Stalinism is a live political current today, and a reactionary one. The central place in the Labour Leader’s Office of Stalinists such as Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, and the support for the Morning Star by a number of national trade unions and many Labour MPs, are dangers.
Better if we had a better word than “Stalinism”, which suggests only a school of thought, and probably one defunct. Even though Milne and Murray were members of the most diehard Stalinist faction of the old Communist Party in the years before its break-up (“Straight Left”), and give no evidence of a shift in fundamental views since then, they don’t blazon themselves as Stalinist: few have, since 1956.
Better if the large historical phenomenon were not labelled with the name of an individual, especially since, as we’ll see, the role of Stalin himself in it was anomalous.
“Stalinism” is, however, the best-available single word for:
• a form of society modelled on the stabilised version of the outcome of Stalin’s counter-revolution in the once worker-ruled USSR, and exemplified today only by North Korea and Cuba
• the ideology which sees that form of society as the good and available alternative to capitalism (usually calling it “socialism”)
• the political formations shaped around that ideology.
There have been many variants of the Stalinist form of society. From the 1960s to the late 1980s it covered one-third of the world. Essential common features are:
• a comprehensively state-controlled economy, with state ownership of major industry, oriented to competitive extensive industrial accumulation in the country (or group of countries). The surplus-product of the workers’ labour is taken by a bureaucratic state hierarchy.
• total or quasi-total control by that bureaucratic hierarchy over civil society, in particular the suppression of any independent labour movement and (usually) the installation in its place of a state-controlled pseudo-movement. Total control by that bureaucracy over politics, too; or, to put it another way, suppression of politics by the state.
In Poland there were official “opposition parties” in “parliament” from the 1940s through to 1988. Only those “opposition parties” were as much controlled by the state as the ruling “party”.
In the later years in Eastern Europe, or in Cuba now, some intellectuals are offered small spaces for mild criticism: the workers’ movement as such, however, is everywhere suppressed under Stalinism.
We may argue about the theoretical tag for Stalinist society — a “deformed” state capitalism (my preference), “bureaucratic collectivism” (as other writers for Solidarity prefer), or another term.
Flat fact, though, is that this social form has been, historically, a sidepath within the epoch of capitalism. Sometimes (not always) producing rapid extensive industrial growth, for a while; sometimes (not always) with welfare (health, education, etc.) achievements; but always politically regressive, and (as its collapse in most countries shows) of more limited adaptability and expandability than bourgeois capitalism.
As an old Hungarian joke had it: “communism is the most painful route from capitalism to capitalism”.
The original model of this form of society was created by the counter-revolution in the USSR. That explains why the corresponding ideology was constructed with phrases from Marx and Lenin, and claims to be Marxist and socialist.
Even back in the 1930s, Trotsky explained that the “difference” between Marxism and Stalinism was not a political and ideological difference such as the one between revolutionary Marxists and the reformist “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein in the early 20th century.
“Stalin revises Marx and Lenin not with the pen of theoreticians but with the boots of the GPU [political police]”. Stalinism was separated from Marxism by “a whole river of blood…”; there was “not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism”.
Over the decades Stalinist ideologues evolved smoother variants than the crude Stalin-worship of the 1930-53. Every solid and even relatively durable ruling group (and especially one in a country concerned to become a world power and have allies across the world) generates some relatively expansive ideology to sustain its own cohesion and drive; to try to pacify those whom it rules; and to recruit and train new cadres.
But Stalinist ideology is no more a variant of Marxism in any real sense than the Vatican expresses a variant of the Sermon on the Mount, or standard neoliberals a variant of the ideology of the French Revolution.
The outcome of Stalin’s counter-revolution in the USSR was the original model of Stalinist society. It was also the exception. Every other Stalinist formation was created by a process with no zigzag via workers’ revolution, then counter-revolution. The Stalinist USSR was the odd one out.
High-tension “high Stalinism” had its peak in the 1930s, as a beleaguered one-off exception in one country. Stalinism as an apparently stabilised system, appearing to show expansiveness and flexibility, a viable or even probable replacement for bourgeois capitalism in a range of countries, had its heyday much later, in the 1970s.
Burma is an instructive case because there a more-or-less complete “Stalinist” structure (calling itself “socialist”, though not Marxist) was established by purely military methods, with a coup by nationalist army officers in 1962.
