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The British Communist Party and the Soviet Union. An Introduction.

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“Stalin, whose great work tends to undervalued today, was a great creative statesman, however much he may have blundered in his later years. It is doubtful whether any less determined leadership would have laid the foundations of socialism.”

John Lewis. Socialism and the Individual. Lawrence and Wishart. 1961.

“The achievements of socialism, once a distant dream, are now a reality for all to see, in many countries of the world.”

The British Road To Socialism. Communist Party Programme. 1968.

Nick Cohen recently wrote of “Corbyn surrounding himself with aides from the Communist Party of Britain and the fragments of the Socialist Workers Party. (9.12.17. Observer). We can largely dismiss the histrionic overtones of the columnist’s polemic. But what is he talking about? Many on the left are familiar with the SWP, or at least its placards. Even the Taafites, who have taken to imitating the hand-held-poster-road-to-socialism have a degree of public recognition, as “formerly the Militant.”

Yet apart from an awareness that the organisation exists, about 1,000 strong, and that it dominates the small circulation but widely read in the labour movement, Morning Star, the views of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) are not widely known even on the left.

The fate of the unpublished letters to the Guardian by one of the CPB’s leading representatives, Nick Wright, further indicates a lack of interest in the left of centre MSM (Last month’s unpublished letters to the Guardian).

This short introduction hopes to remedy the gap.

To begin any discussion of the Party (usually capitalised in their documents) one has to start with….Communism. As Evan Smith has underlined, “The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism.” (1)

John Lewis and the 1960s editions of the British Road to Socialism indicate that strong support for the Soviet Union was long dominant in the party the CPB came out of, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). This continued right up till the 1970s, with party members (I am citing personal experience) reading Soviet Weekly and Sputnik. This is not the place to describe the clashes which ended in the dissolution of the Party in 1991 and the processes that led to the CPB foundation in 1988. The strand we concentrate is their position, post refoundation, on the USSR.

In a section of the present edition of the (CPB) British Road to Socialism – devoted to the reasons for the end of the Soviet Union – it is asserted that,

Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union were transformed from semi-feudal, semi-capitalist monarchist dictatorships into modern societies with near-full employment, universally free education and healthcare, affordable housing for all, extensive and cheap public transport, impressive scientific and cultural facilities, rights for women and degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities. This was achieved through a world historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning.This was achieved through a world historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning. (2)

The CPB’s account of how they came to consider flaws in this praiseworthy society, (from “full employment” “social ownership”, to “degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities”) is set out in The Communist Party 1920–2010 (Robert Griffiths, the present Party General Secretary, and Ben Stevenson). It is as follows,

“the downfall of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of Eastern Europe compelled Britain’s Communists – and serious Marxists everywhere – to analyse the reasons for counter-revolution.”

“The reconvened 41st Congress of the CP in November 1992 made its assessment; ‘The root cause if the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society’.” (3)

The build up to this statement is outlined in the Hateful of History article already cited. The Morning Star had begun to lay out this view during the collapse of the Soviet Union. They flagged up the,

….authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’ (4)


What did they have to say about Stalin’s rule? The Communist Party 1920 – 2010 states, that for its admirers, it had its good side, “For much of the 1930s, the Soviet Union had appeared a bastion of peace and stability amid a world of mass unemployment, fascist aggression and colonial exploitation, Communists everywhere helped publicise its enormous economic, scientific and cultural achievements.” (5)

On the Terror and the Gulag they wrote principally about the Moscow Trials, “When respected lawyers, politicians and diplomats attended the Moscow Show trials and confirmed that the defendants had indeed confessed to being members of a ‘Trotsky-fascist;’ campaign of espionage and subversion, Britain’s Communists were not alone in believing that such plots had indeed existed.” (6)

It was only after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had taken place, and Khrushchev revealed the extent of the horrors, many Communists around the world were shocked to learnt that violations of socialist democracy and human rights had taken place on such a scale.”(7) Despite this, and the armed Soviet intervention in Hungary to “protect the socialist state”, “For many Party members, the class struggle at home provided reason enough to stay” (Ibid).

