A number of my friends have watched in horror over the past few years as I have become more and more sympathetic with the Soviet Union’s policies between 1926 and 1953.
The shorthand for this period, of course, would be the “Stalinist period”.
Despite my previous open and vigorous support from the “Leninist period” between 1917 and 1924, many of my acquaintances began to strongly protest only once I began to defend the post-Lenin Soviet Union.
In fact, even on this blog, you can watch my evolution on this topic very clearly.
However, as I’ve turned towards a more fundamentally materialist analysis of political economy and the more I’ve critically analyzed historical accounts and narratives, it’s become apparent to me that the Soviet Union through to 1953 is worth defending, at least critically.
We can start where my anarchist friends would draw their first line of trouble. They even get uncomfortable if I talk about Lenin. For them, the trouble seems to be authority – never mind the fact that “authority” becomes increasingly more difficult to define in a satisfactory way when we discuss political arrangements.
Lenin didn’t live up to very important post-Enlightenment (Euro-Amerikkkan) bourgeois values of the anarchists.
Here, I’m always reminded of Emma Goldman’s discussion with Lenin during the Civil War. She very famously asked, “What about freedom of speech? Where is the freedom of speech here?” And Lenin responded, “Do you understand that we’re in the middle of a war? We’re being attacked by all sides – we’ve been invaded by fourteen countries. We won’t allow counter-revolutionary propaganda.”
My anarchist friends (in the West) take Goldman’s position and I take Lenin’s.
These are our fundamental differences.
(By the way, anarchists in Russia are having very different conversations.)
The idealist politics of my anarchist friends reveals the core flaw in anarchism. There is no destruction of capitalism as long as there is no anti-capitalist organization. There is no victory as long as there is no authority. Anarchists in history have discovered this in their attempts to build non-state utopias in Makhnoist Ukraine or Revolutionary Catalonia, where effectively they had very authoritarian governments without calling them “governments”. This has also become clear in modern anarchist projects like Rojava, where the PYD has instituted a sort of one-party (mono-ethnic) state, without, of course, calling it a “state”.
So what is important about Lenin here?
Lenin (and the Soviet Union) represents the will to overcome this defeatist trend.
The resolve to, first and foremost, overthrow the dominant structures of capitalism and bourgeois class rule. The Leninist project was crystal clear about the need to embrace a materialist analysis of society and make conclusions that effectively flow from that premise. A materialist analysis is the thing that Trotskyists and anarchists are both lacking!
How does capitalism function?
Where can we find the bourgeoisie?
Where can we find the proletariat?
Who has, as Marx said, “nothing to lose” but their chains?
How do we organize these people to destroy global liberal capitalism?
Only by wielding the mechanics of the state do we have any hope in dismantling capitalism. The bourgeoisie are never going to willingly hand over power and give up their exploitation of the proletariat. These are central mechanisms to their existence. These are the central mechanisms of private control over the means of production.
This is why those who have always tried to do away with the state too early have found themselves reconstructing a state themselves (even if they’ve tried to hide behind semantics).
I was once an anarchist.
I was also once a Trotskyist.
Of course, one of the dominant narratives surrounding the Stalin period is the many millions of dead.
Personally, this was perhaps my largest hang-up with regards to Stalin. Despite getting beyond so much propaganda regarding other subjects (like the Russian Revolution!), I couldn’t seem to break free of this point on Stalin.
The whole thing seems unbelievably dreadful. Incomprehensibly reprehensible.
Until, of course, one really begins to dive into the Stalin period like a real historian, rather than someone reading a Wikipedia page with citations from “The Black Book of Communism” or hacks like Robert Conquest.
Once you engage with the evidence for the claims about Stalin, the whole edifice falls apart.
What was the population of the USSR in 1924 versus 1953?
What were the numbers of people who died in the Gulag system (let alone who were even in the Gulag!)?
How was legislation introduced, passed, and enforced in the Stalin period?
How did the bureaucracy function?
What was the role of the NKVD in this period and how many people were imprisoned/killed while Yezhov was leading the organization?
How about when Beria was in charge?
What about the Soviet role in other countries at this time?
Questions like this are what initially led me to embrace Trotskyism – all the fun of the revolutionary event without any of the consequences of defending the subsequent state-building process.
However, revolution is not an event; it’s a process.
Even if Trotsky advocated defending the “degenerated worker’s state” and the “deformed worker’s states” that followed the Stalinist line, most pseudo-Leftists are much more comfortable dealing with Trotskyists than they are with Stalinists.
The narrative of the tragic hero usually suffices to justify Trotsky’s position in the pantheon of pseudo-Leftist demigods.
However, Trotsky was also no teddy bear. And if you really look at history, the charges made against him in the Moscow Trials seem to be pretty accurate.
Regardless of the circumstances, all of us in the West have been fed endless anti-communist propaganda – the millions supposedly killed by totalitarian regimes. The dreadful living conditions behind the so-called Iron Curtain. The lack of “freedoms” and the evil of the proposition that everyone deserves a home, a job, and food.
After all, it is an undeniable fact that those who are currently in power have a vested interest in making sure that people associate Stalin and Mao with genocide.
It’s no wonder Stalin gets lumped in with Hitler, despite the fact that Hitler started the Holocaust and Stalin ended it.
Was the Soviet Union some sort of mystical paradise where nothing bad happened? Obviously not.
The Soviet Union was a country pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, almost literally.
In less than ten years, the USSR developed from a backward, feudal society into an industrial superpower that was able to defeat Nazi Germany in one of the most destructive events of all time. The magnitude of this accomplishment cannot be overstated.
