Without theory we are dead

Sergey sent me this great link to Zyuganov‘s speech on the auspicious day of 27 October this year. As everyone should know, Zyuganov is the chairman of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party. And the event was the 14th joint plenum  of that committee. The theme: the importance of and need to renew Marxist theory. He points out that Gorbachev took advantage of theoretical stagnation in Marxist thought and was thereby able to defeat the CPSU ideologically. It was the mark of a liberal-bourgeois revolution, from which it was a short step to the dismantling of the USSR. Perestroika is the signal of that ideological defeat. Of course, he calls for a deep re-engagement with the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, the latter of whom observed: ‘Without theory we are dead’.

But – and here it becomes really interesting – he has quite a bit to say about religion. He reasserts the old party platform of freedom of conscience in the party on matters of religion, the need for religious institutions and the party to operate in peaceful coexistence, indeed to attract people with religious belief to the party. And then he quotes Stalin to kick off a discussion concerning radical and revolutionary forms of religion, so much so that they share the goals of scientific socialism. Che Guavara turns up, as does Hugo Chavez, along with liberation theology. All of them oppose the Golden Calf of capital, whether socialist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and so on.

And in outlining the measures needed for theoretical renewal that criticises the mistakes made and draws lessons from the achievements of the past – in terms of history, philosophy, science, religion and so on – he points out: ‘Soviet socialism is not only the past, but the future of Russia’.

I wonder if they need a resident theologian.


31 thoughts on “Without theory we are dead

  1. This is a bit of broad question but how have you engaged folks whose direct history is that of having Stalin kill their family members. I am thinking here of a church context in which there is a high proportion of such people with living memory and experience. I have no interest in personal conflict in this matter but when I speak from the pulpit I use language that triggers many of these memories and associations.
    Just curious about your experience.

    1. Not speaking for Roland, but I’d be inclined to deal with it the way I talk to a black person in the US who tells me their great-grandfather was lynched…..

      1. Maybe I did not phrase the question well. In your example I don’t think there is a question as to what is and should be critiqued. I am speaking of aspects of Marxism/Communism that should be given attention and perhaps are needed (and I am also thinking here of the instances where Roland seems to be trying to re-write some poor history about Stalinist and other Communist forms here). But almost all of that language for many people in my context is directly filtered through they killed my family.

  2. “Every now and again the opposition has tried to push us into a discussion. For two years a]ready, hardly a day passed without it making a new demand for a discussion. We resisted that pressure; we members of the Central Committee resisted that pressure, knowing that our Party is not a debating society”

  3. David, what interests me here is the way Stalin is a cipher for all manner of things (it’s the title of an article I’m slowly putting together). I have been at Marxist conferences where Stalin’s name becomes a focus for the most heated exchanges, pro and con. I hear repeatedly the 20 million killed, a figure conjured up by Solzhenitsyn that has entered common parlance. I hear the furphy of Hannah Arendt, that Stalin and Hitler were basically the same, squashing civil society under an oppressive state. All of which Deane trots out in his unreflective manner.

    But then one reads works, among others, such as Geoffrey Roberts’s Stalin’s Wars – which is written by a war historian and not a Marxist by any stretch – and a much more contradictory Stalin emerges – an open-minded man who fostered talent, a committed communist focused on world peace (and yet one who did things that undermined that program), a brilliant war leader who was responsible for the greatest military victory in history. I’ve posted on Roberts’s book a few times – https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/stalins-wars/; https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/stalin-and-his-generals/; https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/stalins-economics-the-secret-to-soviet-success-in-world-war-ii/; https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/the-true-picture-of-stalin/. And then you find that Stalin is remembered in Russia as one of the greatest leaders, according to popular opinion, in Russian history.

    So he becomes very much a cipher for all manner of issues.

    On ‘he killed members of my family’: I have met people in Romania in a similar situation, usually from the former ruling class, and yet the curious thing there is although they view communism as the embodiment of evil, they are inescapably communist in their outlook on life. See http://voyagesontheleft.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/the-communism-of-anti-communism/.

    One matter I discuss often when I am in former and currently communist countries (which is quite frequently) is the need for a strong materialist doctrine of evil. If you look closely at Zyuganov’s speech, you’ll notice the beginnings of such an awareness, for he argues that theoretical renewal requires an honest facing up to mistakes – as Lenin did repeatedly – as well as achievements.

