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Not Forgetting Stalin. Under Two Dictators. Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler. Margarete Buber-Neumann.

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Not Forgetting Stalin.

“There were twenty-eight men and Betty and I in our group. Betty and I, an old professor and a prisoner with a wounded leg, were taken on in a lorry. The men had to walk. We got out on the Russian side of the Brest Litovsk bridge and waited for them to come up, looking across the bridge into occupied Poland. The men and arrived and then a group of GPU men crossed the bridge. We saw them retiring after a while, and the group was larger. There were SS officers with them. The SS commandant and the GP chief saluted each other. The Russian was a good head taller than the German.

The GPU officials still stood there in a group watching us go. Behind them was Soviet Russia. Bitterly I recalled the Communist litany: Fatherland of the Toilers, Bulwark of Socialism, Haven of the Persecuted.”

Margarete Buber-Neumann. 1949

Buber-Neumann was one of around 350 Soviet prisoners handed over to the German authorities between November 1939 and May 1941. This, on Russian initiative, selected, often arbitrarily, Germans held in Gulag and sent them over to the Nazis. Some, on arrival, were interrogated and, if cooperative, were set free. She was not. From time in the Soviet Karaganda forced labour complex, Buber-Neumann was put in

Translated into English in 1949 Under Two Dictators. Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler remains a unique account of Stalinism from a victim of the Gulag, and of Ravensbrück.

The wife of a former leading figure in the German Communist Party, the KPD, Heinz Neumann, the author had sought refuge in Moscow from Hitler’s rule. This was never a safe haven. The focus of internal party attacks, as a “troublemaker” and target for their failure to resist the Nazi advance, he was marked. The Great Terror began. In 1937 the NKVD murdered Heinz for “fractional activity”, after a ritual confession. His death came amongst hundreds of other German, and other exiled, Communists.  The spouse’s arrest came in 1937. She was found guilty of “counter-revolutionary agitation and organisation against the Soviet State.”

In Karaganda they “slept on the bare ground with our head top the walls all in a line, and about five or is yards in front of us a soldier sat on a stool with his rifle over his knees to see that no one made an attempt to escape” (Page 91) In the Gulag she came across the orphans “produced by the forced collectivisation and the famine.” (Page 116). There was back-breaking work, in freezing conditions during the winter, for a daily pound and a half of bread.

Initially the transferred prisoner found the German camp, though grim, was run “with typical Prussian thoroughness” and a higher level of provisions. Nevertheless conditions were harsh. She became a “slave of the Assembly line” in the Industrial Complex, beset with suspicion by Communist prisoners who considered her a ‘Trotskyite’ and “more or less the scum of the earth”. Buber-Neumann was deeply affected when the health of her friend, Jesenka Milena (the recipient of Kafka’s Briefe an Milena) and she  died of kidney failure.

As the war reached its end Buber-Neumann met Auschwitz prisoners who told her of the mass exterminations. It was not long before the Ravensbrück authorities began to murder the old and unfit in two crematoria. She survived and wandered a devastated Germany. Her memoir ends in a moment of joy as the prisoner of two dictators was reunited with her mother and sister in Thierstein.

Kravchenko Trial.

Buber-Neumann was a key defence witness in the 1949 Victor Andreevich Kravchenk  libel case. The author of I Chose Freedom had described the Soviet Union in these terms, “The magnitude of the horror has never been grasped by the outside world. Perhaps it is too vast ever to be grasped. Russia was a battlefield strewn with corpses, blotched with gigantic enclosures where millions of wretched ‘war prisoners’ toiled, suffered and died.”  (2) This, and his other works, were attacked by the French Communist Lettres françaises. They criticised it as “fake news”. of”being a traitor, a draft dodger and an mebezzler. His ex-wife appeared as well, accusing him of being physically abusive and sexually impotent.  They described Kravchenko as vain, a drunkard, and a “traitor” to the USSR. “He had fabricated the book’s material with the help of US disinformation services, and was himself a creation of the American secret services.

