Stalinism and historical responsibility

Stalinism and historical responsibility

With the collapse of the eastern bloc over the years from 1985-1993 Stalinism ceased to be a factor in world politics. Trotskyism, as an attempt to critique Stalinism, and build an alternative to it, no longer has a specific meaning. Those debates are no longer live, and need have no consequence for political organisation today.

Still, looking back at the period between 1923 and 1993, how we understand the question of leadership in the working class movement is an important historical question. This essay is an attempt to look at the balance sheet.

A question of definitions

Debates over definitions are not often productive, but there is a case for understanding what we mean by ‘Stalinism’, which is informed by the political traditions of those using the term. The characterisation ‘Stalinism’ was coined by Leon Trotsky, in the debate over the future of the Communist International in the 1930s. The sense that Trotsky gave to the category of Stalinism was the unique policy that Stalin proposed that the USSR should pursue a strategy of building ‘Socialism in one country’, and the policies that flowed out of that – principally the suborning of the soviet state by a bureaucracy whose interests diverged from those of the working class in whose name they ruled.

There are other meanings that people have attached to the word. Among the supporters of the official Communist parties after Stalin’s death, ‘Stalinism’ was used in a more restricted sense as a criticism of the ‘cult of personality’ around Stalin himself, and certain bureaucratic errors that followed from that. This reform Communist meaning of the term ‘Stalinism’ is really a restriction of the critical dimension of the category. The difference between the Trotskyist conception is that Stalinism is a political trend that outlives Stalin himself, whereas the reform Communist argument is that Stalinism dies with Stalin and Khruschev’s criticisms of the cult of personality in the ‘secret speech’.

Stalinism in the international labour movement

The question of the dynamic of the development of society within the USSR after 1923 is an important one, but not specifically what we are looking at here. Rather the question is the direction that Stalinism gave to the international labour movement. Here it is important to say that, however extensive the organisational influence of the Soviet leadership over the official communist parties, it was the political immaturity of the movement in the West that predisposed them to invest utopian hopes in the Soviet regime. Utopianism was a recurrent feature in the socialist and labour movements from the 1840s onwards, and led different working class activists to dream about liberation in America, Russia, and even China – generally because of their frustrated progress. The critique of Stalinism, then, is really a critique of a conservative current within the international labour movement, rather than a protest against Kremlin manipulation.

How to judge

Millions of people were active in the official communist parties – those parties that were endorsed by Moscow. Those left and working class activists individually and together fought a great many progressive and heroic struggles. But as a political current the official communist parties were a brake upon the movement, adopting policies that were increasingly compromised, opportunistic, and, by 1936 effectively reformist. Though the policies that the official communist parties pursued were closer and closer to those of national reformism, the moral claim on the Bolshevik Revolution, and the tighter sense of purpose and discipline that their often clandestine organisation lent them did give those parties a far greater degree of influence amongst the most active working class militants.

The Trotskyist critique of Stalinism was correct. The initial policy stance that Stalin took when he set out the policy of Socialism in one Country did indeed lead to successive opportunistic policies and strategies – policies that, most destructively, reinforced the political immaturity of the western communist parties, and reinforced their weaker choices.

The tragedy of Trotskyism, however, was that it was never in a position to make more than an intellectual challenge to the communist parties, because it never secured sufficient weight in the working class to give its intellectual points force. The relative fragility, sectarianism and formalism that dogged Trotskyist groups were really symptoms of its much narrower social base.

It could be argued, of course, that the Trotskyists failure to secure a base among working class militants was the disproof of its central claim. That is not to be dismissed. But on balance it does not really shed much light on the problem. After all the communist policies failed in the medium term. The judgment of history is that the attempt to build a left alternative to the communist parties failed, it proved not to be possible to pull any number of people away.

