Confronting the Stalinist legacy

by Corey Oakley • Published 12 March 2011

One of the magnificent features of the Arab revolutions is the ruthless manner in which they have exposed the dirty, duplicitous, hypocritical, blood-soaked truth about the global political establishment. As the revolutionary wave spread to envelop almost the whole of North Africa and the Middle East, Western politicians, diplomats, university heads, business executives and government bureaucrats squirmed, as evidence of their ties with the despots of the Arab world circulated across the internet.

Disgracefully though, some on the left have been tarred with the same brush. When revolution broke out in Egypt and Tunisia, the left was united in its response – celebrating the uprisings and denouncing the West for its role in backing the dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But when the revolt spread to Libya, it was a different story. Muammar Gaddafi[1]– before his recent embrace of the West – was once seen as a hero by many on the left. Among those who leapt to his defence were populist left wing leaders like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, who themselves still enjoy widespread support from the international left. While a clear majority of left wing organisations and groups voiced support for the Libyan uprising, a number either explicitly backed Gaddafi or surreptitiously undermined the revolution and attempted to depict it as a reactionary movement in alliance with US imperialism. Even of those on the left who supported the Libyan revolt, a number were hampered by their shady past of support for and collaboration with Gaddafi’s dictatorship. This history opened the space for right wing media hacks to have a field day, attempting to deflect attention from where it should have been: on the fact that the Arab revolution is a revolt against a system of brutal, authoritarian class rule across the Middle East and North Africa that the US and other imperial powers were instrumental in setting up and maintaining.

But the fact that the alliance between US imperialism, Zionism and Arab capitalism is the main enemy does not absolve the left from having to put its own house in order. That sections of the left were prepared to mount a semi-open defence of Gaddafi as he attempted to drown an inspiring, democratic revolt in blood, and that others have until very recently supported his barbaric regime, is a searing indictment of these groups’ claims to stand for human liberation and a demonstration that the cancer of Stalinism has not yet been exorcised.

It is important to document the history of left support for Gaddafi, which we will do below. But it is equally vital to explain it. There are only a few groups on the left today willing to openly argue that the model for socialism is authoritarian dictatorship. But the legacy of Stalinism runs much deeper than that. Stalinism infected almost every aspect of left wing politics, well beyond the official bearers of “socialist truth” in what were once monolithic communist parties. Stalinism transformed the way the left viewed revolution, leadership, states and classes, and their role in social struggle. It grotesquely distorted Marxism, replacing a vision of human emancipation achieved by working class insurrection with a shoddy collection of theories and mantras which so transformed the meaning of the word socialism as to make it applicable to the most hideous of regimes. These recent events demonstrate that while it is now 20 years since the collapse of official communism in the USSR, the struggle to rid the left of the legacy of Stalinism remains incomplete.

Libya and the left

At the head of those offering solidarity to Gaddafi’s tottering rule were the populist left leaders of Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, as WikiLeaks confirmed in some detail in February,[2]was a long-time ally of Libyan dictator.

In 2009, the US Embassy in Caracas wrote Washington about an African-South American summit held on the Venezuelan island of Margarita. Chávezhad called the meeting in an effort to highlight the historic unity between long-oppressed continents, though such public relations efforts were severely undermined by the roster of participants which included autocrats like Qaddafi and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. According to US diplomats, Chávez and Qaddafi congratulated each other on their “revolutions” during the ceremonies… Chávez declared “What Simon Bolívar [the Great Liberator of South American independence against the Spanish] is to the Venezuelan people, Gaddafi is to the Libyan people.[3]

Little wonder then that Chávez refused to denounce the massacres being carried out by Gaddafi’s regime, let alone give his backing to the revolutionaries.[4]In a televised speech, Chávez told his audience: “A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya. I’m not going to condemn him. I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend.”[5] Various of Chávez’s supporters were prepared to go much further. Venezuelan state television ran ongoing coverage viciously slandering the Libyan opposition and parroting the lunatic propaganda of the Gaddafi regime. Alimamy Bakarr Sankoh, President of the Hugo Chávez International Foundation for Peace, Friendship and Solidarity (HCI-FPFS), said:

Foreign powers, opposed to peace, unity and progress of Africa are in action again, leading a wicked campaign of treachery, deception and terrorism against Libyan leader, Muammar Al-Qathafi and the people of Libya. This time, the enemies of Africa are hiding behind the corrupt foreign media in their criminal attempts to attack and destroy Libya.[6]

Fidel Castro, in a widely circulated statement, expressed similar sentiments:

One can agree with Gaddafi or not. The world has been invaded with all kinds of news, especially using the mass media. One has to wait the necessary length of time in order to learn precisely what is the truth and what are lies, or a mixture of events of every kind that, in the midst of chaos, were produced in Libya… As for me, I cannot imagine that the Libyan leader would abandon his country; escaping the responsibilities he is charged with, whether or not they are partially or totally false.[7]

Both Chávez and Castro warned that the main danger facing Libya was Western intervention – an argument that was to be taken up by a number of groups and individuals on the left seeking to undermine the revolution. The widely read US-based website MRZine led the charge on this front, and on another – that of attempting to undermine the legitimacy of the revolt by casting dark aspersions about the nature of the revolutionary movement:

Now, the US naval war machine lies off the coast of Libya, and it is time for the American anti-war movement – such as it is – to remember who is the biggest enemy of peace on planet Earth: US imperialism. It is certainly not Muamar Khadafi, no matter what you think of him. And the conflict that is raging in Libya seems in important ways very much unlike the events in Tunisia and Egypt. The anti-Khadafi forces were armed from almost the very beginning of the uprising and included elements of the military. Unlike the opponents of Egypt’s President Mubarak, we know very little about who these rebel Libyans are – except that they have been getting lots of material help from the Americans and the French and other Europeans.[8]

Socialists, of course, must resolutely oppose imperialist intervention in the Arab world, which is aimed entirely at defeating the democratic revolution and ensuring the continued subjugation of the Arab people. Likewise, it would be wrong to deny that as the revolt spreads, all kinds of reactionaries and elements of the old regimes will try to attach themselves to the revolutionary movement and turn it to their own ends. But the campaign waged by MRZine – along with other Stalinists such as the Workers World Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (both in the US), as well as Chávez, Castro and others like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega – used the threat of imperialist intervention simply as justification for their refusal to break with Gaddafi, whose monstrous regime they consider to be progressive, if not actually socialist.

And while the majority of left organisations around the world have been willing to support the revolt, the list of leftist groups and individuals who have in the past lauded Gaddafi’s regime, and even received financial support from him, is depressingly long. The most notorious backers of Gaddafi on the left were undoubtedly Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain and their various international offshoots, such as the Socialist Labour League in Australia. Thankfully this group is today an irrelevant, withering sect. But there are many other major figures from recent left history who had a connection with Gaddafi. Arthur Scargill, the iconoclastic former head of the British miners’ union, met with Gaddafi to get support during the 1984 miners’ strike. Australian parliamentarians, along with many left wing activists, visited Libya during “solidarity conferences” in the 1980s. These included left Labor MPs Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean and George Crawford, as well as former Nuclear Disarmament Party federal senator Irina Dunn. Another acolyte of Gaddafi was Bill Hartley, who had been the secretary of the Victorian ALP before the purge of the left in 1971.

