Fighting Stalinism politically

James Turley responds to Paul B Smith

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Paul B Smith, a regular correspondent to this paper’s letters pages - normally in reply to our less reconstructed Stalinist readers - has provided two very substantial articles, imploring communists to create an authentically Marxist intellectual culture: a good intention indeed.[1]

We are left in little doubt as to what he means by this in the first instance. The headline of his first article sets it out nicely: ‘A Marxist culture free from the taint of Stalinism’. Again, it is difficult to disagree with the sentiment; Stalinism is, after all, a distortion (in reality, a series of distortions) of Marxism of unprecedented thoroughness. It corrupted theory (‘socialism in one country’), politics (primarily, the people’s front and variants thereof) and the internal culture of the left (bureaucratic centralism).

Already, though, alarm bells should be sounding. Firstly, Stalinists are hardly the only guilty parties in these errors. Bureaucratic centralism is the characteristic organisational form of almost the entire far left; those groups which oppose it almost as invariably fall into politely diffuse broad tendencies (the Commune is a current example), which are no less crippled. Variants of popular frontist politics are common among Trotskyist groups - very obviously in the case of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Resistance; clandestinely in the form of anti-fascism, among others. And, while one will scarcely find a non-Stalinist prepared to advocate socialism in one country, the political lines of many Trotskyist groups imply it (we need only mention the infamous Militant ‘enabling act’ theory of revolution).

Secondly, there is the question of how to live “free from the taint of Stalinism”. It is an unavoidable empirical fact that Stalinism dominated the workers’ movement, where social democracy did not, for the bulk of the 20th century. Militant class fighters and Marxist intellectuals alike were overwhelmingly, if not organised in Stalinist parties per se, in the orbit thereof; this includes most of the Marxist intellectual icons of the last century - Gramsci, Lukács, Bloch, Sartre, Althusser and many more. A great deal of productive intellectual work was conducted in this situation: not just from the high-profile individuals above, but by (for instance) the Communist Historians Group in Britain, etc - to say nothing of the innumerable translators of Marx, Engels and Lenin into countless languages.

This phenomenon ultimately stems from the fact that the ‘official communist’ parties were just that - parties, organising substantial sections of the working class movement - for better or worse. They had the necessary social weight both to have an impact on their own terms and to act as a pole of attraction in wider society. As such, in spite of their image, the communist parties were never as monolithic as all that - all kinds of diverse political forces have come out of them, including this very paper. If Stalinism had simply been worthless, it would have bounced back off a recalcitrant reality and dwindled to nothing in months - that it did not suggests that it tells us something about its epoch. Pinning all our hopes on anti-Stalinism to revive Marxist theory carries the risk of rejecting the whole complicated tradition that stems from it.

Unfortunately, this appears to be precisely what comrade Smith has in mind: “Stalinism produced no knowledge of any worth,” he states unambiguously at the outset. “It attempted to destroy Marxism in the name of ‘Marxism’. The fact it failed is a tribute to the work of a few relatively isolated individuals.” How terribly convenient for us non-Stalinists - except that it is false. It is false because Stalinism did produce works of some intellectual worth, in spite of itself; because it did result in some version of Marx’s theories gaining wider circulation, and thus provided an objective basis for the extension of Marxism, again in spite of itself.

As for the “few isolated individuals”, one should not underestimate the heroism with which many people struggled against Stalinist hegemony, of whom Trotsky is the iconic example. Yet this is a view of Stalinism as an incomprehensible fairy-tale monster of uniquely single-minded purpose. In fact, Stalinism was a contradictory beast; and if Marxism survived, it is as much to do with the inability of Stalinism, given its real conditions of existence, to kill it as with the heroic individuals taking turns at the life support machine.

It should be clear, given all this, the kind of approach Marxists should take to the Stalinist legacy: but then it should be clear anyway, as a matter of default. We have to look at things dialectically. Comrade Smith is full of praise for the manner in which Marx ‘supersedes’ (lurking here, I would guess, is the German term aufheben, also translated as ‘sublate’ or ‘suspend’) classical bourgeois political economy. Yet Stalinism, apparently, is simply a non-stop horror show - there is nothing to supersede, only a great mass of stuff to (in Freudian terms) repress or foreclose.

There is no substantial reason for the inconsistency - it is an understandable, but wrong-headed, attempt to take moral distance in the clearest possible terms from the great disaster of the revolutionary workers’ movement, which in effect amounts to a abrogation on our duty to take responsibility for our history.

