Keith Jamieson’s fevered account of my November 11 talk “Everything You’ve Been Told About Communism Is Wrong” deserves a reply (see the Chicago Weekly, 11/18/09, linked below). Since the historical part of my talk focused on Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and since there is insufficient space to reply to each and every allegation from Jamieson, I want to make some points about the historical role of Stalin.
Jamieson cites statistics about deaths during the Stalin era. Leaving aside the bogus and easily refutable claim that the Soviet government “caused the death of some 15 to 20 million people,” Jamieson provides no social or historical context. It’s history by body count. It’s as though one could understand the causes and significance of the French Revolution or of the U.S. Civil War by reciting numbers of the executed and killed (why not blame Abraham Lincoln, that obstinate defender of the Union, for the deaths of 700,000?).
So how does one evaluate Stalin in larger historical perspective--with historical accuracy? Stalin’s achievements as a revolutionary leader, his methodological shortcomings, and his errors, some of which had grievous consequences, are all part of the first wave of socialist revolution that opened new historical possibility for humanity in the first half of the 20th century. This historical experience is part of the “learning curve” of the communist project.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin stepped forward to lead a process of transforming, on a socialist basis, a backward and largely agrarian society (not that far out of its feudal past). Stalin articulated the need and basis for forging a socialist society that would contribute to the emancipation of the oppressed and exploited on this planet.
There was no blueprint, no previous historical experience, for how to develop socialist industry and agriculture. Nor did the Soviet leadership get to choose the circumstances in which it would undertake this bold experiment.
The Soviet Union faced unremitting imperialist encirclement and counterrevolution from within. In 1918-20, Western powers supported reactionary, ultra-nationalist forces in the Russian Civil War, and intervened with finance, arms, and troops (though by Jamieson’s statistical reckoning, the Soviet government is responsible for all the deaths incurred both by the fighting and industrial-agricultural dislocation of that conflict).
But in the face of these challenges, and under Stalin’s leadership, an extraordinary process of radical economic and social transformation took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
This had incredibly liberating effects for women breaking free of the oppressive bonds of church and patriarchy, for people of the former oppressed nationalities (who enjoyed forms of regional autonomy and could carry on educational instruction in native languages), and for the creation of revolutionary culture. The working class was activated to remake industry and to change the relations of production.
By the mid-1930s, the international situation had grown perilous for the Soviet Union. In 1931, Japan had invaded Manchuria; not long after, Hitler consolidated power in Germany; conservative and pro-fascist forces had gained strength in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania, and the Baltic countries, including Poland; in Spain, the Western powers stood idly as General Franco’s 1936 uprising against the Spanish Republic was actively aided by Hitler and Mussolini; Germany and Japan had signed an Anti-Soviet Pact.
The growing danger of inter-imperialist war and the likelihood of massive imperialist assault on the Soviet Union (and some 25 million Soviets died as a result of the Nazi invasion of 1941) was an important part of what set the stage for the purges and executions of 1936-38.
The standard story line is that Stalin was a paranoid despot inventing conspiracies and fabricating enemies in order to consolidate absolute personal power and to exact total submission from the population. But the fact is that Stalin was fighting to defend the world’s first and only socialist society against real threat.
As international tensions grew, Stalin and the revolutionary leadership had reason to be concerned about the state of the party and the armed forces.
Counterrevolution inside the Soviet Union was real: economic sabotage, assassination of party leaders and activists, diplomatic subversion, reactionary social movements in places like the Ukraine. Various political oppositions emerged within the high party leadership, and the reliability of regional party leaderships was also a source of worry. In the 1920s, Soviet and German military officers had collaborated as part of government-to-government agreements involving training and transfer of weaponry—and now, in the face of the war threat, there was growing concern about the reliability of the high-officer corps.
Stalin was not going to allow the socialist Soviet Union to go back to capitalism, or to cave in to imperialism. The problem was that Stalin sought to deal with danger of counterrevolution and imperialist onslaught with a kind of “fortress socialism” approach.
In society and economy, a premium was placed on order, discipline, and everything for production. Repression, which should only have been directed against enemies, was increasingly used against people who were merely expressing disagreements with policies or even with socialism--or making mistakes in their capacities as administrators and leaders.
In 1937-38, there was a wave of purges, arrests, and executions. Individual rights and due process were violated in an atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue. Not only did innocent people suffer, but also the Soviet Union became an increasingly cold and conformist society--with people looking over their shoulders, “watching what they said.”
