Stalin


A new travel story story – of sorts – over at Voyages on the Left. This one follows Joseph Stalin, or Osip as the locals called him, to the Arctic Circle in Siberia: ‘A Sign of Intelligence.’

The pleasure increases with age: the discovery of unexpected ideas by means of disciplined and sustained reading. In this case I refer to Joseph Stalin and the origins of the connection between Marxism, anti-colonialism and thereby post-colonialism. Here I can spell out only the outlines of what will become a much longer argument.

As a preliminary note, we need to dispel the image popularised by the Trotsky. The sneering dismissal of a ‘mediocre provincial’ says more about Trotsky’s own vanity than it does about Stalin.[1] Even preliminary investigation reveals that Stalin was a very bright student, at both the church school he attended and the ‘Spiritual Seminary’ in Tiflis where he studied theology for six years. At the seminary he also wrote poetry, which has entered the anthologies of great Georgian literature. Anyone who studies the poems is struck by the delicate balance and linguistic purity of the writing[2] – features that also show up in his later written work.

However, it was the experience of crude Russification in Georgia that influenced Stalin most deeply on the national question. At the seminary, Georgian was forbidden even in everyday talk among the students. All texts, literature, and instruction were in Russian with a national imperialist focus. These experiences led to one of his early pieces on the ‘national question’, with the position outlined in full some years later in ‘Marxism and the National Question’.[3] Here he outlined what would become the basic position of the Bolsheviks: recognition and fostering of ethnic minorities, in terms of language, culture, literature, government, and religion. By this stage, he had already made clear his position on treatment of the Jews, among other groups, under the tsarist regime: ‘Groaning under the yoke are the eternally persecuted and humiliated Jews who lack even the miserably few rights enjoyed by other Russian subjects – the right to live in any part of the country they choose, the right to attend school, the right to be employed in government service, and so forth’.

All this is easy enough when one is involved in an underground, revolutionary group. What happens when you achieve power? After the October Revolution, Stalin was made People’s Commissar, with a specific focus on the ‘national question’. Now he had to deal with the complexities of the various situations. As the new government began enacting its policy, he found that bourgeois-aristocratic governments began to claim autonomy. So he stipulated that any claim to autonomy and self-determination had to come from a government established by workers and peasants – in Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus and so on. In the process of thinking through such matters, he formulated the dialectical position: ‘Thus, from the breakdown of the old imperialist unity, through independent Soviet republics, the peoples of Russia are coming to a new, voluntary and fraternal unity’.[4]

Soon enough he was struck by a crucial insight: this position on the national question also applies to anti-colonial movements throughout the world. So he wrote in 1918 that the October Revolution ‘has widened the scope of the national question and converted it from the particular question of combating national oppression in Europe into the general question of emancipating the oppressed peoples, colonies and semi-colonies from imperialism’.[5] If one supports the emancipation of ethnic minorities within the USSR, then the same should apply to any colonised place on the globe. This insight lay behind USSR’s policy, already from this time, of supporting anti-colonial struggles around the world.

I cannot go into the detail and complexity of these issues here, such as the relationship with the international solidarity of the working class, the way socialism and nationalism come together in a new way in such formulations, the realities of a massive war effort, and so on. But I do need to ask how these insights have a bearing on post-colonialism. As any self-respecting account of the origins of post-colonialism shows, what we now call ‘post-colonialism’ has a longer history in the anti-colonial articulations of Marxism and the struggles it fostered. The names usually listed in such histories include Marx, Lenin, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James, among others. Missing from this account is of course Stalin. Yet, it was Stalin who developed most fully and in the context of the actual experience of constructing socialism the deeper logic of Marxist anti-colonialism. The sensitivity to such issues may have arisen from his own intimate experiences in Georgia as a young man. But he worked through the complexities of the issue as he dealt with the realities of ethnic minorities in what would soon be called the USSR.

[1] As Lunacharsky observes, Trotsky never did anything without a careful look in the mirror of history. Anatoly Vasil’evich Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes  (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).

[2] Donald Rayfield, “Stalin the Poet,” PN Review 11, no. 3 (1985).

[3] J. V. Stalin, “The Social-Democratic View on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 1, 31-54 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1904 [1954]); J. V. Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 3, 300-81 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1913 [1953]).

[4] J. V. Stalin, “The Government’s Policy on the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 233-37 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1919 [1953]), 237.

[5] J. V. Stalin, “The October Revolution and the National Question,” in Works, vol. 4, 158-70 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1918 [1953]), 169-70.

