Stalin


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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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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.

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