Fate of Althusser

The consequences of this scorched-earth policy towards Stalinist residues in contemporary Marxist thought can be glimpsed in a long tirade against the person of Louis Althusser; I have previously debated the merits of the latter’s interventions with comrade Smith, during which exchanges he frankly demonstrated no familiarity with the texts he was so keen to denounce. Regrettably, in the intervening years, no progress has been made.

So Althusser’s reading of Capital is summarised as showing that “individuals were subject to impersonal social forces they could not understand or resist”. This is a pretty bizarre statement to begin with - after all, Althusser was writing theory; he was also a figure on the radical left wing of the French Communist Party (PCF), whose (Maoist) politics tended rather to voluntarism than quietism. Why do the former if you cannot understand the social forces around you? Why be the latter if we are all powerless to resist?

Needless to say, that is not a sensible summary of the early Althusser (that is, the one who famously ‘read Capital’ with his students), whose argument is rather that subjects are supports of social relations which are in dynamic and multiple contradictions;[2] when these contradictions overlap to the point that the social order can no longer hold, there is a revolutionary situation and the possibility of a rupture with the past.[3] Althusser’s theory has very little respect for the sovereignty of the bourgeois individual; but it is a crass misreading to see this as a fatalist pessimism.

But there is more: “For example, people’s belief that freedom is worth fighting for was an illusion caused by the impersonal forces of an ideological state apparatus. Schools, religion and the family force individuals to think and behave as they do. People have no choice. A prime example of an ideological state apparatus was the Stalinist Communist Party. Party members could not be held responsible for crimes of mass murder committed in the Soviet Union and other Stalinist regimes, if ideology controlled their subjectivity and social structures determined their actions.”

Everything about this paragraph is misleading in some way: for a start, Althusser’s conception of ideology explicitly does away with the concept of ‘illusion’; he does not believe that ideological state apparatuses work by ‘force’, but by recruiting subjects into practice; the example of the “Stalinist Communist Party” is Smith’s own, and as such only works if he has made the peculiar decision to adopt the theoretical apparatus he here denounces.

The ‘criticism’, however, is telling - the problem with Althusser’s theory is that it means we cannot meaningfully assign blame! Remember, this is about 5,000 words after we are told that ‘blame’ theories of the crisis are alien to Marxism. Well, so are ‘blame’ theories of the crimes of Stalinism - but that, again, is not Smith’s concern with Stalinism, bullet-point summary of Hillel Ticktin’s theory on the matter aside. Rather it is to display sufficient hatred towards the relevant men in black hats.

Althusser is a particular hobby horse of mine, of course, and also - in a different way - of comrade Smith’s. I have no wish to turn this into an elaborate critical defence of what I find useful in his work; simply to demonstrate that almost every statement Smith makes on the subject is not only a travesty of that work, but one which would be easily rectified on the most cursory reading of the texts concerned. (As such, Althusser is paradoxically left off the hook for the real problems with his theory.)

Let us broaden the picture here. Is Smith prepared to discover for us the hidden, technocratic heart of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of dialectical reason? What about the post-1924 works of Lukács, who went to his grave defending his choice in the Comintern debates of the 20s and 30s? These are not people with clean hands vis-à-vis the Stalinist regimes - Lukács even served in Imre Nagy’s government.

One cannot, of course, excoriate every last celebrity intellectual to have entered the orbit of Stalinism even in a text as extended as comrade Smith’s articles. Yet, ‘of all the gin joints in all the cities of the world, you had to walk into mine’; I fear that his choice of target is symptomatic. Lukács, and to a lesser degree the later (that is, Stalinist) Sartre, work more in the same theoretical ballpark as Smith. To the former’s famous statement that the chapter in Capital concerning commodity fetishism “contains the whole of historical materialism”, he would on this evidence only have to add abstract labour; and the militant, muscular humanism of Sartre would no doubt be of some interest as well.

What we have, then, is a case study of the most slippery intellectual practices. Stalinism is reduced to Stalinist Russia (and satellites); its intellectual products are read as the direct and invariant expression of bureaucratic rule. Onto this, Smith maps the popular but spurious caricature of Althusser’s work (a totalitarian theory with no place for human agency), which - thusly travestied - strikes him as the expression par excellence of Soviet ‘histmat’ and ‘diamat’.

This is falsified by the empirical facts of intellectual history in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin. Firstly, widespread in the Stalinist movement were ideas diametrically opposed, on almost every conceivable point of dispute, to Althusser’s.