Let me begin with Joseph Goebbels:

While National Socialism brought about a new version and formulation of European culture, Bolshevism is the declaration of war by Jewish-led international subhumans against culture itself. It is not only anti-bourgeois, it is anti-cultural. It means, in the final consequence, the absolute destruction of all economic, social, state, cultural, and civilizing advances made by western civilization for the benefit of a rootless and nomadic international clique of conspirators, who have found their representation in Jewry.

Behind the advancing Soviet divisions we see the Jewish death squads [Liquidations-kommandos], behind these rise the Terror, the ghost of the starvation of millions, and complete European anarchy.

To be expected, of course. ‘Judaeo-Bolshevism’ it was called in Germany, and it was one of the most effective propaganda efforts to bolster support for the invasion of the USSR, and indeed defend against the Red Army as they destroyed the Wehrmacht.

But now we have General George Patton, commander of the US Third Army in Europe and regarded as the most able of Allied leaders. Apart from opposing the denazification of Germany, he described both Jews and communists as ‘lower than animals’. Jews were ‘greatest stinking bunch of humanity I have ever seen’. As for the Red Army:

I understand the situation. Their (the Soviet) supply system is inadequate to maintain them in a serious action such as I could put to them. They have chickens in the coop and cattle on the hoof – that’s their supply system. They could probably maintain themselves in the type of fighting I could give them for five days. After that it would make no difference how many million men they have, and if you wanted Moscow I could give it to you. They lived on the land coming down. There is insufficient left for them to maintain themselves going back. Let’s not give them time to build up their supplies. If we do, then . . . we have had a victory over the Germans and disarmed them, but we have failed in the liberation of Europe; we have lost the war!

We would easily be able to arm the German troops that we have at our disposition and drive the Russians back. They hate those bastards.

We have destroyed what could have been a good race, and we are about to replace them with Mongolian savages. And all Europe will be communist.

Patton felt that the USA had fought the wrong enemy. Instead,  he would have preferred an alliance with Hitler against Stalin’s Soviet Union. No wonder the Germans preferred to surrender to troops from the USA and UK.

In his collection of articles on anarchism from 1906-7, in response to intense anarchist activity in Georgia, Stalin offers his fullest exposition of dialectics (at this point). He closes with this telling rebuttal:

Lastly, the Anarchists tell us reproachfully that “dialectics . . . provides no possibility of getting, or jumping, out of oneself, or of jumping over oneself” (see Nobati, No. 8. Sh. G.).

Now that is the downright truth, Messieurs Anarchists! Here you are absolutely right, my dear sirs: the dialectical method does not, indeed, provide such a possibility. But why not? Because “jumping out of oneself, or jumping over oneself” is an exercise for wild goats, while the dialectical method was created for human beings.

That is the secret! . . . (Works, volume 1, p. 312)

Stalin joke 01

More great stuff from Losurdo’s book on Stalin. He devotes a section to what he calls the reductio ad Hitlerum: the concentrated and intense process by the anti-communist propaganda machine to make out that Stalin was no different from Hitler. Among many guilty of this process is Hannah Arendt’s profoundly influential and wayward work, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). For Arendt, key components of ‘totalitarian regimes’ are the idea of a master race, the belief that one is ‘elected’ for world domination (does she have the USA in mind?), and the abolition of civil society, in which all restraints on the state’s power are removed and the state attempts to control every aspect of life as a basis for world domination. She argues that Hitler and Stalin, Nazism and communism, are therefore two sides of the same totalitarian coin. At the time, this argument suited a European and American Left that was seeking common ground with liberalism, for it enabled them to oppose actually existing socialist states in Eastern Europe and Asia.

The result, suggests Losurdo, is an extraordinary caricature. Stalin’s ‘terror’ was nothing less than gratuitous violence and was exclusively motivated by a totalitarian ideology driven by the bloody paranoia of a singular person.

Another key component is the Soviet-Nazi (Molotov-Ribbentrop) non-aggression pact of 1939, which supposedly shows how close the two sides really were. Neglected are a few interesting little facts: Stalin was late on the scene, as everyone seemed to want to make treaties, pacts, and agreements with the Third Reich. These include the concordats with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches in Germany (1933); the Haavara agreement (1933-39), when Zionist organisations arranged with the fascist government for the transfer of Jews to Palestine (20,000 German Jews thus made their way there); the naval accord with the UK (1935), which enabled Hitler to re-arm Germany and permitted him to colonise eastern Europe (with the UK seeking to direct Hitler to Russia); the Nazi-Polish non-aggression treaty (1934), and then the Munich Agreement (1938), at which Germany, France, the UK and Italy were present and which explicitly acknowledged the ‘disappearance’ of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, the US ambassador present at Munich opined that it was important to isolate ‘Asiatic despotism’ (guess who he had in mind) and protect ‘European civilisation’. So Stalin was hardly the only one to be interested in such an agreement, even if all it did was buy him a little time against such united opposition.