The section following the favourable account of the Soviet Union’s achievements, in the British Road to Socialism (reprised and modified by the CPB) ,  makes this side of their analysis of the Soviet Union clear “‘a bureaucratic-command system of economic and political rule became entrenched. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the trade unions became integrated into the apparatus of the state, eroding working class and popular democracy. Marxism-Leninism was used dogmatically to justify the status quo rather than make objective assessments of it.At times, and in the late 1930s in particular, severe violations of socialist democracy and law occurred. Large numbers of people innocent of subversion or sabotage were persecuted, imprisoned and executed. This aided the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions aimed at the Soviet Union, the international communist movement and the concept of socialism. (8)

Most readers will have seen that the statement avoids saying why the predecessors of the CPB, the CPGB, and its fellow travellers, avoided a global critique of the USSR, from the pre-war period up to the 1980s. The reason is perhaps too obvious to state: they supported the Soviet system. That was the reason why the Communist Party existed. While the CPGB (at least after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) allowed partial criticisms of Moscow policy, the current that became the CPB was founded on the idea that it was part of a ‘world historic break’ with capitalism. When it comes down to it, it claim that, however much it may have lacked “popular democracy”, the actually existing form of the “concept” of ‘Socialism’ had to be defended against “lies and distortions”.

Marxism-Leninists’ own History.

The ‘science’ of Marxism-Leninism is a poor guide to the thinking of the CPB. A sceptic would remark that the history Griffiths and Stevenson present, is a projection backwards into the minds of those who in the 1930s gloried in the Socialist Sixth of the World and would not recognise that they had been wrong. But to conjure up, today, the hopes raise by the defeat of Nazi Germany with the USSR’s decisive contribution, and the spread of the ‘socialist’ social system in Eastern Europe and the victory of the People’s Liberation Army in China is not a help to understanding the history of the Soviet Union. This is an account by those willing to put blinkers over their eyes faced with the evidence of Soviet repression that came out in the post war years trying to retrospectively justify their forebears.

There are reasons not to off hand dismiss the account.  If we take this imaginative step further we can see that our resurrected Communist activist of the past would have had other reasons for not listening to those opposed to Stalinism. As Paul Flewers has pointed out, during the 1930s, that to admit faults in the homeland of socialism would have been to agree with the Right, even the far-right which they could see only too well in Nazi Germany and Italy. In Britain, he writes, it was largely from the “many “traditional anti-Communists” who pointed to the mass murder and “extreme authoritarian rule” in the USSR. While there were reservations about Stalin by social democratic and Labour figures there were only isolated critics from the left. Indeed, “the idea that the “Soviet regime under Stalin was essentially a conservative counter-revolutionary force – was seldom is ever publicly broached in the political mainstream, and only occasionally elsewhere.”(9)

After the Second World War this tendency was reinforced. Even with evidence and acknowledgement of mass repression there were earnest debates amongst French intellectuals like Merleau- Ponty (Humanisme et terreur. 1947) and in the following decade around Jean Paul Sartre’s  Les communistes et la paix (1952)  over whether Stalinist terror was justified in the name of building a communist future. Flewers points out that the Communist defence of the Soviet Union continued during the Cold War, when polarisation of opinion meant that many on the left continued to feel that they had to “take sides”. It was in this context that John Lewis offered a defence of the “justified” use of “compulsion by a “constitutionally elected Socialist government” and qualified but “globally positive” picture of Stalin in laying the ‘foundations’ of socialism. (10)

It was not just on the Communist Party that people believed that some kind of ‘jump’ into a different social system, socialism, had taken place in the years following the October Revolution. The existence of the USSR, followed by China and other ‘socialist states’ was considered part of the progressive development of history. This held even for those who considered that the Soviet regime was “deformed” or “degenerated”. This thinking continues to inform many in the orthodox Trotskyist movement, which has had almost as may difficulties coming to terms with the collapse of Official Communism as its Stalinist opponents.