My partner’s grandfather Alfred Comrie was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. By the late 1930s he left, angered by the suppression of dissent, his daughters remembered. Other in-laws who stayed with the party thought that he had merely ‘dropped out’, and cold-shouldered him. Amongst his books were articles by Trotsky (in Plebs) and he had a little bust of Trotsky that he kept next to one of Lenin. But if Alf was critical of the leadership of the CPGB, or of the CPSU, he never made contact with any Trotskyist group (there was one in Balham). It would have been very difficult. Alf had already self-consciously ostracised himself from mainstream society by his adoption of the communist cause, displaying a red flag on Empire day, as a challenge to the Union flags his neighbours flew, and, to their great embarrassment, sending his daughters to school in smocks decorated with Hammers and Sickles. Withdrawing from the CPGB he isolated himself further, and simply did not have the means to help build another new party. Other militants got on with the leadership, either by accepting the official line, or by trying to work around it, as, for example, the East End militant Joe Jacobs did.

What were the shortcomings of the official communist parties?

After the defeat of Trotsky’s faction within the CPSU in 1923 the Communist International counselled a number of opportunistic alliances that proved to be big mistakes. Responsibility for the adoption of those policies ultimately lies with the militants in the respective communist parties who accepted the bad advice they got. Admittedly, the Communist International was capable of terroristic campaigns against dissidents, but still the failing was among those parties that adopted the bad line. The motivation of the leadership of the CPSU was opportunistic. They wanted to find international allies to stave off the isolation of the USSR, and were indifferent to the shortcomings of those allies. But the local communist leaders opportunism was also a factor, so that the Communist International’s guidance was not challenged much.

The official line in China in 1926 was particularly destructive, leading the communists into an alliance with the (Moscow-trained) nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek, only to find themselves the targets of a slaughter when they became a challenge to his power. In Britain, the slogan of the General Strike, ‘all power to the Trades Union Congress’ was a pitiful echo of the Bolsheviks slogan ‘all power to the soviets’ that handed authority over the action to the trade union leaders that the CPSU hoped to make alliance with. When the TUC called off the strike after six days, the communists’ had given up their leadership, and were in no position to challenge the sell-out. At times, the official communist line was not collaborative, but sectarian, as it was in Germany in 1932 when the party refused alliance with the ‘social fascists’ of the SPD leaving the left disastrously divided as the NSDAP rose to power. Subsequently left-wing rivals were often tarred as ‘fascists’, including the Yugoslav followers of Tito, and the ‘Trotsky-fascists’, a demonization that helped the Stalinists to justify measures that ranged from witch-hunting rivals out of unions and employment, and in some cases, assassination.

Between 1936 and 1939 the Communist International tried to ally itself to Germany’s rivals, Britain and France, which led it to rein in its supporters in the colonies of those two powers, and counsel moderation in their demands. These policies cost the communists influence, as the Trotskyists in Vietnam took advantage of the opening on the left to win city elections in Hanoi. In France, communist leaders held back the general strike that threatened Blum’s government, allowing the right to rule the streets.

Rank and file communists fought against the rising menace of fascism all over Europe, but often found that they were undermined by their leaders’ attempts to seek legitimacy. Hackney communist Joe Jacobs organised rank and file opposition to Oswald Mosely in the East End, but had to do it through the Ex-Servicemen’s Association because it was opposed by the leadership in King Street. When Mosely planned to march through the East End, the CPGB leaders ordered local communists not to challenge the British Union of Fascists directly, but to go instead to a march for the Republic in Spain in Hyde Park. When the East End fought stopped Mosely the local communist councillor retrospectively claimed the victory for the CPGB.

When workers and peasants in Spain rallied to support the Republican government against the Fascist revolt led by General Franco, the communists lent support to the Republicans, but opposed a movement towards a social revolution. Joe Jacobs and two friends – again in defiance of the leadership of the CPGB – organised the first foreign legions in Spain, a movement which proved so popular that the communist leaders later sanctioned it as the ‘international brigades’. The International Brigades drew many socialists and trade unionists into the struggle, though the communists retained much of the organisational control of the movement, since the socialists, many of whom were in government, continued to support the policy of staying out of the conflict.

The heroism of the international volunteers was squandered by the retrograde policies pursued by the leadership of the CPSU. Defending the limiting policy of a bourgeois republic, the communists lent their terroristic measures to the suppression of the revolutionaries of the P.O.U.M. – culminating in the secret arrest, torture and assassination of their leader Andreu Nin. Restricting the struggle to the defence of the status quo failed to win the masses to fight Franco’s forces, and the communists wasted much energy and many people in their murderous sectarianism.

