Third period idiocies

Kenny Coyle of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain denies he belittles the crimes of Stalin

Reputedly Stalin once said that paper would take anything written on it. The Weekly Worker is continuing proof that Uncle Joe was at least right on that one.

Ironically though, Jack Conrad’s rambling, purple-faced tirade (Weekly Worker October 23) against the Communist Party of Britain and the party pamphlet authored by me, Lies, damned lies and anti-communism, contains the kind of baseless denunciation, irrational dogmatism, disregard for facts and straightforward willingness to lie that go some way to helping us answer the question, ‘How could Stalinism happen?’

Conrad is not the first charlatan to equate communists and fascists and he surely will not be the last. But the comparison of the Communist Party of Britain and its members to the British National Party and Ku Klux Klan in a paper that claims continuity with the Communist Party of Great Britain is not a forgivable polemical excess. It is a political provocation.

During the 1930s, the communist movement catastrophically labelled social democrats ‘social-fascists’ and Trotskyists ‘Hitler’s agents’. While Conrad wishes to distance himself selectively from the history of “official communism”, he faithfully retains the method, language and sectarian idiocies of the third period.

Conrad writes as if the events of 1956, 1968 and the great debates of the 70s and 80s had no impact on the Communist Party of Great Britain and no follow-on influence on the CPB of today, far less the debates and discussions that have taken place at CPB congresses and within the pages of Communist Review on communist history following the great crisis of 1989-91. Having known and lived through this period, Conrad deliberately misrepresents the contemporary British communist movement as having been preserved in aspic, circa 1937. Of course, Conrad is perfectly at liberty to renounce his past views and political history, but he is not entitled to falsify those of others.

Making a ridiculous equation between those who question anti-communist propaganda to holocaust-deniers and lifelong fascists, Conrad makes some attempt to distinguish between the ‘unreconstructed’ and ‘sophisticated’ “deniers and belittlers” - Harpal Brar is included in the first category, while apparently I belong to the latter.

I have no sympathy for Harpal Brar’s sectarian politics. In fact, I have the happy honour of having been simultaneously denounced by Brar and the Weekly Worker for pointing out the futility of the Socialist Labour Party project well in advance of its collapse.

Nor do I share Harpal’s crude, nostalgic Stalinism, as I made explicitly clear in the pamphlet (n44, p35). But to suggest a comparison between a prominent Asian leftist like Brar and neo-Nazi thugs and white supremacists like Nick Griffin and David Duke suggests Conrad’s scandalous detachment from the realities of race in imperialist Britain. I hope Conrad will take time to reflect on that point, if nothing else.

Then Conrad writes: “Representative of this [sophisticated] form of deception is the two-part article, ‘The new wave of anti-communism’, by Kenny Coyle.” Now given his article’s emphasis on arithmetical accuracy, Conrad does not get off to a great start. There were in the end three articles in three successive issues of Communist Review, as anybody who had read either the Communist Party pamphlet or the magazine would have known.

Aside from properly reading the texts he so readily condemns, Conrad deliberately misrepresents my views and by extension those of the Communist Party, implying our approval, denial or at best silence on the crimes of the Stalin period.

In fact, I noted that among the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union were precisely the fact that “the crimes that had been committed were also crimes against socialism”, “weakening it structurally and undermining its base of support” (see CPB pamphlet, p20). The falsification of opponents’ positions is a predictable feature of Conrad’s polemics, but I hope that others will get hold of the pamphlet, original Communist Review articles and other materials from the Communist Party (www.communist-party.org.uk) - not only to see my actual views, but also to judge just how far Conrad’s desperate deceptions stretch.

Now, despite the description of me given by my comrades in Scotland, I am not an “academic”, noted or otherwise, and have never claimed to be. My interest in Soviet history has been driven by the need to understand what lessons have to be learnt from the tragedies as well as the triumphs of the first sustained attempt to build socialism.

My pamphlet was narrowly targeted at anti-communist distortions of 20th century history: it was never intended to be an all-round analysis of the Stalin period or the USSR - although I did maintain among other things that “A Marxist approach to the history of the socialist countries depends on an open appraisal of the objective facts” and could not “reduce all negative factors to purely unavoidable objective factors” (CPB pamphlet, p20).

Nonetheless, elevation of the subjective factor, whether party ideology or individual psychological motives, has been presented by some as the critical element explaining Stalinism. The notion that Stalin and his leadership were all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful was widely accepted by the communist movement before 1956. Its mirror image in the west became the cold war school of scholarship, which focused on Soviet ‘totalitarianism’, where ideology, economy and politics formed a seamless monolith. Among the latter, the historian Robert Conquest was considered pre-eminent.

Archive research

Bizarrely, Conrad takes me to task for using the work of a new generation of historians who do not carry Conquest’s ideological baggage, but did have the added opportunity to engage in extensive research in various archives of which Conrad, following Conquest, is dismissive. This trend of historical ‘revisionism’ has transformed our understanding of the Soviet Union during the Stalin period and not surprisingly the cold war school does not like it. Nor does Conrad.

“The revisionist school within academic Soviet studies: ie, those who downplay the crimes of Stalinism, usually by insisting on the archives as a unique source of reliable information, etc,” Conrad writes. Now, if Conrad had gone to the bother of familiarising himself with the work of these historians (he cites only one relevant book by J Arch Getty and Roberta Manning), he would know that none of the “revisionist” historians downplay the crimes of Stalinism.