More recently Libya hosted the third Al Mathaba “anti-imperialist” conference in 2000. It was attended by a combination of Third World dictators and, shamefully, representatives from leftist parties across the world. So alongside despots like Sam Nujoma from Namibia, Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe and Idris Deby from Chad sat representatives of groups considered part of the international left – the Cuban Communist Party; Shaffik Handal from FMLN in San Salvador; a representative of Hugo Chávez; Lula, of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (before he took power and endorsed neoliberalism); Gladys Marin, the General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party; Marina Arismendi, General Secretary of the Uruguayan Communists. From Europe there was a delegation from the Italian Communist Refoundation Party, which at the time was held up by many on the international left as an exemplary party worthy of emulation. There was also a Spanish delegation led by José Cabo from the United Left.[9]

Castro, Chávez and socialist internationalism

Support for the revolutionary movement in Libya has not necessarily translated into strong condemnation of the supposedly left governments which have backed him. The Australian Socialist Alliance, for example, backed the revolution. But its criticism of Chávez and Castro for their repugnant stand has been less than thunderous. This is a major issue because Chávez in particular is regularly featured on the front cover of Green Left Weekly and praised in glowing terms. But the best GLW was able to do in the face of their hero siding with Gaddafi was to say: “Ignoring the brutal reality of Gaddafi, who has been a friend in recent years of the West and its allied dictators, risks breaking ties with popular Arab movements.”[10] On the Green Left discussion list one prominent Socialist Alliance member Chris Slee wrote:

We need to be cautious about capitalist media accounts of what is happening in Libya and elsewhere. The reluctance of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments to assign blame for the violence in Libya is therefore understandable to a certain extent. Nevertheless it seems clear that the Gaddafi regime today is a corrupt dictatorship which has had close links to the imperialist powers (though they are now ready to dump him). I would have preferred some expression of support from Cuba and Venezuela for the struggle for democracy in Libya.[11]

At a time when the sight of Chávez and Castro refusing to side with the Libyan revolution was causing anger and angst around the world, not least from many who had seen them as inspiring anti-imperialist leaders, the best Slee could do was to advise caution and mildly suggest that he “would have preferred some expression of support”!

One of the people on the left who, to his credit, has the least time for the various Gaddafi-enablers is Marxmail co-ordinator Louis Proyect. But in attacking Chávez and Castro, Proyect still gives ground to the argument that it is a legitimate part of socialist diplomacy to sacrifice solidarity with a resistance movement in another country in order to maintain relations with its bourgeois government:

Now it should be clearly understood that there is nothing wrong with forming alliances with Zimbabwe, Iran or Libya. Countries that are trying to develop a foreign policy independent of imperialism will by necessity adopt a kind of socialist realpolitik. When the government of Mexico made the streets run red with the blood of student protesters in 1968, it was understandable why Cuba remained silent. When Cuba had few friends in Latin America, Mexico’s PRI had a shred enough of remaining nationalism to stand up to the OAS and trade with Cuba. Furthermore, Cuba was in its rights to maintain diplomatic relations with Spain when Franco was dictator. Beggars cannot be choosers.[12]

So in certain situations it is acceptable internationalist policy to let the odd massacre slide? This approach has nothing to do with the Marxist tradition. The Bolsheviks in revolutionary Russia were not hostile to forming tactical alliances, but they did not privilege maintaining them at the expense of offering solidarity to struggles of the oppressed. The approach of the Bolsheviks was laid out by the Council of People’s Commissars in December 1917:

Taking into consideration that the Soviet government is based on the principles of the international solidarity of the proletariat and on the brotherhood of the toilers of all countries, and that the struggle against war and imperialism can be brought to a completely successful conclusion only if waged on an international scale, the Council of People’s Commissars considers it necessary to offer assistance by all possible means to the Left internationalist wing of the labour movement of all countries, regardless of whether these countries are at war with Russia, in alliance with Russia, or neutral.[13]

Whether it was the Brest-Litovsk agreement that ended the war, the Treaty of Rapallo signed with Germany in 1922 which provided for military co-operation to resist the French occupation of the Ruhr, or the negotiations with the reformists in France, tactical alliances with non-revolutionary forces were always subordinated to support for rebellions from workers and the oppressed in those countries. Brian Pearce summed up their approach:

Whatever tacking between the rival imperialist camps might be forced upon the Soviet government, support of the anti-imperialist fight in all countries without exception remained a constant element in its policy.[14]

There is nothing of this revolutionary internationalism in the foreign policy of Chávez and Castro today, who instead of subordinating the needs of their own state to those of the international revolution, are prepared to abandon resistance movements internationally in order to maintain grubby alliances that serve their own narrow interests.

The Socialist Alliance and Gaddafi

As noted, Green Left Weekly did make it clear that it supported the revolution against Gaddafi. On February 27 Peter Boyle – a leading figure in the organisation – wrote of Gaddafi’s Libya:

The Gaddafi regime said it provided its citizens with free education and health, though quality and access was uneven. Tellingly, Libyans who could afford it preferred to go to neighbouring Tunisia or Europe. It provided its workers with some welfare, but did not allow unions. Nor did it treat its significant number of “guest” workers equally or fairly, some of whom were placed in closed labour camps. A bizarre personality cult around Gaddafi was obvious. There was a pretence at popular democracy through a system of “people’s congresses”, but these seemed to have only a nominal existence.[15]

But Boyle’s determination to expose the failings of the Gaddafi regime is not exactly time-honoured. On returning from the Asia-Pacific solidarity conference, held in Libya in 1987, he wrote a shockingly sycophantic, fawning piece for Direct Action,[16] praising to high heaven the achievements of Gaddafi’s regime and the Libyan revolution. According to Boyle, personal freedoms flourished in Gaddafi’s Libya:

Most Libyans I spoke to insisted that they felt more free in their country than in any other they had visited… In the capitalist Third World, an apartheid of wealth is enforced. The poor are banned from the expensive hotels unless they are there to provide obsequious service to the rich. Police and private security guards enforce this caste system. But in Libya, people felt free to move where they liked. Groups of Libyan youths wandered casually through the most expensive hotels, stopping occasionally for a cup of coffee or a meal.[17]

Not only were personal liberties guaranteed, but Gaddafi presided over a radical egalitarian society:

The second striking feature of Libya was its egalitarianism. I saw no shantytowns, no bedraggled beggars, and no obviously privileged people in chauffeur-driven limousines… The only opulent homes seemed to be those left by the Italian colonialists. These now served as public institutions of one kind or another… Libya’s egalitarianism is not one of shared poverty… The roads are crowded with private cars and in general people display a very easy-going attitude to life.[18]

Moreover, this wondrous state of affairs was not due simply to luck, or oil. It was the “revolutionary process” unleashed by Gaddafi’s 1969 military coup:

This prosperous egalitarianism is not simply a product of Libya’s oil wealth. Other Third World countries have small populations and large oil resources but remain marked by great inequality and sometimes by very poor social services. When Colonel Muammar Kaddafi and a group of fellow army officers seized power in 1969, a revolutionary process began. Since then there has been a major redistribution of wealth, and considerable investment in agricultural and industrial development. The Libyan revolution has imposed important restrictions on capitalism, and calls itself socialist… Private land may not be leased out, and private merchandising is also prohibited. These provisions prevent the exploitation of one individual by another, say supporters of the Green Book. Profit has been abolished and individuals are paid only for their own labour.[19]

Of course Libya was not perfect, Boyle admitted. But he was quick to reassure us that any lack of enthusiasm to match his own among Libyan youth could be put down to quite banal factors:

Like most Third World states, Libya suffers from an ongoing brain-drain to the West. The revolution’s critics say this is due to political repression, but I found that most students who had studied abroad had more basic motives for being reluctant to return. The main attraction of the West, for quite a few Libyan men, was its nightclubs and discos.[20]

As to the system of government, Boyle saw nothing ludicrous in the mad claim – repeated by Gaddafi as his security forces massacred demonstrators in the streets this February – that Gaddafi himself held no real authority in the state:

Most Libyans concede that Kaddafi does not lead the country on a day-to-day basis. His leadership tends to be more of a moral kind. He reputedly has no executive power.[21]

It is true that Boyle could find some faults with the revolution, such as bureaucratisation in the state apparatus:

The problems of bureaucracy in Libya are evident both internally and externally… [There are] numerous alliances the Libyan government has made with dubious political groups, governments and factions within other national liberation organisations. Often these links are the work of corrupt and inefficient foreign affairs officials. Internally, the massive waste of human and material resources attest to the problem of bureaucracy.[22]

