I have at last completed my careful reading of the published works of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Stalin). On the way, I have found that few actually do so, for the attitudes to Stalin seem to be set. This is especially so among the many on the Left, for whom Stalin is the great betrayer. The assumption is that he was not a socialist at all, so one may conveniently neglect any serious engagement. The problem is that one simply misses the rich history of socialism in power, with all of its mistakes and achievements.

I have also found that the name ‘Stalin’ generates a profound polarisation, between veneration or demonisation. The latter is usually the case, whether one is engaging with the closed circles of thought in European Marxism, liberals who seek to find yet more reasons to condemn Stalin while engaging in ‘objective’ research’ and even in China, where one would expect a somewhat different approach and interest given the long Chinese experience of socialism in power. On my part, I am more interested in the dynamics of such polarisation rather than falling into its trap.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of reading Stalin and posting items from his works is the way preset assumptions concerning Stalin influence how my own perspective is understood. Simply because I have been intrigued by his works and posted quotations that reveal unexpected dimensions of his thought, some have assumed that I am a ‘Stalinist’, whatever that means. (Stalin himself merely identified as a Marxist-Leninist.)

Above all, my interest in Stalin emerged as I became increasingly drawn to understanding the experiences of socialism in power. This began when I was studying Lenin and I found the time after the October Revolution the most significant. Lenin was the first who was able to say – from direct experience – that working towards a revolution and achieving power was the easy part. Far, far more complex and fraught with problems was the exercise of power. Stalin too found this a reality, and Mao soon found that Lenin’s observation was correct. The strange thing is that many on the Left avoid dealing with this topic. This is a profound shame, since there is a wealth of experience from which to learn.

Lenin of the acerbic pen certainly knew how to end a letter, but has he met his match with Stalin?

Here’s Lenin:

I cannot share your regret at not having met. After your tricks and your conniving attitude, I do not wish to have anything to do with you except in a purely official way, and only in writing.

And Stalin’s epistolary conclusion:

One must possess the effrontery of an ignoramus and the self-complacency of a narrow-minded equilibrist to turn things upside-down so discourteously as you do … I think the time has come to stop corresponding with you.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that the letters were not written to one another.

Upon returning from China, my author copies of Lenin, Religion, and Theology were waiting for me. Nice welcome home:

Lenin, Religion, and Theology

It weighs in at 360 pages and is available from Palgrave Macmillan and the usual outlets, some of which will give you a look inside the cover. What’s next? After I finish trawling through the tiresome and often truly inane works of the classical economists and their forebears (Grotius, Locke, Smith, Ricardo, J.S. Mill, Malthus), I’m dying to settle in for some long evenings with Stalin.

Our grandchildren will examine the documents and other relics of the epoch of the capitalist system with amazement. It will be difficult for them to picture to themselves how the trade in articles of primary necessity could remain in private hands, how factories could belong to individuals, how some people could exploit others, how it was possible for those who did not work to exist

Lenin ‘Three Speeches Delivered in Red Square, May Day, 1919’ CW 29, 330 // Три речи на Красной площади 1 мая 1919 г. Хроникерские записи. LPSS 38, 325

(The index of Lenin, Religion, and Theology draws closer to completion)

Neil Harding’s great 2-volume work, Lenin’s Political Thought, may be a little flat at times, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the dialectic in Lenin’s hands. Yet his ability to deploy earthy images is of the same calibre as Lenin’s:

The revolution was not like a plum falling into the hand when fully ripe without so much as a shake of the tree. It was, to characterise Lenin’s account, more like a turnip. It would swell and ripen in the ground but would take a stout pull to harvest it—otherwise the action of the elements and of parasites would combine to rot it away (Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, vol. 2, p. 73)

Can you tell I’m doing the proof corrections for Lenin, Religion, and Theology? Good news: the cover is out too:

Lenin, Religion, and Theology

Paul Le Blanc has written this rather nice blurb for Lenin, Religion, and Theology, due out very soon:

In reading this book (which he surely would have done), Lenin himself might have been amused by Boer’s own gift for the outrageously funny, and perhaps offended by an all-too-apt detection of the religious dimensions of his revolutionary perspectives. Modern-day readers will learn much about the Bolshevik ‘god-builders’ against whom Lenin so fiercely polemicized, and about the ironic twists through which latter-day Bolshevik ‘god-builders’ turned this secular revolutionary into a deity.  Boer’s genuine respect for the man and his thought intertwines in fascinating ways with an intimate knowledge of Christian rhetoric and theology, resulting in a fresh, provocative contribution – to intellectual history, religious studies, and Marxist scholarship. — Paul Le Blanc, Professor of History, La Roche College, USA; Author, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and Marx, Lenin, and the Revolutionary Experience.

To follow on from the previous post and since I am copyediting my big Lenin book, a discussion of the role of reform:

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).