What is ‘Stalinism’? And why is it an insult?

[Note: This post aims to provide a very brief overview, rather than an in depth account of Joseph Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union.]

An authoritarian nationalist

One key feature of Stalinism, said British scholar Robert Conquest in 2003, was the murder and disappearing of dissidents in the Soviet Union under the rule of Joseph Stalin. The term also encompasses “stupefaction”, he insisted, or the process of excessive propaganda ‘hypnotising’ citizens and making it impossible for them to think clearly or independently. Counterpunch quotes Stalin as saying:

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?

For Conquest, those who respect Stalin today may be referred to as “nationalists”, “chauvinists”, and sometimes even “combine Stalinism with religion”. Donald Parkinson from the Communist League of Tampa backs him up, calling Stalinism a political system which was “a nationalist and social-conservative distortion of Marxism”.

In 2011, historian Robert Service (who has not escaped criticism (see here and here) from anti-Stalinists) said:

In so far as Stalin had a personal ideology, he supposedly was permanently transfixed by the objective of building ‘socialism in a single country’ and steadily mutated into a Russian nationalist leader.

Stalin’s personality cult and repression of dissent

One of the most routine criticisms of Stalin’s rule is for his “one-man leadership” and “cult of personality”, referred to by the University of York’s Julia Kenny as:

one of the strongest cults of the individual in modern history.

Russia Today (RT) has spoken about how Stalin:

ruled the USSR with an iron fist, and despite the terrors, persecutions and executions, he was almost worshipped…

Under his rule, the Soviet Union may have survived the Second World War. But after the conflict had finished, RT says, Stalin:

locked away in labor camps the heroes who [had] helped him

The past is not the same as the present

Many famous left-wing theorists once started out sympathising with Stalin before then criticising him fervently. But then everyone makes mistakes and changes their opinion at some point in their lives.

Murray Bookchin, for example, who has inspired the current ideology of the PKK, has been described as follows by ROAR Magazine:

he would turn from Stalinism to Trotskyism in the years running up to World War II before defining himself as an anarchist in the late 1950s and eventually identifying as a ‘communalist’ or ‘libertarian municipalist’ after the introduction of the idea of social ecology.

We could use many metaphors to show that people’s views change over time. For instance, just because a butterfly was once a caterpillar doesn’t mean it still is a caterpillar. But the absurdity of an argument based on what was true in the past rather than what is true in the present should be apparent without the need for metaphors.

Considering the case of Bookchin, let’s remember at this point that Stalin once said:

Anarchists are real enemies of Marxism… [and] a real struggle must be waged against real enemies.

Stalin’s stance would likely have been very clear on this matter. If a person had claimed to be an anarchist, their previous associations with Stalinism would have meant nothing to him. They would have just been another enemy.

Putting history into perspective

Seumas Milne has argued that history has been rewritten since the fall of the Soviet Union by the victors of the Cold War. As a result, he says, it has now become:

commonplace to equate communism and fascism as the two greatest evils of an unprecedentedly sanguinary era. In some versions, communism is even held to be the more vile and bloodier wickedness.

He opposes the way that establishment criticism of Soviet crimes and failures in the West has fed:

the idea that any attempt at radical social change will always lead to suffering, killing and failure.

He also criticises the way this propaganda has effectively lessened the impact of “the unique crimes of Nazism”, while allowing the West to bury its own colonialist crimes.

The figures relating to “executions and gulag populations under Stalin”, Milne says, are indeed “horrific” (with 799,455 having been executed between 1921 and 1953, and millions having been sent to labour camps). But he suggests that they need to be considered alongside fascist and colonial crimes against humanity in the early twentieth century.

Stalinism as a failure to learn from

Overall, the general message is that lovers of peace, freedom, and democracy should not seek to emulate Stalin. There may have been certain economic and social advances in the USSR, but the word Stalinism will no doubt continue to characterise (for many different creeds on the Left) the worst elements of the Soviet experience. But the word would serve us much better as a reminder of what to avoid rather than as a way to insult ideological opponents without reason or evidence.

About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
This entry was posted in Communism, politics, Stalinism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What is ‘Stalinism’? And why is it an insult?

  1. Pingback: The unreasoned argument that ‘the PKK is Stalinist’ is just destructive propaganda | Resistance Is Fertile

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