On Stalinism: An interview with Hillel Ticktin
Platypus Review 120 | October 2019
Following Hillel Ticktin’s presentation at the Communist Party of Great Britain’s annual Summer University, “Predicting the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Sophia Freeman interviewed Hillel Ticktin on the phenomena of Stalinism. The interview coincides with the 2019 Platypus Summer Reading group: "Thirty years of 1989: What was Stalinism in Power?" and an article — of the same title — published by Rory Hannigan in PR 119. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, which originally aired on episode 19 of the Sh*t Platypus Says Podcast.
Sophia Freeman: I’m here with Hillel Ticktin, who recently gave a talk at this year’s Communist Party of Great Britain’s annual Communist University. His talk was entitled “Predicting the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” and this will feature in the interview. Thanks for joining us, Hillel Ticktin. If you could just kindly introduce yourself.
Hillel Ticktin: I was born in South Africa. I was politically active and had to leave in 1960. I came to Britain during a time of some confusion — quite a few people had to leave South Africa, and then there were a number of scholarships up. Since I got a scholarship from the Soviet Union I went to the Soviet Union, and for the next almost five years I was in the Soviet Union, first in Kiev where I learned Russian, and then I went to Moscow University where I was doing what was the equivalent of a PhD in the Department of Political Economy. Thereafter, I came to Britain, and ended up as a lecturer and, in my last years, as a professor. My official title was “Professor of Marxist Studies.”
SF: And does that department still exist, or do those courses still exist?
HT: No. The title doesn’t exist, and we formed a kind of sub-department. It was a center for social theory of movements, that center exists but has been downgraded.
SF: And have you been involved formally on the Left?
HT: From 1970, for about eighteen months, I belonged to the predecessor to the Socialist Workers’ Party, but that’s really about all I belonged to.
SF: What kind of political project was Stalinism?
HT: To call it a project implies that it was deliberate. Clearly, it wasn’t deliberate. It came into being, as we know, with the assumption of Stalin to power in the Soviet Union in 1923, and his full power, I suppose, was when he expelled Trotsky in 1927. So, from 1927 until his death, there was a fully Stalinist regime. By fully Stalinist, I mean a regime in which terror played an absolutely crucial role, which was governed from above. In the case of Stalinism, it was actually led by Stalin. One has to say that, by the late thirties, Stalin was in full control and there was no sharing of power. He had to a large degree wiped out the Left, certainly, and to a large degree wiped out the intelligentsia and a great deal of the middle layers. He was more or less governing by himself. He had a few assistants who were afraid of him, but it’s hard to say that anybody else really played anything other than a tertiary role. Stalinism, therefore, as it came into being, was a system which had a number of functions. Firstly, it defeated the socialist project put forward by Lenin and Trotsky quite effectively over time. It completely wiped it out. As we know, the personnel were of course killed. I don’t think you can over-estimate the nature of that terror. The fact is that millions were killed. The actual numbers are still not fully agreed. The KGB came up with a figure of 750,000 killed in the purges. Robert Conquest, I think, comes up with twelve-million. I don’t know if anybody knows the exact number, but what we do know is that millions were, in fact, killed. This is unprecedented in human history. We know of the examples of Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar killing millions, but they weren’t killed on the basis of ideas, on the basis that they might not support a regime. This was entirely different: it was a deliberate decision to ensure that the upper layer within the Soviet Union remained in power.
SF: If I could try and pull the view out a bit and address it from another angle: what kind of failure was Stalinism a reaction or accommodation to, and how did that determine its nature?
HT: Stalinism was a completely new entity in human history. After all, it was based on the taking of power by the Bolshevik party, it was based on the taking of power by the Left. The aim of the Left was to introduce a socialist society. I think they were completely genuine, and they began the process. Unfortunately, they, of course, were invaded by the West, and they had to deal with the aftermath of the First World War as well, so that it never really got beyond the very initial point. Trotsky makes the point that the result of the Social Democrats not taking power in the name of socialism in Germany meant that the world had entered a transitional period. In other words, the world had entered a transition to socialism, a global transition to socialism. What Stalinism represented was a counterrevolution in this process. What Stalinism did was to stop that transition from going in a regular form. But the world is in a transition because it has to move.
SF: How was the phenomena of Stalinism stopping the world from moving through a transition?
HT: Immediately, it stopped the transition through a system of terror: it wiped out the Left. In the long term, it wiped out any hope, as it were, of going to socialism, because who on earth would want such an awful entity at all? Nobody would actually want it.