The Linear History that the USSR Failed to Follow.

One interpretation of Marxism, which goes back to Engels, is that modes of production exist in a “linear” schema”. In this view the USSR was a society in “transition” through forms of collective ownership, and a socialist transformation of social relations, towards a new mode of production, communism. This was accepted even by many of those who criticised the way this change was enforced by a party bureaucracy. By the revolutionary advance to power by a proletarian party, the Bolsheviks began the transformation of the relations of production and distribution by the exercise of workers’ power.

From a variety of standpoints a “detour” back towards capitalism could only happen by a “counter-revolution”, that is in terms not far off the CPB’s broad analysis. Marcel Van der Linden’s Western Marxists and the Soviet Union (2007) describes this as the “unilinear” approach: once you began this “world historic break”, a new social trajectory (social ownership of the means of production you were embarked on a voyage. How it fared was up to those in control of the helm. But the trip had started.

Outside of this consensus a miniature galaxy of critical left wing theories on the nature of the Soviet Union which was built, including those who challenged the premise of this assertion, that Lenin’s Bolsheviks ever embodied the interests or the views or the working class.

However, as der Linden describes, the unilinear approach faded away for other reasons. Gradually the ‘sequence”, or proceeding along a line, picture of the USSR as undergoing a ‘stage’ in world history, not least “towards” anything at all, had been eroded. And study after study shed light on the social and economic reality of the state and its satellites were written, as literary and historical studies of the Gulag appeared, the magic of a new world had evaporated. The determination in the last instance was economic, “Increasingly dominant in all currents of thought became the idea that the Soviet Union had embodied a model of economic growth which, although it had initially been successful using extensive methods of industrialisation and extra-economic coercion, could not maintain its economic and military position in the competition with ‘globalising’ world capitalism, because of growing inefficiencies and the absence of a transition to intensive growth.” (11) Eric Hobsbawm expressed a similar thought more directly, “The tragedy of the October revolution was that it could only produce its kind of ruthless, brutal, command socialism. (12)

Labour Totalitarians?

One can criticise the CPB for its failure to come to terms with more than the surface difficulties which were, by the time the Soviet Union collapse, no secret. One can attack their inability to see that there was more at stake than “errors” and authoritarian rule that is commands on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism or arbitrary legal producers. It is right to deny them the comfort of believing that they were serving the cause of the future, a location in which communism is to come. But one thing they cannot be accused of it is complete blindness.

Andrew Murray, until recently a member of the CPB, and now, it is said, a key Labour actor, is one of those, one can assume targeted by Cohen. But is he culpable of endorsing the Soviet Union’s totalitarian terror? This is not the case. Murray written of the Stalinist period, “The killing of former oppositionists is now known to have been a small part of a very much larger and more horrifying operation.” And, “Stalin was both greater and more terrible than Trotsky knew. He is long since indicted with vast crimes” (13).

The difficulty is, and remains there, is that Murray, reflecting a view expressed many times elsewhere, also observes, “The USSR won the war and Stalin emerged stronger than ever, with socialism spreading to half of Europe and much of Asia, perhaps the most significant of the many circumstances which left Trotskyism without Trotsky stillborn as a major political movement.” (Ibid) It is not Trotskyism to comment that until the CPB and those still wrapped in its way of thinking that calls such states ‘socialist’. You can indeed can them anything you like, you can invent, he suggests a “new political vocabulary”. But but very few are going to want to admire, still less emulate, these ‘socialist’ regimes or their legacy, today. (14)