Whatever Kravehenco’s promotion by the US and right-wing long-standing anti-Communists  his key facts, Buber-Neumann’s evidence underlined, were correct. A recent history of the period notes that her testimony played a significant role in establishing Kravcehneko’s credibility. Les Temps Modernes registered that after her book “one cannot dispute the existence of concentration camps in Russia.” (3)

The independent minded left-winger David Rousset began a parallel prosecution for libel. The same Lettres françaises had claimed that in his writings had “invented” the Russian Gulag, “forging the texts of the Soviet laws, and spreading misinformation.”

The growing evidence – Rousset was able to cite the Russian penal codes own punishments – told. The Communist journal lost both the cases and was condemned for defamation. The result was a public controversy that swept the left. It undermined the influence of the Parti Communiste français (PCF), above all amongst the reading public.

The Gulag and the Left.

The debate about the existence of Soviet camps was far reaching. Were these just crimes of Stalin? It raised again the Soviet-German Pact, the backdrop of the decision to send Margerte Buber-Neumann from one universe of camps to another. What means could be justified (as already discussed and decided largely in Communism’s favour by Merleau-Ponty in Humanisme et Terreur. 1947) in terms of the eventual “goal” of equality and freedom? Was the Gulag, far from disappearing with victory in the Second World War, an essential pillar of a system?

The French left – in common with other lefts – has since that time been shaped by the fall-out from different stands on these issues.

After an initial discussion about whether the Soviet system, which left at least some people alive, was better than the Shoah, a debate, which has yet to conclude, on the nature of the USSR began. The place of forced labour and mass murder at the heart of Stalin’s USSR – was perhaps the most decisive. Claude Lefort, who considered that Moscow’s ‘totalitarian” regime rested on forced labour and repression of dissidence, fell out with others in the leading intellectual left journal of the time, Les Temps Modernes. He, and Cornelius Castoriadis, in Socialisme ou Barbarie, argued that the French Communists, did not just defend the Soviet Union against all comers, but would try to inflict these practices at home. They were a junior part of the same bureaucratic exploiting class.

Other did not and do not consider tyranny and murder to have been the motor of the USSR, but as part of a historically contingent wrong course. Some, even Sartre for a time, thought that the world Communist movement was the only hope for the future whatever regimes and parties may have been at the present. Many of the independent French left while wary of the Communists, pointed to their strength amongst organised labour. They refused to reject their policies en bloc. Orthodox Trotskyists continued to consider that the fundamentals of the USSR, state ownership, were, for all the bureaucratic pile up, privileges and repression, sound.  One can find the same positions across the world’s left.

Coming to terms with the Fall of Official Communism remains a central difficulty for the left. Today, in Britain, all that remains of an already small Communist Party of Great Britain (with some influence in the trade unions and intellectual life) is a minuscule Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and ultra-Stalinist fragments. But there is a more diffuse legacy from those who supported Soviet Union, that continues within the labour movement. Some on the left have not come to terms with the basic facts about Stalinist crimes. Key figures around the Labour leader promote a Boy’s Own view of Stalin, as, if nothing else, a dashing and successful War Leader. Margarete Buber-Neumann reminds us that Stalin’s darkest side was there at that very moment.

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(1) Page 143. Under Two Dictators. Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler. Margerte Buber-Neumann.1949 Pimlico. 2008.

(2) Page  303. I Chose Freedom. Victor A. Kravchenko. The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official. Transaction Publications. 2002.

(3) Pages 351 – 360. La Révolution rêvée. Michel Surya. 2004.

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Red Famine, Anne Applebaum. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. A Review.

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Red Famine, Anne Applebaum. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Allen Lane 2017.

