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Stalin from the Left


August 16, 2022

We have all heard the tired lines about how Stalin was a “brutal dictator” who “killed millions.” True or not, such moralizing resolves nothing for Marxists. After all any neo-Confederate worth their salt would say much the same of Lincoln and with some justification. In the current political climate, it is the height of fashion to denounce anyone whose career Hegel would have identified as a moment of the “history of freedom” in the same hysterical terms. If Western left identitarians see the American founders as no more than genocidal rapists and Russian national conservatives find Napoleon a precursor of Hitler, we can hardly be surprised to find Stalin vilified in the most hyperbolic terms by other enthusiasts of the destruction of reason.

In their turn, these shrill accusations are countered by often ludicrous apologists who insist that Stalin was a great democrat and rumors of his crimes are greatly exaggerated. Ultimately, this debate will continue endlessly, occupying time and energy without clarifying anything essential. If we want to understand what forces Stalin represented and what role he played in the struggles of his own time as a key to grasping what he means to us today, we must depart for another terrain of inquiry altogether.

It’s the Economy Stupid

As Marxists, we understand that politics are the concentration of economics and that we will always be the victims of deception and self-deception in politics until we train ourselves to see behind every political trend the interests of classes occupying determinate positions within the economic process. Therefore, to understand Stalin or anyone else we must attempt an analysis, not of their conformity to humanitarian pieties (after all no politician of any significance could pass such an exam), but an evaluation of which production relations they seek to implement and impose.

Stalin’s ascent to power is conditioned by the unresolved contradictions of the Soviet state. After the “heroic period” of War Communism, when a struggle for bare survival was mixed with an abortive effort to leap immediately into socialist production relations, the Bolsheviks were forced to recognize the unfavorable relations of force with a provisional acceptance of commodity production under the proletarian dictatorship in the form of the New Economic Policy. A worker minority became isolated in a peasant-majority country in vast areas of which even the anti-feudal revolution was yet to be completed. It had few alternatives.

The question at hand was how to advance the revolutionary process to the next stage. Bukharin, Stalin, and the Right were willing to renounce not only the further advance towards socialist production relations but even the rapid development of heavy industry required to independently assert the Soviet Union against imperialism while insisting that their developmentalism was the construction of socialism. Trotsky and the Left Opposition saw the need for the rapid development of heavy industry but also recognized that the completion of the construction of socialism could only occur on a world scale. The way to the full realization of socialism would only be opened by the overthrow of imperialism in the core of capitalism. As the 1920s proceeded, facing both the unraveling of the fragile balance established by the New Economic Policy and the political threat of the Left Opposition, Stalin with his trademark opportunism made a wild left turn. Socialism would not only be built in a single country but on the tightest possible schedule. It was not simply a question of accelerating industrialization to the maximum extent possible within the constraints of the New Economic Policy but of realizing all the deferred dreams of October within the borders of a single state.

In the heady days at the beginning of the First Five Year Plan, this was taken literally. Professional economists and planners looked forward to a quick transition into a moneyless society which was the universally agreed definition of socialism. At the same time, workers looking forward to this millennium undertook the practical critique of the capitalist wage form on their own initiative. Structures called production communes, which equalized earnings among groups of workers who collectively planned their activity in production, developed across the country. Although still far from socialism, this was significant in a country where, despite the real gains of the revolution, workplace life remained defined by gaping wage differentials and piecework. In such an enthusiastic atmosphere, while others planned the imminent dissolution of bourgeois law and education, many on the Left, relieved that Stalin had found a way to implement their program, defected from the persecuted Opposition and hoped to join the party majority in constructive work.

The Limits of Stalinism

Unfortunately, although Stalin proved able to industrialize the USSR (building the great power which would destroy the Third Reich and form the labor side of the coin in a bipolar world order which would restrain capitalism for decades), socialism was a tougher nut to crack. The disappearance of money was abandoned, and socialism was defined down from the moneyless commune to state ownership of industry and cooperative agriculture. This was a definition which was enforced through retrospective censorship. It shaped the vulgar socialist consciousness of the 20th century and continues today to unite various strands of the “left,” from supporters of the People’s Republic of China to Sanders Democrats.

Production communes, despite their recognized productivity and mass popularity, were stigmatized as “petty bourgeois egalitarianism” and discouraged in favor of a renewed emphasis on individual competition which found a well-known high point in the Stakhanov movement. The restriction on remuneration for white-collar Party members known as the “communist maximum” was quietly abolished. The kilos of meat and fish consumed daily by officials at meetings held in times of national shortage demonstrated the sordid reality behind critiques of “egalitarianism.”

