear as something of a scold. Reading his words, one senses Deutscher’s frustration and disappointment with his purported followers’ inability to grasp the older problems and difficulties he, as a veteran of the 1930s “Old Left," was so intimately familiar. Furthermore, Deutscher’s hopes for a transformation beyond Stalinism were posthumously vanquished, and the crisis of Stalinism, to which the New Left had attempted to respond, gave way to decline and eventual decrepitude and collapse in the 1970s and 1980s. Not coincidentally, the New Left itself regressed and fell apart along a similar timeline to its Stalinist object of critique.
That Stalinism nevertheless remains a deeply-ingrained and recurrent phenomenon on the Left would seem to suggest that the world-historical problems and contradictions unleashed by the October Revolution, and by extension by the entire history of capitalism in the Industrial Revolution, still remain with us and trouble us today — and this might be cause for hope. However, whereas for Trotsky, Deutscher, and even, to a very attenuated degree, the New Left, these problems still registered as a historical task passed down from generation to generation, to be taken up and transformed in the face of new historical conditions and problems, the post-1968 world has further naturalized and obscured this inheritance. In a way, the stakes seem to have lowered, and not just as a result of the political absence of the old Stalinist parties and the Soviet bloc. Stalinism remains something the Left finds important to consider, but it is not clear whether these considerations and arguments can be turned into productive, living political questions. This is what it means to say that the Left has regressed and died in the 20th Century. And this state of affairs is what Platypus tasks itself with intervening in and bringing to critical recognition. | P