But bureaucratisation, says Boyle (in a grotesque understatement of the realities of centralised control in the Stalinist states) “is a problem confronting all socialist societies”. And, of course, those things can be overcome, and should not take away from the overall positives of the situation:

Kaddafi claims to have discovered the perfect model of participatory democracy. And to be fair the people’s congress does allow a degree of control over the government not seen in capitalist parliamentary systems.[23]

The Socialist Alliance claims that it is simply sectarian quibbling to haggle over these historical facts. They are wrong. First, the historic support given by them to despotic regimes undermines the left’s claim that socialism is about human liberation, not despotism. It gives ammunition to the right, helping them bury the truth about the responsibility of the West for the tyrannical power structures of the Arab world under a mountain of accusations against the left. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian, would attack us no matter what we did. But he is much aided by the long history of leftists lauding reprehensible dictators as freedom fighters and socialists. So at the same time that Tony Blair, a recent convert, was declaring Gaddafi “immensely courageous and a force for good”,[24]Sheridan was able to write articles trying to paint the left as no better:

It was an iron rule of the Cold War that the more grotesque and horrible the communist regime, the more dedicated and active would be its fan club, its friendship societies and fellow travellers in the West. But no devotion was ever stranger than that lavished on the Libyan dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Of course, intellectuals always love money and Gaddafi had plenty of it. There was a period in my life where I couldn’t wait each week to visit the big news stand at Sydney’s Town Hall to read the new edition of the Workers News[25]… It was financed in part by Gaddafi’s munificence, and I rejoiced at the exotic ideological material it offered. In among the routine denunciations of uranium mining and calls for greater trade union militancy would be a couple of pages extolling Gaddafi’s fatuous and incoherent green book and the Libyan revolution.[26]

Sheridan was not alone. Andrew Bolt, the Melbourne Herald Sun’s favourite flat-earther, waded in, asking “What is it with the left and dictators like Gaddafi?”[27] Milanda Rout in The Australian mocked the former Labor MPs who had all visited Libya as part of a solidarity delegation in 1989.[28]

But the problems raised by the Socialist Alliance’s sordid history of support for Gaddafi go well beyond giving space to a few right wing media hacks. They reveal fundamental issues with the whole conception of socialism advanced by Boyle and his supporters. Even if we allow for a moment (and we shouldn’t) that the Gaddafi regime was once the inspiring utopia that Boyle suggested in 1987, where is the explanation of how things went wrong? Surely the transformation of a country characterised by the abolition of the profit system and a “prosperous egalitarianism” into an authoritarian dictatorship would have been the subject of extensive study and discussion? When the USSR degenerated into Stalinist dictatorship, Trotsky and others around the world were consumed by their attempts to understand and explain what had gone wrong. But if you look through the archives of the Green Left Weekly site you cannot find a single article[29] – prior to February 2011 – that seriously criticises the Libyan regime. When Obama belatedly declared his support for Tunisian democracy just hours before Ben Ali boarded a plane into exile, he was rightly mocked. How is this any different?

The fact is, in any case, that the truth about the Libyan regime was never as obscure as Boyle would have us believe. In a 1984 article in the International Socialism Journal Jon Bearman outlined the broad features of the regime, explaining that:

The 1st September revolution was not a socialist revolution but an anti-colonial revolution led by the intelligentsia. Qadhafi and the eleven other members of the Revolutionary Command Council, set up as the supreme authority after the coup, were not Marxists. Their motives have been essentially Arab nationalist… The most important single influence on their political development was that of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and it was his Egypt which provided the model of the sort of society they wanted to create in Libya.[30]

The working class played no role in the 1969 coup, and in no sense had political power. Although there were some unique features of Libyan society under Gaddafi, it was in essence similar to many other regimes that took power in the colonial world which asserted greater independence, nationalised key sections of the economy, allied themselves to the USSR or the Non-Aligned Movement, and in many cases called themselves socialist. Gaddafi was always deeply hostile to class politics and any form of political action by workers. Trotskyists and other Marxists were imprisoned during the “cultural revolution” of 1973-77. Of union action Gaddafi said: “The trade unions have nothing to do with politics – at no time and at no place. Trade unions and federations are professional organisations. It is the ASU [Arab Socialist Union] which engages in politics.”[31] Gaddafi ruled through an alliance between the Revolutionary Committee movement and the state bureaucracy. These top-down structures, tightly controlled by Gaddafi himself (despite his claims, echoed by Boyle, that he was merely a “moral leader”) were concerned with the same thing that ruling classes are concerned with the world over – self-perpetuation and the accumulation of capital. As Bearman wrote:

It is in their capacity as a formation which controls capital and extracts surplus value for the accumulation of capital by the state that the state authorities in Libya, both the administrators and the revolutionary committees, constitute a ruling class – a state capitalist class.[32]

Initially – as was the case in many of the former colonial countries – Gaddafi was a popular leader. But the underlying class structure of Libyan society meant, inevitably, that popular reforms gave way to austerity, attacks on workers’ living standards, and the suppression of dissent.

Regardless of whether it was possible to predict the extent to which Gaddafi’s regime would descend into a version of Dante’s hell, no analysis based on Marxism could possibly conclude that Libya was a socialist country in the 1980s. Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”. This idea – a foundation stone of Marxism – was further developed by Marx, Engels and Luxemburg, and then by Lenin in the course of the Russian revolution. From Russia 1917 we get the most vivid example of what working class power and socialism means – the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement by a new form of state power based on working class democratic control. Nothing remotely similar to this existed in Gaddafi’s Libya – indeed working class organisations were repressed from the beginning of his time in power.

Stalinism and the distortion of Marxism

To understand why some on the left could get it so dramatically wrong on Libya, we need to go back and examine the impact of Stalinism on the left over the last century. The starting point for this is examining the attitude of the left to Stalin’s regime itself. From the late 1920s until the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the USSR in 1989-91, the “Russian question”, in various forms, was the key issue facing the revolutionary left internationally. Anyone who called themselves a socialist, or was looking for an alternative to capitalism, had to figure out what they thought about the so-called “socialist third of the world”. Most importantly, they had to answer the question: were these countries in fact socialist? Find out how someone answered this, and you would be a long way along the path of understanding them politically. This is because the “Russian question” was not simply about Russia, it went to your whole conception of what socialism was, of the meaning of human liberation and the strategies needed to achieve it. It was, as Marcel van der Linden put it in his 2007 book Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, “the touchstone of theoretical and practical attitudes which lay claim to revolution”.[33] Chris Harman, reviewing van der Linden, explained that:

This “Russian question” involved innumerable documents, polemics, tortuous debates and episodes of apparently petty point scoring. But the arguments involved were not a case of theory for theory’s sake. They had immense practical implications. If Russia was in some way socialist, or at least a “workers’ state” or a “post-capitalist society”, then siding with it was siding with the struggle for a socialist future for humanity as a whole. If, far from being in some way socialist, it was a more backward form of social organisation than capitalism, the logical thing to do was critically to support the Western capitalists in their moves against it. And, if it was essentially the same sort of society as that in the West, then what fitted was to argue, “A plague on both your houses.”[34]

For much of the last century most of the left outside the social democratic parties, and indeed many within, answered the question of whether Russia was socialist in the affirmative. That is they identified, partially in some cases, completely in others, their own vision of what society ought to be like with the actual existing society in one or more of Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam etc. Many good people joined the Communist Parties for admirable reasons – because they were working class militants; because they recognised the injustices of capitalism and wanted to fight for a different society. But the socialism that they aligned themselves with had nothing to do with human liberation, and nothing to do with Marxism. Stalin’s brutal one-party dictatorship represented not the continuation of the Russian revolution of 1917, but its defeat. To consolidate power Stalin had to annihilate everything that was revolutionary in Russia, including, in the end, all of those who had led the Bolsheviks and the revolution in 1917.