Life expectancy doubled from around 35 years to 70 years. Literacy became nearly universal. Healthcare and education were free and available. Women were granted full legal and political equality. People of color were granted full legal and political equality. Electricity was extended beyond the cities. The population grew rapidly. The Caspian and Central Asian Republics were made fully equal republics to the Russian Soviet Republic.
What went along with this? In the Stalin era, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned (and we’ll never know how many of them were innocent). This is often used to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was hell on earth. No one seems to care that hundreds of thousands of people were locked away in many other countries at the same time (including the United $tates and throughout Europe).
Prison is never a fun place, and it certainly was no fun in the Soviet Union.
There is no denying that fact, as the social purpose of a prison is not to be a fun place. But if we’re going to determine the value of a state in its prisons, then it’s imperative that we do the same with regards to the USSR under Lenin and Trotsky, prisons in Makhnoist Ukraine, and the extensive prison system in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. How about the situation in Rojava right now?
The fact is (and this is an increasingly difficult fact for many pseudo-Leftists): the world is not a perfect place.
Nothing works exactly as you plan it and, following this, the Soviet Union had plenty of bad things going on.
There are also plenty of points we can use to criticize Stalin’s government. It was a government of people who made mistakes, who committed crimes, who were fallible. One thing to consider is that for almost thirty years, the Soviet Union was the only country even claiming to be socialist. While capitalism and imperialism had encircled the globe, the only active challenge to this paradigm was, in fact, Marxism-Leninism (pejoratively referred to as Stalinism).
One of the common challenges leveled by people who know nothing about communism is the bullshit cliché of “Communism looks good on paper, but it doesn’t work in real life, because of human nature.”
Many of these people also say that there are two socialisms – socialism in theory and “actually existing socialism”. The Soviet Union and “actually existing socialism” proved that socialism does work. People are not angels and, following that, we need socialist governmental structures in order to enact a socialist society.
Awful things happened under “actually existing socialism”. Do you want to know why? Because it was actual!
It’s important to remember that, beyond this, there are two “actually existing” socialisms. There was the socialism that exists/existed in countries like the USSR, China, Cuba, the DPRK, and East Germany and then there was the “socialism” presented in the West that was constructed through propaganda, lies, and misrepresentations.
Once you get past the second, the first “actually existing socialism” becomes clearer. In the USSR, people took chances, made errors, corrected or exacerbated those errors, etc. This is how things function in the real world. We shouldn’t shy away from the fact.
We shouldn’t say, “When there is a dictatorship of the proletariat, everything will be perfect!”
No. We should rather say, “We will learn from the errors made by our predecessors, but we too will make errors! And our successors will have to learn from our mistakes!”
Some anarchists say that the October revolution failed after the Bolsheviks took power over the Constituent Assembly. Some modern left communists say that the Soviet Union stopped being “socialist” after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took them out of WWI. Some Trotskyist say that the system “degenerated” after Trotsky lost his place in the government. Some Marxist-Leninists outside the country left their parties during the 30s based on reports they received from the Soviet Union. And many other parties split after Khrushchev gave his secret speech and started the process of de-Stalinization.
Different groups of people have both supported the Soviet legacy, while criticizing the rotten elements of the Soviet Union.
And, after all, Marxist-Leninists are apt to criticize Marx and Engels, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Lin Biao. They were not perfect, flawless individuals. Indeed, many of the problems of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China can be attributed to their mistakes.
The fundamental question, however, is: where do we locate the rotten elements of the Soviet Union?
I no longer locate those elements in the person of Stalin.
For, ultimately, today Stalin can be nothing more than a symbol. Joseph Stalin, like all historical figures, is nothing except a face, an image, a re-presentation.
When we construct our contemporary political paradigms, we are inevitably forced to choose the symbols that delineate the borders. When pseudo-Leftists choose to toss aside the Stalin (or even more dramatically, the Soviet project all together), they lose the ability to engage that legacy fully.
Such a simple position with regards to Stalin (either pro- or anti-) does nothing to enhance critical engagement with the communist legacy. Plenty of mouth-breathing half-wits love to go on and on about how dreadful the Soviet experiment was, despite knowing next-to-nothing about the 20th century. The Soviet Union and Stalin especially should reveal to us the necessity of taking a more sophisticated position on things that require an ounce of thought.
A few years ago, a friend pointed out to me (and this is, of course, simply anecdotal) that the Marxist-Leninist parties in the U.$. were full of people of color, whereas the Trotskyist parties were almost always just bespectacled white people selling newspapers.
I would argue that this general trend applies to anarchists as well (although without the newspapers).
And while this alone doesn’t indicate the superiority of Marxism-Leninism, it does show that there is some division between how different people see things, based on their association with a nation of oppressors and a nation of oppressed. Trotskyists, after all, still think that revolution is going to be led by the First World (as though white people in the First World could possibly be trusted with the task of building socialism).
Marxism-Leninism was the ideological underpinning to organizations like the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords.
Marxism-Leninism was the only broad, multinational, successful attempt to overthrow capitalism, feudalism, and fascism in the 20th century. The gains made by the Russian Revolution are incalculable, because they were so far-reaching and often went unrecognized.
We must acknowledge and defend the legacy and successes of the Soviet Union, especially now in the 21st century, when Euro-Amerikkkan capitalism and imperialism have encircled the globe.
Over the years, I have tried, from multiple angles, to find a proper way to cast my own politics in relation to that legacy, but it was only through properly incorporating Stalin that my own political constellations crystallized. Today, I stand in defense of the Soviet Union and am willing to take responsibility for both the successes and the failures – only by doing so can we begin to overcome the current state in which we find ourselves.