a kind of response to Maripower and several others the question of stalinism

Gould's Book Arcade ggouldsb at bigpond.net.au
Sun Jul 20 21:23:20 MDT 2003



"New Left Review" No 238 (Nov/Dec 99) contains an article by Pan European
High Theory wunderkid Slavoj Zizek, "When the Party commits suicide". This
article is a freewheeling reflection on Soviet history and on socialism in
the 20th century, taking the form of a review article about the book "The
Road to Terror. Stalin and the self destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932 to
1939," by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov.

Nothing that I have read for quite a long time has infuriated me more than
this article. To explain my anger, a brief biographical explanation is

I'm an Australian, 66 years old, active in the left wing movement and
seriously interested in socialist ideology all my life. I'm one of the
generation of 56, in the sense that I left the orbit of the Stalinist
movement after Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet suppression
of the Hungarian Revolution. Since then I have been in several Trotskyist
organisations and taken a serious interest in the big theoretical questions
of the socialist movement, at the same time as having been intensely
politically active for long periods. (For instance, I was the initiator of
the Sydney equivalent of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Vietnam Action
Committee, for six years, etc etc.)

I have a more or less complete file of "New Left Review", back to No. 1, and
sets of "Universities & Left Review" and the "New Reasoner", and even a
couple of copies of "The Reasoner". I have followed carefully and
participated robustly in the evolving ideological debates about the nature
of the Stalinist states all my life, and the practical political
consequences of such analysis have had considerable bearing on my life and
political activity. Right now my current ideological preoccupation is with
the obviously necessary new analysis required to re-equip and re-arm the
socialist movement to make it an effective force in the new conditions of
the 21st century, after the overthrow of Stalinism.

These are not academic questions. They exist in the interface between
socialist theory and socialist practice, and they always have done. Zizek's
nasty and light minded article arouses in me something like blind fury.
About the same time as I read Zizak's repellant article, I read Christopher
Hitchins's review of Robert Conquest's new book in the "Times Literary
Supplement". In this review he mentions Conquest's not too fanciful notion
of "the united front against Bullshit". Despite my disagreement's with
Conquest's (and now, Hitchins') right wing political views, I'm inclined to
join Conquest's united front against bullshit in Soviet historical matters.

My first and more minor area of irritation is with the snobbish, high
theory, academic tone of it. In its own way, it is typical of the type of
current academic discourse that is so easy to caricature. Zizek is obviously
excited and flattered by the way the revisionist historians incorporate in
their analysis bits of the currently fashionable high theory of which he
himself is one of the most classy and stylish practitioners. Zizek's article
contains much erudite discussion of symbols, rituals, psychoanalysis etc
etc, and such names as Freud, Lukacs, Nicholas Malebranche, Lacan, Kant,
Althusser, Sade, Linda Fiorentino, John Dahl, Alain Badiou, Frederic Jameson
and Foucault and Bourdieu are thrown around with gay and learned abandon,
according to the current academic fashion.

The first part of the article is a fairly straightforward repetition of
Getty, Irvingite revisionism in relation to the murderous purges and
exterminations perpetrated by Stalin's dictatorship in the 1930s. The
Getty-Naumov-Zizek thesis is that the mass purges and exterminations weren't
primarily the responsibility and work of the personal dictator Stalin, but
were largely perpetrated by the nomenklatura of the Communist Party itself.
This thesis does not even have the justification that David Irving's similar
thesis about the personal responsibility of Hitler for the Holocaust. Irving
at least uses for his equally monstrous false theory, the fact that there is
no physical documentation of Hitler's direct involvement in the Holocaust.
One has to infer Hitler's direct involvement and responsibility, which is
nevertheless absolutely clear, from the power relations in Hitler's Germany,
which is sufficient for most civilized human beings, other than unpleasant
racists like Irving.

The situation in relation to Stalin's responsibility for the mass murders in
the Soviet Union is even more irrefutable in the sense that there is a vast
amount of documentary material in the archives, with Stalin's bloodstained
fingers all over it. As even Getty concedes, there are literally hundreds of
thousands of death sentences with Stalin's signature in the archives.