    1. My context (and my own background) is Russian Mennonite.
      My own great-grandfather was killed in the revolution (and of course we parade a long legacy of being killed) but that is very distant from my experience and there is now space for being critical as most of the raids around that time where against our community as one that was wealthy, privileged (often given permission to abstain from military service) and isolated.
      WWII is still too fresh though, and I am not sure where I begin (or whether it would make any sense) to have a conversation about some of the misrepresentations.
      Our community is also complicated by our German heritage in which many were given refuge by Hitler’s army (I don’t know if or how our church has helped people address the potential conflict that is felt there).

      1. David, thanks for that. I’m aware that when Germany was a backwater economically, many Germans moved to other parts, including Russia. But I did not know that the Russian Mennonites were given refuge by Hitler, in the midst of killing some 16 million communists behind the lines (on top of the 8 million or so war dead). So, as you say, it certainly produces a conflict. And Stalin was no light-touch political leader, since he did not hesitate to deal with, exile, or execute the enemies of the USSR. It’s worth noting, thought, that Lenin fostered some Old Believer communes and was fascinated by Bonch-Bruevich’s archives on marginal religious groups, and that Stalin made a historic deal with the Orthodox Church in light of the common war effort.

  4. And what about women? Please don’t give your usual dismissal of “all feminism is bourgeois”. We know that about (Anglo-American) feminism. Where are the discussions about how masculinist societies (obviously many, if not all, with all their variations and “progressive” yearnings) function via the silence of women, unless those women are prepared to talk the talk (capitalist, marxist, whatever)? One doesn’t need to be a Russian communist to know that “Western” feminism has its problems. But why aren’t women’s issues, especially the exploitation of women’s bodies in any system, ever even remotely in this discussion. Roland, if you’re going to peddle this stuff, especially if under the banner “Without Theory We are Dead”, then at least engage with some of the feminist (for want of a better term) stuff that challenges both that ridiculous myth called “democracy” and that more palatable myth that is the future of communism. “An honest facing up to mistakes”…on men’s terms, no doubt.

    And honestly, when you say “I hear repeatedly the 20 million killed, a figure conjured up by Solzhenitsyn that has entered common parlance” you are starting to sound like David Irving. That may excite you (perversely), but it shouldn’t. It belittles the seriousness of your arguments.

    1. Julie, what you write is largely correct, except for a couple of points.

      First, I have never said or written that ‘all feminism is bourgeois’. What I do say is that the Bolshevik women were very suspicious of western feminism since it was largely bourgeois.

      And there is substantial and growing literature on the crucial involvement of women in the Russian Revolution, with all its achievements of failings. It’s well worth reading. For starters:

      Chatterjee, Choi. 2002. Celebrating Women: Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
      Clements, Barbara Evans. 1997. Bolshevik Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
      Goldman, Wendy Z. 1993. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
      Kollontai, Alexandra. 1980. Selected Writings. Translated by Alix Holt. New York: Norton.
      — 2003. Mein Leben in der Diplomatie: Aufzeichnungen aus den Jahren 1922 bis 1945. Translated by Ruth Deutschland and Heinz Deutschland. Berlin: Dietz.
      Stites, Richard. 1978. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
      Wood, Elizabeth A. 1997. The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

      And the cheap shot about Irving is really straight out of Arendt’s line, that Hitler and Stalin were pretty much the same. Without repeating what I’ve written before: https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/hitler-versus-stalin/; and the discussion here: https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/stalin-the-communist/#comments

      1. It seems that David Irving is becoming the new Hitler

        It is only a week ago that I had a similar experience.
        I replied to casual comment a blog about some organisation having “no concept of the rule of law” and being “as bad as if not worse than Stalinism” http://www.socialistunity.com/the-swps-descent-into-liberalism/

        Innocently, I pointed out (#344) that “there was a concept the rule of law under Stalin in the 1930s and, arguably, it was strengthen compared with that in the previous period:
        “It was people in opposition to Stalin who argued against the rule of law under socialism. Notably Nikolai Krylenko (1885 – 1938) and his “ally, the Marxist theoretician Eugen Pashukanis” (1891 – 1937)”

        This produced a furious response

        There was an exchange of views. My critic’s Parthian shot was:
        “He [George Hallam] prefers Vyshinsky’s words to his deeds. Clearly arguing with him about Stalin’s trials is about as useful as ‘arguing’ with David Irving about the holocaust.”

        Welcome to the club.