The leadership of the CPSU drew a yet more disastrous conclusion from the defeat of the Spanish Republic, and the unwillingness of the imperial powers to support the isolation of Nazi Germany. They revived the trade alliance with Germany they had immediately after the First World War, but now with the Nazi minister Ribbentrop. Taking German technology in exchange for oil and other raw materials, the CPSU leaders also entered into military collaboration that culminated in the agreement for a joint invasion of Poland, from West and East, to divide the country. The Hitler-Stalin pact lasted from 1939 to 1941, and destabilised and demoralised the entire communist movement.

When Germany invaded western Europe, communist party members were dissuaded from organising resistance movements in France, and in Holland, communist leaders went so far as to call on the German occupying authorities to offer their help. The Soviet Union even went so far as to hand over German communist exiles to the Nazis.

Communists in the allied nations did organise opposition to the war effort, sometimes at great risk. The People’s Parliament organised by the CPGB was ambiguous in its explicit message, but nonetheless did draw in more than a thousand militants who were opposed to joining the war on the side of British Imperialism, as they were anti-Fascist. Communist militant Reg Birch organised a successful strike and shop stewards movement within the war industries in Park Royal, risking prosecution.

The Hitler-Stalin pact was, of course, a pathetic attempt to curry favour with a predator. Despite successive warnings the Soviet Army was wholly unprepared for the invasion that Hitler ordered under the code name Barbarossa. Within a year nearly a third of the USSR was occupied, and much of its administrative government and industry had to be relocated eastwards. The initial success of the invasion was at least in part due to the hostility of the Ukrainian and much of the West Russian peasantry to the government in Moscow, which had bled them dry.

The Soviet Government, in changing sides to ally now with the Allied imperialist powers against the Axis, at last gave the rank-and-file communists in occupied Europe the license to take up arms against the occupiers. Communists played a strong role in the resistance throughout Europe, making up for the confusion of 1939-41. Communist-inspired resistances in Italy and Greece organised tens of thousands in opposition to Fascism, though often these were largely isolated from the leadership in Moscow.

In the Allied countries, and their empires, however, the story was different. The Soviet Union joining the war allowed communist leaders to take on the role of cheerleaders for the war effort, organising an extraordinary speed-up in industry, through the Joint Production Committees that gave communists a say in the exploitation of the workforce, in Britain and America. The considerable work that communists had put into organising black Americans was derailed by the command that these should now put themselves at the behest of recruitment for war industries and the army, and silence oppositional protests. The black novelist Ralph Ellison broke with the American communists writing ‘if they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it,’ in August 1945.

In the British Empire communists opposed the widespread revolt that colonised peoples had launched to take advantage of the war. Communists in India participated in Government as the British waged war against Congress, imprisoning its leaders.

Communist leaders organised strike breaking to defeat the militant rank and file movements in Detroit and Michigan, Durham, Huddersfield and Glasgow. By the end of the war, these workers movements were in open revolt against the no-strike agreements and joint production committees.

Trotskyists did influence the industrial disputes in Britain and America, and they were active in the Empire, building a successful movement in Ceylon, in opposition to the super-exploitation of the colony.

The disintegration of the German Empire in 1944-5 was brought about by its own destructive dynamic, which provoked intense popular resistance. The much delayed Allied invasion was largely undertaken to prevent the resistance movements from seizing power. In West and East, the invading forces disarmed and in many cases fought against the resistance movements. The Soviet forces held back to let the SS defeat the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 before they took command. By agreement with Moscow, the British imposed a military force of occupation to defeat the Greek resistance. Italian communists who had liberated territories from Italy’s fascist rulers were astonished to be told that the official Moscow policy enforced by Togliatti was to recognise the government of Badoglio and the monarchy. In France, too, communists were confused by the instruction to hand over power to the Allied forces.

In Malaya the Anti-Japanese Army led by Chin Peng was stood down, but against orders from Moscow maintained its military capacity, which it later took up against the British Empire.