SF: How is Stalinism a counterrevolution for you?
HT: Firstly, it’s a counterrevolution because it wiped out the Left. The flower of the Bolshevik party was effectively killed. Secondly, it’s a counterrevolution because it did not stand for socialist goals. Thirdly, it’s a counterrevolution because its theory is simply a nonsense.
SF: Now I want to bring Trotsky into the picture a bit more. So the Left, after the failure of the World Revolution, fell into the Stalinophilic and Stalinophobic camps, whilst Trotsky attempted to uphold a dialectical critique. For Trotsky, Stalinism was an accommodation to the defeat of the World Revolution — Stalin called defeat a “victory.” The Soviet regime was one of crisis management, wherein the official state ideology and the social reality of its citizens were in stark contradiction. How was Trotsky attempting to stay true to Marxism after the failure of world revolution?
HT: It would be extremely difficult for any person in his position. Firstly, because he clearly didn’t expect what had happened. Nobody expected it. And nobody expected the depth of the terror, and I think even Trotsky didn’t realize the full depth of it. It was very difficult for him to be able to understand where it was going. Like most people, and like most Marxists, he was optimistic and hoped that things would change. There wasn’t anything that he could do with it, because he was completely cut off, so the only way in which he could act would be to help people in the West. But in the West he was effectively cut off too: he was exiled to Mexico and effectively expelled from France, Norway, and so forth, so the only way in which Trotsky could have an effect was in terms of what he was writing.
SF: What do you mean by Trotsky’s optimism, or how would you characterize that?
HT: There was, as you know, a continuous battle over whether the Soviet Union still was a workers’ state. He kept insisting that it was a workers’ state. I think we can now say, having seen its whole history, that there’s no sense in calling it a worker’s state. The workers were not in power and they couldn’t be in power, and any attempt was met ruthlessly, so there was no way that was the case. There was no control from below whatsoever.
SF: So, for Trotsky, Stalinism is an accommodation to the defeat or the failure of the revolution; still, it was a contradictory phenomenon that pointed beyond itself and required an immanent dialectical critique, which he tried to uphold.
HT: It’s not that Stalinism pointed beyond itself. It’s true that within the Stalinist regime they were teaching Marx. I was in the department of economics and I was studying Marx, so it’s true that people were studying Marx. They didn’t necessarily want capitalism at that time, but it was very difficult to see how you were going to get to a genuine socialist regime. There were even occasional anarchists. When the Soviet Union came to an end, the strongest group which was at least to the left, because there was very little socialism, were anarchists. I did meet that kind of person at that time.
SF: You mentioned in your talk at the Communist University that during this period of Stalinism when you were living in Russia, Stalinism had killed the revolutionary history and memory and that people were repeating Lenin without meaning. What did you mean by that?
HT: Well, Lenin was taught in the Soviet Union. They’d be taught “What is to be Done?” and they would have to write essays, or they’d have to repeat it back. They would do that but they wouldn’t understand what they were doing. There was no atmosphere of socialism of any kind. It was a backward society. You actually had queues of people standing at Academy of Sciences to be given whatever for producing a machine of perpetual motion. Now, that’s impossible, but there were queues of people claiming that they’d invented it. What kind of society is it where that happens? It’s a society which is cut off from the rest of the world, cut off within itself.
SF: So is there anything redeemable about Stalinism?
HT: No, I don’t think there’s anything redeemable about Stalinism. Stalinism wasn’t the same in every country. One could imagine a Stalinist party where some members — well, the leading members of the party — realized the real nature of Stalinism and then simply remained in the communist party with some kind of cover.
SF: What did the collapse of the Soviet Union mean for the Left?
HT: It would have been better, of course, if the Soviet Union could have been converted into a socialist society, but that isn’t what happened. Given the lack of understanding of what the Soviet Union was and the influence of the Soviet Union in preventing the coming into existence of a genuine socialist party, the end of the Soviet Union was a step forward. I think that’s the only thing I can say. I don’t like saying that, but I can’t see any way around it. It was a step forward in that it removed a society in which you had what amounted to a form of exploitation and a particular form of ideological control which kept the world backwards, so the fact that it came to an end was a step forward. It would have been far better if instead of going into what amounted to an anarchic capitalism, they could have gone into a transition period towards socialism.
SF: Why couldn’t that happen?