Apart from the aforementioned, it is worth citing Roger Garaudy, Althusser’s principal opponent in the PCF in the 1960s. This man was Stalinist through and through (that is, until he converted to Catholicism and then radical Islam, and took up holocaust denial); a great admirer of Uncle Joe, who, in the post-1956 conjuncture, became the leading spokesman in the PCF for Marxist humanism and, for a time, the party’s official philosopher. So bureaucratically minded was this man that even the PCF apparat eventually moved to curb his power, beginning his spiral descent into unalloyed irrationalism. Who is the paradigmatic Stalinist of the two?

Secondly, the communist parties of Europe (and elsewhere) were not shaped in the image of the Soviet masters, but according to the latter’s needs. The correspondence between the official political line in Russia and the line in France, Britain and elsewhere was not a mirror reflection; it was necessary to sell Stalinism to British workers on the basis that things would not be like they were in Russia, at least in those matters of detail where the ‘people’s democracies’ were simply too hard a sell, if the CPGB got its way. At the base, what mattered was not necessarily how things actually were in the Soviet Union (the full-timers and press in any case lied consistently about that state of affairs), but how things appeared.

With the Sino-Soviet split came splits in ‘official’ communist parties around the world - but these did not necessarily map onto the ‘obvious’ differences between peasant-centrism in Maoism and worker-centrism in orthodox Stalinism, nor was it an essentially contingent choice of foreign paymaster. In France and America in particular, China - especially during and after the Cultural Revolution - appeared to be to the left of the Soviet Union; Maoist groups in the west tended towards ultra-leftist voluntarism, or at least the defence of a perverse ‘Marxist-Leninist’ orthodoxy threatened by the rightward drift of ‘revisionists’ in the Soviet and other ‘official’ parties. In dealing with the intellectual products of Stalinism, then, we are dealing with two sets of contradictions - those internal to Stalinism as a social formation (eg, the Sino-Soviet split, ‘Prague spring’, etc); and those between Stalinism-in-power and Stalinism-in-opposition.

The politics of Stalinism

Picking our way through all this detritus requires a theoretical calculus of some kind. For Paul Smith, ironically, it suffices to repeat one of Althusser’s errors - back to Capital! (One hopes he is not consulting the Progress translations ...) Despite his disclaimer that “the errors and distortions are [his] own”, this is a problem that Smith has picked up from Hillel Ticktin, who says that the Marxist method “applies only to political economy, its history and its philosophy”.[4]

Marx has much to say about political economy and its history; he has less to say, in his later years at least, about its philosophy, yet his work is highly productive for a good number of philosophical orientations (as a survey of his divergent philosopher-epigones will attest). Yet Marxism is fundamentally a matter of politics. The point, after all, is to change the world.

Marx studied history and political economy, and we study them after him, to arm ourselves intellectually in order to change the world. Marxism is not a banal statement that the economy determines everything: that is, just another reductionist ‘philosophy of history’; rather it aims to expose the complex relationships between the fundamental economic ground and social relations of existence and the transformative intervention of political practice. (However mystically inclined he may have been on other points, the young Lukács is absolutely right to stress the centrality of totality to dialectical thought.)

All this theoretical research boils down to a single proposition, present throughout Marx’s and Engels’s work from the late 1840s onwards, and in Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and all the other icons of our movement: the working class needs to organise itself collectively to politically expropriate the bourgeoisie. That is Marxism’s own John 3:16. It gives birth to a whole series of political questions. How do we organise? What should our policy be towards other classes and class fractions? What should our policy be towards the non-Marxist sections of the workers’ movement, the existing mass organisations and so on?

To the argument that this fundamental political strategy takes logical priority over the analyses of Capital we might add the simple fact that it takes historical priority. Marx’s advocacy of proletarian revolution predates his analyses of surplus value, abstract labour and so on. In fact, the idea itself is not novel to Marx - some utopians, notably Flora Tristan, produced analyses of the working class that theorised its tendency towards socialist consciousness in terms of its material conditions of life.

Capital is very much worth studying, if only because it is the most systematic intellectual work Marx left us, and thus the crowning achievement of his methods of analysis. However, to make it the spring from which flows authentic revolutionary politics is a radical misunderstanding of its place in Marxist theory. It is, after all, precisely a study of capital; the focus on exploitation through the wage relation does not so much prove the working class is the objective basis for socialism, as prove that the capitalist class - contra the less insightful utopians - is not.