Getty and Naumov rely for their argument as to Stalin's "diminished
responsibility" on material out of the archives, which describe the pathetic
attempt of Bukharin and others to save their lives at extraordinary sessions
of the Central Committee orchestrated by the monstrous Georgian. It is
essentially the same material used by the rather repulsive ex KGB General,
turned anti Communist historian, the late Dimitri Volgokanov, used in his
three books, on Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Volgakanov used the material to
portray the old Bolsheviks as pathetic, desperate, cowardly creatures, to
prove that Bolshevism was a monstrous thing at its very core.

One might quote in this context Trotsky's response to the question "Why did
they confess" advanced by Stalinists and also liberals in the 1930s. It is
worth repeating Trotsky now. Trotsky said that all that these confessions
proved was that the old Bolsheviks, who had been heroic revolutionaries in
the past, were after all human beings. After the quite long bureaucratic
degeneration of the Soviet State, and after their being subjected to
absolutely unbearable and brutal pressures, their confessions only prove
that they were such mortal human beings, and that the human metabolism has a
tendency to collapse under impossible pressures.

All the essentially psychoanalytic material in Getty's book and Zizek's
article, is invoked to bolster an essential political thesis which is really
the same old thesis of many right wing anti Communists. Stalinism was an
organic outgrowth, a little mutated perhaps, but essentially something that
grew in a straightforward way out of Bolshevism. All the erudite and learned
psychoanalytic material is angled to this conclusion, which is in fact
common to many bourgeois anti Communists and those left wingers who have a
bizarre nostalgia for Stalinism.

This thesis is not really based on any decisively new material, politically
speaking. The archive material is of enormous interest to people like
myself, with a lifelong preoccupation with Stalinism. The awful detail from
the new archive material is fascinating. Nevertheless, the essential facts
are not at all new. The archive material only confirms the account of events
given in Krivitsky's book, Orlov's book, and Kruschev's 20th and 22nd
Congress speeches. The shock horror use of the archive material, combined
with the psychological spin on it, to try to use material which is not
really essentially new, to buttress Getty's "Stalinism equals Leninism"
theory, which is not new either, makes me very angry.

Something that strikes me forcefully, reading both Getty's book, Volgakanov'
s books, and Zizek's article is the way they all revel in the sad picture of
the old Bolsheviks prostrating themselves before the baying Stalinist pack,
who as we know were equally fearful for their lives, and shouting as loudly
as they did in the vain hope that the despot might let them live. (Most of
them were murdered by Stalin eventually.) Getty and company all then use
this material to make a quite false political analysis that the secondary
actors and satraps of Stalin who participated in this process, were in some
way as powerful and responsible as Stalin himself. A certain verbal sleight
of hand is then performed with the psychoanalytic material, to equate the
grossly mutated Stalinist apparatus with the absolutely supreme and powerful
manipulator Stalin at its centre, with the old Bolshevik Party, which it had
replaced. What an obscenity this sleight of hand is, when you consider it

When I was very young and knocked around the Stalinist movement, the bibles
of working class Stalinists about the Moscow Trials were the 1939 "History
of the CPSUB", ghost written by Stalin himself, the transcripts of the
trials themselves published in the Soviet Union, and particularly a little
paperback version of the book "The Great Conspiracy against the Soviet
 Union", by Sayers and Kahn, which was republished by the CP in Australia in
many thousands of copies, in a small paperback. This nasty little book
reprinted suitable segments from the transcripts of the trials, along with
fantastic conspiracy theories and psychoanalytic material of a dramatic
character, all presented in an exciting way for the gullible. It was
supplemented by a similar book about the late 1940s Purge trials in Eastern
Europe, written by Wilfred Burchett, called "Peoples Democracies" and
another book written by James Klugmann of the British CP, called "From
Trotsky to Tito".

