Stalin


In recent discussion in China, I have become more aware of different ways the Marxist tradition can be interpreted. You can take any core feature, such as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the distinction between socialism and communism, the nature of the socialist state, and many more.

For example, Marx uses the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ 11 times, where he means a coercive force of the state that crushes class opponents. This is in tension with his treatments of the Paris commune, where he praises the diminishment of state power and its continuance only as apparatus. Engels, by contrast, does not use dictatorship of the proletariat, but coins the phrase (only in 1894), the dying or ‘withering away of the state’. Lenin develops the argument further, distinguishing between two phases, the dictatorship of the proletariat and then the state’s withering. He pushes this into a distant future, but Stalin argues that it would take place only after global communism had been achieved and communism had become second nature – which may take 1000 years or more. And in Chinese Marxism, dictatorship of the proletariat becomes ‘democratic dictatorship’ in Mao’s hands and then ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ with Deng Xiaoping, now as an inclusive category operating in terms of non-antagonistic contradictions.

What about socialism and communism? This distinction is not in Marx and Engels. Only in the late notes, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’, does Marx distinguish an initial stage of communism and a further stage. He leaves open the possibility of more. Lenin then distinguishes these as socialism and communism, with socialism still bearing many features, such as state, classes, law and so on. Only with communism will the earlier prescriptions of Marxism begin to appear. Stalin takes this further, pushing communism into a very distant future, while socialism has a strong multi-national state, tensions between forces and relations of production continue, people are rewarded according to work, equalisation (a petty-bourgeois idea) has no place, and the state’s domestic responsibilities, affirmative action and fostering of anti-colonial struggles play huge roles. In a Chinese situation, they take an even longer view, with the preliminary stage of socialism lasting 100 years, after which a next stage emerges, the moderately prosperous, peaceful and stable society. During this process, a whole spate of new approaches emerge.

How do we interpret these developments? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A narrative of betrayal. Engels betrays Marx; Lenin betrays Marx and Engels; Stalin betrays all of the former; Mao betrays them; Deng betrays Mao … Pick your place, but betrayal of Marxism happens at some point. I find this approach quite common among ‘western’ Marxists.
  2. Continuity, sometimes radical. A smaller number take this line, arguing that all of the ideas found in Stalin, Mao or Deng have precursors in the Marxist tradition.
  3. Clarification. Each stage of the tradition and each of its different branches constitutes a clarification of some idea or practice that was not so clear before. This is a more common Chinese approach.
  4. Changing historical circumstances, which may be connected with the first or third approach. Obviously, specific circumstances, cultural histories, political realities and so on produce new problems, which require new solutions. This is what the Chinese call ‘seeking truth from facts’ (drawn from Mao).
  5. The differences between socialism seeking power and socialism in power. As Lenin and Mao pointed out repeatedly, winning a revolution is relatively easy; infinitely more complex is the effort to construct socialism. This is obviously connected with the fourth point, but plays a crucial role.
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My book on Stalin will be published soon by Springer Beijing. This book was far more work than usual, since it required a a complete rebuilding of my categories of analysis, from the ground up. It has also provided the basis for my current project on ‘Socialism in Power‘. In other words, it is arguably the most significant study for the development of my thought.

Stalin

It is due out in October, but preliminary details can be found on the Springer website, here and on Amazon.

Endorsements come from Zhang Shuangli, from Fudan University, and Domenico Losurdo, from the University of Urbino:

Starting from a sympathetic attitude toward socialism in power, this book provides us with an extremely insightful interpretation of Stalin’s philosophy of socialism. It is not only a successful academic effort to re-articulate Stalin’s philosophy, but also a creative effort to understand socialism in power in the context of both the former Soviet Union and contemporary China.

——- Zhang Shuangli, Professor of Marxist philosophy, Fudan University

Boer’s book, far from both “veneration” and “demonization” of Stalin, throws new light on the classic themes of Marxism and the Communist Movement: language, nation, state, and the stages of constructing post-capitalist society. It is an original book that also pays great attention to the People’s Republic of China, arising from the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and which is valuable to those who, beyond the twentieth century, want to understand the time and the world in which we live.

——-Domenico Losurdo, University of Urbino, Italy, author of Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend

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Recently published is a new book by the stakhanovite, Domenico Losurdo, called: Western Marxism: How It Was Born, How It Died and How It Can Rise Again.

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The brief description (found here) reads:

Western Marxism was afflicted by a sort of myopia: it didn’t realize that the wind of the revolution was blowing  from Russia to China and the Third World, joining with the national revolutions against Western imperialism.

There was a time when Marxism was an obligatory point of reference for any philosophical and political debate: those years saw the biggest victories for ‘Western Marxism’, which presented itself in stark contrast to its Eastern counterpart, accused of being a state ideology that propped up ‘Socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Although at first the October revolution was viewed with hope, 20th century Communism contributed to the disintegration of the global colonial complex rather than creating a radically new social system. An extraordinary result that Western Marxism failed adequately to understand or appreciate. Hence its crisis and collapse. If it is to be revived, it must examine the anticolonial revolution and answer three key questions: What has the global anticolonial uprising meant in terms of freedom and emancipation? How is the clash between colonialism and anticolonialism played out today? What relationship was there between the anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles?

Losurdo puts these questions to the great authors of the 20th century – Bloch, Lukács, Adorno and Foucault – and of today – Agamben, Badiou and Žižek – in a heated debate that combines historical reconstruction and philosophical enquiry.

