I saw an advert for a book “Never again communism? On left-wing criticism of Stalinism and Real Socialism” (“Nie wieder Kommunismus? Zur linken Kritik an Stalinismus und Realsozialismus” ) and was intrigued by the chance to read a collection of left-wing criticism of Stalinim. Following on this blog will be an irregular series of articles which looks are various issues raised in the excellent book that offers many insights for the critical left-winger.
Now, you can rest assured that the aim of these articles or of this blog is not to have you, by the end, defending Stalin, rounding up our enemies and putting them against walls. Nah, this isn’t about white-washing what has happened in the name of communism; that’s the very point of the book.
The introduction by the Gruppe INEX to the book says as much: “Anyone who speaks today about communism is not allowed to keep quiet about Real Socialism or Stalinism”. It goes on in rejecting a possible distancing of the theory from the praxis, “It is obvious that Stalinism and Real Socialism were thought to be an actualisation of the communist idea and up until their end was connected to impulses out of the communist idea”. Christian Schmidt goes on: “The communist heritage, the communist task was an […] idea for the demand for a society free from exploitation and tyranny. […] one can see (however) that all societal experiments to realise communism were not free from exploitation and certainly not free from tyranny”.
Why then, to be interested in this book, and in communism? Well, for me, as I said, it isn’t about me being on a journey towards being a communist , rather, the question does come as to why something which aimed towards emancipation and an end to exploitation turned into, as it says on the back cover, “a praxis of repression and terror”.
As regular readers of this blog should know by now, I am not uncritical towards the left. In one book I have Bob Avakian and Bill Martin speak of Stalin, actually employing the metaphor “you don’t make an omlette without breaking any eggs” and goes on to speak up for forcing Chinese academics to work in fields as that would be “good for them” (some communists I know do speak of “if I had power I would ban religion/football”). Otherwise, unconditional support (not just by communists) is given to the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavrez despite their involvement in the jailing of people with different political views,.
As is said in the introduction, a lack of critical analysis from some members of the left regarding communism is due to defensiveness. A hangover from the Cold War is that the ideological campaign of battling communism and indeed any alternative to capitalism. Cuts to public services and opposition to free health care in the US are part of this. Things like rights for workers, egalitarianism, human rights, pro-migrationary policies and the such are decried as “communist” or “unrealistic”. The assumption held by many is that there “is no alternative” to that which we have. In this context the lack of criticism to what has happened in the name of communism and socialism can be understood.
Why am I interested in this book? Well, a bit of a personal biography: I was brought up in a council estate during the Thatcher years. That wasn’t going to make me right-wing. I joined the Labour party and was one of those who was active during the 1997 election which Labour won. My politics became clearer and I started calling myself a socialist. The atmosphere of the time was very influential and I accepted wholly social democracy. 18 years of Tory rule got me supporting the premise of the main challenge to that and its reoccurance, and therefore I unconditionally supported New Labour. The recent years (including an anti-immigrant policy of the Labour government), largely the cuts and response to them, coupled with my growing awareness of the limits of social democracy in the face of capitalism (say, intense and successful lobbying by oil businesses in the face of climate change) have got me wondering about alternatives and here I am not thinking of communism (sorry to disappoint fascist activists quick to call all anti-fascists “communists”) but whether there are alternatives to social democracy (said I, the member of a social democrat party).
Another thing, I know of some communists who are good people; they share many wishes as myself, and are very much anti-Stalinist. In GB some stayed as communists despite everything because they still believe in the ideal, and see this as possible (possibly not via a state apparatus). Even if I don’t want communism myself, I see how communism is not a black-and-white matter.
That I live in Poland makes this all more important. Many western commentators, when Poland comes into the conversation will shake their heads and say solemnly “Things were bad before 1989, but now Poland is free”, making out that *everything* got better in after 1989, or that anything bad that came into being or remained after 1989 must be ignored. Of course, I don’t know any people in Poland who want a return to communist state rule. That does not however rule out criticism of capitalism (millions spent on unprofitable stadiums while people go hungry or rising rents which lead to more homelessness, the abuse of asylum seekers), with the consideration of yes, alternatives, and considerations of how was it that there were people in Poland who wanted communism, and were supportive of the regime and that things worked out as they did, with food shortages, the murder of opponents and so on.
I also wish to avoid the Autobahn argument. Yes, Stalinist and Maoist rule in the Soviet Union and China did bring things like greater literacy. While these things need to be taken into account, they cannot justify Stalinist and Maoist rule. Let’s be real about this, without the need to try to find easy “knock-out” arguments to close discussions.
Therefore, future articles will look at different focuses of the “Never again communism?” book, such as:
What kind of repression and terror took place (the “skull-cities of socialism”), nationalism in the Soviet Union (and what Lenin had to do with this), communism and gender emancipation (including for transexuals) in Russia during the 1920’s, Stalin’s state capitalism, pre- and post-revolution criticism of Leninism and Stalinism, GDR-antifascism and what that had to do with taking the focus away from the Shoah.
Additionally is something I find useful, namely, “Left-wing members who are really interested in alternatives to the market and the state must discuss possibilities for democratic decision-making in production and distribution. […] (Such considerations) cannot be delayed as to the time of revolutionary changes. It is necessary to develop, when possible, concrete ideas in the Here and Now and when possible, to try them out in order to see what chance they have as to their application”.
Developing alternatives to capitalism requires us to be realistic, to not assume that we have all the answers, to not shy from looking at the history of what happened when people tried to set up alternatives.
The next article in this series will look at the chapter “In the dead-end; the real existing nationalism in the Soviet Union” written by Che Buraškas.