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Stalinism and Authoritarian "Socialism"

Ernie Haberkern

IN HIS REVIEW of The Fate of the Russian Revolution ("Max Shachtman, Soviet Defencism and ’Unfalsified Marxism’", What Next? No.11) Bob Pitt argues that the Independent Socialist League (ISL) majority, which unambiguously rejected the notion that nationalized property was in itself progressive regardless of the relation of the working class to the state, is mistaken. He maintains that "however rotten an institution may be, if it originates in the struggles of the working class and consequently retains ’proletarian residues’, then its destruction from the right can never be in the interests of the fight for socialism". From his point of view the minority who were "defencists" like Erber and, ambiguously, Shachtman were in the right.*[note]

Pitt goes on to argue that this question has become moot with the collapse of the Soviet Union and that the contribution of the WP/ISL tradition on questions of organization is more important. I should add that Sean Matgamna also believes that the question of Stalinism is no longer important.

But for the ISL the question of "organization" and the nature of Stalinist society were intimately linked. Both center on the fundamental question: What is Socialism? As Hal Draper – the author of the 1948 resolution which laid out the ISL position – pointed out in his pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, Stalinism was by no means unique in its vision of socialism as a gift from above by a more or less benevolent, more or less authoritarian, state. Stalinism, especially in its Asian variants, can be treated as the most prodigious, and disastrous, experiment in Utopian Socialism the world has known. With a few exceptions who have been buried in historical footnotes, Marx and Engels were the only ones who championed a different view of socialism. The idea that socialism was the product of the struggle of the working class to reshape society in its own image only very briefly triumphed. In part, this was because of the force of Marx’s genius, in part it was a result of the attractiveness of the idea itself. But for the most part, this vision became identified with socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the growing confidence and strength of the working class movement itself. Conversely, the series of devastating defeats suffered by the class since 1914 have dimmed the vision.

Pitt himself acknowledges that Stalinism fell largely as a result of its own internal contradictions. Even more interesting, he acknowledges that the working class "themselves failed to defend nationalized property". Leave aside the fact that this is a somewhat peculiar way to describe the role of Polish Solidarity, the most powerful upsurge of working class activity since the Spanish Civil War, or the role of the Russian miners who backed Yeltsin’s coup. In what sense was this Stalinist state a "residue" of a workers’ struggle? It arose on the bones of the party that had made the revolution and on the bones of the members of that party. It destroyed whatever trade union movement existed in Russia by 1929. It depended for several decades on a massive slave labor system. That the workers who supported Solidarity and Yeltsin were deceived is obvious. But how can one call the state they helped overthrow a "residue" of their struggle?

Nor is this a dead issue. In the first flush of capitalist triumphalism and left defeatism following the collapse of the Soviet Union it at least made sense to regard all these discussions of the nature of Stalinism as antiquarianism. But it is now apparent that the triumphalism was misplaced. It is clear that a normal, stable, liberal capitalist democracy is not on the cards for most of the world. Certainly not for Russia or the Balkans and probably not for much of Eastern Europe. But the working class is still confused and disoriented. And in the vacuum, just as in the ’30s and ’40s, very noxious plants are starting to appear in the political undergrowth.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Russia. The Communist Party – the self-styled "Party of Lenin" – now officially adopts as its own the classic politics of antisemitism. We are not talking here about the all too common phenomenon of a left-wing party pandering for opportunist reasons to the prejudices of its constituency or membership. The official line of the Party – its fundamental analysis of what is going on – is that Holy Mother Russia is once more the victim of the international conspiracy of the Jews.

Now, I must confess that my own opinion is that, once the dictatorship of the proletariat is established, people who use terms like "left", "right" and "center" will have to be "reeducated". It is the only humane treatment for poor souls suffering from chronic obscurantism. But even allowing for my personal prejudices, in what sense is Yeltsin to the "right" of Zyuganov? By this logic the French fascists of the ’30s would have been to the "left" of the main liberal bourgeois party – the Radicals – because the fascists were, perhaps demagogically, demanding stronger government measures against "international capital". If you think this is a far-fetched analogy go back and read what Bernard Shaw, Scott Nearing and others on "the left" were saying about Mussolini and Hitler at the time.

Given the current crisis of world capitalism which, for much of the world, is as serious as the Great Depression was for Europe in the ’30s, we can expect to see more of these reactionary, authoritarian "socialisms". More than likely they will more resemble fascism or Peronism in their political ideology than classical Stalinism. But they can only grow and prosper as long as the working class remains politically prostrate. Not only are they not part of "the left", their assault on what democratic rights and institutions have emerged out of the wreckage of Stalinism represents a threat to the existence of an organised working-class movement however "socialist" their rhetoric.


* This question is confused in the discussion by the use of jargon which is particularly misleading here. As Hal Draper points out in his The Myth of Lenin’s "Revolutionary Defeatism", all parties to this debate were using a slogan which confused the issue of defending the nation against a foreign invasion and support for the government of the country and its conduct of the war. This is a discussion which would be too large a digression here. Some mention of it, however, should have been made in the book. [Back to text.]