HT: Well, the forces weren’t there for it. Part of the point of Stalinism, in its nature, was to atomize the working class. It had to do that to maintain itself in power. Obviously, if the working class were organized, it would have been able to develop its own thought, develop a theory, be Marxist, and potentially overthrow the system, so the only way they could deal with it was to atomize the population. As a result, the working class was atomized. They weren’t able to organize in the factory. They weren’t able to organize anywhere. You really couldn’t get any kind of organization except in certain circumstances and in certain far-away districts, like in Tajikistan — it was a very backward part of the Soviet Union, and it remained very, very largely agricultural until the end — they could discuss what they wanted, and in effect the Stalinist regime wouldn’t have cared what they were saying.
SF: So was 1989 a turn to the left, or why not?
HT: Yes, in principle it could have been a chance for the Left; there were a number of left-wing people. There were too few at the time. I remember speaking I happened to be speaking to Ernst Mandel about exactly that point around ‘88 or ’89. He actually went to the Soviet Union at that time, and I discussed it with him. I was just very pessimistic about it. I didn’t see any force, and he said, “Just wait until I go there.” Obviously, he couldn’t do anything. I think Mandel expressed, really, the attitude that existed in the West, that really did think that there would be an uprising, the working class would be liberated and would be able to act — but it didn’t exist as a class, precisely because the regime’s aim was to see to it that it wasn’t a class. It needed a few more years to organize itself.
SF: What is the legacy of Stalinism today, thirty years after 1989?
HT: Well, unfortunately, its influence has remained to a limited degree, and, of course, we still don’t have power for a socialist party, but I’m sure it’ll come. Unfortunately, that’s one of its main legacies. I’m not certain that the Left has fully taken in the awful tragedy, a century of tragedy which it has had to go through. The Left hasn’t fully understood why it has been a hundred years in which the Left has been unable to develop, in which the world has not moved on.
SF: So how is Stalinism still with us today?
HT: Well, Marxism is with us today, and it’s in effect stronger than it has been, but the Soviet Union was the reason why we don’t have socialism, and why Marxism isn’t very much stronger than it is. One of the effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse is that it’s no longer an embarrassment and an enemy of the Left. It was actually an enemy of the Left, it wasn’t just an embarrassment, and the fact that it’s no longer there makes it much easier to be a Marxist, and it’s much easier for people who aren’t Marxist to see its strength. I’m surprised now that, when one actually reads comments, which — although they’re not Marxist, they’re critical of Marxism — are no longer talking the nonsense that they used to do when they attacked Marxism. If you read the Economist’s remarks on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, they are, of course, anti-Marxist, but the comments were at least reasonable, and not absolute nonsense, which they used to be. They showed that there was a respect for Marx which didn’t used to exist.
SF: When Stalinism was in power and when it was, as you stated, an obstacle to the Left, how was it treated by the Left as an obstacle?
HT: The problem was that Stalinism was much more powerful than the Left, so the only way that the Left could treat Stalinism was as you would a torturer or a madman or somebody who is out to kill you. Obviously, it would depend on the particular Stalinist grouping that you were dealing with, as to how you would deal with them. They aren’t — they weren’t all the same. Often enough you could find a Stalinist group where enough people in it understood the ambiguity in which they lived. Obviously, it was much more complex than how I’ve just put it.
SF: How was it more complex?
HT: In a Stalinist grouping, or group of people, or a study group, or a group of whatever kind, many people really didn’t know very much Marxism and they didn’t know much about the Soviet Union. Despite this, they simply accepted the official line that the Soviet Union was socialist, it was defending them, and that it was a wonderful society, so their ordinary actions could be perfectly reasonable in relation to whatever it was. So supposing somebody who was a Trotskyist or a left-winger would approach them and ask if they could do something or other together, I imagine they could work together. In many instances that wouldn’t be true, if there were any sort of controls exerted over them, and the same would apply to particular groups or subdivisions and so on. Of course there are examples of people in Eastern Europe who, as mentioned by Isaac Deutscher, ended up in positions of power, and who knew exactly what was going on, knew what Stalinism was, and simply, being themselves in power, did their best to help alleviate or make things easier for people. In that sense it’s complex. It would be very difficult for most people who are honest to know how to act. If you were in the system itself, and you were living well within it, and you knew that if you said the wrong word you would fall flat, you would fall right down to the bottom, or might even end up in prison, you might not do anything. You could also simply accept what was going on, or you could close your ears to it, but not everybody did. | P
Edited by Michael Woodson. Transcribed
by Michael D. Atkinson.
 Hannigan, Rory. “What was Stalinism in power?” PR 119. <https://platypus1917.org/2019/09/01/what-was-stalinism-in-power/>