“I saw one cart, it was stacked with the bodies of children. They looked thin and long – faces like dead birdies, sharp little beaks. Some were still making cheeping noises: their little heads were like ripe ears of grain, bending the thin stalks of their necks…”

Everything Flows. Vasily Grossman. (1)

The catastrophes of the 20th century leave deep traces. The famine in Ukraine, portrayed in Grossman’s uncompleted novel ((begun in 1955, and worked on until his death in 1964), rendered his witness to one of the greatest tragedies of history immortal. In the middle of the 1930s the anti-Stalinist leftist Boris Souvarine estimated that more than 5 million died across the USSR in the mass hunger that followed the collectivisation of agriculture of 1932 –3. (2)

Anne Applebaum totals 5 million who perished in the Holodomor (Hunger-extermination in Ukrainian) alone. This mass starvation was a “famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.”(Page 193) In this the author of Red Famine follows Robert Conquest who considered that the deaths were deliberately inflicted for ethnic reasons and constituted genocide (The Harvest of Sorrow. 1986). More recently Timothy Snyder has called it “premeditated mass murder” (Bloodlands. 2010).

In Iron Curtain (2012) Applebaum narrated the post 1945 strangulation of Eastern Europe’s politics and civil society in Stalin and his satellites’ embrace. But the ordered effort “to control every aspect of society” barely describes what Isaac Deutscher called the “pandemonium” of forced collectivisation at the beginning of the 1930s which precipitated these mass fatalities. (3)

Spurred by the prospect of national, notably urban, food shortages in the late 1920s, Stalin, Applebaum observes, ordered the programme to ensure “internal accumulation” for Soviet industry. The peasants were driven into Kolkhozes, collective farms, and the “liquidation of the Kulaks as a class” met resistance. By the end of March 1930 the secret police, the OGPU recorded 2,000 mass protests in Ukraine alone.

The response was coercion. Teams of ‘activists’ herded people up, lectured them, poked their noses into their meagre belongings, and confiscated at their whim. Armed Soviet agents surrounded rebellious villages with machine-gun and forced them to surrender. There were mass deportations.

The Marxist Deutscher compared the fate of the peasants to that of “mere factory hands”. In the USSR this meant life ruled by party appointed bosses, internal passports, and military discipline. They did not welcome their new lives. In the collective farms, badly supplied, and ramshackle, people worked as little as possible. Vast tracts of land were “left untilled”.

But rules began to grip. Recalcitrant districts were blacklisted. “With no grain, no livestock, no tools, no, money and no credit, with no ability to trade or even to leave their places of work, the inhabitants of blacklisted villages could not grow, prepare or purchase anything to eat at all.”(Page 200)

The Mass Famine.

The reduction of the independent peasantry to appendages of the state bureaucracy, and the deportation of the slightly better off kulaks, took place against the backdrop of famine.

From exhortations, backed by violence to join the Kolkhozes, the state focus shifted to procuring food. The quest for gain through forcible requisitions became a prime activist task. Bringing back memories of marauding armies in the Civil War, appeared “a man who brandished a gun, spouted slogans and demanded food”.

In a haunting description Applebaum outlines the peasants’ dilemmas. They were forced “give up their gain reserves and die of starvation, or they could keep some grain reserves hidden and risk arrest, execution or the confiscation of the rest of their food – after which they could also die of starvation.”(Page 195)

By the winter of 1932 –3 people in the countryside had exhausted their supplies and started to search for “everything edible”. Many were unable to find anything. There were harrowing incidents of cannibalism. The result was that, demographers estimate, 4,5 million people starved to death.

Stalin’s Policy Against Ukrainians.

Red Famine states that there was policy behind the disaster in Ukraine. Stalin was hostile to Ukrainian nationalism, from the 1917 Rada onwards, and Ukrainians, including their own Bolsheviks whom he believed favoured the national movement and culture. This had a basis in that millions of Ukrainian peasants had wanted “a socialist revolution, but not a Bolshevik revolution” and distrusted anything that came from Moscow. If those with such views in the villages could be sorted out by direct force, the intelligentsia presented another obstacle to be met with by the same methods. Beginning with Stalin’s consolidation of power all signs of national consciousness were repressed; above all, the educated Ukrainian speaking elite were targeted in successive purges.

