Ariel Sharon and Stalin

Howie Chodos howie at
Mon Mar 20 10:10:40 MST 1995

>From an earlier post by Justin Schwartz:

>> >Marxism is a broad church. Does Stalin's
>> >membership (or Pol Pot's, or whoever your favorite bad guy is) is
>> >discredit the ideas of other Marxists who disagree with his ideas and
>> >practices? Suppose i were to identify myself as a Jew. "Aha!" says
>> >Goldstein. "Ariel Sharon is a Jew too. Doesn't that discredit Judaism?"
>> >This line of reasoning is absurd on the face of it.

Now that Justin is back, and kindly appended his Stalin/Sharon analogy in
his recent post, I wanted to raise some questions about it. I am not sure
that the analogy is as absurd as Justin thinks, though there is a disanalogy
that is important to note. The disanalogy is, of course, that most people
who are Jewish are born so, whereas most people who are Marxist choose it as
a way of looking at the world.

The analogy that does seem to me to be worth pursuing is between Sharon's
relationship to an ideology, Zionism, and Stalin's relationship to another
body of thought, Marxism. While it is clearly incorrect to tar everyone with
the same brush in either instance (that is, neither all Zionists are
Sharonists or even proto-Sharonists, nor are all Marxists Stalinists or
proto-Stalinists), it does seem to me legitimate to entertain questions
about an entire body of thought based on the reprehensible actions of people
who justify their activity in the name of that body of thought. What is it
about Zionism (and its material incarnation the Israeli state) that permits
an Ariel Sharon, is a question that seems to me to be as important to ask as
the parallel one about Stalin.

It is not, as Justin seems to be saying in his last post, a matter of
bearing responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of a world-view
that we claim as important, nor is it a question of feeling guilty or
defensive. It is a matter of not repeating the same mistakes. As I have said
before, there are no guarantees. We are an inherently fallible species. But
even if we are each not personally responsibile for either Stalin or Sharon
this does not absolve us from the need to inquire into the relationship
between what they believed and what they did.

Several people have noted that this discussion tends to become tedious at
times. On the other hand there is clearly no consensus amongst self-defined
Marxists of varying hues as to how to understand the issues involved. And, I
would want to argue that these matters are part of an even larger project of
understanding the history of the Marxist tradition as "praxis". I think that
most Marxists think of their Marxism as something which not only helps them
to understand the world, but also to change it (at least that is my sense of
how Marx understood his Marxism). Well, we may not be responsible for the
way that Stalin fucked up on the "changing the world" bit, but I don't think
we are entitled to dismiss the possibility that there is a connection.

To insist on exploring this possibility does not mean endorsing "the primacy
of ideas", but it does, at the very least, mean accepting that ideas "can
become a material force". Marxism, it seems to me, is such a body of thought
that has repeatedly become an extremely powerful material force, helping to
organize, enlighten and guide people in fighting oppression and in trying to
construct a better world. It has also been regularly and repeatedly
perverted into a material force which perpetuated injustice and betrayed the
ideals of countless millions of people. This is our twin legacy and, like it
or not, we have to be able to explain that legacy to people around the world
before we can expect Marxism to become a material force again.

One last point. Justin wrote that: "But all we have here--mind
you, Andy does a bit better than some on this--is the suggestion that
certain elements in Marxism were available for appropriation by
Stalinists to justify their crimes. There's not even a hint of causality
here." Had it just been Stalin, the answer that Russia's cultural and
economic backwardness was the main culprit might have more credibility. But
there was also Pol Pot, and Enver Hoxha, and Erich Honecker, and Jaruzelski,
and Ceaucescu. Ideas, it seems to me, are by definition only "available for
appropriation". No idea exists outside of conscious human activity, let
alone is capable of acting "causally".

It is precisely understanding the ways in which ideas are available for
appropriation that allows us to understand their role as causal factors.
Stalin didn't justify the Gulag in the name of racial purity but in the name
of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the survival of the Soviet Union.
I expect that this practice of the dictatorship of the proletariat gives
many of us pause before embracing it as a slogan for social change today.
Yet it was precisely the belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat that
for Lenin constituted the essential and definitive line of demarcation
between Marxists and non-Marxists. I think it is connections like this that
we need to explore as part of the process of trying to understand the
phenomenon of Stalinism, and the history of the tradition as a whole.

If we reject the idea that there is an important connection between the
understanding of Marxism that informed Bolshevik practice and the ultimate
Stalinist outcome, or that this connection is insignificant compared to the
material circumstances under which the Bolsheviks toiled, then all we are
left with to explain Stalin is the idea that he was a tyrannical despot who
took advantage of the chaos of the revolution to somehow worm his way into
the leadership of the party and the state. Given the historical experience,
at the very least, this would seem to be something that revolutionaries and
Marxists need to know how to avoid in the future. To paraphrase Kenny
Mostern, a revolution is going to be a messy business no matter the
circumstances under which it occurs. We are not responsible for the crimes
of the past, but we are responsible for the consequences of our activity in
changing the world today.

Howie Chodos

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