In The Climate of Treason Andrew Boyle recounts a conversation which took place amongst a group of young communists in the summer of 1933, in Cambridge. Some of them would become the famous traitors who would be exposed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after having served the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades.
Kim Philby had just come back from Germany, and he reported to his friends on what he had seen. There, at the beginning of the year, Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) could rely on four million votes; it had hundreds of thousands of militants; it had its own armed militia, and the strength to physically crush the fascist groups in most of the working-class districts of Berlin — and yet it had put up no resistance at all to the Hitlerites. It had allowed itself to be smashed, without a struggle.
In the years when the Nazi party was burgeoning, the KPD had refused to unite with the Socialists (who had eight million votes) to stop them; and now that the capitalists had brought the Nazis to power, the KPD slunk into its grave, without even token resistance.
It is one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War, Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe the decline and decay of the revolutionary working class movement — all of these things grew out of Hitler’s victory over the German working class movement. Unexpected, and enormous in its consequences, the collapse of the KPD was almost inexplicable.
In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin’s direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR’s interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann (who he would later have shot).
In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men who listened to Philby’s report tried to make sense of the German events. The Communist International was still denying that any catastrophe had occurred at all, denying that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans like: “After Hitler, our turn next.” Those who wanted to stay in the Comintern had to accept this way of looking at it. But was the International correct?
More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought. Maybe Stalin’s critics — Trotsky, for example — had been right. Maybe, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.
“No!”, said Philby, very heated. He denied that the KPD had made mistakes, or that Stalin had got things wrong: further, he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be wrong. As the infallible Pope cannot err where “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, so Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. He denied that there was any left other than Stalin. “W…why,” the future KGB general stuttered, “W…what-ever Stalin does — that is the left.”
It is a statement which sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left. What Stalin did, that is, what the Stalinists in power did — that was the left! The official accounts of what they did; the rationalisations and fantasies which disguised what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” arguments which were concocted to explain why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the traditional hopes and goals of the revolutionary left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning them into incoherent Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left” and “Marxism”. The left was restyled out of all recognition.
A movement rooted historically in the French Revolution, whose drive for democracy and equality it carried forward against the shallow, empty, and false bourgeois versions of these ideas, now championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow intolerant elite.
A movement dedicated to collective ownership and therefore needing democracy because collective ownership is, by definition, not possible unless ownership is exercised collectively, and thus — there is no alternative — democratically, nevertheless championed the idea of ownership by an undemocratic state, itself “owned” by a narrow elite, and confused it with collective ownership.
A movement committed in — Marxist — theory to gathering up and developing, and extending to the millions shut out from the advantages of bourgeois civilisation, the gains made by humanity in the developed bourgeois societies, nevertheless identified with the USSR, where the rule of law and the bourgeois “rights of the citizen” — freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of sexuality — had been stamped out by the totalitarian state, a society which had gone back in time to the Dark Ages before these achievements of West European bourgeois civilisation had come into existence.
The list could be extended over many pages.
“Whatever Stalin does is the left”. What the Stalinist states did defined the left.
That is the left which has, over many decades, provided an easy target for anti-socialists who argue that all socialism belongs in the same pit with Stalinism.
It is only against that left that what is valid in the currently fashionable anti-socialist wisdom can properly be directed. For the rest, the anti-socialists, philosophers and vulgar tabloid propagandists alike, merely continue the work of Stalinism against real socialism.
For decades the Stalinists — following the dictum so neatly expressed by Kim Philby — buried real socialism under a mountain of lies to establish the principle that what Stalin — or Mao, or Kim Il Sung — said really was socialism. Yes, say the anti-socialists today, Stalinism was real socialism, and the necessary and logical product of all the left that had gone before.
We say: no, it was not! The real socialist tradition is the tradition of those who fought Stalinism in the name of international socialism. That is our tradition — the tradition of Leon Trotsky.
The always very small Trotskyist movement, together with some others — some anarchists, for example — struggled for decades honourably and sometimes heroically against the consequences of Stalinism for the left and for the labour movement.
In the USSR in the 20s and early 30s, in Britain in the period of the General Strike, in China in the 20s, in Germany before Hitler annihilated the labour movement, in France in the middle 30s; in Spain during the Civil War, where the Stalinists conducted a bloody reign of terror against the left; in Europe after the Second World War — in all these arenas our comrades tried to turn the Stalinist-led labour movements in a different direction, towards a struggle for its own real interests and towards a rediscovery of and a commitment to unfalsified socialism.
We failed, not because we were wrong, but because we were too weak, because the rich and powerful Stalinist movement was able — in the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR — to annex the symbols of the left, and learned to express the interests of the bureaucracy in hollowed-out versions of the old left wing ideas. Depending essentially on lies backed up by physical and ideological terrorism, it hypnotised, confused, misled and used millions of people who wanted to fight for socialism.
We were defeated — and everywhere, for decades, the Stalinists linked to the USSR’s, or China’s, ruling class kept their grip on the would-be communist movement, leading it to bloody defeats, and, as in France and Italy in the decades after World War Two, to rotting, corrosive stagnation.
The real left — the left which continued and tried to develop the traditions of Marx and of the early Communist International — was marginalised and often eclipsed, but it never died. It lives, and it will revive and grow.
That real Marxist left has sustained itself by words and by deeds — often by great deeds which could in the circumstances have no more than symbolic importance, deeds such as the publication by French and German Trotskyists during World War 2, amidst the mad debauch of chauvinism and national hatred, of Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), a paper for German soldiers in occupied France, proclaiming working class solidarity across the national divide. The paper’s producers and distributors, French civilians and German soldiers alike, paid for this work with their lives. Perhaps as many as 30 German soldiers were shot.
The collapse of Stalinism objectly cleared the way for the revival of the left which can justly lay claim to deeds like this. In the collapse of Stalinism the real left gained a chance to live and grow again, and to define itself anew. The way was cleared for the re-elaboration of our working class socialist traditions and Marxist ideas.
Instead of that, we have seen large segments of the Trotskyist and Trotskyisant left adopt variants of the anti-working class and anti-working class ideas that Stalin and Stalinist made “left” and “socialist”. We are seeing a tremendous political collapse of the left in Britain right now — collapse down into the political idiocy of a nameless, classless, eyeless “anti-imperialism” that is now lining up much of the “Trotskysant” left with clerical-fascists and against the labour movement in Iraq.
The historical ghost of Stalinism has taken over such traditionally “anti-Stalinist” organisations as the SWP. Nothing but well-merited political disaster can come to them from letting this happen.
The real Marxist left will revive by way of a stubborn defence of our ideas and traditions — including the Russian Revolution of 1917 — not only against the Right, but also against the neo-Stalinism that is engulfing so much of the left. The serious left will grow and spread as the working class movement revives. And it will revive!
It will be worthwhile, in the present state of the left, to review the ideas which Stalin and Stalinism once made “Left”, and their present-day progeny in the kitsch-Trotskyist left. That I will do in the second part of this article.