Stalin, while adept at claiming a certain distance from those “dizzy with success” I applying his decrees never admitted any responsibility for the deaths in the early 30s Apologists such as visiting French Minister Édouard Herriot, concerned to make a treaty with the USSR, and the US reporter Walter Duranty aided his work. The Pulitzer Prize winner replied to evidence of famine from the young journalist, Gareth Jones, with the headline, “Russians Hungry, not Starving.” The facts reached only a limited audience. Not only was there no international movement of protest, but the Soviet Union neither appealed for helps from other countries, nor set up its own relief operations. To talk of the wretched conditions of the victims was a crime. 

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For Applebaum the evidence is clear. Stalin “helped created the conditions that led to the famine”. “Starvation was the result, rather, of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants forms eking work or food, the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions of barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch,unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.”(Page 354)

If Stalin did not seek to eliminate all Ukrainians, but the “the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities” was this a crime of genocide? It is distressing to broach the issue. The reader, shaken by this book, can only express humility towards those determined to commemorate the Holodomor and a wish to stay clear, very clear from those who still attempt to rehabilitate Stalin’s rule in the USSR and slander the martyred Ukrainians.

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(1) Page 145. Everything Flows. Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Aslanyan. Harvill Secker. 2010. On Stalin’s role Grossman notes, “This fusion of party and State found its expression in the person of Stalin. In the mind and will of Stalin, the State expressed its own mind and will.” (Page 205) “It was Stalin – who was both a European Marxist and an Asian despot – who gave true expression to the nature of Soviet statehood. What was embodied in Lenin was a Russian national principle; what was embodied in Stalin was a statehood that was both Russian and Soviet.”(Page 205)

(2) Le paysan soviétique. Boris Souveraine. In Cauchemar en URSS Paris, Revue de Paris, 1937. 

(3) Pages 324-5. Stalin. Isaac Deutscher. Penguin. 1990 (1949).

Written by Andrew Coates

March 16, 2018 at 1:53 pm

George Galloway Predicts Armageddon as Russia Today (RT) Ban Looms.

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“And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”

Channel could lose licence if Russia found to be responsible for Sergei Skripal poisoning

RT, the Kremlin-controlled news channel, faces being forced off air in the UK if the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is found to be an “unlawful use of force” by Russia against Britain.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom, which has the power to close a TV channel if it decides it is not a “fit and proper” holder of a licence in the UK, said it had written to RT warning that a Russian act against the UK would trigger a fast-track investigation to potentially revoke its licence.

“We have today written to ANO TV Novosti, holder of RT’s UK broadcast licences, which is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation,” Ofcom said. “This letter explained that, should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper.”

“Ofcom has an ongoing duty to be satisfied that all broadcast licensees are fit and proper to hold a licence,” said the spokesman.

Written by Andrew Coates

March 13, 2018 at 6:21 pm

The Morning Star and the Left. “Why I will no longer write for the Morning Sta. Rabbil Sikdar.”

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The Morning Star Newspaper by Party9999999

Paper of a Faction of the left?

Some people on the left, more than a few at any rate, read the Morning Star.

It has good labour movement, that is trade union, reports. There are useful articles about social issues, like Universal Credit. There is proper reporting on the goings on of  those privateers trying to milk profit from second rate public services and those demanding rent for providing utilities.

The daily is accessible, and has a human side, even if not everybody would wish to follow the recipes of hard-line vegetarian Commie Chef (typical: take 200 grams of brown organic rice. Boil. Serve with grated turnip).

Following Andrew Murray’s use of the paper to launch a factional bid to readmit George Galloway to the Labour Party questions are being asked about the paper’s  ‘broad’ remit.

The Star is clear about where it is coming from – if your read the fine print,

Since 1945 the paper has been owned by a broad-based readers’ co-operative, the People’s Press Printing Society (PPPS). The paper’s editorial line remains anchored in the political programme of the Communist Party of Britain but it offers a broad left perspective on political, industrial and international issues.”

More ambitiously it describes itself as the People’s Daily and, often, as the paper of The Left.