The fact that so many people who hated capitalism identified with the monstrosity of Stalin’s Russia was one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. There were some, though, who rejected the claim that the “socialist states” had anything to do with genuine human liberation. On the one hand were those among the anarchists and libertarians who rejected not only the Stalinist states, but also the Russian revolution and the Bolshevism practised by Lenin, Trotsky and others before Stalin rose to power. This group put forward the formula Lenin = Stalin, which was also promoted by both Stalinists and Cold War apologists for Western capitalism.

The other main group was the Trotskyists. They were unique in that they put forward a critique of Stalinism that based itself on defence of the October revolution in Russia. Their argument, at its base, was that as Trotsky put it as early as 1927, Stalin was “the gravedigger of the revolution”. But from the start of World War II, just before Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin, the Trotskyist movement began to split into a series of warring groups over their analysis of the USSR. Some, led by Max Shachtman, developed a theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” to describe the Stalinist regime. Shachtman (though to be fair, not all who followed his theory) eventually came to see Russia as being worse than Western capitalism. The logical conclusion of this was siding with the West in the Cold War and support for the barbaric imperial project in Vietnam.

The so-called “Orthodox Trotskyists” stuck to the letter of Trotsky’s own analysis, that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”. That is, they claimed that although the state machine was controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy, the state was still in its fundamental form a tool of the working class, by virtue of state control of industry. This led them to characterise Stalinism as superior to the West, and to demand “defence of the Soviet Union”. The problem with this view became clear after World War II, with the Russian takeover of Eastern Europe. In none of the Eastern European countries were there workers’ revolutions, and yet in a very short space of time these states were organised on almost identical lines to Russia itself. If you accepted that they were socialist, you had to accept that it is possible to bring about socialism without a working class revolution. Not only that, “counter-revolutionary” Stalinism in fact played a deeply revolutionary role – bringing workers’ rule into the heart of Europe. This has profound ramifications for practical politics. After all, if it is possible to avoid the long, difficult road of workers’ revolution, why would you not do so?

The third main grouping was that based on the analysis of British socialist Tony Cliff, who argued that Stalin had carried out a counter-revolution in Russia and restored capitalism, if in a bureaucratic, statised form. From this, Cliff argued that the two imperial blocs in the Cold War were essentially the same, that full-blooded workers’ revolutions were needed in both East and West. Socialist Alternative today stands on the basic foundations laid down by Cliff.[35]

These arguments, between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists, the Trotskyists and the anarchists, and between the Trotskyists themselves, were waged fiercely. But the debate over the “Russian question” was in no sense arcane. It was a battle for the soul of socialism, a struggle to reclaim Marxism as a weapon for human liberation, to insist that socialism was about workers’ democratic control over society or it was about nothing.

Today, more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is fashionable on the left to dismiss debates about the class nature of the USSR as being a sign of hopeless sectarianism, or disinterest in anything that happened more recently than 1930. And it is true that in 2011 the “Russian question” is not nearly as starkly posed as it was during the Cold War. After all, most of the “socialist states” no longer exist. But the questions of the past have not gone away. It still matters if your vision of socialism or a “workers’ state” can be stretched to include an authoritarian dictatorship. And the capitalist class did not stop attacking the Russian revolution with the collapse of the USSR. They might not do it with the same gusto as the Cold War warriors of the 1950s and 60s, but there is no denying that the ideological campaign to discredit the Russian revolution and Bolshevism continues. The Russian revolution is still taught in schools – and though the way it is taught varies, it is incontestably the case that the purpose of these courses is to demonstrate that the project of revolutionary change carried out in 1917 was at best misguided or naïve, and at worst was from the beginning a project of violent utopianism inseparable from the later atrocities of Stalin. The main objection people still raise to socialism is that it’s a good idea in theory but can never work in practice. The Russian experience is invariably offered as the proof of this contention. Without a clear analysis of Stalinism it is next to impossible to resist the anti-socialist arguments that dominate society.

As well as the continued ruling class attack on the Russian revolution, the association of Stalinism with Marxism is still at the centre of the anarchist and libertarian critique. A couple of years ago there was an interesting online debate between US socialist Alan Maass and libertarian ZNet writer Michael Albert on “the relevance of Marxism”. Interesting, but frustrating, as no matter how often Maass tried, he could not convince Albert to debate him on the Marxism that his organisation, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) stood for, as opposed to Marxism as represented by the rulers of so-called “Marxist” states. In one part of the exchange Maass wrote:

If Albert thinks a debate with me and the ISO about the relevance of Marxism is useful, then he should address himself to our Marxism – not the fake Marxism of bureaucrats and dictators that we have always rejected and opposed.[36]

Albert replied:

I think I am speaking to the core views of Marxism, period. I think our disagreements indicate that. You wouldn’t let an advocate of capitalism say don’t talk to me about depressions, about starvation, about wars and colonization – that’s just bad capitalism, I am for good capitalism. I won’t agree to talk about Marxism and simply ignore what virtually all Marxists say they are for when they present institutional vision, what they have done and do when they are in power.[37]

There is no answer to this other than to establish that what happened in Russia is not simply “bad Marxism” – elements of Marxist politics that we would be better off without, just as a capitalist might prefer capitalism without economic crises – but rather nothing to do with Marxism at all. Maass drew the following conclusion from the debate:

People on the left today consider the “Russia question” to be a matter of historical debate, if they’re familiar with the issue at all – certainly nothing with relevance to today’s world. But I think that the debate between Michael Albert and myself has shown that our answers to the “Russia question” are still very important.[38]

This is true not only with regard to the anarchists, but in terms of some of those who would call themselves Marxist critics of Stalinism. How could the Socialist Alliance possibly put the case Maass did, when they persist in systematically glossing over the true nature of Stalinism and compare it favourably with the West? The Socialist Alliance’s forerunner, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, later renamed the Democratic Socialist Party – DSP), was describing Russia as “socialist” in their paper as late as 1987. Over the course of the 1950s, 60s and 70s most of the official communist parties increasingly distanced themselves from the USSR. But the SWP, which had its origins in Trotskyism, became ever more enamoured with the Soviet Union as it slowly creaked towards collapse. In October 1987 the SWP put out a joint statement with the ultra-Stalinist Socialist Party of Australia (even then an unapologetic defender of the line coming out of Russia – they had earlier distinguished themselves by backing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in 1968). It was entitled “Socialism is only 70 years old”:

Compared with the length of time previous societies have been in existence, socialism is a youngster. When a new system is pioneering it’s [sic] way forward, it is not surprising that there are some difficulties, setbacks and mistakes. But already the achievements are history making. And today, despite all the hatred of the capitalist ruling class, despite all the opposition it can muster, the working people have proceeded to construct the new social order which embraces large areas of Europe, Asia and now appears in Latin America.[39]

Renfrey Clarke, reporting back from a 1986 trip to Moscow for the SWP’s paper Direct Action, gave an account reminiscent of the rosy reports given by Western journalists toured through the USSR by officials from Stalin’s department for useful idiots in the 1930s:

For an instant it seems you have identified the essential difference between the USSR and the United States. The Soviet Union is a society not at war with itself. It’s not paradise, but it’s remarkably free of the rage and despair never all that distant in present-day America…

By the end of my stay, I found myself concluding that what I had encountered in Moscow…was a society that for all its problems was rational rather than absurd, united and purposeful rather than cynical and alienated… That Soviet society works is something even hardened enemies of socialism are now being forced to admit.[40]

According to Clarke, revolution was not only unnecessary in the USSR, it was highly unlikely, given the esteem with which Soviet citizens regarded their government:

It is a profound distortion of reality to suggest – as the Western news media specialises in doing – that the Soviet government would be flung out of office if controls on dissidents were relaxed and Western-style elections held. My own thoughts are that the Soviet dissident movement, even if given totally free rein, would have enormous difficulty mustering the support of even 10 per cent of the population against the current Communist Party leadership. The great majority of Soviet citizens are firm supporters of socialism and of the party. The advantages of socialism are regarded as having been proven in practice, and the party as having earned the right to continue to lead the people forward… The creation of a thoroughly humane and liberated society in the USSR will require further daring economic, social and political reforms. But it will not require the fundamental, traumatic remaking of class relationships that is essential in the West. The Soviet workers and peasants have already made their revolution.[41]

This was written just three years before the Berlin Wall fell. And yet Socialist Alliance members have the gall to be outraged when we dare to associate their politics with Stalinism. It would be one thing if there had been an exhaustive debate in the party that led to a reassessment of articles such as those quoted above. But there has been no such thing. And this is what the DSP website has to say about the remaining countries that call themselves socialist today:

We consider all the countries where capitalism has been overthrown as great gains for the peoples of the countries concerned and for working people all over the world. Because of the priority given to social spending they have achieved a higher real standard of living than capitalist powers with a similar income.

