Did Stalinism end in the 1950s?

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at optushome.com.au
Thu Dec 5 20:05:43 MST 2002

 The nature of Stalinism: did it end in the early 1950s?

By Bob Gould

Our patient moderator, Louis Proyect, and I have a pretty sharp political
difference about Stalinism. In my battered and rather well-lived world, to
say that the communist parties ceased to be Stalinist in the early 1950s is
retrospective fantasy.

It's equally problematic to paint a picture of a world in which Fidel Castro
pushed aside the old differences between Trotskyism and Stalinism, made a
revolution and thereby produced a political model for socialist revolution,
and by implication socialist construction, that socialists can follow, if
only they put aside sectarian dogmas like Trotskyism and Stalinism and model
their activities on those of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas.

I find that kind of view, repeated by Louis and others on the list from time
to time, politically unsound.

Let's start with Stalinism. Western political culture is now dominated by a
version of the political events during and after the Russian Revolution, in
which the activities of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, in a more or less seamless
way, produced Stalinism. The more right-wing and dominant version of this
view of revolutionary history is the one expressed by people like Richard
Pipes, the KGB general and ideologist Volgokonov and the current reactionary
populist Martin Amis (while, as I've said in a previous post, some of the
material in Amis's Koba the Dread, has some intrinsic interest, I'm in basic
agreement with Paul Flewers' fairly detailed assault on Amis's historical
plagiarism, and reactionary political intentions).

This right-wing historical paradigm, the now-dominant one in Western
historiography and politics, is a simple-minded proposition that Leninism
led to Stalinism.

More dangerous and counter-revolutionary from a Marxist point of view is the
leftist, and often nostalgic Stalinist, version of the same story.

Many demoralised ex-Stalinists, or still-Stalinists, who have moved to the
right like Eric Hobsbawm, simultaneously hold both right and left versions
of the view that Leninism led to Stalinism. Throughout his memoir Hobsbawm
pleads for understanding of the good intentions of historians and
intellectuals like himself who supported Stalinism, at the same time having
a strand in his reminiscences in which he clearly implies that Leninism led
to Stalinism, while trying to maintain that he, personally, wasn't really a

Hobsbawm uses all aspects of this narrative to consign the socialist project
to the quaintness of history, and Hobsbawm's political evolution is brought
into sharp focus by his vocal support of the big shift of the British labour
movement to the right. All this is very clear from the useful interview with
him http://www.observer.co.uk/comment/story/0,6903,796531,00.html

The leftist version of the Leninism-leads-to-Stalinism story is expressed
most clearly by the revisionist historians of the Russian experience, such
as J. Arch Getty and Sheila Fitzpatrick, who try to minimise the scale of
Stalin's terror and minimise the responsibility of Stalin and the leading
Stalinists by ascribing the terror to some sort of suicidal mania inherent
in the Bolshevik project.

The bizarre postmodernist Marxoid, Slavoj Zizek, gives this version an
erudite Lacanian psychological slant, in a favourable review in New Left
Review in 2000 of Arch Getty's latest book. At the time I wrote in white
heat an assault on Getty and Zizek, which remains unpublished, and I may
submit it to Marxmail or put it up on Ozleft.

Parallel with, and influenced by, these views there has been a controversy
in US labour movement historiography, between a group of revisionist
historians who retrospectively idealise the US Communist Party, in conflict
with other US historians, such as Theodore Draper and Nelson Lichtenstein,
who have a much more critical view of US Stalinism.

The truth of the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union
and the world Communist movement, is that it was not a seamless, or even a
painful, transition from one thing to a variant of the same thing. It was a
counter-revolution, through and through. It represented a dramatic break
with the main features of the Bolshevik Party and a break with the
revolutionary perspectives of the Russian Revolution.

It created, in the Soviet Union, a new political culture that can quite
properly be described as Stalinism, that remained dominant for many years.
This Stalinist political culture came to dominate the Communist movement
throughout the world. It was modified a bit in the Krushchev period between
1956-64 and was also modified a bit during the last two or three years of
Gorbachev's rule. For the rest of the period between about 1926 and 1990 the
political culture of the Soviet Union was Stalinist.

In the Western Communist Parties, this high-Stalinist political culture was
inculcated ruthlessly. I have described this for the Australian Communist
Party, in my piece, The Communist Party in Australian Life
and in my review of Stuart Macintyre's book, Reds

A critical book in the imposition of high-Stalinism as the political culture
of Communist parties in the West is The Short History of the CPSU(B)
http://www.marx2mao.org/Other/HCPSU39NB.html, which was written in large
part by Stalin himself. This was the bible of Communist Parties in every

Other books important to the culture of high-Stalinism in Australia were The
Great Conspiracy Against the Soviet Union, by Sayers and Kahn; People's
Democracies by Wilfred Burchett (published in Australia), and the early
editions of my namesake L. Harry Gould's book, a Marxist Glossary. At the
centre of all these books was a fantastic, lying, counter-universe in which
all the trials were truthful unravellings of vicious conspiracies
perpetrated by spies who happened to be the overwhelming majority of the
Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution.

The proletarian militants who made up the Communist movement in every
country were overwhelmingly autodidact workers, and middle-class people, who
read books and were influenced by them. In English-speaking countries, about
which I know most, there was a complex, high-Stalinist political culture,
which had a distinct ethos of its own and had enormous influence in the
labour movement of the different countries.

