stalin/Marx

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Thu Mar 23 23:42:16 MST 1995


At the risk of perpetuating a discussion which tends to veer into
fruitlessness, I thought I'd add a few remarks on On Marxists Responsible
for Stalin?, at least by way of clarifying my own views.

There's an obvious sense in which whoever it was who said that Marxists
have to wear Stalin like an albatross around their necks is right--this is
just a sociological fact. As long as anyone cares to defend Marxism,
people will be asking, what about Stalin? And Marxists have to live with
that, and so need good answers, if only for pragmatic rhetorical purposes.
Moreover, for reasons of intellectual responsibility, because if we claim
Marxism is the best social science, we will want accounts of major social
phenomena relevant to Marxism, of which Stalinism is certainly one.

Pardon my prose style here. It's more than usuall clotted tonight.

But I don't think that Marxists have the sort of special responsibility
that Chodos and Goldstein seem to think they have, which amounts to
admitting, as one of them put it, that Marxism, even anti-Stalinist,
libertarian, democratic Marxism, is somehow complicit in the crimes of
Stalin. (And I should say that I'm using "Stalin" as a shorthand for the
Stalinist _system_, totalitarian Communism, bureaucratic collectivism,
whatever you care to call it, and not primarily to refer to The Man With
the Pipe. "Individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the
personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class
relations and class interests," as some old German once put it.)

Having reviewed the recent postings, I still haven't seen anything like an
argument that we should take this idea seriously. Perhaps the closest
thing to such argument is Chodos' observation that all, or very nearly
all, Marxist-inspired revolutions in the 20th century have ended up taking
Stalinist forms, though not necessarily such spectacularly murderous and
repressive ones as the Russian revolution. (There may be some
exceptions--the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, maybe the Zimbabwean and Angolan
revolutions, if I knew more about them.) Doesn't this raise a question
about the political tendencies of Marxism?

There is a superficial plausibility to the claim, but it's only
superficial. A first level of response turns on Chodos' own observation
that Ideas Have Consequences, something which no Marxist would care to
deny. The point here is that the former prestige of the Stalinist model,
together with--let's not forget!--the material aid which the USSR was able
to offer to revolutions of a sort it favored helped to bring about a
situation where committed Stalinists were more likely than anti-Stalinists
to get into power and stay there with Soviet aid. Alternative conceptions
of revolution had the apparent "success" of Stalinism to compete with. So
rather than supporting the idea that Marxism brings about Stalinism, what
this suggests is that in this century, Stalinism has crowded out Marxism
(of a non-Stalinist variety). Happily, that success, and most of the
Stalinist regimes, are now gone.
'
A deeper level of response reverts to the idea that social being
determines consciousness and not vice versa. I did not invoke this
aphorism to suggest that ideas are epiphenomenal, whether they reflect or
distort reality, and have no causal effects. My point was a lot more crude
than that. Large scale social phenomena are determined, ultimately, to the
extent that they are determined, by social forces operating in an economic
context. Ideas don't have effects outside these contexts. If they fail to
express the interests and needs of major groups which have power based in
their material situation, ideas remain idle, academic. This is all pretty
much banal and obvious, I hope. But it has important consequences.

Among these are that even if Marx had willed the Gulag (which he
manifestly did not), it would not have come about just because he wrote
books and made speeches to convince people to act on his evil ideas. Even
Stalin, who did will the Gulag, could not have brought it about except in
a special context: a backward country undergoing disruptive change and a
great deal of class conflict, lacking significant traditions of democracy,
and socially decimated by war and famine, among other conditions. I note
that this pretty much describes the situation of most other, later,
Stalinist experiments.

In such a context, first, no classical Marxist would have been
particularly optimistic about the prospects for democratic socialism--this
includes Lenin and Trotsky, who both rightly foresaw that the Soviet
experiment was doomed if it was confined to one backwards country. The
context, second, was conducive to the collapse of a revolutionary working
class movement in face of an organized bureaucracy with interests distinct
from and opposed to those of workers and other subordinate groups in the
old society, a bureaucracy which could come to monopolize the coercive
apparatus and organize a new system of exploitation, at least for a time.
Lots of classical Marxists saw this coming--Luxemburg, Plekanov, even
Lenin and Trotsky, although the latter two were in the difficult position
of temporarily heading a state which was heading away from classical
Marxist goals. (It didn't help that they themselves had authoritarian
proclivities, but even if they hadn't it's not clear waht they could have
done in the situation.) This is obviously a sketch of a well-known type of
classical Marxist account of Stalinism, broadly due to Trotsky, and I
claim no originality for it--only rough accuracy.

If the account is roughly right, Marxists needn't avow complicity in the
crimes of Stalinism. Stalinists appropriated Marxist ideas to legitimate
their rule and crimes, naturally, because these were the ideas which, in
some form, justified the overthrow of the old system and which resonated
with the working classes of the emerging societies. No doubt some Marxist
ideas and bad habits of thought were particularly amenable to such
appropriation, but Marxism, the theory of proletarian revolution, the
self-emancipation of the working class, is not guilty of these crimes. It
wasn't the proletarian revolution which committed them (largely against
the workers themselves). It was the bureaucratic counterrevolution, the
"revolution from above," which Marxism opposes. Sure, the initial success
of the worker's revolution was a condition for Stalinism to occur. But so
was capitalist imperialism, economic backwardness, cultural
underdevelopment, and a lot of other things.

All this said, was Stalin a Marxist? (Was Stalinism a kind of Marxism?)
Sure, why not. He was a bad Marxist, one who failed to respond  to the
emancipatory potential of Marxist theory, who saw in that theory only a
vehicle for his power (and those of his stratum, the bureacracy) andafor
revenge as well as a way to realize nationalistic ideals quite foreign to
Marxism. But Marxism has room for bad Marxists as well as good ones, just
as Christianity has room for sinners as well as saints. But the fact that
there are bad Marxists,a nd that in somje special but too frequent
circumstances they have been able to get into the dr

Oopps. Gotta Go.

--Justin Schwartz




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