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.

Note: A revised version of this entry has now appeared on The Conversation, so I have removed it from here.

Mao didn’t restrict the famous and much-debated ‘Five-Year Plans’ to the realm of economics. He also had a personal one, expressed in 1957:

I, too, have a five-year plan. I’d like to live for five more years. If I can live for another 15 years, I’d be completely content and satisfied. … However, there are unexpected storms in the skies, and people are likely to experience sudden reversals of fortune. This, too, is a matter of natural dialectics. If Confucius were still alive today – if someone who had lived more than two thousand years ago is still not dead – that would be awful, wouldn’t it? (The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, vol. 2, p. 777).

Of course, he died in 1976, so he lived 19 more years. He must have died more than completely content and satisfied …

Never one to shy away from turning a statement on its head, or rather, feet, Mao points out that the brain-washing is actually a very good thing. In a speech to Chinese university students going to Moscow, he said:

Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education. I read quite a lot of Confucius’s writings. At that time we simply didn’t know anything about Marx or Engels, only about Washington and Napoleon. You are better. You are very fortunate. You are just big kids, and yet you already know Marx, Engels, Lenin. … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted! (The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, vol. 2, p. 775)

Mao swimming 01

The good chairman certainly has some great lines on intellectuals, much better than my ‘Typology of scholars‘. For instance:

I’ve always said that intellectuals are the most lacking in intellect. The intellectuals cock their tails in the air and strut around, and they think, ‘If I don’t rank number one in the world, then I’m at least number two’ … Right now there are some intellectuals who are floating around in the air. They are like fifteen buckets being used to get water from the well – with seven going up and eight going down. They can’t get up to the heavens and they can’t get down to the ground. They all just float around in the air. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976, vol. 2, pp. 611-12)

Actually, this reminds of the thoroughly depressing film, Footnote. It all turns on the futile pursuit of being recognised as the best, with the cranky old philologist, Eliezer Shkolnik, having gained a mention in a footnote to an edition of the Jerusalem Talmud – the only living scholar to have been so recognised, thereby putting him on par with the sages (for they also appear in such footnotes). But this is not enough for Eliezer, for he craves recognition of his achievement by the establishment. Meanwhile, it is too much for his son, who tries to outdo his father, and for Eliezer’s great rival, Yehuda Grossman, who blocks Eliezer at every turn. The result is destroyed lives and relationships as petulant, obsessive and back-stabbing scholars fight each other to intellectual and reputational death. 

A few announcements to come, such as the ‘Religion and Radicalism’ book series with Palgrave Macmillan, and the final stages of planning for a research program in ‘Religion, Marxism and Secularism’ at the University of Newcastle. Speaking of the latter, we are pondering the slogan, ‘Towards world domination’.

Meanwhile, one inspiration is Chairman Mao, who wrote in 1955 of the crucial importance of Marxist philosophy:

I would advise our comrades to study philosophy. Quite a few people are uninterested in philosophy; they do not have the habit of studying philosophy … There are a number of subjects in Marxism: Marxist philosophy, Marxist economics, Marxist socialism – the theory of class struggle; but the basic thing is Marxist philosophy. Unless this thing is studies and understood, we will not have a common language or a common method among us. (The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976, vol. 1, p. 533)

No wonder there are so many centres of Marxist philosophy in China.

Mao studying 01

Mao studying 03

Mao the monk? It may well have been the path he chose in life. Zhang Kundi, a young friend of Mao, tells of a 1917 hike in the mountains in Hunan, with regular swims in the Xiang River due to the heat. On the top of Zhaoshan (Zhao Mountain) was a monastery with two or three monks. The young friends were offered a bed for the night – one bed for all of them. But they stayed up and talked long into the night. At one point, Zhang Kundi relates:

Moved by the clear night, Mr. Peng told us about his long-cherished desire to be a monk and also said that, some years later, he would invite all of us to come and study on some famous mountain. Mr. Mao and I also have such a desire, but Mao’s desire is much stronger than mine. I, too, was moved at that time, and the lines came to me:

Wind blowing in the trees, music of the heavens

Desires and rewards cannot be perceived, and shed their forms

But I did not reveal them to my friends. It was deep night before we slept.

(Revolutionary Writings 1912-1949, vol 1. pp. 138-39)