A Tory councillor in Redbridge recently described calls to limit tweeting in Town Hall meetings as “Stalinist”. It’s amazing what you can learn from the Ilford Recorder, I guess.
When words are commonly used with that degree of hyperbole, you know that the concept has become virtually meaningless in the public mind.
Yet according to the home page of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty website, the AWL’s raison d’etre is to create a socialist alternative to “both capitalism and Stalinism”.
At first reading, terminology like that seems wilfully anachronistic, and perhaps a throwback to the days when people used to think it was a bit of a laugh to shout “get back to Russia” at lefty paper sellers.
You’re against capitalism? No surprises there; all socialists are against capitalism. But Stalinism? Really? Whatever their relative weights once were (and in my boyhood and early adulthood, capitalism and Stalinism were regarded as competing social systems) the latter is distinguished from the former by scarcely existing any longer.
Stalinism in the most common sense — the purges, the show trials, the gulags, those kitsch posters depicting musclebound Stakhanovites gloriously over-fulfilling the tractor production quota — disappeared over half a century ago.
Stalinism in the more precise definition — of a class society based on collective ownership of the means of production, legitimated by nominal adherence to Marxism — describes a phenomenon widespread until a couple of decades ago.
But today there are just five countries left to which the designation could possibly apply. Only China has any importance on the world stage, and no serious commentator regards it as anything other than a vast seething capitalist sweatshop.
Vietnam is heading in the same direction, and Cuba is seemingly on the verge of following suit. North Korea would be regarded as a bit of joke were it not for the nukes. Oh, and there’s one other place, isn’t there? But most people would be hard pushed even to find the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the map.
Solidarity with workers in those countries is essential, but perhaps not the most pressing internationalist task at this point.
As I am not a member of the AWL, it would be impertinent of me to tell the organisation what its slogans do mean or should mean.
But there is a fourth sense of the word Stalinism, over and above municipal bans on social media, the state terror that gripped Russia in the 1930s and satellite countries forced to model themselves on the USSR after the war.
Stalinism can also be defined as the ideology of those layers of the labour movement formed or influenced by Communist parties in non-communist countries. In Britain, that means primarily the CPGB tradition, today instantiated by the CPB.
Few contemporary leftist groupings or individuals are Stalinists of the crudest type. There are still a handful of sects for whom Uncle Joe was one of history’s good guys, but their combined forces can be counted in the dozens.
What chiefly remains is a mindset that has effectively become the default setting for many activists and functionaries who see themselves as socialists, and in some instances even Trotskyists.
The manner in which some minor league trade union bureaucrat guru can be called “Stalinist” is very different to the sense in which Lavretiy Pavlovich Beria was a Stalinist.
Frequently these people profess to have learned from historical experience. Formally speaking, many will tell you that they regard the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state, or perhaps even as state capitalist.
But their soft Stalinism instead manifests itself in a tendency to stifle democracy, and a propensity to settle controversy by decree from the top.
It is characterised by deafness to rational argument, and invocation of party or union discipline to close down debate whenever anybody disagrees with the leadership line.
It also leads them to a misunderstanding of world politics, marred by deference towards, or at best muted criticism of, various thuggish regimes. Unable to break from a “them and us” mentality when considering international affairs, mere verbal criticism of Assad or Ahmadinejad is dismissed as “objectively” lining up with imperialism.
So it is that members of Socialist Action and the Socialist Workers’ Party — the latter of which once liked to think of itself as the only authentically anti-Stalinist current on the far left — end up contributing regularly to the Morning Star, producing copy that is indistinguishable from lifelong CPBers.
After 1989, the Trots were supposed to bring the Tankies round to their way of thinking; but so far the process looks to have been largely the other way round.
It is testimony to the failure of Trotskyist currents that Stalinism remains hegemonic within the left of the labour movement, eerily exerting its monstrous gravitational pull from beyond the grave.
So as far as I’m concerned, the AWL formulation is pretty much on the money.