(1) The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the legacy of the Soviet Union. Dr Evan Smith.  Hatful of History.
(2) Britain’s Road to Socialism. 8th Edition. 2011.
(3) Page 41.The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Robert Griffiths and Ben Stevenson. Communist Party History Group. 2010.
(4) The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the legacy of the Soviet Union.
(5) Page 15. The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op Cit.
(6) Page 16. The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op cit.
(7) Page 26.The Communist Party 1920- – 2010. Op cit.
(8) Britain’s Road to Socialism. 8th Edition. 2011.
(9) Page 221 The New Civilisation? Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union 1929 – 1941. Paul Flewers. Francis Boule. 2008. To illustrate this point further a key text from an early Menshevik critic of Lenin, Fedor Il’ich Dan’s Two years of Wandering, (1922) has only recently appeared in English (translated by Francis King. 2016). Some other important works, such as the first hand account of the rise of the Stalinist system, published in French by the dissident leftist circle round Boris Souvarine, notably Vers l”autre flamme après seize mois dans l”U.R.S.S., Panaït Istrati.(1929) remain largely unknown in the English speaking world
(10) Page 79. Socialism and the Individual. Lawrence and Wishart. 1961.
(11) Page 303. Marcel Van der Linden. Western Marxism and the Soviet Union. Brill. 2007.
(12) Page 498. Eric Hobsbawm. Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century 1914 – 1991. Abacus 1994.
(13) Trotsky on Stalin. Andrew Murray. October 2016.

(14) For some of the many reasons, the tragic wrecked lives in the former Soviet Union given voice in Second-hand time : the last of the Soviets. Aleksievich, Svetlana. (Translated by Shayevich, Bela). Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 20, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Stalin. Waiting for Hitler. 1928 – 1941. Stephen Kotkin. A Democratic Socialist Review.

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Stalin. Waiting for Hitler. 1928 – 1941. Stephen Kotkin. Allen Lane. 2017.

The Yugoslavian communist, A. Ciliga, a sincere man and an unimpeachable witness, one of the few who has escaped alive from the Soviet convict gangs, has written in his book, Au pays du grand mensonge: “Those who have not lived in the Soviet prisons, concentration camps and places of exile in which are shut up more than five million convicts, those who are not familiar with the greatest jail history has ever seen, where men die like flies, where they are beaten like dogs, where they are made to work like slaves, can have no idea what Soviet Russia is, what Stalin’s ‘classless society’ means.”

Boris Souvarine. Postscript to Stalin: a critical survey of Bolshevism. 1935

The first volume of Kotkin’s study of Stalin, Paradoxes of Power, 1878 – 1928. (2014) portrayed the dictator as the product of “immense structural forces”, the legacy of Tsarism, the mode of government he took over from Lenin and the Bolsheviks “castle in the air” version of socialism. But the author could not neglect the character of his subject, whose “cold calculation and the flights of absurd delusion were products of a single mind, he was shrewd enough to see right through people, but not enough to spare him a litany of nonsensical beliefs.” (1)

That these “closely mirrored the Bolshevik revolution in-built structural paranoia” is only one of the many elements that contributed to the harrowing themes of the present book. This begins with the mass murders, starvation and famine of agricultural Collectivisation, followed by the mid-1930s Great Terror, and concludes with Stalin’s’ miscalculations faced with the threat of Hitler’s Germany

There are few grimmer tasks for the left than facing up to the reality of Stalin’s Russia. What enthusiasm can be mustered for the October Revolution has to face the totalitarianism that followed. This is not a new dilemma. That Stalin was, in his own and Kotkin’s opinion, a “communist and revolutionary” and that he developed within “the moral universe of Marxism-Leninism” was galling – and contestable – to radical left critics of the first hour, like Boris Souvarine.

This cosmos was bleak. The collectivisation and war against the Kulaks, the first Five Year Plan, took place against the background of famine and epidemics which “probably killed between 5 and 7 million people between 1931-33. Perhaps 10 million more starved nearly to death ” (Page 127) In response Stalin accused peasants of “not wanting to work.” (Page 128) Yet industrialisation began, investment quadrupled to 44 % of GDP in 1932. At the time well-wishers of the burgeoning New Civilisation were enthusiastic But, Kotkin observes, “unrelenting optimism spread alongside famine, arrests, deportations, execution, camps, censorship, sealed borders. (P 305) “Stalin’s anti capitalist experiment resembled a vast camp of deliberately deprived workers, indentured farmers and slave labourers toiling of the benefit of an unacknowledged elite.” (Ibid)

The Great Terror.

