By Mark Osborn
I find Martyn Hudson (October and its discontents, Solidarity 222) unconvincing.
His main argument is that the rise of the Stalinists in the Soviet Union was “a summation and extension of all that went before … not a decisive break with Bolshevism.” And: “Stalinism was an extension of October not a counter-revolution.” And: “Our tradition should know better than simply defending the assaults on liberty that led to the final victory of the bureaucracy.”
In passing Martyn accuses Trotsky (without explanation) of arrogant abstention from the struggle (presumably against Stalinism).
It is true that the post-1917 workers’ state took some steps to curtail liberties. The Stalinists also curtailed liberties, going very much further. So, the argument goes, Bolshevism begins, and Stalinism follows as a more brutal extension of the same thing. Obvious, isn’t it?
“Obvious” only if the context, scale, reasons for, intentions and perspectives of the participants and the results are ignored.
“Obvious” only if the decisive break with the past made by the Stalinists (the destruction of Party democracy, free speech, trade unions and workers’ control; forced collectivisation and slave labour; the purges and murder of an entire revolutionary generation; the forced Ukrainian famine; sabotage in Spain; pacts with the French and then the Nazis, subjugation of Eastern Europe etc.) is ignored.
And “obvious” only if the struggle of Communists — including Lenin as well as Trotsky — against the rise of Stalinism is side-lined or faded out.
In other words Martyn’s argument only hangs together if politics is ignored.
The steps of self-defence taken by the workers’ state in, say, 1919, to defend workers’ power against the Whites and the invading imperialist armies, amid famine and utter devastation, were wrong? I think the Bolsheviks made mistakes (e.g. allowing the Cheka to operate outside the law). But the intention of their efforts was to defend workers’ power and the international workers’ revolution and the goal of human freedom. It was not their wish to restrict freedom, but something they felt they had to do to save the revolution. They were absolutely right to fight to maintain a bridgehead of revolutionary victory in a world seething with potentially revolutionary crises.
The intention of the Stalinists and the aim of their repression, however, was the opposite: to maintain and extend the power and privilege of the Russian elite in opposition to workers’ power and the international revolution.
Martyn speculates that maybe it would have been better that the revolution be drowned in blood — another glorious failure, like the Commune. And, in the abstract, I might even agree with him. But that’s not how we approach history. Imagine that in five years time there is a clerical fascist regime installed in Libya. Maybe we would look back and say the rebels were wrong to fight? That the rebellion had simply made things worse? Of course not — we’re participants in the here and now, just as the Bolsheviks were.
Instead of locating the pressure that created Stalinism in the backwardness of Russia and the failure of the European workers’ revolutions, Martyn sees it (at least in part) in Bolshevik ideas and practice. In doing so he also appears to ignore or downplay the democratic objectives and acts of the Bolsheviks and the fight against the emerging bureaucracy
He locates the choices people made as abstract “germs” inside people, rather than as concrete choices made by real people under great pressure.