To critics the daily is in fact the paper of a small section of the left, the pro-Brexit, pro-Assad Left with more than a few bees in its bonnet about Israel and a tolerant (though not uncritical) attitude towards Russia’s President Putin.

Rabbil Sikdar launched a relevant attack on this left a few months ago in the Huffington Post.

The Left Are Losing Their Internationalism

It’s the left that backs Brexit and the left that can witness a massacre take place and deny its existence if the west wasn’t responsible for it. It’s the left who will criticise the USA and Saudi Arabia but ignore Russia and Iran. To them, it’s futile to criticise others and more useful instead to focus on one’s own government and allies. Theresa May and the Tories are rightly criticised for indulging Saudi Arabia despite their treatment of women yet Jeremy Corbyn has never been criticised for taking money from Press TV, the state channel for Iran – a country that violently represses gays and women. When it comes to ethical consistency in foreign policy and relations, the left are dangerously wayward. Oz Katerji, a journalist, explained this to me as “hypocrisy based on outdated ideological assumptions about the world where discussing our international responsibility to protect civilians from harm, a fundamental precept of international law, is gas-lighted as British imperialism.”

He concldued,

Genocide happens and parts of the left simply erase it on a consistent basis. I dialled down my criticisms of Corbyn after 8th June but it’s immoral to remain silent over something as important as this. The Labour Party is becoming a political home for awful genocide apologists and it runs right through to the leader himself.

It is far from the case that the Labour Party, and the Corbyn leadership can be so brutally accused.

What might be true is that the Labour leader, like everybody else, has no easy answer to the problems of violence across the world.

It is equally the case that this left is not the left.

There are many, from radical left groups to left-wing defenders of human rights who would not recognise themselves in Sikdar’s broadside.

But there is a section of the left, which has a stand about a key area that matters a great deal at present – Syria – which is at odds with basic human rights politics.

Sikdar focused last year on Syria in an  attack the embodiment of this left, the Morning Star.

His views had all the more force in that it is a paper he had written for.

Why I will no longer write for the Morning Star Rabbil Sikdar

I wear my socialism on my sleeves and will never shy away from that. Every Political Compass test has me basically nailed down as a ‘hard left’ person. The things I believe in, radical to some, sensible to others define my sense of socialism: fair wages, fair taxes, strong public sector, social housing and a compassionate welfare system.

He announced,

 I no longer write for the Star and for a while had been winding down my contribution. By the end it was just sport content because of my respect for the sports editor. For the other part, I have a lot of things to be angry about with the Star.

For a newspaper that subscribes to left wing values, that should include free speech and right to criticise politicians. Unfortunately this never extended to criticism of Corbyn’s failing leadership, or Diane Abbott; it didn’t include the ‘Lexit’ vote — and where it mattered most crucially, it did not include Russia and Assad.

The paper has never criticised the Assad regime or Putin. Lines that go along with “we’re no fans of the Assad regime but…” are poor condemnations. In fact, they’re not condemnations at all. Someone recently described it quite well as imagining defenders of the British Empire dismissing the Amritsar Massacre. Likewise, saying “we condemn all bombings” gravely misunderstands who is doing the bombing and draws a false equivalence between aggressive actors and those responding to the violence. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported in 2015 that the Assad regime was responsible for more than 10,000 deaths. ISIS, for all their barbarism, had killed just over a thousand. Since then, those statistics have continued in underlining the basic fact that Assad — backed up by Russia — has been responsible for the brutal carnage.

And this,

One of their long-time contributors John Wight, a staunch unwavering supporter of Assad and Russia, called me a “liberal apologist for murder” (paraphrasing here) in a heated Facebook row. It led to one of the editors apologising to me, but it was then I began noticing something.

Wight is known to this Blog as a former author at Socialist Unity, until he fell out with Andy Newman.

Always a bit of an amateur military strategist Wight now produces material for Putin’s Sputnik.