Louis Proyect's idea that the CPs stopped being Stalinist in the early 1950s
is a fantasy. When I and many others in Australia, Britain and the US broke
from Stalinism after 1956, this Stalinist political culture was still
dominant in the left wing of the workers' movement. I'm not imagining the
intense hostility of previous associates, when they discovered someone like
me had linked up with the Trotskyists.

We had joined the "Trotskyite splitters and wreckers and the CIA" from the
point of view of Stalinist workers, which was very painful for me because
many of them had been associates and friends. Several people who surf
Marxmail have expressed amazement to about the personal venom of the attacks
on me by the DSP supporter, Alan Bradley,. If you want to get a flavour for
the Stalinist attitude towards dissidents and Trotskyist, even up to the
mid-1960s, try to imagine Bradley's abuse 50 times multiplied.

I have, sitting in front of me, a book published by Penguin in 1986, and
LaFont, Paris, in 1979. It is In the Name of the Working Class, by Sandor
Kopacsi. It's his vivid memoir of being a young Communist militant in
Hungary in the 1950s, ending up police chief in Budapest during the Nagy
reform period, and throwing in his lot with the Hungarian Revolution of

For his pains he was kept in solitary confinement by the regime for quite a
few years, and yet despite these experiences his account of the lead-up to
the Hungarian Revolution and of the revolution itself, is a mature and
careful one. There are hundreds of books written by people like Kopacsi who
were caught in the Stalinist meatgrinder. This machine, in the deformed
workers' states of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, kept grinding
well past the early 1950s, to which date Louis seems to assign the
transformation of the Stalinist movement in the West into a kind of leftist
version of Social Democracy.

Artur Landon and Rosemary Kavan's books on Czechoslovakia give some idea of
the atmosphere of Stalinism in that country up to 1989. In the deformed
workers states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Stalinism was a
forceful and powerful structure, system and ideology up to the time it was
overthrown. It was a powerful ideological force in the left of the labour
movement in the west until it collapsed in most countries, and it's still a
political force in a number of countries.

The largest Communist party that actually wins elections is the CPI
(Marxist) in the Indian states of Bengal and Kerala and that party, a
genuine mass party, is a thoroughly high-Stalinist political organisation to
this day.

In the 1960s, Stalinism was challenged from the left in Britain and to a
lesser extent in Australia, by substantial Trotskyist formations. I was
personally a participant in that challenge in Australia. The successful
agitation against the Vietnam War that the Trotskyists in Sydney led,
weakened the grip of Stalinism even on many workers who had previously been
antagonistic to the Trotskyists.

By mobilising a mainly youthful movement against the war, we acquired some
authority and influence and were able to appeal to many Stalinist workers
over the heads of their leaders. When I read through my ASIO file from the
time, I'm a bit amazed at the amount of time we spent, as well as agitating
successfully against the war, conducting agitation among the Stalinist
workers on all the old political questions, and we won some of them over.

Looking back on the 1960s and 1970s it seems to me that to some extent we
dismantled Stalinism in Australia and Britain, brick by human brick. That's
the way it seems to me in memory.

When I use the term Stalinism I'm describing the political system and
culture that dominated the deformed workers' states and still dominates
Vietnam, China and North Korea, and the political culture derived from the
mother culture in the USSR and China that dominated the left wing of the
workers' movement for a large part of that period.

When I describe individuals as Stalinists it's meant politically, not
pejoratively. I've known many Stalinists who were courageous, vigorous and
ingenious fighters for the working class, and some even became kind-of
friends, although remaining Stalinists, because common struggles sometimes
bridge the deepest differences. From time to time, still, I find political
blocs with unreconstructed Stalinists necessary in certain struggles, such
as the current struggle against the war on Iraq. It's not primarily a
personal question.

It's totally unscientific, however, to blend Stalinism relatively painlessly
into some vague idea that it became Social Democratic. The Stalinist
formations that moved politically towards Social Democracy retained all the
centralised and authoritarian features of the Stalinist political culture,
combined with a more right-wing political orientation.

It's useful to contemplate the phenomenon of Stalinism in China, where there
is now an authoritarian, centralised, ruthlessly hierarchical Stalinist
structure and political culture. This Stalinist structure and political
culture is extremely corrupt, financially, and is spearheading the
restoration of capitalism in China. It has become a kind of
Stalino-capitalist restorationist force. In the 1930s Trotsky spoke of the
Soviet Union in terms of the faction of Reiss and the faction of Butenko
(the latter was a major capitalist restorationist within the Stalinist

In China, Stalinism still rules, the faction of Butenko is triumphant and
socialists and Marxists really have to take up the slogans and demands of an
earlier historical period: the right to genuine trade union organisation,
freedom of the press, freedom of political agitation, and even possibly some
kind of constituent assembly. (In this matter I'm in total agreement with
Eva Cheng of the DSP.)

In my experience, the 20th century didn't include the seamless transition
from Stalinism to a form of Social Democracy that Louis projects. It wasn't
like that at all. To reduce the conflict between the Left Opposition and
Stalinism to some form of primarily sectarian conflict is to completely
misunderstand the 20th century and it's no use at all in reconstructing a
viable socialist movement in the world, from the doldrums the movement is
now in.

A thorough knowledge of the history and lessons of the Stalinist
counter-revolution is a precondition for the rebirth of any serious
socialist movement.

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