The explosion in the 1990s of new material out of the Soviet archives, takes
a number of curious forms. A hard core Canadian Stalinist group, "Northstar
Compass", have dug some Stalin material out of the archives that suits their
purposes. One fascinating item in their exotic book, "Secret Documents" is
"A Stenographic Report of a Meeting of Propagandists in Leningrad, 1938.
Published in the Russian Journal 'Archives of Leaders'", devoted to how to
study the "Short History of the CPSUB"

This bizarre item consists mainly of Stalin personally standing over, for
many hours over a number of days, several hundred terrified party and state
propagandists to make sure that they got every detail of his self written
hagiography right in their propaganda activities. By the law of averages in
Stalinist Russia, a fair percentage of those propagandists who made errors
were likely to end up dead. (I might try to get my mates to put this
document up on OzLeft as an example of the Stalin genre.)

The saddest thing about the "Short History" and the other books was that
many working class and middle class Stalinists found them satisfactorily
politically reinforcing thrillers and swore by them. The way that Getty,
Zizek and Volgakanov revel in the archive material of the Central Committee
confrontations, reminds me not a little of these books.

Zizek uses this material to draw another political lesson:
Here, then, perhaps, Trotsky's classic analysis of the Stalinist 'Thermidor'
is not fully adequate: the actual Thermidor happened only after Stalin's
death - or, rather, even after Khruschev's fall - with the Brezhnev years of
'stagnation', when the nomenklatura finally stabilized itself into a 'new
class'. Stalinism proper is rather the enigmatic 'vanishing mediator'
between the authentic Leninist revolutionary outburst and its Thermidor. On
the other hand, Trotsky was right in his prediction from the 1930s that the
Soviet regime could end only in two ways: either a worker's revolt against
it, or the nomenklatura would no longer be satisfied with political power,
but would convert itself into a capitalist class which directly owned the
means of production. And, as 'The Road to Terror' claims in its last
paragraph, with direct reference to Trotsky, this second scenario is what
effectively happened: the new private owners of the means of production in
the ex-socialist countries, especially in the Soviet Union, are, in their
large majority, the members of the ex-nomenklatura, so one can say that the
main event of the disintegration of 'really existing socialist' was the
transformation of nomenklatura into a class of private owners. However, the
ultimate irony of it is that the two opposite outcomes predicted by Trotsky
seem combined in a strange way: what enables nomenklatura to become the
direct owner of the means of production was the resistance to its political
rule whose key component, at least in some cases (Solidarity in Poland), was
the workers' revolt against the very same bureaucratic stratum.
Dissidence and Solidarity

As Alain Badiou has pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures,
'really existing socialism' was the only political force that - for some
decades, at least - seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of
capitalism, really terrifying its representatives, driving them into
paranoid reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the
totality of human civilization, every 'communist' territory was and is -
again, in spite of its horrors and failures - a kind of 'liberated territory
', as Fredric Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. What we are dealing with here
is the old structural notion of the gap between the space and the positive
content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the
communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and
misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of
utopian expectation which, among other things, enabled us to measure the
failure of really existing socialism itself. What the anti-communist
dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very vital assumptions
which they themselves drew on to criticize and denounce the everyday terror
and drudgery were generated and sustained by the communist breakthrough, by
its attempt to escape the logic of capital.

These two paragraphs sum up Zizek's basic political outlook: The Stalinist
states were basically progressive until quite late, and all the residual
Stalinist regimes, including presumably North Korea, Serbia and China, are
to be regarded as "liberated territory" and defended at all costs. Zizek
clearly argues here that all dissidence in Stalinist states should be
opposed. In his view it only leads to capitalist restoration.

 This point of view about the history of Stalinism is absolutely poisonous.
This is not virgin territory. The literature is vast. For instance, about
the same time as Getty's book came out, another book was published, by
Russian Prof. Vladimir Rogovin, "The Year 1937", which also uses new
material from the archives and proves in a most devastating way Stalin's
direct control over the whole process.

Rather than being some kind of psychological frenzy the bureaucratisation of
the Soviet Party and State was a profoundly material process, which gave the
opportunity for the emergence of the personal dictatorship of one
individual, Stalin, who turned out to be an exceptionally malevolent
individual indeed, and who later turned on the bulk of the bureaucracy in a
most vicious way, to shore up and cement his personal dictatorship. By the
time the Purges took place, he personally was in absolute and total
individual control of the state, police and party apparatus.