It is a relief to find him anti-Brexit, but as for the rest, well,

The launch of the military operation to liberate Idlib province in northwestern Syria brings with it the prospect of a final military victory over Salafi-jihadi terror groups in the country, which congregated there upon the liberation of Aleppo back in January.

Together with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russian troops and personnel from the country, it is evidence that the conflict has entered its last stage.

Sputnik.

That aside, the chief, and most significant complaint, is what Sikdar “began noticing” – the following,

Whenever I wrote articles that were critical of Assad and Putin, they were never published. I never even got responses on them. Other times articles had lines critical of Assad tweaked, removed entirely often. I wrote a football article about the Middle East, talking about Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and also Syria. The point about Syria was enough to get the entire article pulled. What was the point? “In Syria, the Civil War saw the football destroyed. Players and coaches took sides, willingly or reluctantly, Assad or the pro-democracy rebels. There were more who were neutral. Others left the country, compelled by intimidation or fear for safety. Some players such as Musab Balhous were imprisoned for supposedly helping rebels. More left because they came to regard the Syrian national team as associated with Assad…Incidentally, though the league system has been resuscitated, the power has shifted, tilting towards clubs in Damascus who are free from Assad’s ruthless bombing. Since the league was restarted, the last two titles have gone to Al-Shorta and Al-Jaish, clubs from the capital. Those from rebel-based cities have suffered immensely.” Again, this paper failed to acknowledge even the slightest of criticisms of Assad. Why?

Sikhar concludes,

My anti-imperialism is consistent and just as with my socialism, it’s not something I’ll ever apologise for. It applies to America and Russia. Saudi Arabia and Iran. Assad’s Syria and Netanyahu’s Israel. It doesn’t excuse and apologise for a genocidal fascist simply because USA are on the opposite side and because he’s a secularist. We measure the barbarism and cruelty of ISIS by the thousands they have killed. Well, Assad has killed hundreds of thousands. But the Star would have us believe this man is a “liberator”. And they would silence internal criticisms within the paper.

Perhaps they will answer.

For us we would also ask: is the Morning Star the paper of the Left or a faction of the left?

If it has tried to open its pages to a wider range of writers is it, on Syria (and we can be sure, on Brexit) it has, on this evidence, begun to narrow their selection down.

A much more recent example was their indulgence of Andrew Murray and his cracked call for George Galloway to be admitted into the Labour Party.

No doubt they do not fit with the “political programme of the CPB” “people’s sovereignty” and all  the stale remains of the British Road to Socialism…..

Written by Andrew Coates

December 18, 2017 at 2:09 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.

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(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

October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Critical Left Reflections.

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October. The Story of the October Revolution, China Miéville. Verso. 2017.

Autumn and the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution are drawing closer. The harvest of books on the new Soviet Power is still being gathered. It is, no doubt somebody has written, the duty of socialists to study, and this crop comes, for many, at the top of the left’s reading list. Should we begin with Lenin and the debates that have arisen after the publication of Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to Be Done’ in Context (2008)? The 17th century Jansenist theologian, Saint-Cyran, claimed to have gone through Saint Augustine’s writings, 22 volumes, ten times, and his writings against the Pelagian heretics thirty. (1) There are Leninists whose familiarity with the Collected Works of Lenin  exceeds that modest accomplishment. Far better, if we are to grasp what was a stake in Russia in 1917, to start first with accounts of events: the contending politics and theories, Bolsheviks and their opponents, are embodied in the acts of the revolution.

China Miéville’s contribution is, as he announces, “a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. (Page 2). If it is more than as a “story” that he tells the tale, Miéville, from the radical left, and the accomplished author of the BasLag weird fiction trilogy, brings a freshness and enthusiasm to the narrative, which begins in the 19th century Tsarist Russian opposition, the 1905 Revolution, and above, all the immense tragedy of the Great War which overshadowed the events that unfolded. October leaves little doubt that the immediate alternative to All Power to the Soviets was not a coalition of the left, but the threat of a successful far-right coup that would have accomplished what General Kornilov had failed impose. Miéville has both charmed and irritated those already familiar with the plot, and, one hopes, instilled both interest and caution in those not.