Exactly! For it was the Soviet Union that developed a thoroughly anti-colonial policy (arising from its ‘affirmation action’ nationalities policy). This policy enabled arms, personnel and know-how to support most of the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century as part of the global undermining of imperialist capitalism. Indeed, what is now called ‘post-colonialism’ could not have arisen – temporally and theoretically – without the anti-colonial theory and practice developed in the Soviet Union (especially by you-know-who).

I am happy to say that Springer Beijing will publish my book on Stalin later this year. I didn’t realise this until today, but Springer has the largest presence in China of any international press by a long way, publishing works by Chinese authors or Chinese-based authors.

The book is called Stalin: From Theology to the Philosophy of Socialism in Power.

Here is a modified version of the preface:

This book has taken me longer than most. The subject matter has much to do with it, given the preconceptions, if not the knee-jerk reactions, that are produced by the cipher of ‘Stalin’. Some years ago, I managed to acquire a set of Stalin’s works, from none other than a second-hand bookshop in Kansas. Kansas! Yes, for it used to be – many, many years ago – a left-wing, if not Marxist centre in North America. How times have changed. But I soon found that the ‘Works’ were incomplete, ending abruptly in January of 1934. Eventually, I tracked down the remaining volumes, published by Red Star Press in London. Meanwhile, I found the Russian original, which has now been transferred (in online version with page numbers) to the University of Newcastle in Australia, one of my homes. To add to my collection, I became aware in the process of a new edition of Stalin’s works, Trudy, which is in the process of publishing what may well be a full collected works by Stalin.

I set to reading Stalin, slowly and painstakingly, as I had done earlier with Marx, Engels, leading western European Marxists, and then Lenin. For some reason, Stalin took me longer, even though he wrote a little less than the others. My earlier hunch that Stalin may actually have something to offer the Marxist tradition was slowly being confirmed, but what that contribution might be took a lot more effort. It required working through the texts many times, seeking to discern the key ideas in light of the frameworks that I was developing. Why? Few had actually worked in such a way, with many simply dismissing Stalin and thereby not even giving him the benefit of serious attention. My starting point with a theological radar meant that I was even more alone. More to the point, I began to realise that many of my assumed categories were being broken down, forcing me to begin thinking again, rethinking everything in the process.

This was, after all, socialism in power, however one may interpret the term. I also realised that socialism in power continues to be chronically under-thought, with many ‘Western’ Marxists simply refusing to countenance the possibility that anything could be learnt from socialism in power – which by 2017 offered a century of immense experiences, stunning achievements, abysmal failures, but above all, an immense resource for reflecting on socialism after the revolutionary seizure of power. Precisely this reality attracts me so much, especially now with my immersion in Chinese socialism. Stalin is one – although not the only one – of the theorists of socialism in power, whether people like it or not.

As I point out at various moments in the book, it was written largely in the context of China, my second home. I am often here for extended periods of time, especially in Beijing. Initially, I was not so enamoured with the place – too large, too hectic, too much change all the time. But after a few years, I realised why I like the place so much, with all its flaws. It is the centre of the strongest socialist state in world history, eclipsing now the Soviet Union. In the middle of Tiananmen square, the gate of heaven no less, lies the body of Chairman Mao. Here is socialist power, with a Communist Party in control. It is like a magnet to me and I am working to understand what it means. This study of Stalin is a first step in the process.

In a little more detail: half of my time is now devoted to living and researching in the People’s Republic, which has had a significant influence on the shape of the book. In an unexpected conjunction, the topics that arose through carefully reading and reflecting on Stalin’s texts turned out to be topics that are very relevant for understanding Marxism in China. The intersection initially seemed fortuitous, but it eventually became clear that the common ground is socialism in power. More specifically, the creative influence of Stalin and the Soviet Union rose to a peak in the Yan’an period of the 1930s and into the 1940s. After the failure of earlier revolutionary efforts, and the trials and triumphs of the Long March, the Chinese communists had an opportunity to study, reflect, discuss and write. Apart from works by Marx and Engels, they had recourse to the developed positions coming from the Soviet Union. Translations brought them the works of Lenin and Stalin, as well as a number of key Soviet philosophers from Stalin’s era. It was this context that framed the significant materials delivered in lectures and written in Yan’an, although the Chinese communists also clearly developed their own positions in debate with Soviet thought. Indeed, some of Mao’s most important theoretical works come from this time, continuing to influence the frameworks of Chinese Marxism today. In my study of these works, it has become clear that many of the categories first broached by Stalin are taken and reworked in the writings of Mao and others. Thus, Stalin – so often excised from the history of Marxism, let alone Marxist philosophy – is the crucial link from Marx, Engels and Lenin to Mao and modern China.

The book is predicated on the fact that Stalin was actually able to think. 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? Many are those who have reiterated this curious dismissal, perhaps adding the hypothesis that Stalin was either deluded and out of touch with reality or cynically in touch with reality, spinning words to justify yet another deviation. By contrast, for all its many flaws, Kotkin’s biography notes Stalin’s ‘vigorous intellect’. And as Van Ree points out, the ‘evidence is overwhelming’ that ‘Stalin took his own publicly avowed doctrines seriously’. I must admit that I have come to agree with Kotkin and Van Ree on these points, overturning many of my preconceptions through patient and careful attention to Stalin’s works.

I have also come to the position that Stalin must be studied carefully as part of the Marxist tradition. No matter what one’s assessment of Stalin may be, it is an act of intellectual laziness to deny him, for whatever reason, a place in the tradition. 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.

As Copleston observed some years ago, ‘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’.

 

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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