Stalin. Waiting for Hitler tackles the Great Terror. There is a lengthy account of the assassination of Kirov by Nikolayev, the pretext for the mass killings and imprisonments that followed. The hysteria reached its peak in the Great Trials of the middle of the decade. At its height, “just for two years, 1937 and 1938, the political police, the NKVD, would report 1,575,259 arrests, 87% of them for political offences, and 681,692 executions.”(Page 305)

It is hard to get a measure of the suffering of so many victims. Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the country’s top theatre directors was one of the countless to fall into the hands of the butchers. In 1939 he was tortured and made to confess to spying for Britain and Japan. After systematic beatings, “Meyerhold’s interrogators had urinated into his mouth and smashed his right (writing) hand to bits” (Page 649) A footnote adds that while this was happening NKVD chief Beria awarded the larger part of his flat to one of his mistresses (Page 1029). He was executed by firing Squad in February 1940. 

Kotkin is not engaged in the history of the Gulag, only the contours of the Archipelago are sketched, and there are no Kolyma Tales Nor are there accounts of how Communist self-criticism ended in denunciations, or the whispers by a population-turned-delators to the NKVD. We are brought instead to the party machine and to Stalin’s Little Corner in the Moscow Kremlin, where he scanned lists of those caught in the lights of the hunt. “At least 383 execution lists signed by him have survived, containing the names of more than 43,000 ‘enemies of the people’, mostly the highest-level officials and officers (P 490). What kind of man performed filled his days with this never-ending work? Faced with a flood of letters of those appealing for those caught up in the murders, he “showed no sign that he was in the least tormented by the slaughter” (Ibid).

This was a war that hit the masses and the elite, clearing the way, Kotkin suggests for an intentional renewal of the bureaucracy. The new cadres, who took the posts of those found out as ‘wreckers’ ‘spies’ of anti-Soviet elements’, were described as “healthy young representatives of a healthy young people”. With rising salaries they were rewarded as such (Page 603) Stalin engineered human souls reinforced an already privileged caste, “The terror that murdered officials en masse accentuated the ascendancy of the functionary class.”(Page 604)

Over half of Stalin. Waiting for Hitler is occupied, as its title indicates, with Soviet foreign policy and, above all, with the build up to the war with Hitler’s Germany. From the Spanish Civil, an occasion to further Stalin’s obsession with Trotsky through attacks on the ‘Trotskyist’ (anti-Stalinist Marxist) POUM, Trotsky’s 1940 assassination, the ill-judged war with Finland (met with mass resistance by the Finns), the division of Poland with little perceivable long-term gain, to his wavering dealings with Mao in China, there were few signs of strategic genius.

Above all Stalin failed to prepare properly for the confrontation with the German army. This was not just the result of the purges of competent military and intelligence personnel. His tactical abilities were flawed. “Instead of acting cunningly, Stalin fooled himself. He clung to the belief that Germany could not attack before defeating the UK….”(Page 897)

A landmark.

Kotkin’s achievement as a historian of Stalin should not be overshadowed by the often hard to digest text. Key developments risk being submerged by lengthy day-to-day accounts. The plodding style, and turns of phrase such as the “wee hours” are not a help to the reader. But nobody can fail to recognise that the work is a landmark.