In fact, they have unearthed irrefutable proof of the scale of the arbitrary nature of the mass arrests, the chaotic process of forced collectivisation, the suffering of the resulting famine, the orders for execution during the purges, etc, and the extent of Stalin’s and other Soviet leaders’ culpability for them.

Nor do the ‘revisionists’ insist on the archives as a “uniquely reliable” source. Instead they use them as a complementary field of research to published documents, memoirs and the like. I am left with the troubling conclusion that, as with my pamphlet, Conrad simply has not read these key works properly either. Why bother when you have Conquest on your side?

Conquest’s key work on the collectivisation was not merely titled Harvest of sorrow, as cited by Conrad. Its sub-title is Soviet collectivisation and the terror-famine. The sub-title signalled that Conquest and his fellow cold war historians believed that the 1930s famine was premeditated and deliberate.

Conquest’s key arguments were that the famine was artificially created in the midst of a generally good harvest, that it targeted the Ukrainians, that vast grain reserves were held back or were exported, that the central government made no efforts to reduce grain quotas and that it refused food aid to stricken regions. Each point has been comprehensively debunked by recent research, some of it in the formerly secret archives, but also by more careful studies of long-open sources.

Conrad denies the importance of the archive evidence that became available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but then rather carelessly goes on to quote from a Gosplan report on the 1937 census, which itself comes from these very same sources, in this case the Russian State Archives, GARF.

In fact the ‘revisionist’ school’s origins go back before the opening of any Soviet secret archives. Initial work by J Arch Getty on the 1937 purges and Mark Tauger on the 1931-32 famine, for example, were all published before they had access to the special archives, using much the same materials as were available to Conquest. However, they approached the material differently and came to radically different conclusions. Only latterly has the archival material become such a crucial factor in research into the Stalin years.

Conrad’s dismissal of this huge body of primary documents is telling, since he thereby defends a number of antiquated conclusions that the archive evidence has subsequently challenged and made redundant. For example, he claims: “Totally giving the game away, Coyle actually cites Stalin’s notorious and utterly hypocritical March 1930 Pravda article, ‘Dizzy with success’, as if it was a sincere corrective, rather than a crude attempt to blame subordinates for the ‘seamy side’ of collectivisation. Dumb, dumb, dumb.”

Yet Paul R Gregory, a fellow disciple of Robert Conquest, concedes that, with what we know from private and secret correspondence within the Soviet leadership, there really was a feeling that the centre had lost control of events. Gregory says: “… the dictator’s inability to control local officials may require historians to rethink Stalin’s blame of local officials for excesses during forced collectivisation in his famous ‘Dizzy with success’ article” (See PR Gregory Behind the facade of Stalin’s command economy Stanford 2001, p33).

Not only is Conrad unwilling to consider new evidence: he does not even seem to be familiar with the key debates among contemporary bourgeois historians on the topic and clings limpet-like to the skirts of his outdated cold warrior, Conquest. Dumb and dumber. Conquest, of course, had every reason to reject the relevance of the new evidence from the ‘revisionists’, since it toppled him from his position as the leading western academic authority on the period. What explains Conrad’s obscurantism is more difficult to fathom.

Phone a friend

Aware that his attachment to Conquest might raise a few eyebrows, Conrad chose his ‘phone a friend’ option - he “naturally consulted” Hillel Ticktin. Conrad says Ticktin is “an eminent Marxist scholar, a recognised authority on the Soviet Union and a political ally”. A “political ally” of Jack Conrad: now there is a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. The tears, the tantrums, the betrayals, the bitter recriminations and the mutual denunciations all lie ahead.

Now, while I respect Ticktin’s intellect and his empirical knowledge of the USSR (indeed the same is true of Conquest), his political views and theoretical framework are open to challenge. Having denied that the USSR could be categorised as anything other than an historical aberration, Ticktin has subsequently held the view, contrary to obvious evidence, that capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union not merely had not happened, but could not happen. As late as 2000, Ticktin was claiming in his journal Critique that “there has been no transition to capitalism in the post-Soviet space and that there has been no transition because there could be no transition. The preconditions for a move to capitalism have been absent throughout this time” (Critique 32-33, p13).

Ticktin’s current position appears to be that the once impossible transition is now partial: Putin’s Russia is a hybrid market-Stalinist society. No wonder Conrad is floundering. The former loyal Brezhnevite Conrad now argues that in the former USSR, “The working class was politically expropriated. The bureaucracy became uniquely free-floating, but could never cohere itself into a class.” Now a “free-floating bureaucracy” may be possible on a TV magic show, with Ticktin as Paul Daniels, ably assisted by Conrad’s Debbie McGee, but it is not Marxist.

Any bureaucracy by definition must be attached to a state, and a state has a definite class character. Following Ticktin, Conrad appears to suggest that there was no ruling class of any kind nor a state in the Marxist sense of the term, for which class could the Soviet state represent? Ticktin/Conrad’s class analysis of the USSR turns out in the end to be a non-class analysis, where Marxism’s key categories are of very little use.

Frank Furedi’s Revolutionary Communist Party/Living Marxism trod this path many years before, to a well known and well deserved end. That Ticktin is put on a pedestal, when a battery of other equally eminent scholars and authorities are brushed aside, shows that Conrad prefers his history filtered by current political expediency.

Conrad self-importantly promises a “multi-volumed” work on the Soviet Union. If his pseudo-intellectual arrogance and superficial knowledge of the topic are anything to go by, may I suggest that Jack’s time would be better spent reading books rather than writing them.