Stalin and the origins of post-colonialism

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 Trotskyites. 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.

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What did Joseph Goebbels and General George Patton have in common?

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.

Footnote: Winston Churchill held similar views.

Winston Churchill: white supremacist

More great material from Losurdo’s book on Stalin. In his long demolition of the myth of Stalin’s anti-Semitism, Losurdo also makes a few observations on Winston Churchill’s racist views. To begin with, in the famous ‘iron curtain’ speech of 1946, Churchill saw the British Empire as the champion of liberty and ‘Christian civilisation’ – or rather, ‘English-speaking’ people: ‘Neither the sure prevention of war, nor the continuous rise of world organization will be gained without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples’. Innocent enough at first sight, since he was seeking a closer alliance with the USA, where he gave the speech.

But his use of “Christian civilisation’ and ‘English-speaking world’ are codes for a deep-seated racism. In a letter to Eisenhower, he wrote that ‘English-speaking world’ is actually a synonym for ‘white, English-speaking people’. And in 1953, he called the USA to assist England in Egypt to ‘prevent the massacre of white people’. (Eisenhower shared such views, describing the Chinese as an ‘inferior race’.) This is but the tip of the iceberg, as Christopher McMahon observes:

Winston Churchill made no secret of his racism, stating to Leo Amery, “I hate Indians…They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”. The racism didn’t stop at insults, Churchill was an advocate of genocide, he said that “I do not admit…that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race…has come in and taken its place” and “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes”. This genocidal attitude towards everyone that wasn’t white manifested itself when Churchill was in power with famine in India. The policy of Rice Denial during World War Two was essentially an order from Churchill to starve India.  Millions of people in India died as a result of the imperialist actions by Britain. Churchill even attempted to blame the famine on Indians themselves by claiming that Indians were “breeding like rabbits”. Churchill saw Indians as nothing more than animals that he could treat as he wished for the good of the British Empire.

On top of the genocide, Churchill also viewed eugenics favourably and held anti-Semitic views. Churchill advocated sterilization of those he deemed “feeble minded” and stated that “the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes…constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate”. Churchill’s anti-Semitism becomes apparent when we look at his attitude towards the USSR.  He thought of the Soviet Union as a “world wide communistic state under Jewish domination” and an aggressive form of “semi-asiatic totalitarianism.”

The reductio ad Hitlerum

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.

Communism and the English monarchy

In the afterglow of the stunning victory over Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War, Stalin 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).