Post War

To justify their collaboration with British and French imperialism, and with the United States against the Axis Powers, the communists developed awkward theories about the supposed differences between the patriotic bourgeoisie (good) and monopoly capitalism (bad). Communists’ expectations of rewards for their loyal defence of the ‘freedom loving nations’ were quickly disabused, as the trans-Atlantic elite settled on a policy of anti-communism to restore order to their industries and international relations. Following the confrontations in Greece and Korea, and the strike wave in America’s factories, Eisenhower and Churchill launched a red scare that justified continuing interference in industry as it did in sovereign governments.

Western communists suffered grinding persecution at the hands of the ‘Freedom Loving’ governments. So too did many communists in the east suffer severe persecution at the hands of the governments installed by the invading soviet forces.

With the encouragement of the Moscow centre, the national leaderships of the official communists developed broadly reformist policies, under the heading of the National Roads to Socialism. The British Road to Socialism, for example, argued that nationalisation of industry would lead to socialism, even though this policy was being very successfully adopted under capitalism. Though there were debates, and successive iterations of the ‘British Road to Socialism’, its essential features of statist and national socialism were developed, as indeed they were developed in parallel in all the major western nations.

Social chauvinism had become a central part of the western communist parties’ platform in the wartime mobilisation after 1941. Patriotic appeals to workers to national unity were common in communist propaganda in the post war period. Communists pursued national strategies of industrial development, supported limits on imports, and upon immigration, as well as capital controls. To curry favour with the right, the parties promised that they would observe constitutional politics (an offer that was not reciprocated), and had no need of clandestine or revolutionary methods in democracies. The political differences between the communists and the socialists were diminishing all the time.

The social chauvinism in the communist parties ‘national road to socialism’ programmes was apparent in the equivocation over the independence of oppressed nations in the developing world. The Algerian FLN, and the Viet Cong both complained that the support they got was often withheld for the purposes of diplomatic advantage. In Algeria the French communist party had a strong base among the white settlers and communists were active in attacks on the Algerian nationalist movement.

Communist strategy turned to securing influence through the unions, and, where possible, through representation in national parliaments. Portugal, Spain and Greece were military dictatorships and communist organisations with long experience of clandestine organisation successfully organised many working class militants. Communist parties were successful in France and Italy, too, where the ruling classes were weak. In Northern Europe they were less so.

Where communists did secure influence was in the trade union movement. Its incorporation into the war effort between 1941 and 1945 laid the basis for collaboration with employers in the stabilisation of workplace relations. Communists’ control over the middle ranking trade union positions put them in positions of authority in relation to both employers and the workforce. Challenging employers over wages and conditions, but at the same time keeping industrial disputes from spinning out of control. Sometimes reluctantly, but sometimes gratefully, employers collaborated with union officials who were either socialists, or communists.

The pursuit of positions within the trade union leadership drew on the communists’ organisational strengths, but also led to bureaucratic machine politics, bypassing the members and manipulating the electoral process. In Britain the communists’ attempt to rig the electricians’ union ballot led to a right wing former communist Frank Chapple isolating the left in the union. The bureaucratic manipulation of elections, union meetings and trades councils was the communist party’s forte though it took on the caste of a conspiracy against the members, and a sectarian stranglehold on the unions’ offices to keep rival political factions out.

The edifice breaks

In 1956 the Hungarian workers rebelled against the communist government, organising workers’ councils. A soviet invasion restored a yet more dictatorial communist regime, against the wishes of the Hungarian people. In West Europe, the communists suffered marked demoralisation leading to resignations, and some important groups of intellectuals and some workers left to join rival radical organisations, both Trotskyist, and of the ‘New Left’.

In France in 1968 a student rebellion that spilled over into the factories profoundly wrong-footed the communist party, creating an opening for Trotskyist, Maoist and New Left challengers to the official communists’ long-established strangle-hold on the militant left. A related far-left challenge to the Italian Communist Party emerged out of the summer of 1968, too.

Trotsky argued that the reorientation of the Communist International around the strategy of building socialism in one country would eventually lead to its break up along national lines. With the post-war strategy of the adoption of ‘national roads to socialism’, the pursuit of communism with national features, adapting to supposedly specific local conditions, the tendency for the divergence of the official communist parties into separate blocs came closer.

