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Ian Birchall

The Socialist ABC

S is for sad Stalinism that gave us all a bad name

(December 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 11, 12 December 1980–18 January 1981, p. 36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Stalinism, as the song says, ‘gave us all such a bad name’. Twenty-seven years after the old butcher was committed to a well-deserved grave, his ghost still walks. Right-wingers trying to discredit the whole idea of socialism, left libertarians frightened of the discipline of an organisation – for both the Stalin myth is alive. Organised Stalinist politics today may be no more than a few ageing hacks in the New Communist Party masturbating over pictures of their hero in full military regalia, but the historical experience of Stalinism is still an albatross hanging round our necks. If we fail to understand it and explain it, we shall have to go on paying the price for it.

In 1956, three years after Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev made his famous ‘secret speech’, which within weeks was one of the most widely publicised documents in history. Khrushchev denounced crimes that Trotskyists had publicised twenty years earlier (and were called Nazi agents for their pains). But Khrushchev’s explanation was worse than useless. ‘Stalin was a very distrustful man, morbidly suspicious; we knew this from our work with him.’ Now it would be hard to doubt that Stalin was in fact a very nasty man; what remains unexplained is how such a nasty man achieved virtually absolute power in an allegedly socialist society.

Stalinism was the product of defeat. Failure of revolution in Western Europe, disintegration and demoralisation of the working class inside Russia, left the state machine in the hands of a group of managers and bureaucrats whose connection with the working class, was only on the level of rhetoric. Once they abandoned world revolution, the only road was industrialisation from above. As Stalin said in a speech of 1931: ‘We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.’

Stalin succeeded. As Isaac Deutscher wrote in his obituary: ‘Stalin found Russia working with a wooden plough and left her equipped with atomic piles.’ But the price of such rapid industrialisation was a terrible one. Every last vestige of working-class power was crushed. And the process was accompanied by a disastrous agricultural policy. At Stalin’s death the grain harvest and the cattle stock were both lower than in 1913. The Russia which today, sixty years after the Revolution, still has to import grain from the West, is the Russia built by Stalin.

This forced-pace industrialisation could only be carried out by ruthlessly crushing any form of workers’ democracy and destroying the very Bolshevik Party in whose name Stalin ruled. As Khrushchev reported in the secret speech:

‘It was determined that of the 139 members and candidates of the party’s central committee who were elected at the Seventeenth Congress (1934), 98 persons, i.e. 70 per cent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-38). What was the composition of the delegates to the Seventeenth Congress? It is known that 80 per cent of the voting participants of the Seventeenth Congress joined the party during the years of conspiracy before the Revolution and during the civil war; this means before 1921. By social origin the basic mass of the delegates to the Congress were workers.’

Lower down the same bureaucratised murder prevailed. Joseph Berger, a pioneer of the Palestinian Communist Party who spent many years in a Stalinist labour camp, reports:

‘When there were thousands of deaths every day it was obviously impossible to check the circumstances of each one. But a maximum permitted mortality rate was laid down; so long as mortality remained within these limits it was considered normal.’

Stalinism cannot be equated with an impatient bureaucrat or a bossy cadre; it was counter-revolution on an unprecedented scale.

The personality cult that surrounded Stalin was notorious. Grotesque poems were churned out; one French Communist wrote that ‘for a Communist ... Stalin is the highest scientific authority in the world.’ Stalin personally rewrote his own biography, adding such phrases as: ‘Stalin never allowed his work to be marred by the slightest hint of vanity, conceit or self-adulation.’

The Communist International, which Stalin inherited, was transformed from a party of world revolution to a tool of Russian foreign policy. Communist militants the world over jumped through a series of hoops – the grotesque theory that Social Democracy was ‘social fascism’, the Popular Front, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the wartime adulation of Churchill and Roosevelt, the overnight discovery that Tito was a fascist. A whole generation of revolutionaries were driven into disillusion or turned into mindless hacks.

Stalinism was not inevitable; it was the fruit of defeat. Faced with fascism and mass unemployment, millions of workers looked to Mother Russia for victories they could not win by their own strength. And it has been the self-activity of workers – the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the French General Strike of 1968, the Polish strikes of 1980 – that has driven wedges into the Stalinist monolith. Only the rebirth of a revolutionary international can finally lay the ghost of Stalin.

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