Stalin


Way back in 1945, Stalin was told of the first nuclear test in the USA. He was sceptical. Why? You may have all the firepower in the world, he pointed out, but it is the quality of ground troops that makes all the difference. Stalin’s insights are still very relevant. The USA loves firing missiles and dropping bombs – more bombs were dropped in North Korea in the early 1950s than in the whole of the second world war. But as soon as ground troops go in, they are clearly inferior. The recent history of failures reveals this all too clearly: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya … One wonders how long the US war machine can keep on failing.

And – as a footnote – I am afraid I was wrong about Trump on the international scene. He is no different from the Bushes, Clinton and Obama, acting like drunken cowboys, trying to provoke one country after another.

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I am finally working through the many photographs from the ‘red tour’ filming from last November (for the MOOC), and came across these from Ruijin, where the first soviet was established in the early 1930s. This is also where the absolutely crucial Ruijin ethos was developed: make sure that people have adequate food, clothing and shelter, give them security and they will become revolutionaries.

These photos were taken in Ruijin, Jiangxi province. Clearly, the Marxist tradition follows through:

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I have finally completed my rather lengthy book on Stalin. Throughout, I have been struck by the absence of any serious engagement with Stalin by the vast majority of the international Left. To be sure, there are one or two exceptions, such as Losurdo, Furr and a recent issue of the journal, Crisis and Critique, but the doctrinal orthodoxy has been set, in a curious collusion between conservatives, liberals and a good number of Marxists (thanks to Khrushchev’s self-serving speech, Hannah Arendt’s woeful efforts, and the anti-communist Robert Service). All one need do, then, is perhaps quote a line or two, refer to the Red Terror and forget about Stalin – despite the fact that a huge amount of research continues by those who are certainly not on the Left.

Anyway, pertinent to some of this are a few paragraphs from the introduction to the book:

The present work assumes that Stalin was actually able to think, backed up by exceedingly careful interpretations of his writings and citations. It may be surprising, but he is not often credited with this ability, let alone the ability to think dialectically. Was he not the one who was a novice at theory, mocked by his comrades for his faltering efforts? This assumption is captured best in a fictional vignette: ‘When, at one of the party meetings of those days, Stalin involved himself in a theoretical argument, he was interrupted by a half-amused and half-indignant remark from the old Marxist scholar, Ryazanov: “Stop it, Koba, don’t make a fool of yourself. Everybody knows that theory is not exactly your field”’. By contrast, for all its many flaws, Kotkin’s biography notes Stalin’s ‘vigorous intellect’. I must admit that I have come to agree with Kotkin on this point, overturning many of my preconceptions through patient and careful attention to Stalin’s works.

This is also one of the conclusions of van Ree’s important studies of Stalin’s political thought. While I do not agree completely that Stalin developed a thoroughly tight-fitting and comprehensive doctrine to which he adhered, I do agree that Stalin gave much thought to the problems thrown up by the ever-changing situation and that he did so by immersing himself in the Marxist classics. Significant here is van Ree’s consideration of the role of Stalin’s thought in popular (mis)conceptions, which I interpret as follows. Stalin has variously been charged with vulgar Marxist, dogmatism, mystification, ignoring reality and the peddling of illusions. These charges turn on whether Stalin was out of touch or in touch with reality. If the former, then his dogmatism was one with his illusions, but this suggestion struggles to make any sense of the events as they unfolded in the Soviet Union, in all their stunning achievements, disruptions and failures. It also fails to understand the remarkable consistency in Stalin’s thought and that of the other communists who worked with him. If the latter, then he becomes a hypocrite, cynic or sophist, assuming a deliberate effort to conceal reality, as saying one thing – in very Marxist terms – but doing the opposite, or a cynical effort to secure ever more dictatorial power, or spinning words to justify yet another deviation. The problem here is that Stalin clearly believed what he thought and acted upon such positions. Ultimately, all of these charges carry with them the assumption that one has no need to consider his actual texts and the thoughts developed therein. My study indicates that this a serious mistake.

Indeed, I have come to the position that Stalin must be studied carefully as part of the Marxist tradition. The various responses I have discussed – ranging from dismissals of his intellectual ability to the charge of sophistry – function as efforts to excise Stalin from this tradition. To this should be added a narrative of betrayal, or even a Fall from the truth of Marxism. This narrative takes many forms, with some attributing the betrayal to Engels, Lenin or Stalin (apart from efforts to condemn Marxism by connecting them all to Marx). I am interested here in the charge that Stalin himself betrayed Marxism. This move is often made to distinguish him from Lenin, so that one may claim Lenin, dismiss Stalin, and then pick up another as the true heir of Lenin – whether Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Castro. I find this a curious move indeed, for it erases a major figure in that tradition, who – despite his missteps from time to time – was crucial in fostering anti-colonial struggles and socialist revolutions elsewhere in the world, especially in China. No matter what one’s assessment of Stalin may be, it is an act of intellectual laziness to deny him a place in the tradition. So I follow van Ree in assuming that Stalin was very much part of the Marxist tradition. He notes that Stalin’s library was overwhelmingly Marxist and he made extensive notes in the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Even more, all of the key ideas developed by Lenin and Stalin can be found in earlier moments of the Marxist tradition. After all, a political tradition like Marxism is constantly developing, revising positions and developing new ones in light of changing circumstances.

