stalin/Marx

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Fri Mar 24 11:09:05 MST 1995


Justin Schwartz's thoughtful recent post helps me get a somewhat clearer
idea of where we agree and where we disagree. What follows are some
reactions to it, that may or may not form a coherent whole.

To begin, I would just want to say that I do not think that what is at stake
is whether contemporary marxists who are critical of Stalin are "complicit"
in his crimes because of their defense of Marxism. I do not feel responsible
for what Stalin did. What is at stake is whether we know how to avoid
generating circumstances which might allow a repetition of those crimes, and
whether we can convince enough people that we do in fact have a feasible
plan of action for getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with something
that will actually make people's lives better. (These two questions are
clearly related, but not identical. We could have a good plan but be
prevented from communicating it to people for reasons that might be beyond
our control.)

Maybe it is useful to put the question another way: What should we learn
from the experience of Stalinism about the difficulties and dangers inherent
in projects of revolutionary change? Part of what we need to learn, I think,
involves coming to a better understanding of the relationship between ideas
and action. This, in turn, means we need to look at both sides of the
equation, ideas on the one hand and action on the other, as well as how the
two interact. This is where the debate over the legacy of Stalinism
intersects with the recent discussion of "determination", which Justin
raises again in his defense of the idea that "social being determines
consciousness" and not the reverse.

At the risk of repeating myself, one lesson that stands out for me is that
fidelity to the Marxist canon, however that may be defined, cannot be taken
as a guarantee that deeds will match up to words. Stalin was a "bad"
Marxist, Lenin or Trotsky were "better" ones, Marx was the "best of all".
Where does this leave us? I do not think we can return to the originators of
the tradition in the hopes of finding a pure, unsullied version that will
illuminate our path towards socialism. We need to examine the experience of
the past 150 years in order to work out proposals that take into account the
weaknesses (and the strengths) of the Marxist, and other, revolutionary
traditions, as well as analysing the developments which have taken place in
worrld capitalism. In this sense, I would be inclined to see theoretical
tasks as being the key to socialist progress at the present time. This is
not meant to say that ongoing struggles are unimportant, but simply that it
is hard to see how they could contribute to a radical transformation of
capitalism until we have a better idea of what the shape of the future
should be.

I think Justin is right to identify his core explanation of the phenomenon
of Stalinism as having much in common with the traditional Trotskyist
account. In fact, his rendition of it seems to suggest that the original
Stalinist sin was "socialism in one country". What I have never been able to
understand about this argument is its implicit determinism. Without world
revolution all national attempts to escape from the capitalist orbit are
doomed. What is it then that revolutionaries who do succeed in attaining
power in one country are supposed to do if the rest of the world is not
ready to follow? While the final and definitive defeat of capitalism could
only be global, I find it hard to imagine that this would happen all at
once, or even that there could be a continuous series of revolutions.

The stepping stones to world revolution are necessarily national and this
means each national revolution must articulate a transitional strategy that
allows it to survive (and hopefully prosper, as an example to others) even
in the eventuality of a prolonged gap between its success and that of other
countries. This means that revolutionaries need to understand both their
local situation and how it fits in to the overall world scene. While there
are certainly objective circumstances that may prevent a revolutionary
transition from being successful, I think that given the upheaval associated
with revolutionary change we need to be careful before we advocate radical
solutions if they are doomed to failure. If the fate of any national
revolution depends on the fate of the world revolution in the short term
(and Justin's argument on the fate of the Russian revolution certainly
invokes the short term: all was lost in the space of less than ten years),
then the odds of its succeeding have just gotten much, much longer. And that
is something that people taking the revolutionary road should know. Is that
the lesson that this account of Stalinism wants us to draw?

I want to flip back to the "determination" debate. Justin agrees with me
that Ideas Have Consequences. But most of the arguments he deploys seem to
insist on the other side of the equation. For example, he explains how
Stalinism came to be the dominant tendency in world Marxism by invoking the
material impact of the apparent Soviet success. And he argues 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.

We are back, I think, to a discussion of the meaning of the word
"determines". I guess what I am asking is whether the formula that social
being determines consciousness helps us to distinguish between cause and
effect. It seems to me that it can encourage us to attach too great an
importance to the objective circumstances and too little to our intentional
activity geared to transforming the world (maybe that is why I prefer the
other aphorism, that people make history, but not under conditions of their
own choosing). If Stalin was the representative of an entrenched bureacratic
stratum, which arose as the consequence of the failure of the world
revolution to come to the rescue of an embattled regime in a backward
country, then all we have to do is make sure that when our revolution takes
place it starts in the advanced countries and quickly becomes a global one.
Then there won't be any problem with Stalinism. I have my doubts as to
whether that fits Justin's requirements of a "practical rhetorical strategy"
for convincing people, but it does seem to be one conclusion that can be
drawn from his analysis of Stalinism.

Howie Chodos



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