These countries have our solidarity: we defend and support them unconditionally… At the same time we distinguish between those where bureaucracies have usurped the political rights and power of the working people (China,[42] North Korea) and those where the governments, despite innumerable difficulties, act in the working people’s interests (Cuba, Vietnam).[43]

That anyone could claim that any of these countries, let alone North Korea (!) is “on the road to socialism” is a vile insult to everyone who has ever fought and sacrificed for the socialist cause. If that is socialism, then I would not blame anyone for wanting nothing at all to do with it.

Stalinism beyond the “Russian question”

Stalinist influence not only led most of the left to identify socialism with authoritarian, centralised dictatorships with statised economies. It also transformed the left’s understanding of class struggle, political power and the strategies and tactics of revolution. From the mid-1920s onwards, a key part of Stalin’s consolidation of power involved transforming Marxism from a weapon of revolutionary change into an ideological structure that would legitimise Stalin’s counter-revolution in Russia and justify Russian policy internationally.

The first of these revisions was the famous doctrine of “socialism in one country”, announced in 1924. “Socialism in one country” was the definitive self-justification of the Stalinist bureaucracy. As Trotsky wrote, “When they speak of the victory of socialism they mean their own victory.”[44] Renouncing the international revolution was not only a declaration of peace with world capitalism. It was also a statement that the current state of affairs was no temporary phenomenon. The thesis of Marx and Lenin – that development towards socialism would mean the withering away of the state – was replaced by a “socialism” in which the state apparatus would grow ever larger. In this way it provided the beginnings of a framework in which socialism was about state ownership and control, not the struggle for workers’ power and the overthrow of the capitalist class. Of course this identification of socialism with a statised national economy is not unique to Stalinism. It is also a powerful part of the ideology of reformism. But it was the Stalinist states – first Russia and later in Eastern Europe, China and then many other parts of the colonial world – that in practice cemented the association between state-run economies and socialism.

The equation “state ownership equals socialism” was a complete departure from the Marxist tradition. In Anti-Dühring, Engels polemicised against the idea that “every statification…is socialistic.” If “statification” equals socialism, he reasoned, “then Napoleon and Metternich are to be counted among the founders of socialism” for nationalising tobacco production.[45]

The idea that one or more socialist states could exist with relative stability in a world still dominated by capitalism also laid the basis for reconceptualising socialism not as a global struggle against class rule, but simply one among many models on which a national economy could be built. Once the dimension of international revolution was taken out, socialist countries and capitalist countries could “peacefully co-exist”. Of course in practice there was often conflict between the “socialist” countries and the West – open and by proxy. But this was not fundamentally different from the conflicts between states that are inherent to world capitalism in the era of imperialism – managed by a mixture of military or economic struggle and diplomacy.

The ascendency of the notion that a state could be defined as socialist based on which countries they aligned themselves with, or whether they had a statised economy, meant that all of a sudden a dizzying array of states could become socialist, and in many cases revert back to capitalism, without any deep-seated class struggle, let alone a social revolution. The Committee for a Workers’ International (what in Australia is now the Socialist Party) at one time considered that alongside the traditional Stalinist states like China, the USSR, Vietnam and Cuba, you could add Laos, Kampuchea (Cambodia), Burma, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin and Ethiopia as also being workers’ states.[46]

And if it is possible to create a workers’ state without social revolution, then why build an explicitly revolutionary party? What happens to the distinction between reform and revolution, and the argument seared into the minds of the generation of revolutionaries who built the Communist International: that breaking the hold of the reformist parties over the working class is a fundamental prerequisite for winning socialism? The answer, of course, is that they become less important, able to be abandoned in practice if not at the level of theory.

Stalin’s second major break with Marxism on the level of theory was to discard the idea that the working class had to maintain its independence from other social classes and fight for its own interests – what was to become the policy of the “popular front”. The first disastrous manifestation of this turn, which was to become the model for the treacherous role played by Stalinism in the colonial world, was the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. The founding conference of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in line with the policy elaborated by the Comintern when it was led by Lenin and Trotsky, took the view that if the revolution was to succeed it needed to be led by the workers and peasants, organised independently, and with a perspective of taking power into their own hands. But the Stalinisation of the Comintern in the mid-1920s turned this orientation on its head. Instead of building an independent workers’ movement, Stalin forced the CCP to subordinate itself entirely to the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang. This led to catastrophe. To try and keep the Guomindang on side, the CCP had to actively restrain the workers’ and peasants’ rebellion that the Chinese bourgeoisie so feared. Submitting (after considerable resistance) to Stalin’s directive, the CCP opposed peasant “excesses”, promoted illusions in the Guomindang and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and forced the workers’ movement to disarm – either burying their guns or handing them over to the Guomindang.

In April 1927, the consequences of this policy became clear. A general strike by workers in Shanghai, called to greet the approaching Guomindang army, was crushed by Chiang Kai-shek. Up and down the country, the Guomindang, which communist militants had been told was their ally, smashed up the working class movement, breaking strikes, murdering and terrorising workers and Communist Party members. The CCP, which had grown from fewer than 1,000 members to somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 over the course of the revolution, was obliterated. Stalin’s policy led the Chinese revolution to a devastating defeat. Decades later variants of the same class-collaborationist strategy led to crushing defeats and massacres of the left in countries like Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

The Chinese debacle did not, of course, dissuade Stalin, who was by then not the slightest bit interested in spreading revolution internationally. The communist parties existed purely to serve the interests of the new Stalinist ruling class in Russia. In the mid-1930s this meant trying to win support for Stalin’s foreign policy from any possible quarter, and in particular from the ruling classes of other countries. So Stalin forced the “popular front” on what were by then thoroughly malleable parties across the world. The Comintern executive resolved in 1936 that:

Today the situation is not what it was in 1914. Now it is not only the working class, the peasantry and all working people who are resolved to maintain peace, but also the oppressed countries and the weak nations whose independence is threatened by war. The Soviet Union, the invincible fortress of the world proletariat and the oppressed of all countries, is the focal point of all the forces fighting for peace. In the present phase a number of capitalist states are also concerned to maintain peace. Hence the possibility of creating a broad front of the working class, of all working people, and of entire nations against the danger of imperialist war.[47]

The popular front went a step beyond the demand for unity with the Guomindang in China. As the British socialist Duncan Hallas noted:

It was no longer even a question of subordinating the working class of a semi-colonial country to a supposedly “progressive national bourgeoisie” in the alleged interests of the struggle against imperialism – which had been itself a policy directly contrary to the decisions of the Comintern’s second congress. It was now a matter of subordinating the working classes and the national movements to the rulers of the two greatest colonial empires on earth, Britain and France![48]

Goodbye to the working class

After World War II, Stalinism evolved even further from any conception of working class self-emancipation. Immediately after the war communist parties in countries like France and Italy entered bourgeois governments. After 1947, with the onset of the Cold War, the communists once again became isolated from the political mainstream in the West. But instead of turning back to the rhetoric of class struggle, as they had in the Third Period, they posed their arguments in terms of the “struggle against imperialism”. In Asia this meant armed guerrilla war in countries like Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, India and the Philippines. In the West, particularly Western Europe and Australia, a new wave of struggles led by the Communist Parties was connected to the immediate demands of workers. But at the same time we see the first stages of the “peace movement”, beginning with the Conference of Intellectuals for Peace held in Wroclaw in 1948, which led to the formation of the World Peace Council in 1950. This development was to decisively shift the ideological outlook of the international communist movement away from class struggle and towards a class-collaborationist or outright middle class orientation.