I have just received yet another collection of Stalin’s writings, this one called Stalin on China. But what drew my eye on opening it is the preface by Chen Pota, from 1949:

On the basis of concrete analysis of the concrete conditions in China, Stalin, this great scientist of dialectical materialism, the teacher of world revolution, formulates at the time of the first Great Revolution of China, a series of questions concerning the Chinese revolution, to which he offers extremely brilliant solutions. By this means he demolished the nonsense on the question of China advanced by the counter-revolutionary Trotskyites and assisted the Communist Party of China to embark on the path of Bolshevism.

Great scientist of dialectical material, teacher of world revolution, brilliant solutions … and above all, concrete. You don’t find reviews like that any more – except perhaps self-written pieces on academic profile pages.

Stalin was rather fond of the Bible in his library, reading it often and memorising quotations. So it should be no surprise that occasional echoes should appear in his writings. This one appears in his speech after the October Revolution, given to Finnish workers in November 1917:

I should like first of all to bring you the joyful news of the victories of the Russian revolution, of the disorganization of its enemies, and to tell you that in the atmosphere of the expiring imperialist war the chances of the revolution are improving day by day.

The bondage of landlordism has been broken, for power in the countryside has passed into the hands of the peasants. The power of the generals has been broken, for power in the army is now concentrated in the hands of the soldiers. A curb has been put on the capitalists, for workers’ control is rapidly being established over the factories, mills and banks. The whole country, town and countryside, rear and front, is studded with revolutionary committees of workers, soldiers and peasants, which are taking the reins of government into their own hands.

Compare the ‘Magnificat’, spoken by Mary in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

I am thoroughly enjoying Domenico Losurdo’s book on Stalin, not least because I am thrilled at being able to read the French text with relative ease. Plenty of food for thought, but three items struck me recently.

First, one of the great achievements of the Bolsheviks was to restore the Russian state, albeit in an entirely new way. For more than forty years, from the late nineteenth century, it had been unravelling. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it was well on the way to becoming a failed state. After the revolution, the ‘civil’ war was the time of the greatest danger, but with the victory of the Red Army against an array of international forces and the White Armies, the state began to be recreated. Losurdo points out that the brilliance and energy – and ‘foi furieuse’ – of the Bolsheviks played a huge role. By the 1930s and under Stalin’s leadership, that task had largely been achieved.

Second, Losurdo shoots down the common comparison between the Gulags, or re-education camps in the USSR, and the Nazi ‘concentration camps’. For the former, the purpose was to create potential ‘citizens’ and comrades’ and everything was geared in that direction. By contrast, the fascist concentration camps were fundamentally racist, setting out to destroy the Untermenschen. In that respect, the Nazi camps are of one with the treatment of African slaves in the USA, of indigenous peoples in Canada, and so on.

Third, Losurdo refers to Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (2001). Martin argues that the Soviet state was the world’s first state based on affirmative action. It fostered national consciousness among its many ethnic minorities, established institutions, encouraged locals to become involved in education,  government and industry, and mandated that local languages would be official. In some cases, the Soviet government had to create written languages where none existed. Immense resources were invested in the publication of books, journals and magazines in local languages, in film, theatre, art, and music. For Martin, ‘nothing comparable had been seen before’. It became standard socialist policy afterwards.

You have to give it to Stalin for some creative thoughts regarding communism. In the afterglow of the stunning victory over Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War, he explored the many possible paths to communism. On one occasion (March 1945) , he said to Tito, ‘today socialism is possible even under the English monarchy. Revolution is no longer necessary everywhere … Yes, socialism is possible even under an English king’ (Roberts, Stalin’s Wars, p. 247).

Is this an allusion to Paul? Stalin writes in an early study of the party:

Just as every complex organism is made up of an incalculable number of extremely simple organisms, so our Party, being a complex and general organisation, is made up of numerous district and local bodies called Party organisations, provided they have been endorsed by the Party congress or the Central Committee.As you see, not only committees are called Party organisations.To direct the activities of these organisations according to a single plan there is a Central Committee, through which these local Party organisations constitute one large centralised organisation. (The Proletarian Class and the Proletarian Party, Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 67n)

And Paul:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12)

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