All the melodrama at Central Committee meetings was really just an
expression of this reality. I wonder if Getty and Naumov have recently
re-read Kruschev's Secret Speech. Kruschev, after all, was there. The
stenographic reports of the orchestrated proceedings at these gatherings, in
fact, do show them to be desperate human tragedies, with the victimised
individuals desperately trying to save their own lives, and the fearful
satraps temporarily basking in Stalin's favour watching the monster in the
corner out of the sides of their eyes, as they engage in the orgy of
denunciation of the current victims, thereby hoping to divert the lightening
from themselves. Not primarily a psychological process, but a desperate and
opportunist material pattern of behaviour, very concretely directed at
staying alive.

For most of my adult life, after breaking with Stalinism, I defended the
view that the Stalinist regimes were in some sense "deformed workers'
 states", in the spirit of the analysis of Trotsky, James P. Cannon, later
Ernest Mandel et al. In relation to the Stalinist states, there was another
major point of view within the anti Stalinist socialist tradition, the
"State capitalist" view associated with Max Schachtman, Tony Cliff, Sean
Matgamma, David Rousset and others. The arguments and debates between these
two schools canvassed every imaginable question in relation to these states.
Most people, even on the "state capitalist" side of the argument, ascribed a
certain "progressive" character to Soviet state capitalism. The literature
of these arguments is still of enormous interest, for instance "Workers
Liberty" in the UK have just reprinted most of the documents of the
Schachtman school, which is of considerable value. Looking back on those
arguments, in which I myself was quite a vigorous participant on the
"workers' state" side, I now have the view that we were all wrong, both
workers staters and state capitalists.

Whatever our concrete description of the class character of the Soviet
regime was, either different versions of deformed or degenerated workers
states, or different forms of "State Capitalism" and "bureaucratic
collectivism", etc, we all underestimated the utterly monstrous and
physically disastrous characteristics of the Stalinist counter revolution.

The reality of Stalinism was worse than any of us in the West could possibly
imagine. For many years I had the view, as did almost everybody on the anti
Stalinist side, that a political revolution or even, for the State
Capitalists, a social revolution, would be able to base itself on the way in
which we believed that Stalinism had, despite its deformity, "developed the
productive forces". We were wrong about that. The actual effect of Stalinism
was ultimately to disperse and destroy the productive forces. The massacre
of the old Bolsheviks, the imposition of a viciously totalitarian political
and social structure on the proletariat, the intelligentsia and the peasant
masses, produced, over time, a dramatic reversion to backwardness.

If there had been much of a progressive character about the Stalinist setup,
how is it possible to explain the extraordinary social, cultural and
economic collapse of production and the social structure in the ex Soviet
Union after 1990. The Soviet Stalinist regime, with ostensibly the strongest
industry, supposedly the most developed in the Stalinist bloc, suffered in
fact the most dramatic reverse, to a primitive 19th century Mafia style
robber capitalism, with the parasitic bureaucracy grabbing bits and pieces
of whatever was left. The current explosive capitalist restoration in China,
which combines 19th century rates of accumulation, with a rigid Stalinist
political apparatus, also contradicts any idea that Stalinism equates with a
socialist path of development.  A political strategy which incorporates
viewing Stalinist China, North Korea and Serbia as "liberated areas", is
completely bankrupt in the year 2003.

The analysis that was closest to the actual reality I now believe to be the
one put forward by David Rousset in the book, "The Legacy of the Bolshevik
Revolution", published by Allison & Busby in 1982. Rousset locates the
critical point in the development of the Soviet bureaucracy with the rupture
of the revolutionary process in the 20s, and with the benefit of hindsight,
I believe he is right. (Another critical set of documents are the appeals by
Rakovski to Communist Party congresses in the early 1930s, also published by
Allison & Busby in their Rakovski book. These appeals concretely document,
from the heart of the Stalinist camps, the rapid degeneration of the

What is absolutely obvious, is that there was a decisive and total break
between the ideas, aspirations, perspectives and practices of Bolshevism
(that is of anything that can be associated with Lenin's ideas and
practice), and the political and social counter revolution that crystallised
as Stalinism. It is absolutely poisonous to treat Stalinism as in some sense
an organic development out of Bolshevism. Whatever nostalgic form Getty and
Zizek give it, this is just the old Stalinist bullshit. Had Lenin lived much
longer, it's clear that he would have taken the most vigorous action to
remove Stalin and embark on a different course. If Lenin had lost, no doubt
Stalin would have removed and murdered him too.