Over the next two years, they declared illegal all political opposition, took over the direct management of most educational and cultural organisations, and established a political party with ancillary “mass organisations”. They nationalised external and internal trade and all manufacturing outside petty enterprises. They made quantitative physical planning the basic mechanism of economic control.
Private capitalists were forced out. Enterprises were run by military officers, as military operations. Prices were set by the government, with no concern for whether individual enterprises showed a profit or a loss. Agriculture remained in private hands, but the state became the sole buyer of agricultural produce.
In Afghanistan in 1978-79, another military group tried a similar operation but failed. (Only it called itself Marxist, explaining only that in Afghanistan the army officer corps must play the role once attributed to the working class).
Sometimes and in some countries Stalinists in their rise had large and even enthusiastic mass support, earned by vigour against a decaying old order and the lustre of the USSR as a model of industrial growth. But that was not their universal or defining quality. And where and when they had that mass support, after taking power they erected iron controls over the workers and peasants.
In the Transitional Programme of 1938, Trotsky wrote of the “definite passing over of the [Stalinist parties outside the USSR] to the side of the bourgeois order”, and of the ascendant wing of the bureaucracy inside the USSR making “ever more determined attempts”, in the very short term, to convert the USSR to market capitalism in “fascist form”.
Just before his death two years later, he was rethinking. In words which would prove more apt in the following decades, he wrote: “The predominating type among the present ‘communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist… Their ideal is to attain in their own countries the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule”.
In countries where the Stalinist parties were small, or where they had to look to workers as their main base of support, and they faced relatively solid structures of bourgeois rule, they saw little prospect of coming to rule society. They adapted over decades to seeking niches of power in municipalities, trade union bureaucracies, etc. By the time most West European Communist Parties collapsed, after 1989, they had become rootedly reformist and lost almost all of the “ideal” they once had (“socialism” for them, totalitarian rule for the working class).
Defeats suffered by the labour movement over the last thirty years, and retreats and failings of the authentic left, have left remnant-Stalinists still capable of holding influence at the “top”.
In the late 1940s, Heterodox and Orthodox Trotskyists came to differ in their assessment of the Stalinist parties. But even James P Cannon, writing for the Orthodox in 1947, explained that the Stalinists were worse than social-democrats who had to see the maintenance of a labour movement with some independent life as necessary for themselves.
“The Stalinists became hated and feared as disrupters who would stop at nothing to serve party aims dictated by the momentary interests, or supposed interests, of the Kremlin bureaucracy… The American Stalinists wrought untold damage in the trade unions and mass organisations of the American workers by their policy of ruthless disruption and suppression of workers’ democracy…
“The Social Democrats lied and slandered, murdered and betrayed. The Stalinists do the same thing... on a far greater scale”.
Today in the British labour movement we deal with Stalinists who no longer have an active Stalinist movement, and who must be deeply demoralised (they no longer openly avow their “ideal”, found in North Korea or Cuba, or oddly, despite its economy now highly oriented to private profit in China).
Their influence in the labour movement is almost entirely from the top down — from small groups of Stalinist sympathisers in places like the Leader’s Office, or trade union officialdom. If they led an activist contingent of anticapitalist and class-conscious workers fogged by Stalinist prejudices, there might be room for discussion about “united fronts” in the course of which the fog might be dispelled for rank-and-file workers. They don’t.
The demoralisation makes today’s Stalinists more stable. In 1956, the denunciation of Stalin by his successor Nikita Khrushchev and the USSR’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution shocked British Communist Party members and made tens of thousands of them quit the party. Today, however, no horror that the Chinese state can inflict on the Uyghurs even makes the rump Stalinists blink.
The Stalinists may favour more nationalisations than the next reformist, and in that sense be “more left-wing”. They are also ten times more disruptive, more cynical in their use of reactionary ideologies like nationalism and antisemitism, more hostile to democracy.
There are tens of thousands of good activists with this or that idea deriving from Stalinism — illusions about Cuba, “Lexitism”, a warped and demonised picture of Israel. With those we seek cooperation on issues where we agree, debate where we disagree.
The hard-core Stalinists who run the Leader’s Office and the Morning Star are a different matter. As the Labour Party reorients after the 2019 defeat, they are not left-wing allies to be embraced so as to prevent a drift to the right. They are a danger to be fought