stalin/Marx

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Fri Mar 24 22:56:52 MST 1995


I agree with Chodos that fidelity to some pure original conception of
Marxism cannot be a test for the adequacy of our theory and practice
today, and if calling Stalin a Bad Marxist (Stalinism a Bad Marxism) has
that commitment, I retract the formula. I don't think it does: what I
meant was deliberately ambiguous. Stalin was a morally bad Marxist and an
inadequate theorist (Stalinism was a morally bad system and an inadequate
theory). The theory wasn't inadequate and morally bad because it departed
from what Marx said, but because it failed to correspond to empirical
reality or to satisfy acceptable moral norms. Marx was generally better on
both counts, but he wasn't right about everything, and I suppose almost
everyone on this list accepts that.

I also didn't mean to suggest, in endorsing a broadly Trotskyist account
of Stalinism--which doesn't make me a Trot!--that The Key to Stalinism was
the failure of a simultaneous worldwide proletarian revolution, that the
Original Sin was Socialism In One Country. I listed a whole bunch of
factors: economic backwardness, lack of democratic traditions, Bolshevik
authoritaritanism, civil war and social disintegration of the Russian
working class, and the failure, specifically, of European and in
particular German revolution. It was the concatenation of these things
that led to Stalinism.

The economic backwardness, etc. made the lack of foreign support
particularly lethal, and Lenin and Trotsky, for two, were keenly aware of
this, pinning a lot of hope on a German revolution. (Since there was a
German revolution and a revolutionary situation in Germany up through the
early 30s, this was not crazy.) The idea was that if a socialist Germany
could lend fraternal solidarity, the weaknesses of the Russian revolution
would not be overwhelming--no guarantees, of course. But a reasonable
hope. What was needed was not worldwide revolution (that would have been
nice) but international revolution with support from some country better
placed to develop socialism than Russia. A German revolution would have
been far less dependent on a Russian one--not that I think Socialism In
One Advanced Country is very likely either. But Germany would have been a
model for France, Poland, etc. in a way that Russia couldn't be.
Similarly, if there were a socialist revolution in the US today, it would
tend to inspire revolutionary action in Europe, Japan, and the Americas in
a way that revolution in Chiapas, say, can't.

Someone--Mostern, I think--reminded us that we cannot guarantee the
outcome of a revolution. It unleashes forces which no group can control.
Given that revolutions take place under situations of disruption and
conflict, horrific outcomes are always possible. I think Mostern (if it
was he) went to far when he said he could not see the difference between
Stalinism and our current situation (we are having this discussion, after
all, and do not anticipate the secrete police coming for us as an
immediate consequence). But I agree with him if what he meant was that the
current and projected situatiuon is terrible enough to make the risks of
revolutionary action worthwhile, if we can do it. Luxemburg posed us with
the choice of socialism or barbarism. Well, Stalinism shows you might get
both. But if do not get socialism, we will certainly get (more) barbarism.
So revolution is a Pascal's wager--I think. I haven't constructed the
matrix. Any, bad as it might be, it's our best bet. Which doesn't
necessarily say much for our chances.

This is relevant not only to what we should do but to the rhetorical
strategy for dealing with the What About Stalin? question. We cannot
honestly say that there is anything we can do which will rule out
catastrophe. We could end up worse off. But we can point out that if
Stalinism was the likely result of isolated revolutions in backward
countries, then those circumstances don't exist in advanced ones. (Which
doesn't mean not to worry.) And we can build movements with strong
democratic commitments and practices, insofar as that helps. It can't
hurt! In the end, though, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

I find the questions about determination theoretically quite interesting
but of limited practical relevance here. Sure, I like the aphorism that
Men and Women Make Their Own History, But Not Just As They Please. When I
taught Marxism, I used to say that that was the theory in one sentence or
less, the rest was commentary. It's not inconsistent with the Social Being
Determines Consciousness (and Not Vice Versa) slogan--that's the Not Just
as They Please part.

All I wanted to get at in invoking the latter was that while we admit
(hope!) that Ideas Have Consequences, nonetheless their consequences
depend on the context and the hope of their being effective depends on
material circumstances which are suitable. Concretely speaking, we
wouldn't have had Stalinism without Marxism and Bolshevism (as theories),
but they wouldn't have been, as theories, in a position to have any
effects without a certain sort of class struggle in a certain kind of
country in a particular international context.

This strikes me as a truism, utterly banal. Unfortunately it is necessary
to repeat it because otherwise smart people, like, e.g., Lezsek
Kolakowski, sometimes pronounce that the Gulag follows inevitably or
probably just from Marx or Lenin thinking and saying certain things.
That's just silly, even if the Gulag would not have happened the way it
did had they not thought or said those things. Obviously we can get deep
into the philosophy of history from observations like this, but we don't
have to. So while I'm happy to go into determination in Marx's thought if
the list wants to--after all I was mad enough to get a Ph.D in philosophy,
and practice that brand of craziness professionally as long as I could--I
thought we were talking politics.

Speaking of which I am reading Boris Kagarlitsky's Square Wheels: How
Russian Democracy Got Derailed (Monthly Review 1995), and I am happy to
say that it is the best book I have read on contemporary Russian and late
Soviet politics. It focuses on the politics of the Moscow City Council in
1989-93, so it's local politics. But it's a real microcosm of the whole
situation in the perestroikan USSR and Yeltsin's Russia. And it's
absolutely hilarious. I have laughed out loud half a dozen times and I'm
only halfway through. It completely blows away pretentious Pultizer Prize
winning tomes like Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, as uncritical a bit of Yeltsin
hagiography as you'd care to find, and it illustrates in a clear and
unpretentious and very amusing way what a lot of the more scholarly and
tedious analyses of the Soviet-Russian crisis grope towards with a lot of
ponderous apparatus. In fact, I'd say that if you want to read one book to
understand what happened to Gorbachev and what's going on in Russia, this
is the one. You could lend it to your Mom, she'd like it. You could teach
it to undergraduates. You could learn a thing or two about politics
yourself. Bravo for Boris!

It's late. Goodnight.

--Justin Schwartz





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