It is in the sphere of current politics that the major aspects of Zizek's
view is most pernicious. Socialism has to be rearmed and rebuilt as a
political movement in both theory and practice in the new century. The
notion of giving support to the Stalinist bureaucracy in China or North
Korea, for instance, is surreal, dangerous, fantastic, anti working class
and inhuman.

The Australian Marxist group, the DSP, with whom I do not always agree, went
through the quite painful process of having a major discussion on the class
character of Stalinist China. On the basis of this discussion they have come
to the conclusion that the Chinese regime is no longer a workers' state. On
this matter I agree with them. Anyone who can, at this stage in history,
confuse the total, monolithic, centralized political power in Stalinist
China, which is presiding over the most rapid privatization on earth, with a
workers' state, has to be blind, deaf and dumb. (China is an allegedly
socialist state where trade unions are effectively banned, and the most
recent special nationwide "honoured worker" for the May Day celebrations,
was the CEO of a western capitalist corporation trading in China.)

This Chinese Stalinist regime is so threatened by any kind of dissent that
it locks up middle aged Taoists, prohibits effective trade unionism, censors
the Internet, at the same time as it uses its exclusive political power to
enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the population, via the road of
the most speculative and chaotic 19th century style capitalist development.
"Liberated territory" a la Jameson. Not for me, thank you very much, and
not, it seems to me, for the working class and peasants of anywhere in the
Asian region including China, and any embryonic socialist political
organisations there. This view of the Chinese masses is sharply underlined
by the recent extraordinarily widespread mobilisation in Hong Kong in
defence of basic democratic rights, against the Stalinist bureaucracy in

I wrote most of this piece in 2000 with the intention of sending it to "New
Left Review" but I didn't quite complete it, not being aware then of a
convenient place to post it, like Marxmail, etc. About four months ago I
joined up to Marxmail, the Green Left discussion site, the Socialist
Register site and Leftists Trainspotters, and as a result of this, between
100 and 200 bits and pieces lob in my inbox every day. I'm forcefully struck
by the number of nostalgic Stalinists who still seem to exist in the world,
if postings on these sites are any sort of representative example. On
Marxmail, Maripower, the late Mark Jones and others represent this trend,
and I was fascinated yesterday to see on Trainspotters, a vintage long
winded defence of the the Moscow Trials, from the Socialist Unity Centre in

Coincident with this, over the last couple of years, I have been deepening
my knowledge of the bittereness, cruelty and counter revolutionary character
of Stalinism, from all the new books based on material from the Soviet
archives, particularly the series published by Yale University, of which the
Getty Naumov book is one example. (The Getty Naumov book, despite its bias,
is still an interesting and useful book.) The most recent and traumatic book
that I've seen from Yale University Press, is the 2001 book, "Stalin's
Secret Pogrom" edited by Rubenstein and Naumov, which contains the
extraordinary transcript of the secret 1952 trial of the leaders of the
Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee, during which the 75 year old Solomon
Lozofsky, courageously repudiated the confession that had been extorted out
of him by force.)

The pro Stalinist nostalgics on the web sites, and the horrific archive
material, might well exist in two science fiction type parallel universes.
As a result of this sharp clash of cultures, so to speak, I intend soon to
assemble a comprehensive bibliography of books of memoirs about the
Stalinist camps, and books based on the archive material out of the Soviet
archives, with a view to trying to correct, if that is possible, the weird
Stalinist misinformation that I've encountered of late on the web.

Bob Gould, Sydney, 21/7/03

Gould's Book Arcade
32 King St, Newtown, NSW
Ph: 9519-8947
Fax: 9550-5924

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