After Stalin’s death this process accelerated. In 1953 Russia announced that it had successfully manufactured a hydrogen bomb. The first move away from an orientation to workers’ struggle as the means to advance Russian foreign policy in the West had occurred when the USSR imposed the popular front strategy of forming alliances with bourgeois governments. The entry of the USSR into the arms race reinforced this trend. As Ian Birchall put it:

From now on it was clear that the defence of Russia did not depend on the international communist movement; it depended on the Russian nuclear defence system keeping pace with the American.[49]

Paradoxically, the entry of the USSR into the nuclear race coincided with a renewed stress on the idea of “peaceful co-existence”. An international meeting of communist parties in Moscow resolved in 1960 that:

The policy of peaceful co-existence meets the basic interests of all peoples, of all who want no new cruel wars and seek durable peace. This policy strengthens the positions of socialism, enhances the prestige and international influence of the socialist countries and promotes the prestige and influence of the Communist parties in the capitalist countries. Peace is a loyal ally of socialism, for time is working for socialism and against capitalism.[50]

This statement is an echo of the outright reformist orientation of the Second International. The acquisition of the bomb and the popular front policy had removed the working class from any agency in the struggle against world capitalism. And now “peaceful co-existence” – the ideological child of “socialism in one country” – signalled that the Russian state had no interest in the radical transformation of the world order but instead was concerned simply to maintain its place in that order. Class politics had given way completely to state diplomacy, and that diplomacy was directed at maintaining the status quo.

This latter factor was a vital element in explaining the Sino-Soviet split of 1960-61, and also the appeal of the new Maoist parties that emerged in the 1960s. Whereas Russia had, since the Yalta Conference in February 1945, succeeded in establishing itself as a great power, China was still underdeveloped and battling to improve its position. This explains the much more assertive nature of Chinese foreign policy and rhetoric. But Maoism – based as it was on a nationalist state bourgeoisie that came to power without any involvement of working class forces – did not abandon any of the underlying politics of Stalinism. While more aggressively hostile to the US (up until the early 1970s), it rejected any orientation to working class struggle, substituting in its place a range of strategies from guerrilla struggle and nuclear armament to state diplomacy.

In the West, the communist parties increasingly moved away from being creatures of Russian foreign policy and became integrated into the institutions of their own national states. In Into the Mainstream Tom O’Lincoln characterises the Communist Party of Australia as being located between three poles, the importance of which shifted over time: the Russian state, the Australian labour movement and the Australian bourgeoisie.[51] This was largely true of the European parties as well. Through the 1950s and 60s, as Russian influence waned, the Communist Parties became much more similar to the mainstream social democratic parties.

All of these developments reinforced the increasing disconnect between the idea of socialism and the working class struggle. This had significant implications for the way the left as a whole – going well beyond the actual communist parties – viewed its relationship to class. Prior to Marx the concept of socialism had no single class identification. At the core of the ideological and political battles waged by Marx throughout his lifetime was the attempt to transform socialism from a utopian ideology into the world view and the theoretical tool of the working class. As Hal Draper put it, historical materialism, or Marxism as conceived by Marx, was “the theory and practice of the proletarian revolution”.[52]

In the period between the rise of the Second International in the 1880s and the Stalinisation of the communist movement in the late 1920s, the idea of socialism was synonymous with the movement of one particular class – the proletariat. The Erfurt Program adopted by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1891 was the founding document not only of German social democracy but of the broader European socialist movement that for the first time (with the exception of the British Chartists) was now appearing in the form of mass working class parties. This document – though criticised by Engels – signalled the formal adherence of the socialist movement to Marx’s core vision.

This social transformation [the abolition of capitalism] amounts to the emancipation not only of the proletariat, but of the entire human race, which is suffering from current conditions. But it can only be the work of the working class, because all other classes, notwithstanding the conflicts of interest between them, stand on the ground of the private ownership of the means of production and have as their common goal the preservation of the foundations of contemporary society… It is the task of the Social Democratic Party to shape the struggle of the working class into a conscious and unified one and to point out the inherent necessity of its goals.[53]

This class connection did not operate simply at the level of theory. Prior to Stalinisation, the leaders and the heroes of the Marxist movement were intimately associated with the working class struggle. Its icons were people like Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, James Connolly, Joe Hill, Eleanor Marx, August Bebel and Bill Haywood. In Australia, figures like Tom Mann and Percy Brookfield were both union militants and the leaders of socialist organisations. Even for socialists who did not come from working class backgrounds, being won to socialism meant becoming a partisan of the working class struggle. So figures like Lesbia Harford in Melbourne,[54] radicalised as a university student, went on to become fighters for the working class. There were, of course, intellectual figures in this period – from Engels, Lenin and Luxemburg to Kautsky and Plekhanov. But they were intimately connected to the workers’ movement. Those who abandoned that movement were in doing so seen to be abandoning socialism.

Under Stalinism, though, the heroes of socialism were the leaders of states, guerrilla fighters in the hills, parliamentarians and middle class intellectuals. Socialism stopped being about class and became simply an ideological label. The leading socialists in the public eye during the middle of the twentieth century were – aside from Stalin himself – people like Mao, Che Guevara, Castro, Ho Chi Minh. Even those who were leaders of working class parties or trade union leaders were for the most part – by dint of the reformist, class-collaborationist politics of Stalinism – increasingly distant from workers’ concerns; little different from the middle class social democratic politicians who spent their time hob-nobbing with the political establishment and only on rare occasions condescending to address a workers’ meeting or rally.

Stalinism and the Arab world

One of the places the ideology of Stalinism has had the most debilitating impact is the Arab world. The underlying reason for this is that while in the West there was a pre-Stalinist socialist tradition – remnants of which survived Stalinisation in either the Trotskyist, syndicalist or social democratic currents – this was almost non-existent in the Arab world. This meant that Arab socialism was, virtually from the outset, Stalinist. Because of this all the class-collaborationist politics, bureaucratic organisational practices and opportunism that characterised Stalinism in the West were magnified.

The popular front strategy that subordinated the interests of the working class and the peasantry to the supposedly progressive national bourgeoisie was hegemonic. In 1955 the leader of the Syrian Communist Party called on all “enemies of feudalism, reaction and imperialism to join forces” and stated that “The centre of our policy is to find meeting points, not disagreements, with all true nationalists.”[55]

But no section of the Arab bourgeoisie, even supposedly radical leaders like Gaddafi, was prepared to mobilise the masses for a determined fight against imperialism. In June 1969 Gaddafi opposed a popular war of liberation to free Palestine, arguing that the confrontation must be between regular armies. The Palestinian guerrilla movement, he stated, must rid itself of “fantasies” and operate only according to strategy laid down by Arab governments.[56]

The popular front policy was a dead end – it led to epochal defeats from Iraq in 1958 to the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s. But despite these defeats the popular frontist approach has remained hegemonic on the left from the 1930s right up until today. The predominant idea on the left remains one of broad cross-class alliances rather than class politics. It was not just the official communist parties that adhered to this approach but virtually all the other radical currents that emerged in the 1960s in the Arab world.

Take the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP was hostile to Arab reaction, represented in its view by feudalism and capitalism – the rulers of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Jordan. But it was less critical of the “radical” Arab regimes: Algeria, South Yemen, Syria and at times Iraq and Libya. In March 1969 PFLP leader George Habash attacked the party’s rivals, the Democratic Front, as suffering from “infantile leftism”. He said: “We are not as against Arab regimes as they are. We criticise, but collaborate with Arab regimes, as Mao did with the Guomindang against the Japanese threat in China.” By tying themselves to these regimes the PFLP downplayed the need to build a mass revolutionary movement from below throughout the Arab world. It ended up providing a left cover for regimes like the Ba’ath in Iraq which gave it substantial funding in the 1970s. In 1970 Habash went to China and North Korea to win support and the Chinese began to send the PFLP considerable amounts of arms. But this was at a cost, as the Chinese opposed the PFLP’s attacks on conservative Arab regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia with which China was trying to curry favour.