Meanwhile, in rural districts, the Party compensated for its failure to consistently lead a proletarian class struggle in the countryside during the NEP years with administrative violence against the bulk of the rural population. Collectives created with insufficient industrial basis as a stopgap measure to ensure grain supply to the cities led not to greater productivity but chaos and a catastrophic period of starvation. Far from building rural socialism, they left the task of even regularizing their members as state workers to the era of Brezhnev.

None of those shortcomings were of decisive concern to Stalin, a man who near the end of his life would observe that Soviet workers were “dirty” and therefore did not yet “deserve” communism. His concerns were more pragmatic: more steel, tanks, and aircraft. Experimenting with new relations of production in the enterprise, allowing democracy in the class party, or risking war to support foreign revolution were all dangerous distractions from the economic development of the Soviet state. And the opponents of his goals had a name: Trotskyists.

Mission Accomplished?

As the end of the 1930s approached, Stalin’s faction emerged triumphant. Now that everything had been nationalized, or at least collectivized, there was no more basis for class struggle. Socialism had been accomplished, and, therefore, what use for a proletarian dictatorship? A new constitution was drafted proclaiming universal suffrage in the best tradition of bourgeois democracy. There were no more enemy classes, only fraternal toilers living out “economic harmonies” worthy of Bastiat.

In such a happy condition those who alleged in public, or even in private, that socialist construction had been stopped halfway and that well-stocked special supply stores for the highest grades of state employees were not the end of history could only be one thing: Foreign agents. In the socialist realist portrayal of a classless society that Stalin plastered over the agonies of an incomplete revolutionary process, no recourse was left against a critical analysis of objective reality but a bullet to the back of the head.

If Trotsky insisted on the permanence of the revolution, stopping it halfway and freezing it in place was a survival necessity for Stalin and the social layer he came to represent. Both the return of private ownership and the control of the immediate producers meant the same thing to a new Soviet elite that legitimized itself no longer through the promise of transformed production relations but through the possibility of social mobility. From a society in transition as part of a global revolution, the Soviet Union became a stagnant island of worker entitlement encircled by an imperialist world it could never quite catch up with. What had started with Marx’s Communist Manifesto ended somewhat closer to Fichte’s Closed Commercial State.

The Decomposition of the Stalinist World and the Crisis of Marxism

In order to secure universal assent for the postulate that the class relations constituting the Soviet state formed not a halfway point on the road to socialism but socialism itself, Stalin was compelled to liquidate not only a generation of Marxists but Marxist thought itself. Political theory and history were reduced to the Short Course, political economy to Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, and culture was left to Zhdanov. As Rosdolsky observed in Making of Marx’s Capital, very few were left who understood the dialectical method applied by Marx and Lenin. After all, applying this method to the contradictions of Soviet society or the dilemmas of the international movement had become a criminal act. This set the stage for decades of ideological decomposition.

Denuded of any link to Marxism as the thought of proletarian politics which had been reduced to the fossilized residues of a Trotskyist movement whose proudest moments were failures of revolutionary intervention in Bolivia and Sri Lanka, the critique of Stalinism could only appear as a renewal of bourgeois thought. This took the form of either the liberal humanism of the Frankfurt School and Yugoslavia or the Jacobin virtue of Beijing. Such idealist dreams of socialism with a human face or rustic equality in the autarky of the “liberated zone” could only pave the way to the neoliberal utopia of human rights and free markets. Stalin’s greatest crime was to leave Adorno and Mao as his heirs.

With all that said how should we understand the continuing appeal of Stalin in an era when the entire historical sequence within which he formed a turning point has been exhausted? Stalin represents opportunistic adaption to the failure of the world revolution. The question of socialism was reduced to that of industrial development within the borders of the USSR. Worker’s dictatorship becomes the chance for every worker to attend training courses and make it as an engineer or a manager. In this sense, Stalin is a high point of the global class compromise he helped forge. He was a revolutionary eastern counterpart to the Roosevelts, Hoffas, and Atlees of the West. While the latter provided a new deal to the workers with the proceeds of imperialism, Stalin had to brutally wrench it out of semi-feudal backwardness. Stalinism and social democracy were twin manifestations of the integration of the labor movement into the capitalist world order, an integration that found its impetus in the unrealized threat and promise of the international proletarian revolution.

Today, those who look with nostalgia upon both share the incapacity to grasp the Leninist principle that reform is the result of a failed revolution. Stalin — from his first formulation of Socialism in One Country following the abortive offensive of the 1923 German October to his search for a collective security agreement with the West carried out at the cost of the Spanish Revolution and endorsement of Salerno and the “British Road to Socialism” — was a pragmatic manager of the global compromise, not a strategist of revolutionary action. Indeed, a global renewal of revolutionary action could only have swept away both him and the strata of social climbers who saw in him the instrument of their aspirations. Stalin is a natural hero for overpaid union staffers struggling to explain to the resistive rank and file why that unappetizing new contract is “actually” a win. Those of us who want more should look elsewhere for role models.

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