Stalinism and Bolshevism: overcoming the myths

Submitted by Matthew on 1 December, 2011 - 10:51

By Martyn Hudson

Paul Hampton (Solidarity 225) seems to have me down as some kind of Cold Warrior or Nouveaux Philosophe attempting to find in Marxism some kind of logic which inexorably leads to the Stalinist death camps.

One does not have to abandon Marxism, in some kind of contemporary God that Failed attempt to conflate Marxism with dictatorship, in an effort to understand what actually happened and what the Bolsheviks could have done about the situation they were faced with. It just happens that I think the wrong choices were made in terrible circumstances and that the decisive break between Stalinism and Bolshevism is less easy to mark when one looks in detail at the record of the Bolsheviks up to 1924.

I am not an advocate of a “continuity thesis” as I have already stated — there were breaks and continuities — but certainly the road to despotism was made all the easier by the suspension of basic political liberties, the rise of the secret security services, and the eclipse of basic standards of working class democracy.

Paul makes an added existential point — the difficulty of remaining a revolutionary socialist if one accepts that Stalinism is born of Leninism. This simply doesn’t add up. Many of those who fought on the “wrong” side at Kronstadt continued to be defenders of the October Revolution — many of them in exile worked for the very regime that had exiled them.

Many Mensheviks and anarchists continued as revolutionaries whilst doubting the particular revolutionary version of the Bolsheviks. One has to sympathise with the hunted and worn Martov, for instance, when we all start moaning about “circumstances” destroying the revolution. Many Mensheviks and Menshevik-Internationalists had made themselves hoarse in making the same point before, during and after the Bolshevik accession to power — that dictatorship would be inextricably linked to the revolution if the backward conditions could not be overcome. The Left Opposition and Stalin posed differing and often complementary routes out of the conundrum that the October adventure had led them to.

Of course Stalin developed the project of violence and intimidation to the nth degree, but it was a refinement and not something entirely new — except in scale. One has to recall the mass defections from the Left Opposition after 1928, and not for reasons of personal survival.

The Trotskyists, attempting to understand their revolution through the lens of the French, looked towards Bukharin and the Right opposition as the Thermidorians. The almost wholesale adoption of the Left Opposition’s economic programme by Stalin (albeit in peculiarly brutal manner) caused this defection — most tragically of course in the case of the great Christian Rakovsky but also in the case of Karl Radek, Preobrazhensky (the economic genius behind the Left Opposition programme), and perhaps most tellingly Antonov-Ovseenko — Trotsky’s erstwhile right hand man, who later became the butcher of the Barcelona uprising in charge of eliminating the POUM and the anarchists.

I don’t want to take any great lesson from this — except for the fact that the Left Opposition did not understand what was happening to them, didn’t understand Stalinism effectively as an amalgam of various programmes under the weight of a bureaucracy, and obfuscated Trotsky and the opposition’s own role in sealing their own fate before the advent of the bureaucracy.

Paul points to Lenin and Trotsky’s hope that the party cadres would be the catalyst to get the revolution back on track, angling at the same time for the extension of the revolution’s gains to the west. Of course the objective circumstance of the failure of the German revolution was crucial — but its demise was again the product of putschist and undemocratic, unthinking strands within the KPD, the Comintern and the remnants of the German Social Democracy. All as Luxemburg had predicted.

Certainly within the party in the Soviet Union it was the party cadres aided by the Lenin levy that were the first to defect to the bureaucracy — as Zinoviev would point out later. By intimidation and stealth, the Stalinists took the party cells one by one.

What made this possible was the actions of Trotsky specifically and in general the distaste of the Old Bolsheviks for Trotsky and his clique — considered as ex-Menshevik upstarts and as Thermidorians — not least by those around the Workers’ Opposition (who incidentally were among the first to be converted to the cause of Stalinism simply because they hated the dictatorial arrogance of Trotsky) and those left communists like Bukharin who would soon start to coalesce, in partnership with Stalin, as the pro-peasant wing of the party.

Bukharin’s astounding revelation to Fyodor Dan on uncovering the nature of the monstrous Stalin is telling and displays more clarity than Trotsky ever achieved in his own analysis of Stalin. Faced with the reality of the bureaucratic clique, the Left Opposition had little chance to combat it when they found it hard to understand what it actually was.

I think Paul is correct when he says that he’s “not convinced that forces outside the party were a real alternative”. Me neither really. I think the struggle against dictatorship could have been won within the party itself if the party hadn’t betrayed itself by abandoning working class democracy and political liberty before 1924. This would perhaps have galvanized the international movement rather than contaminated it.

There is a quantitative and qualitative difference between the early stages of Bolshevik rule and Stalinism, but we should not in 2011 still be firing our own metaphorical cannons into the garrison of Kronstadt. The Bolsheviks were wrong, understandably wrong, but wrong. Trotsky in his debates on this period with Serge should have admitted that and moved on.

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