But it was not some pathological hunger for power on Stalin’s part that produced this outcome. Rather, it was a question of outlook, understanding, and method. Mao Tsetung pointed out that Stalin failed to distinguish between two types of contradictions under socialism: those among the people and contradictions between the people and the enemy. Stalin did not differentiate between, on the one hand, active efforts to undermine and overthrow the socialist state, and dissent and opposition on the other.
It was Stalin’s inability to correctly distinguish and utilize different methods in handling these two different types of contradictions--suppression and punishment for counter-revolution; and persuasion, debate, and ideological struggle in resolving contradictions among the people that led to the harsh excesses of the late 1930s. The masses did not gain the ability to understand why new capitalist forces arose under socialism, nor of the forms of mass struggle needed to combat these forces.
Stalin had a mechanical approach to Marxism and towards socialism. He saw socialism as a society that would march forward, almost in lockstep, towards classless communist society. But as Bob Avakian has envisioned in a whole new way, socialism must be a society of great swirl, dissent, and experimentation. Stalin’s mechanical view of socialism was also a factor that underlay the purges, arrests, and executions of 1936-38.
Here it is important to clarify that Stalin did not kill millions. Some 680,000 executions took place in 1937-38—but this total represented 87 percent of all death sentences carried out “for counterrevolutionary and state crimes” between 1930 and 1953. By 1939, this wave of arrests and executions was a put a stop to by the Soviet leadership.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a very different matter. Here is the “learning curve” of the communist project. Mao summed up Stalin’s mistakes. The Cultural Revolution was a struggle against a new capitalist class and a struggle to keep the revolution on the socialist road. But rather than resorting to administrative and police measures from on high, Mao mobilized the masses from below to take up the burning political and ideological questions of the overall direction of society. The principal forms of struggle of the Cultural Revolution were mass debate, mass criticism, and mass political mobilization. Society was opened up rather than shuttered. Indeed, no modern society has ever seen this level of mass political debate and political transformation.
The purpose of my speaking tour is to stimulate discussion, debate, and critical thinking about the first wave of socialist revolutions and to help people learn about how Bob Avakian has been reenvisioning the communist project. Keith Jamieson is incredulous that historians would so pervasively misrepresent this historical experience.
But the fact is: people have been lied to about communism. The dominant and self-serving narrative in capitalist society prevents people from accurately understanding what the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China set out to do, the real obstacles they faced, the extraordinary things they accomplished, and their real problems and shortcomings. Why should this be any surprise? After all, the legitimacy of this system rests on the notion that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, or the “end of history.” And let’s not forget that the American people were systematically lied to about the Vietnam War (that cost the lives of at least two million Vietnamese people) and fed a bill of goods as to why the U.S. had to invade Iraq in 2003. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was huge ideological struggle and new research undertaken to expose America as an empire and its real origins in genocide against the Native Americans and the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans.
The world cries out for revolution, for emancipatory change. That’s what’s riding on the search for the truth about socialism and communism: we can create a radically different and better world.
One last factual point. In my University of Chicago talk, I mistakenly referred to Eisenhower threatening socialist China with nuclear attack in his 1953 inaugural speech. I meant to refer to veiled threats in Eisenhower’s 1953 State of the Union address—where Eisenhower asserted the “retaliatory power” of the U.S. and stated that the Seventh Fleet would “no longer be employed to shield Communist China.” On May 20 1953 at a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower concluded that if the U.S. were to pursue more effective action vis-à-vis North Korea, the war would need to be expanded beyond Korea and it would be necessary to use atomic bombs if the Chinese and North Koreans did not sign the Armistice Agreement (this message was to be relayed to the Chinese through third parties). As additional warning, missiles with nuclear warheads were transferred to Okinawa in early spring 1953. On November 6, 1953, NSC document 166/1 spelled out that in a conflict with China, U.S. power “employing all available weapons, could impose decisive damage on the Chinese Communist air force and its facilities.”
From the Chicago Weekly, 11/18/09
Everything You Know About Communism is Right:
What Raymond Lotta Got Wrong
by Keith Jamieson
Across the street from the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow, there stood in 1937 a nondescript building with a specially sloped floor, for drainage, and a wooden wall to muffle the sound of bullets. It was here that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed enemies of the Communist regime. Between 1937 and 1938 this amounted to the deaths of at least 700,000 people, according to the Russian Memorial society. Among the victims were Nikolai Bukharin, once one of the chief Soviet economists; Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; Genrikh Yagoda, former head of the secret police; and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Those who were not murdered outright were frequently deported to the Gulag prison camps, based on the katorga system that had existed under the tsars. These were scattered throughout Siberia and in 1939 housed over a million people, slowly freezing or being worked to death in some of the most hostile environments on earth.
Read the rest here.