I should add that for the ‘sin’ of taking Stalin seriously as a thinker in the Marxist tradition, I have been accused from time to time of being a ‘Stalinist’ (the strange term coined by Trotsky and company). I am no such thing. Instead, I am not comfortable with assumed orthodoxies, albeit with a twist. As Losurdo pointed out to me last year, we are not the heretics or the revisionists, we are actually of the mainstream. We simply need to be patient.

So in the conclusion to the book, I draw on Losurdo’s brilliant analysis of how Stalin became a ‘black legend’ (with the obligatory reductio ad Hitlerum). In response, I draw on the Chinese Marxist approach to Stalin:

As with Mao, one needs to appreciate the significant achievements made and criticise the mistakes. It is as simple as that, but it has far-reaching consequences. Like Mao, Stalin and the Bolsheviks made momentous breakthroughs and achievements, but they also made egregious mistakes of which they were only sometimes conscious. If I may quote the current Chairman of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping: ‘Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings. We cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes’.

Which is another way of saying that the Stalin book is both the end of 15 year project and it provides the seeds of a very new project in a Chinese situation. It is called ‘Socialism in Power’ and seeks to analyse the theoretical implications of the realities of a communist party in power and its efforts to construct socialism. The project includes some leading Chinese researchers and international scholars open to examining the question.

Over the last few years, I have become convinced by Losurdo’s argument that a socialist state must be a strong state. How else can you transform a society, economics and culture? How else can you develop world-leading affirmative action programs in relation to ethnic minorities, or foster anti-colonial struggles, or establish major infrastructure, or indeed develop five-year plans? Stalin was, of course, the proponent of a strong socialist state, but he had to deal with a curious observation from Engels concerning the ‘withering away of the state’. Losurdo shows how Marx and Engels actually recognised the need for the state to continue, observing that the whole idea of its withering was a petty-bourgeois, anarchist aberration. As for Stalin, he argued that it may be very well in the context of global socialism, but until then a strong socialist state is needed to deal with its many enemies. Or, as van Ree observes, ‘He was realistic enough and not enough of a utopian to embark on a course of self-destruction’.

This book has taken me longer than most, since I have been extra careful to justify my arguments with reference to the texts. I speak of my book on Stalin, which should be complete in the next few days. But I cannot help offering a few teasers, one from the venerable Frederick Copleston, of History of Philosophy fame, and the other from Michael Smith,  a specialist on the language policy in the Soviet Union:

The point to notice is that Stalin was very well aware that the revolution in Russia had given rise to tasks which required fresh ideas, a development of Marxism to suit the new situation. (Copleston, Philosophy in Russia, p. 326)

Stalin still has much that is genuine to teach us. (Smith, ‘The Tenacity of Forms’, p. 107).

Something to think about.

And while we are on the topic, it may be worth pondering the following reflections – from you know who – on the 1936 soviet constitution relating to human rights. Again, we find that the underlying and primary right is to economic wellbeing:

Lastly, there is still one more specific feature of the draft of the new Constitution. Bourgeois constitutions usually confine themselves to stating the formal rights of citizens, without bothering about the conditions for the exercise of these rights, about the opportunity of exercising them, about the means by which they can be exercised. They speak of the equality of citizens, but forget that there cannot be real equality between employer and workman, between landlord and peasant, if the former possess wealth and political weight in society while the latter are deprived of both – if the former are exploiters while the latter are exploited. Or again: they speak of freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but forget that all these liberties may be merely a hollow sound for the working class, if the latter cannot have access to suitable premises for meetings, good printing shops, a sufficient quantity of printing paper, etc.

What distinguishes the draft of the new Constitution is the fact that it does not confine itself to stating the formal rights of citizens, but stresses the guarantee of these rights, the means by which these rights can be exercised. It does not merely proclaim equality of rights for citizens, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that the regime of exploitation has been abolished, to the fact that the citizens have been emancipated from all exploitation. It does not merely proclaim the right to work, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that there are no crises in Soviet society, and that unemployment has been abolished. It does not merely proclaim democratic liberties, but legislatively ensures them by providing definite material resources. It is clear, therefore, that the democratism of the draft of the new Constitution is not the “ordinary” and “universally recognized” democratism in the abstract, but Socialist democratism.

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