    2. “And honestly, when you say “I hear repeatedly the 20 million killed, a figure conjured up by Solzhenitsyn that has entered common parlance” you are starting to sound like David Irving.”

      This sounds like a pub discussion.

      If you want to have a serious discussion then you need to do some serious reading on a lot of technical issues as well as the interaction between politics and history.

      Like life expectancy :
      Long-Term Trends in Life Expectancy and the Consequences of Major Historical Disasters

      the causes of famines:

      measuring economic growth and living standards:


      Not to mention the issue of the Moscow trials:


      Of these I find the last two the most interesting.

      If you know your George Orwell then you will have a lot of questioning to do.

      1. Very useful. As more material comes to light, Trotsky’s own account begins to show more and more holes. The old line that Stalin tricked him concerning the date of Lenin’s funeral has been shown to be false. Stalin did not set the date of the funeral and Trotsky knew full well when it was to be held. And he had time to get back, but he could not find it within himself to make the journey.

    3. Hi JK,

      I think that CPRF’s rather despicable positions on feminism, women, gender and queerness should be condemned. I think that a revolutionary future must be feminist and can only be feminist. But I have read Stalin. I want to understand the Stalinist experience, both the good and the bad. I refuse to accept without critique the liberal narrative about Stalinism that caricatures it as a murder-fest dominated by a power mad dictator. I think that narrative serves a class politics that I despise. I do not think that my contextualizing of Stalinism outside of the dominant bourgeois historical narrative makes me comparable to a Holocaust denier. Implying that I am one is pretty lazy.

  5. Along with Marx and Lenin, Zyuganov should seriously take a look at some of the writings and positions that came out of the Left Opposition if he wants to put some new life into the Russian Communist Party, not to mention some historical continuity with 1917. A theoretically “deep re-engagement” with the works of Stalin! Give me a break.

    1. Rick, this is the precisely the position that interests me with ‘Stalin as Cipher’, since he is in many respects a moment of dismissal, a no-go zone, or simply a way to lose an audience and write one off as a discussant. I’m interested in the mechanisms of that process, especially in light of much nuanced work that is going on outside marxist circles in relation to Stalin.

      1. Oh – you’re only interested in the othering of Stalin as a cipher for the propagation of Western liberal values! How sophistic/ated. And here I was thinking that you were championing Stalin as well…

  6. CPRF is a disgusting revisionist party that exists only because Putin allows it. They’re anti-women and anti-queer. They’re reprehensible.

    1. You’ve got to be careful here. Of course, critique the CPRF, since that is crucial. But it’s important not to fall into the western trap of revolutionary romanticism – that the perfect revolution is yet to come and that all those that have happened are betrayals. Instead, I prefer to learn from the the many successes and failures of the revolutions that have taken place, and there are a shitload of them.

      1. What? Don’t give me this patronising bullshit. KRPF IS NOT A REVOLUTIONARY PARTY! They’re in the parliament! They’re for “family values”, they have a text on their site reporting how they’re so proud to have chased away some LGBT protestors for their International Labour Day protest!

        I’m not romanticising anything. I’m telling you that KRPF is not revolutionary, it’s opportunist and degenerated.

        I’ve said nothing of the past revolutions (I am a marxist-leninist-maoist so do you really think I don’t honor the legacy of the past revolutions?) I’m saying – and now again – that KPRF is not a revolutionary party.

        If in the 21st century you don’t have any women or people of color (yeah there are POCs in Russia you know) in your leadership you can fuck right off. If you still believe homosexuality is a bourgeois degeneration when pretty much all still existing socialist countries have admitted it was wrong to mistreat queers – you can fuck right off.

        THE CPRF IS NOT A REVOLUTIONARY PARTY! They’re in the parliament, they think they can change the country with mass protests. They’re allowed to exist because Putin wills it.

      2. Something tells me you don’t really want to discuss KRPF’s practises beyond this Stalinism thing and I’ve wasted my time.

      3. I’m all for criticising them, but not for dismissing them for the sake of some mistaken positions. It’s worth remembering that Lenin pushed for a dialectic of legal-illegal political work during the period of the Dumas, unlike the otzovists who wanted to focus purely on illegal revolutionary work.

  7. Stalin(ism), to me, means: 1. Dictatorship of the proletariat (including gulags, if necessary), 2. the collectivization of agriculture and the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, 3. defense and liberation against fascism, 4. socialist realism (art that inspires and respects the people/masses, 5. fidelity to Lenin(ism).

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