All of this diplomatic intrigue served to reinforce the tendency to replace the class struggle as the centrepiece of Marxism with the ideology of classless “anti-imperialism”. Whereas for Lenin and the early Comintern the anti-imperial struggle was an important element of the world struggle against capitalism, it was emphasised that this did not mean simply reducing the anti-capitalist struggle to opposition to imperialism. Lenin warned against giving the national liberation movements a “communist colouration”. Yet by the 1960s the line between “anti-imperialist” and “socialist” had become extremely fuzzy. The new Arab left was not like the earlier communist parties, with their rigid adherence to the Russian line at any cost. (Like the Syrian Communist Party which proved its loyalty to Moscow at the cost of losing most of its membership by backing the formation of Israel in 1948.) Alliances to Russia or China, or their array of allies among the Arab states, were much more pragmatic and open to change. But the ideological framework of Stalinism – class collaboration, substitutionism, and an orientation to the existing states (be they “anti-imperialist”, “socialist” or both) – continued to dominate the thinking of the left.

The impact of Stalinism on the 1960s Western left

By the 1950s and 60s Russia had lost a lot of its radical gloss in the West. Its doctrine of “peaceful co-existence” with the West, alongside the bloody suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and Krushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, made it less attractive to the new generation of young radicals that was beginning to emerge. But many of the political currents that arose to challenge official communism were still heavily impacted by Stalinism’s distortion of Marxism. A large section of the “new left” rejected the authoritarianism and conservatism of the Stalinists by abandoning not only “Leninism”, but the whole conception of the working class as the key agent of social change. Maoism, with its militant populist rhetoric and militarist tactics and organisational methods, could seem to provide a radical alternative vision of socialism. But in reality it was simply another version of Stalinism.

The Maoists had completely abandoned the conception that the struggle for socialism could only be led by the working class. They preached a “Third Worldism” that saw oppressed peoples, or even “oppressed nations” as being just as important as the working class. They glorified guerrilla struggle and replaced the working class as the key agent of social change with an amorphous “the people” – which was variously taken to mean the peasantry, oppressed national groups or minorities, students, the urban poor and elements of the middle class, as well as industrial workers.

At the height of the 1960s and 70s radicalisation these forms of substitutionism tended to be characterised by extreme revolutionary rhetoric, tight organisation, strict centralism, and in some cases the fetishisation of military struggle or other violent tactics including, eventually, terrorism.

What began as a movement in many ways resembling a super-idealistic children’s crusade to change the world was becoming increasingly grim and increasingly serious…the stakes had been raised. The vigorous campaign of calumny and slander directed against the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] by ruling class media and institutions, the growing climate of repression across the country, forced the radical movement to take itself seriously… SDS members began to search for political definition.[57]

There is no doubt that the revolutionary movement in the US in the 1960s needed to take itself seriously. As it grew the US state – the most brutal and uncompromising in the world – began to see it as a mortal threat. In this context the liberalism that had sustained the movement was palpably inadequate. But there was no current strong enough to argue for an orientation to the working class as the way out of the abyss. For most students, Maoism was the main model of “serious politics” on offer. It was a dead end that in the US case led to the implosion of SDS and to the lunacy of the Weather Underground, which followed the logic of Maoism to its end point and tried to bring the Third World guerrilla struggle to the US by planting bombs in the buildings of US corporations. This attempt to find a short cut to socialism, in the end both tragic and ridiculous, was an extreme version of the substitutionist politics of the era. On the one hand it was utopian, reckless and utterly lacking a strategic orientation to the one social force that could actually make a revolution, the working class. On the other hand the substitutionism of these years reflected an intransigent fighting spirit, the fusion of extraordinary revolutionary hope with a desperation not to let the moment of opportunity slip by. As one account put it:

Almost everyone in the movement in the years 1969-70 went a little bit crazy with the expectation of revolution around the corner and guilt for not doing enough to bring it about.[58]

On the face of it, the Trotskyist currents stood on ground completely different to that of the Third Worldist, populist Maoists. Their traditions claimed to go back, not to the Great Helmsman, but to the first four congresses of the Communist International and Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism. Yet in practice the differences were not always that great. Writing about the revolutionary left in Europe, British socialist Chris Harman commented:

What was common to both the soft Maoists and the would be “orthodox Trotskyists” was substitutionism: the idea that some other force could substitute itself for the working class in the creation of socialism. While the movement was on the up in Italy or France or Spain (or Britain, for that matter) this was not necessarily that apparent. Workers were in motion, and you had to be a fool not to relate to them (although, as always, there were a fair number of fools). But when, from the mid-1970s onwards the movement was checked, the substitutionism could easily lead revolutionaries to look to false gods – to the trade union bureaucracy, to liberal democracy, to armed lunacy, or even to changes in their own lifestyles.[59]

Official Stalinism was still a problem. The huge communist parties in countries like Italy and France played a key role in containing the revolutionary upsurge of class struggle that swept Europe in 1968 and after. But most debilitating, from the point of view of building a revolutionary alternative to the Communist Parties, was the impact Stalinist ideology had had on the left as a whole.

The long decline and the rebuilding of the revolutionary left

The radical wave of the 1960s and 70s, for all its hope, was not sufficient to overthrow capitalism in even a single country. As the movement finally exhausted itself in the late 70s and early 80s, the radical left was thrown into a crisis which sent its constituent parts flying in a variety of different directions. Some favoured outright reformism and joined the mainstream social democratic parties – like the Bennites in the UK. Those who had been in the Labor left where it was strong, in countries like Australia, slowly adapted to the rightward lurch of the party or else dropped out of politics altogether. Others trailed off into the various “movements” which became ever more self-absorbed, institutionalised, and separated from both each other and any real social struggle. In general the communist parties moved further to the right before finally succumbing to historical irrelevancy with the collapse of the USSR. On the far left, some lost the plot altogether and retreated to their monasteries to read scripture and play magical tunes that made quotes from Lenin and Trotsky coincide with their latest fantasy. But the vast bulk of the tens of thousands who joined revolutionary organisations in those radical years retreated into their private lives and withdrew from political action.

Another reaction to the retreat, which began in the 1980s and has gained wide support over the last decade, is attempts to regroup the different currents of the shrunken left into united organisations. There have been many variants of this. In Australia the SWP developed a regroupment perspective in the 1980s, embarking on a series of failed projects – from unity with the Russia-line Stalinists in the Socialist Party of Australia to the abortive Nuclear Disarmament Party. The renaming of the SWP as the Democratic Socialist Party and the establishment of the avowedly “non-party” Green Left Weekly in the early 1990s (in reality Green Left Weekly has always been controlled politically by the DSP) was part of this regroupment orientation. These attempts coincided with a broader orientation of the DSP towards establishing relations with a variety of international currents, many of them hard-line Stalinists. DSP organised conferences have been addressed not only by members of these parties, but even spokespeople from supposedly “socialist” countries like Vietnam.[60]

Many on the international left who advocate one form of regroupment or another would strongly reject the idea that the revolutionary left should engage in rapprochement with openly Stalinist organisations. And yet there has been a broad tendency over the last decade to downgrade the importance of major political differences, particularly when they relate to historical questions. This is not to say that organisational boundaries should be drawn on the basis of the exact characterisation of Stalin’s Russia. While the “Russian question” is still very important, there is no principled reason why meaningful unity could not be achieved on the basis of a common hostility to the Stalinist regimes, past and present, without clarifying their exact nature. But the question of Stalinism goes well beyond the narrow characterisation of this or that regime. Just as important are questions like the popular front, the relationship of the class struggle to the anti-imperialist struggle, the nature of the state, the role of the working class and its relationship with other social forces – all of which are heavily impacted by the legacy of Stalinism. What is needed above all, to break the historic grip of Stalinism over the left, is the reassertion of socialism as a movement based on working class struggle, not an ideological movement bringing together workers, sections of the middle class, guerrilla movements, national liberation organisations and leftish-sounding governments.