Back to the subject at hand: Stalinism was so drastically harmful, not, in the first instance, because Stalin’s Russia was a hell-hole, or not socialist, or because Stalin’s regime physically liquidated a generation of steeled revolutionaries in the 1930s. That, in itself, would make it no more than an isolated defeat - the forced retreat of the 1917 revolution, whose consequences would almost inevitably be bloody. Stalinism was a truly global catastrophe, however, because it politically dominated the workers’ movement - and got the answers to all those questions above drastically wrong.

The fundamental political error of Stalinism is class-collaboration, which marks it from the end of the third period onwards. In the first instance, of course, this is the imperative to collaborate with the Soviet bureaucracy; which, even if we consider it along with Trotsky a caste rather than a class, is in the last instance a manifestation of the power of the labour bureaucracy, and thus a vector of class collaboration. Following from that, there is the imperative to collaborate with (sections of) the ‘national bourgeoisie’; initially this resulted from the need for the western communist parties to function as tools of Soviet diplomacy, but ultimately - firstly in the form of capitulation to anti-colonial nationalism, and later in the form of Eurocommunism, etc - took on a somewhat ghastly life of its own. In the west, it was a catastrophe, inasmuch as it was a dead end for the revolution. Elsewhere, as in Indonesia or Iraq, it was a catastrophe of a rather more literal, horrific sort.

And, in the end, even if class-collaboration had been the only Stalinist deformation of Marxism, all its other failures would have grown out of it anyway. If one is involved in a diplomatic lash-up with alien class forces, it becomes impossible to allow public criticism of those forces - thus, on the one hand, concessions to reformism are inevitable; and on the other, the party bureaucracy is strengthened, as it gains an excuse to suppress open differences. It is impossible to defend these reformist, class-collaborationist politics with consistent Marxist theory; thus it becomes even more necessary to regulate or suppress internal criticism.

Yes, the persistent inadequacy of Stalinist politics rests ultimately on the objective existence of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Soviet Union, however, is no longer with us. The Stalinist world is shrinking, as China, Cuba and so on proceed ever more speedily to a straightforward bourgeois regime. Yet these politics - class-collaboration, liquidation into political reformism, bureaucratic organisational practices - are still with us. It is no serious problem for us that there are still apologists for Stalin around. It is a serious problem that the politics of popular frontism are now advocated by the Socialist Workers Party (though it does not admit it).

Tony Cliff, it should be remembered, devoted a great deal of work to making sense of the Stalinist countries, developing a full, elaborated theory of state capitalism. It remains a serious part of ‘official’ SWP history that the theory of state capitalism enabled the organisation to avoid the political capitulations of orthodox and Mandelite/‘Pabloite’ Trotskyism.

Yet today this claim is nakedly ridiculous; the fairly workaday forms of Trotskyist politics the SWP has operated over decades has slowly become more and more Stalinist, starting with the ‘Leninisation’ of the International Socialists in the 70s. Whether or not Cliff’s theory has any merit (few outside the SWP’s ranks believe it does), it was rather the failure to build a viable political alternative to Stalinism that issued in its dubious current existence - and, in fact, the political collapse of innumerable Trotskyist splinters.

To conclude: it does not matter, fundamentally, if one conceives the dialectic on Lukácsian, Engelsian or Althusserian lines. In fact, it does not matter if one, god help us, continues to use Stalin’s Dialectical and historical materialism as a textbook. The basis for Marxism is the revolutionary potential of the working class, organised independently to remake society in its image. Placing this before the ‘hard theory’ gives it the feel of a declaration of faith, it is true; yet the theory confirms this axiom, and in any case if our ‘faith’ is misplaced on this point, the rest of the theory is worse than useless.

Constructing a politics that can change the world means full and ruthless criticism of Stalinism; which in turn means not dismissing it in toto, but picking through the wreckage for the positive lessons, as well as the negative - without ever forgetting, of course, that it is at the end of the day the wreckage of the most heroic breakthrough the working class has yet made.


  1. P Smith, ‘A Marxist culture free from the taint of Stalinism’ Weekly Worker February 24; ‘Stalinist barriers to study and thought’, March 3.
  2. L Althusser, E Balibar Reading ‘Capital’ London 1997, p180.
  3. L Althusser For Marx London 2005, pp87-129.
  4. ‘For realism, for humanity’ Weekly Worker November 8 2007.