Eurocommunism, a reform movement within the west European communist parties, specifically the Spanish and Italian parties, was initially encouraged by Moscow (see Joan Urban, Moscow and the Italian Communist Party, 1986,p 274). Over time, though, the local condition that the communists wished to adapt to, was the unpopularity of the parties’ special relationship with Moscow. The eurocommunist trend allowed the communists to see themselves as more liberal and open, embracing some of the currents that were associated with the New Left, the emerging feminist movement, and more culturally oriented anti-capitalism. Though the Eurocommunists imagined themselves to be more open in their methods, those who challenged them discovered that they were just as capable of the bureaucratic domination and witch-hunting of radicals in the students unions and peace movements as the more traditionally-minded orthodox communists.

In the 1970s British communists organised to limit the rank-and-file movements that were challenging union officials with wildcat strikes. Trotskyists taking part in the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions found themselves subject to physical assaults by communist stewards insisting on their monopoly. All the same, the events of 68 – both in France and Czechoslovakia – and the rank and file militancy of the 1970s broke the west European communist parties’ hold on working class militancy, and increasingly they were forced to compete with rivals amongst the Trotskyists, Maoists and New Left.

Italy, where the weakness of the socialist party left the mass communists the party of the working class, was the great hope of the communist movement, in particular the eurocommunists, the place where they might earn power through the ballot box, shedding the parties’ association with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

To calm the fears of the right and the petit bourgeoisie, communist party leader Enrico Berlinguer made ever more extravagant compromises. The party promised capitalists that it would enact far greater austerity measures than the ruling Christian Democrats would dare; it promised the Catholic Church that it would stand for the morality of the family and the sanctity of marriage; and it even supported a minority Christian Democrat government in power, without getting a single cabinet seat or recognition of its sacrifice. But despite all of these measures the Christian Democrats made no concessions to the communists, and the forces of law and order plotted paramilitary warfare against the left, adopting a strategy of destabilisation, planting bombs and assassinating working class leaders in the time that became known, because of the bullets, as the ‘years of lead’.

In Ireland the communist influence in the Republican movement led to a disastrous conflict with those who wished to fight British imperialism. The Stalinist ‘officials’ assassinated many leading Republicans, including Charles Hughes, Seamus Costello and Hugh Ferguson, in collaboration with the security forces. ‘We should have learned that it was only the state forces which could defeat Provisionalism’, Sean Garland said in 1978, comparing the Italian Communist Party’s support for security forces against the Red Army Faction (Brian Hanley and Scott Millar The Lost Revolution: The Official IRA and the Workers Party, Penguin, Dublin, p 387 p, 417-8).

In 1981 the French communist party seeking to shore up its support amongst blue collar workers fought the election on an explicitly racist and anti-immigrant campaign, with several communist town halls refusing to house North African immigrants:

a group of some 50 Communist activists in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur- Seine, led by the local Communist mayor, carried out a military-style raid on a newly completed hostel intended for immigrant workers from Mali. Using a bulldozer, they broke down the door, cut off gar, electricity, and water supplies. They then blocked windows and staircases with earth and rubble before retreating. (Christian Science Monitor 16 March 1981


Millions of working class militants were organised under the communist parties, and these, alongside the Atlanticist socialist parties, were substantially the parties of the working classes between 1923 and 1989. Working class organisations in the greater part of the twentieth century were dominated by the communist parties. Their shortcomings were pointed, and represented a failure among working class militants to challenge the monopoly of the capitalist class for power. Only where the German and Japanese empires collapsed between 1942 and 1945, leaving no capitalist class alternative, did communists reluctantly take power. In Italy, where the capitalist elite were hopelessly compromised by their support for Mussolini, the communists actively sought out and organised a handful of reactionaries into bourgeois ‘Christian Democrat’ party so that they would not have to take power. And this party subsequently blocked the PCI from government throughout many years of corruption and paramilitary attacks.

Marxist theory died in the official communist parties. The Marxist theory of the limits of capital accumulation were abandoned in favour of impressionistic and underconsumptionist theories of market failure, under the influence of Eugen Varga. Marxist categories were bent to opportunistic ends.  The formalistic theory that societies would pass through ‘stages’ of development, feudal, bourgeois and socialist, served the compromises that local communists made with bourgeois nationalist movements. Theories of ‘fractions of capital’ and ‘state monopoly capitalism’ fancifully broke up the unity of the capitalist class, to justify opportunistic alliances with pro-capitalist political leaders.