The Saint-Cyrans amongst the left have not been slow to argue about the take on Lenin’s Letters from Afar (March 1917), which called for the Bolsheviks to take state power. For some this remains a “bombshell”, advocating an accelerated move towards a socialist regime, telescoping previous alliances and revolutionary ‘stages’ into an immediate drive towards something close to socialism. But Miéville claims (following Lars Lih) that, “His argument that the revolution must continue remained clear, as did his exhortation to worker, ‘you must perform miracles of proletarian and popular organisation to prepare for your victory in the second stage of the revolution’ – a stage not of socialism, he would soon clarify, but of taking political power, of winning over the Soviet, to ensure the victory of the (necessarily bourgeois, democratic) revolution (Page 98). It was “continuity Bolshevism, and yet contained the seeds of a distinct and more trenchant position”. (Page 99) Readers who wish to make their own judgement can follow debates on the relationship between socialism, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and other aspects of Bolshevik programme and doctrine.

Defending the Revolution.

Of far greater interest are Miéville’s defences of the Revolution. In a concluding chapter there is a series of reflections on its outcome, to put it simply, Stalinism. The state organised Red Terror was, in a manner familiar to anybody acquainted with Miéville’s former organisation the Socialist Workers Party, explained as a result of external circumstances. The Civil War was the cause, ““Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture and cannibalism. The beleaguered regime unleashes the Red terror.”(Page 312). Yet, ““there is no doubt that its reach a depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism or the degradation of the moment are thugs and murders unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There is no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.”(Ibid).

October does not examine the view that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” unconstrained by the rule of law is fertile ground for abuse, thugs and murders. One may disagree with Kautsky’s critique of Bolshevism. But if Lih is correct that Lenin accepted the view that the democratic republic was an important stage in the “ripening of the proletariat” it is not the view that this is a “stage” “the essential basis for building up a Socialist system if production” that favours the eventual conquest of political power, that strikes us most today. It is his opinion that “people’s rights” such as “the protection of minorities” are the bedrock of socialism. (2)

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. 

Was Soviet Power, on the basis of interpreting Lenin’s reflections in State and Revolution (1917), made up of “working bodies, executive and legislative at the same time” a vehicle for these rights? Could take the state and politics back into the hands of the – restricted – electorate who controlled them? Lenin’s model was the barely over a couple of months long Paris Commune (8 Mar 1871 – 28 May 1871), a pluralist assembly, a heroic stand,  but which ended in a deep split between the patriotic majority of Blanquists who wished to fight by any means to the end, and an opposition of Proudhonists  and supporters of the First International (Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, Histoire de la Commune de 1871,  Published, 1876 and a standard source for Marxists for many years). Its own administrative achievements – contested – aside, this perhaps illustrates the difficulties of revolutionary democracy in war.

As Isaac Deutscher memorably commented, the Bolsheviks refused to allow the “famished and emotionally unhinged country to vote their party out of power and itself into a bloody chaos” are not hard to grasp. (3)

They had always tacitly assumed that the majority of the working class having backed them in the revolution, would go on to support them unswervingly until they had carried out the full programme of socialism. Naïve as the assumption was, it sprang from the notion that socialism was the proletarian idea par excellence that the proletariat, having once adhered to it would not abandon it. (Ibid)

The Russian Dictatorship of the Proletariat had immense ambitions. Soviet power was a lever to the transition towards socialism. But disagreements arose over the methods used to that aim. Those opposed to the militarisation of labour in War Communism, to the One Man Management that emerged, Taylorism, and what is called ‘bureaucracy’ indicated that the content, the social institutions, of ‘socialism’ were not something that was already there in the “programme”. No number of warnings about external threats can retrospectively annul the fact that the dissident voices within the left, the critics of Bolshevism whose views were far from the ‘formalism’ of Kautsky and the social democrats who rejected the revolution en bloc,