With such a protagonist in his sights Waiting for Hitler raises deep issues about the nature of the USSR under Stalin. One commanding thread lies in an effort to come to terms with the basis of the tyranny of the ‘vozhd’, the Leader, as Stalin came to be called. The author’s observation that he operated within a “near permanent state of emergency” could be said to cast light on the nature of Stalin’s rule. Lenin has used exceptional measures – a monopoly of political power, imprisonment of opponents, execution of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, censorship – in ‘defence’ of the revolution. These were indefinitely prolonged. That alone gave the Lenin appointed General Secretary scope for his efforts to impose his brand of ‘Marxism Leninism’ on his most “precious resource”, the people of the USSR.

Could both the original disregard for law and independent justice in the name of higher interests, the need to fight the Enemy, be compared to the pro-Nazi political theorist, Carl Schmitt’s speculation on the foundations of politics? Does the justification of the “state of exception” as a “transcendence” of normal politics cast light on the arguments of those who try to justify the “exceptional” circumstances of the Bolshevik Revolution to treat its opponents with contempt? In Stalin’s career, there is little doubt that the division of the world into friends and foes, with no-holds barred in the fight, “gave free rein to his savagery”. To those who seek psychological explanations for his behaviour Kotkin states, “Stalin’s sociopathology was to a degree the outgrowth of dictatorial rule”. (Page 5)

“Marx had never advocated mass murder but freedom” (Page 302). This may be scant consolation for those crushed by Stalin, his successors and emulators. But it important for those of us who are democratic socialists to make sure that the real history of Stalin’s rule is as familiar inside our own camp as that of those whom we venerate. We look forward to reading Kotkin’s Death of Stalin.


(1) Page 736. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephen Kotkin. Allen Lane. 2014.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 26, 2017 at 2:07 pm

The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. A Review.

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The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine. A Political Account of Joseph Stalin Tony McKenna. Sussex Academic Press.

“I recently read an interview featuring a cultural commentator of the left. Alongside the interview a photo appeared of this individual against a backdrop which featured an image of Joseph Stalin.” In the Preface to The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine, Tony McKenna observes in this, not uncommon, gesture, a “certain wry sympathy for Stalin’s political endeavours.” The Chair of no less than the Stop the War Coalition, Andrew Murray, has expressed such empathy on many occasions. For these people Stalin’s title of Generalissimo and Hero of the Soviet Union, awarded in June 1945, was due recognition for a leader prepared to “get his hands dirty” in defence of the USSR. This judgement, McKenna states, with appropriate severity, “does a great disservice to the millions Stalin had murdered” (Page xi).

This is a study that attempts to explain the “objective trajectory of Stalinism” in Marxist terms, and the course of a life that is full of “terrible darkness”. Its premise is that the original form of “the Soviet democracy remains the first form of democracy in human history which was not premised on some manner of class exploitation.”(Page 169) This “…fused the economic organs of society, the factories and the workplace with a political decision-making process where power flowed from the bottom-up. (Page vii) That it “abolished the capital-labour relation.” (Page 170) A bold effort, “drowned in blood”. And yet, “Most of all I wanted to challenge the assumption that Stalinist totalitarianism was the automatic and inevitable result of a revolution which mobilised the poorest in society”. (Page x)

McKenna considers, then, that “Stalinism represented the negation of the proletarian revolution”. Lenin stood for the emancipation of the working class “to be an act by the workers themselves” (Page 42) Nothing could be more clearly opposed to Stalin’s “overwhelming distrust – not only for the masses, but for the process of revolution itself” (Page 16) For those who recount the political conflicts of the early Soviet Union as a clash between a growing bureaucracy, and those, siding with Lenin who railed against administrative power and privilege, this is a decisive difference. Leninism was popular creative power; Stalinism was the rules and regulations, backed by repression, of the office.