The Arab revolutions pose all of these issues point blank. They put mass revolutionary struggle back at the forefront of world politics, threatening not only Western-backed dictators but every regime in the region, including those that sections of the Arab and international left previously backed or had illusions in. The revolutions have also begun to raise all the questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics long dismissed as arcane theoretical disputes. What is the relationship between the democratic and socialist revolution? What is the role of the state apparatus? What attitude should the working class have to other social forces? How far can we trust middle class leaders thrown up by the struggle? On what basis can socialist and workers’ parties be formed? There are not simple answers to any of these questions, and many new ones will be posed as the struggle develops. But overcoming the legacy of Stalinism’s distortion of Marxism will be essential if a new socialist left which is capable of rising to the challenges posed by the first great wave of revolution of the twenty-first century is to be built.

[1] We have used the most common spelling of the Libyan leader’s name used in Australia – Muammar Gaddafi – except where it is spelled differently in quotes from or titles of other publications.

[2]WikiLeaks cable 09CARACAS1284, CARACAS 1284.html, accessed 7 March 2011.

[3]Nikolas Kozloff, “WikiLeaks drag Venezuela and Libya through the mud”, Huffington Post, 22 February 2011,, accessed 25 February 2011.

[4]Events continue apace. At time of writing it cannot be ruled out that Chávez (or Castro) will turn around and opportunistically mouth support for the Libyan revolution. But the truth of their attitude, whatever comes after, was demonstrated in their first pronouncements, and they cannot be undone.

[5]Lynn Herrman, “Venezuela’s Chavez says US planning invasion of Libya”, Digital Journal, 1 March 2011, Faqh4ri5, accessed March 4 2011.

[6]“Statement: Qathafi is the legitimate leader of the Libyan people – HCI-FPFS”, Modern Ghana, 25 February 2011, statement-qathafi-is-the-legitimate-leader-of-the-.html, accessed 7 March 2011.

[7]Fidel Castro, “Support Libya independence demands Fidel Castro”, 23 February 2011,, accessed 7 March 2011.

[8]Glen Ford, “No Tahrir in Benghazi: a racist pogrom rages on against black Africans in Libya”, MRZine, 3 March 2011, ford030311.html, accessed 5 March 2001.

[9]Al Mathaba/Anti-Imperialism Center”, world/libya/mathaba.htm, accessed 3 March 2011.

[10]Kiraz Janicke and Frederico Fuentes, “First Egypt, next Venezuela?” Green Left Weekly, 27 February 2011.

[11]Green Left discussion list, 28 February 2011, GreenLeft_discussion/message/73574, accessed 4 March 2011.

[12]Louis Proyect, “Qaddafi and the Monthly Review”, The unrepentant Marxist, 27 February 2011,, accessed 28 February 2011.

[13]Jane Degras (ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, London, 1951, p.22.

[14]Brian Pearce, “Export of revolution 1917-1924”, Labour Review Vol.3 No.4, 1958.

[15]Peter Boyle, “Gaddafi’s Libya: from nationalism to neoliberalism”, Green Left Weekly, 27 February 2011.

[16]Direct Action was the paper of the organisation then known as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP – no relation to the UK organisation). The SWP renamed itself the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in the early 1990s and launched Green Left Weekly. The DSP has now dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance, which is today largely a rebadged version of the DSP. Green Left Weekly is now the official publication of the Socialist Alliance. Of the 11 people elected to the Socialist Alliance National Executive at its 2010 conference, all but one had been members of the DSP when it was dissolved only days earlier. (see Socialist Alliance 7th National conference minutes, Conference++5#toc41, accessed 11 March, and Doug Lorimer, “New period of left unity launched?”, March 2010, left_unity_launched, accessed 11 March 2011.)

[17]Peter Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”, Direct Action 612, May 1987, Sydney.

[18]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[19]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[20]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[21]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[22]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[23]Boyle, “Libya: Modernisation without Poverty”.

[24]Chris McGreal, “Tony Blair: Mubarak is ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’.”, The Guardian, 2 February 2011.

[25]Workers News was the paper of the Healyite and notoriously pro-Gaddafi Socialist Labour League.

[26]Greg Sheridan, “Dictators useful idiots happy to take his money”, The Australian, 24 February 2011.

[27]Andrew Bolt, “What is it with the left and dictators like Gaddafi?”, Herald Sun, 24 February 2011.

[28]Milanda Rout, “Left wingers change their tune on Gaddafi’s regime”, The Australian, 24 February 2011.

[29]Google search of Green Left Weekly site for the term “Libya” on 4 March 2011,, accessed 4 March 2011.

[30]Jon Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, International Socialism Journal 24, London, 1984, p.105.

[31]Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, p.108.

[32]Bearman, “Qadhafi and the revolutionary committees”, p.119.

[33]Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, Haymarket, Chicago, 2009, p.1.

[34]Chris Harman, “Returning to the Russian Question”, International Socialism Journal 118, London, 2008.

[35]Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks, London, 1988.

[36]Alan Maass, “Marxism versus Coordinatorism”, Socialist Worker (US), 19 July 2002,, accessed 20 January 2011.

[37]Michael Albert, “Albert rejoins”, Socialist Worker (US), 21 July 2002,, accessed 20 January 2011.

[38]Alan Maass, “Reply to Albert”, Zcommunication, 27 August 2008 [not original publication date],, accessed 20 January 2011.

[39]A leaflet distributed with Direct Action 621, October 1987.

[40]Renfrey Clarke, “Life in the USSR”, Direct Action 597, January 1987.

[41]Clarke, “Life in the USSR”.

[42]The DSP, after some debate, abandoned its characterisation of China as socialist in the 1990s. But the fact that China still appears on their website in their list of countries “on the road to socialism” speaks volumes about how serious they are about confronting their Stalinist heritage.

[43]Democratic Socialist Party, “What is the DSP”,, accessed 7 March 2011.

[44]Quoted in Corey Oakley, “The defeat of the Russian revolution”, 25 March 2006 at, accessed 9 March 2011.

[45]Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1976, p.359.

[46]Ted Grant, “The Colonial Revolution and Deformed Workers States”, 1978,, accessed 4 March 2011.

[47]Quoted in Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, Haymarket, Chicago, 2008, p.146.

[48]Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, p.147.

[49]Ian Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, Pluto Press, 1974, p.84.

[50]Ian Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, p.82.

[51]Tom O’Lincoln, Into the mainstream: the decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press, Sydney, 1985.

[52]Hal Draper, “The principle of self-emancipation in Marx and Engels”, 1971,, accessed 27 January 2011.

[53]The Erfurt Program, 1891,

[54]Corey Oakley, “Rebels and revolutionaries: Lesbia Harford”, Socialist Alternative, July 2005.

[55]Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, The Communist Movement in Syria and Lebanon, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1998, pp.46-47.

[56]William B. Quandt, “Political and military dimensions of contemporary Palestinian Nationalism”, in William Quandt, Fuad Jabber and Ann M. Lesch,The politics of Palestinian nationalism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1973, p.116.

[57]Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Collier Macmillan,London, 1987. Quoted in Chris Harman, The fire last time, Bookmarks, London, 1988, p.177.

[58]Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson, “SDS and the Movement”, Independent Socialist (USA), October 1969. Quoted in Harman, The fire last time, p.180.

[59]Chris Harman, “Crisis of the European revolutionary left”, International Socialism Journal 4, London 1979, p.65.

[60]Le Vinh Thu, “Vietnam: building an equitable, democratic and civilised society”, speech to the 2009 “World at a crossroads” conference organised by the DSP., accessed 8 March 2011. (Le Vinh Thu has a long history as a representative of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese government. He is currently Vietnam’s ambassador to Malta.)

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