In a more open-minded fashion than many who wish to defend Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ state of grace,  Miéville says, Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.”(Page 317) But without human rights, how can we judge such abuses? Without such standards – not trumped by the necessities of the moment – what do we have left? This is more fundamental than the ban on Bolshevik “factions” that took place at the  10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) 1921, that is –initially limited – clamp down on the freedom of inner-party debate. But even if the Party had reached agreements to tolerate loyal extra-party opposition, say with left Mensheviks and ‘non-party’ representatives in the Soviets – that is accepting disagreements in terms that they set, there was no prospect of accepting pluralism as such, that is the right of an opposition to say what they wish. As the twenties wore on this was no longer a matter of the external constraints of civil war, ‘temporary measures’, but became a matter of doctrine.

The Russian Revolution, it is customary to say, contained many potentials. Miéville points to the sense of popular power that it unleashed. Government decrees, on women’s rights, decriminalising homosexuality, and the recognition of national rights as the USSR was formed from different ‘republics’, and – within the limits of the censorship – artistic creatively briefly flourished. But the strategy of a ‘transitional dictatorship’ was the worm in the fruit.

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(1) Page 293. Tome l. Port-Royal. Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin. 3rd Edition. 1867.

(2) The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Karl Kautsky. Ann Arbor. 1964 (1919)

(3) Page 505, The Prophet Armed. Trotsky 1879 – 1921. Isaac Deutscher. Oxford University press. 1979.

Ken Bell, Labour Leave, EU “scab influx” of Migrant Labour and “gobby Birds”.

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The ‘Good Old Cause’ Says leading Labour Leave Writer.

 

arry’s Place, Sarah AB,  broke this story (though it had been going around Facebook yesterday afternoon)..

 So here it is: as HP calls it,

Labour Leaver on ’scab’ migrant labour

This piece has been cross-posted by Labour Leave. (who have removed it….)

Trigger warning: the author shows the curious mixture of xenophobia, Stalinist nostalgia and sheer  lunacy that marks out some of the Lexit, pro-Brexit, self-styled left.

Kenneth Bell (4 followers) writes,

Let’s be honest, the left argument against the EU is not an anti-immigration one. Rather, it’s about the wholesale importation of scab labour by management to cut British wages and put us in our place, both economically and socially. That is a fact that Jeremy Corbyn made clear when he said that people will still move around after we leave the European Union. However, he then went on to say: “What there wouldn’t be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.

The man of the moment goes on to say,

I can describe them as genuine scab labourers because they come from countries which had the type of economic system that we want for ourselves. One that guaranteed full employment, a functioning health service that was free at the point of use, and two weeks holiday every year at a Black Sea resort. Most important of all was the fact that management were little more than errand boys, with the major economic decisions being taken by the government and the unions.

Sadly, because socialism was introduced courtesy of the Soviet army, it was seen as something imposed on those countries from outside, so we can fully understand why the peoples of Eastern Europe wanted the Soviet Union out of their countries. However, throwing out the socialist baby with the Soviet bathwater has never made any sense to me, nor I suspect would it to any of the British workers who now spend a lifetime doing a crap job for a crap wage for a crap employer.

Bell is oh so keen on Brexit,

A year ago today we voted to free ourselves from the clutches of Brussels. We had been told by various scum sucking Federast types that if we voted for freedom we would be condemning Britain to another generation of right-wing Tory rule, a line that I look back on today with a head-shaking grin.

Enjoying our new found liberty Bell has developed a frolicsome  line in humour.

“This is a scold’s bridle, used to keep scolding woman, or gobby birds as we now call them, quiet. Photographed in the Edinburgh Museum today.”

His unique line on women’s issues is not doubt widely shared amongst his Lexit comrades.

Pippa Middleton is Still Best Viewed From Behind.

A fierce commitment to free speech opened Belly’s heart to this guest post:

Guest Posting: The Wankery that is Intersectioanality

According to well-established rumour Bell is in line for a weekly Morning Star column.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 29, 2017 at 4:35 pm