This guiding contrast in The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is not without problems.  There is a different view, expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that this was not, in practice, how Lenin’s ideology worked. To her Lenin had “a dangerous rigidity in argumentation, certain scholasticism in his political ideas, and a tendency to ignore the living embodiment of the masses, or even to coerce it into accepting preconceived tactical plans.”(1) There is the claim that, under Lenin’s aegis, there were “always various tendencies and groups within the Party, which was considered natural and normal.”(2) There is another picture of less than tolerant Bolshevik, as revealed in his years of exile of “ceaseless polemics with all those he considered philistines, pedants, whiners, sceptics, defeatists. (3) Or, more strongly that when with his hands on the levers of power these were not just arguments, “Lenin, as we have seen time and time again, could not assimilate opposition. It could only be overcome and destroyed. In place of complete creative freedom Lenin turned to a new discourse based on a completely opposite theme – iron proletarian discipline.”(4)

A recent biography of Stalin puts this more sharply, “assertions of a Bolshevik collective leadership predating Stalin’s ring hollow. Lenin’s secretariat took on an essentially limitless range of issues, setting a precedent, and no one did more than Lenin to establish a living example of one-man rule at the top. (When the other ‘collective leaders; disagreed with Lenin he threatened to expel them or, failing that, to quit the party and form a new one.” (5) One may contest this judgement. Others talk of ‘Stalin’s team’, a tightly bound group at the top- broadening some of McKenna’s focus on the General Secretary. In either case the legacy, however reshaped in new hands,  from Lenin’s rule cannot be ignored.  (6)

Iron Discipline.

McKenna’s book does not however shirk from describing the mechanisms used to enforce this “iron discipline” during, and after, the Civil War. This was, above all, the work of the secret police, the Cheka. He defends, “out of military necessity”,  “mass compulsion” “terror” was an absolute requirement in a context where a class or nation state is in the process of fighting for existence goes more or less without saying” (Page 29) But the “generalisation of terror to a social class carte blanche  – and specifically the petty bourgeoisie…. the peasantry” “the bureaucracy was beginning to weave their theoretical rationale for its terrorisation for the very group whose surplus produce was integral to its survival..(Ibid) It used “indiscriminate force” against peasant or proletarians who “bridled against the increasingly coercive power and needs of the bureaucracy itself.” (Ibid)

According to Alexander Solzhenitsyn the Gulag Archipelago could not have built without the early sanction of these measures of compulsion. “In the first months of the October Revolution Lenin was already demanding decisive draconian measures to tighten up discipline” In December 1917, he suggested for consideration, confiscation of all property.. confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labour for all who disobey the existing law.” (6) During the period of War Communism, Trotsky advocated ever tighter punishments, and the militarisation of labour (Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky 1920) He  asserted that the dictatorship of the proletariat was able to make use of organized state power by the working class to crush its opponents and to pave the way for social transformation.

If every Cook could run the State, as envisaged in the State and Revolution, those who broke the rules risked more than admonishing in an acidic polemical article. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was the end of ‘formal’ democracy and its replacement by the ‘superior’ form of workplace rule. As experience rapidly showed, adversaries of ‘Soviet power’ from the right, the dissident left, and not all because of the violent opposition of the left Social Revolutionaries (Uprising 1918. Exclusion: Fifth Soviet Congress, 1918), the right and then the left Mensheviks and Anarchists, particularly those with suspect “class origins” (which began to be treated as a hereditary taint) were progressively excluded from the ‘democracy’ of the Soviets. The system was designed to be the opposite of ‘agonistic’ politics where open clashes between opposed views would be freely expressed.

Lenin’s Last Struggle.

Was Stalin’s hold on these reins of power inevitable? During Lenin’s later lifetime and following his death, disputes between bureaucrats – that is state employees – Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Stalin, to cite some well-known names, continued. But already the shrinking of political freedom had caught up with the Party itself, as factions had been banned, and all dissent was suspect. There seemed to be an inevitability about further moves towards enforced unity – “discipline” –  around One line One leader, on every single issue, economic, cultural, political, and ideological. Yet Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle (1975) underlines the view that his Testament explicitly called for Stalin’s removal from office. Lewin claimed, “the use of constraint – let alone terror – is ostensibly excluded in establishing the foundations of a new society”. (8) This ‘tolerance’, at best putting up with people, was, as we seen, very limited. As McKenna narrates, not only was the Testament suppressed, and Stalin’s office confirmed, not to be, but also the range of forces allied with him, and the hesitations of his opponents, prevented even the document being discussed.