Trotskyist militants built up small groups as rival left-wing parties to the communists, gaining confidence with the fragmentation of the official communist parties, but these never gained the critical mass to become a real alternative. Some Trotskyist leaders rose above the communists’ stranglehold over the militants to impose themselves on events – such as CLR James, Tariq Ali, Cornelius Castoriadis, Paul Foot – as did some new left leaders, like Tom Haydon, Rudi Dutschke, and Stokely Carmichael. For the most part, however, those breaking to the left from the communist party only offered a more militant Stalinism, like the Maoist groups in the United States, France, and Italy, cadres who often took an ultra-left detour before moving sharply to the right, or descended into terroristic campaigns with the Red Army Factions in Germany and Italy, Angry Brigade in London, Weather Underground in America and Revolutionary Organization 17 November in Greece. Critical of the practical compromises of the communists, these Maoist groups tended to reproduce the same social chauvinist outlook, characterising Europe as a US colony, rather than an imperialist power in its own right, and sharing the same willingness to substitute their own actions for the working class as the communists did with the union bureaucracy and local government power.

The end

When the communists’ monopoly over working class militancy broke down from 1968 to 1977, the challenge to the ruling order alarmed the elite. Preparations for paramilitary action were far-advanced, but in the end not taken. From the 1980s onwards the American and British ruling class determined to challenge the left and the working class. The forthright attack on the post-war compromise, upon trade union influence in the ‘tripartite system’, which was a severe blow to communist influence, too.

The fragmentation of the communist parties, between the more college-based Eurocommunists and the trade union-based traditionalists (derided as ‘Tankies’) was symptomatic of their decline. Despite a boost in membership in the 1970s (communists, too, recruited in the militant upsurge), the 1980s saw all the major communist parties haemorrhage members.

Rather than accept that the national roads to socialism had failed west European communists – gracelessly – blamed their association with the Soviet Union for their unpopularity. Communist parties sought to rebrand themselves as Democratic Left, or Marxism Today and, rather late in the day, play up criticisms of the eastern bloc.

Eurocommunists seeking to disassociate themselves from the parties’ shrinking industrial bases opportunistically emphasized their associations with middle class peace and environmental movements, and cultural politics. They began to talk as well about feminism and anti-racism – not with much sincerity, but because these were standpoints from which they could attack their former allies in organised labour. The trajectory, however, was not to reform the communist parties but to dissolve them. Nina Temple, whom Martin Jacques supported as the successful eurocommunist candidate for the general Secretaryship of the CPGB was surprised to discover that his plan was to wind up the party.

The disintegration of the communist parties under the pressure of a more militant capitalist offensive in the 1980s turned out to be only the beginning of a broader collapse of the left, labour movement, and anti-imperialist movement, worldwide. Hopes that the Socialist Parties would prosper where the communists vacated the field were not fulfilled. Ideologically, even the Socialists were dependent on the Stalinist case for top-down statist socialism. When the full extent of the failure of the Soviet model became clear, statist socialism in general was discredited.

By the 1990s, it seemed that the era of political democracy in general was at an end, as not just left-wing political parties, but right-wing ones, too suffered a spectacular collapse in their support. In a very real sense the end of the Cold War was not just the end of the communist parties, but also of those mass parties that were organised in rivalry with the communists. Today politics is a much more narrowly based and elite dominated business that draws in much smaller groups of people, in a much more passive relationship to ruling elites.

The communist parties of the 1923-1989 period expressed and consolidated the political immaturity of working class politics. Militant in pursuit of wages and social reform, they were all the same compromised by an unwillingness to fight for state power, and to challenge the authority of imperialism. Reformist, and nationalist in political outlook the communists adopted ‘national roads’ that led nowhere. These compromises were offset by a utopian adoption of the USSR as a beacon of hope – one that turned out to be a shabby prison house. The day-to-day lives of communists encouraged a critical attitude towards business and the ruling elite, but a mulishly uncritical attitude to their own leaders; it entrenched blind obedience and a willingness to support absurd and grotesque political positions, to lie about political opponents, and bureaucratically manipulate unions and campaigns.

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