The Dictator the Revolution, the Machine is a passionate intervention into debates on these issues. The description of the full “shadow of totalitarianism”, Stalin’s 1930s Great Terror, and a thorough, searing, look at the Gulag, is outstanding. McKenna’s concluding hopes for a direct ‘utopian’ democracy that takes collective control of a socialised economy takes inspiration from the best side of the Soviet ideal. This review has argued that we cannot ignore, with Claude Lefort, and many others, the other side, the ‘temporary’ limitations on democratic expression sketched above. They cannot be ignored. They turned out to be the permanent basis for a totalitarian regime, and whatever form of erratic command economy one cares to call it.  Perhaps truly universal – unblemished – inspiration cannot be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution. The all-too-ready use of force to resolve political issues played some part in the emergence of Stalinism. The means, exile, imprisonment, forced labour and killing, by which the “Pouvoir soviétique se déliverent des enemies”, (how Soviet power got rid of its enemies) are not foreign to the emergence of Stalin’s system of rule, warped by his own personality though it may have been. (9) We should also ensure that this blood-drenched tyranny is never repeated.

  1. Page 85. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by George Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. 2011.
  2. Page 385. Let History Judge. Roy Medvedev. Spokesman. 1971.
  3. Page 110. Lars T. Lih. Rekation Books. 2011.
  4. Page 212. Christopher Read. Routledge 2005.
  5. Page 419. Stalin. Paradoxes of Power. 1878 – 1928. Stephan Kotin. Allen Lane. 2014.
  6. On Stalin’s team. Sheila Fitzpatrick. Princeton University Press. 2015.Pages 19 – 10. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol.2. Colins/Fontana. 1976.
  7. Page 134. Lenin’s Last Struggle. 1975.Un homme en trop. Réflexions sur l’Archipel du Gulag. Claude Lefort. New Edition. 2015 (1976)

Louis Project writes,

The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin.

Tony McKenna is a bona fide public intellectual who contributes to Marxist journals without having any connections to academia or to the disorganized left. This gives his writing a freshness both in terms of political insight and literary panache. I first encountered his work in a collection of articles titled “Art, Literature and Culture From a Marxist Perspective” that reflected a familiarity with culture high and low and an ability to put works such as “The Walking Dead” into a broader political and social context. Was the popular AMC zombie show a good preparation for “The Dictator, The Revolution, the Machine: a Political Account of Joseph Stalin”, his latest book forthcoming from Sussex press? I’d like to think so.

Although I think that McKenna would be capable of turning a Unix instruction manual into compelling prose, the dead tyrant has spurred him to reach a higher level—one that is in inverse proportion to the degraded subject matter. At 186 pages, his study is both an excellent introduction to Stalin and Stalinism as well as one that gives any veteran radical well-acquainted with Soviet history some food for thought on the quandaries facing the left today. Drawing upon fifty or so books, including a number that leftist veterans would likely not be familiar with such as leading Soviet military leader Gregory Zhukov’s memoir, McKenna synthesizes it all into a highly readable and often dramatic whole with his own unique voice. It is a model of historiography and one that might be read for no other reason except learning how to write well. (McKenna is an editor and an aspiring novelist.)

More via above link.

Written by Andrew Coates

November 18, 2016 at 1:59 pm

Passion and Decline of the French Communist Party?

with 5 comments


The Tendance, being Pabloites, has a less than hostile stand on the French Communist Party.

However there are limits.

Like this:

And this: “Par exemple, le dirigeant du PCF, Maurice Thorez, se proclamait « premier stalinien de France”

Lest we forget: here. Le Monde has got its act together and compiled an excellent dossier.

Which is Here

Written by Andrew Coates

December 29, 2010 at 11:35 am