Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Question of Stalinism and the Modern Protest

by Gary Tedman

The organized and deliberate horror of the system that produced Auschwitz stands as a kind of philosophical toll-booth at which we cannot seriously pay in the same old currency anymore, and once we have passed through it everything must be in a new currency, a different one. Let me put this even stronger: fascists made Auschwitz and the other death camps, and Communists opposed it, all those who are not with the Communists, are with the Fascists, it is not possible to take any other position: that system forbids this, completely and utterly.

To be sure, the WWII and post WWII situation was and is complex, and the lines to be drawn are not easy, but I maintain these are the real lines.

Notwithstanding, many people, groups, have passed through this toll-booth without changing their currency and are, as it were, living the illusion that things remain the same as before.

The rationalization for this is invariably 'Stalinism' and the associated 'Gulag'. 

The image of an equal and opposite horror to Hitlerism is there and keeps the old currency going in this new territory, it is there to rewrite history, in the end it is there, no matter its reality, its reasons for being, or not, for the moment, to tell us that the Auschwitz system did not really exist, or if it existed, it was just the opposite of an equally horrible horror that it opposed, in effect, to tell us that it is 'just like' an extreme version of the daily politics that we all know so well.

This means most people are in fact, though they don't know it, communists. They are because they obviously oppose this fascism, but they do not know they are communists. There are a few fascists who have the knowledge of what they are doing, and they are largely in positions of power and wealth, although of course there are also fascists among the poor and working class, those who have been brutalized. Nevertheless, low level fascism (for want of a better name) represents a quite different phenomenon to high level fascism. The Brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung) functioned as a paramilitary organization of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party) are an example of this difference, and they had to be dispatched by the higher level Nazis, as we know, in the infamous 'Night of the Long Knives'. The key to grasping this difference is that the Brownshirts could not be trusted to 'do the right thing', which was to attack and blame minorities, chiefly for economic problems, rather than the ruling class.

Allow me to provide an example that will make this philosophical-political position clearer:

In Greece there was a coalition government (February 2012), which coalesced because they all agreed on some basic principles, and wanted to 'rescue' the Greek economy and nation, one method to do this was to introduce some extreme 'austerity measures' for the population: - sackings, redundancies, public and private sector wage/salary cuts and freezes, increased taxes, privatizations. The coalition was formed by the two main parliamentary parties PASOK ('socialist')/New Democracy (rightist) plus some extreme rightist fascists. These parties were led respectively by Georges Papandreou, Antonis Samaras and Georges Karatzaferis, the latter a party leader who has openly used anti-Semitic phrases and slogans. Essentially, the fascist held the deciding vote, in spite of the fact that he represented a tiny minority of the citizens of Greece in electoral terms.  This coalition was led by an 'installed' (by the Eurozone state apparatus) Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos, described as a 'technocrat' whose political affiliation remained 'officially' undecided but who was a banker with a history not unconnected with the causes of the crisis. 

The question arises: why would anyone, or any party, enter into an alliance with the extreme rightist, fascist party unless they had something in common with them? We were of course made aware officially that this was not the case. The other leaders always disavowed any connection of this type. Yet here we have, de facto, a close political relationship.

My argument is that what we saw in front of our eyes, we saw because it is true and fact, it is the reality

The coalition represented at bottom like minds, it represented agreements, similar goals and aspirations, and so on. It means that they are the same, an identity. This means conversely that the opposites that we thought the apparent left Socialists and right New Democracy were, in fact, fake. In reality they are performing a double act, a false dialectical piece of theater that allows us to vote for each party as if we were deciding a sports match, who after the spectacle share in the spoils. 

Why? They do this because they do share in the spoils, because they share class interests, and these interests are their private interests. In the Greek coalition of that time it reached a point in the economic crisis where those interests were best served through an alliance with the fascists. This is because any individual party holding power would be held to blame as responsible for the austerity that they both wanted to impose, so a coalition would neatly spread the blame and unpopularity as well as allow each to blame the other, in other words it allows the false dialectical double act to continue relatively unscathed (in theory, because this was happening against a backdrop of continuous protests). But it only allowed this to continue with the assistance of the fascists: only the fascists had the same interests at heart. Only the fascists had the same ruthlessness and brutality.

The two major left parties did not enter into this coalition and opposed it. This group included the Greek Communist Party (KKE), ostensibly a Stalinist party. We have, therefore, here the fascists versus the communists, although few involved would have accepted this as an accurate description, in fact they would of course have rejected it outright in indignation. And the reason why this description would not be accepted, and so strenuously, is because parliament must (it is an imperative), function as a stage on which political conflicts take place and argue democratically, and this entails of course that they are and must be opposed to each other, except in times of necessary national unity or emergency; i.e. they must really be opposed for this to be a genuine democracy, because democracy means choice. If we were to find that these parties were not really opposed but in fact shared their outlook, we would realize that we were living in a plutocracy, a dictatorship, not a genuine democracy, because changing the one to the other by election would really be no change at all.

Now, it is not that real opposition never ever happens in this structure. The fact of the necessity to perform on this stage means that they must do certain things, intervene, make political decisions, and so on, politics must be seen to be done and so it must often be done in fact on the stage that is parliament. However, the idea that they are opposed in any fundamental way is false as far as this structure is concerned; they are only opposed as factions within the one position of the rule of the ruling class. This is the key to understanding all bourgeois democracy. It is its classical form, as with the English Parliament (there are of course always exceptions).

We are using the metaphor of a stage here, but this is more than a metaphor; it really is a stage with actors performing roles. The political effect is chiefly the response of the audience to this performance, not the laws they put into effect. The laws are always decided beforehand by the class that the politicians are drawn from, or that they now de facto represent as politicians. The role of the parliamentary politician is to sell these political decisions. Apart from a stage performance with the actors, the process also more than resembles the performance of a conjurer, as well as has something of a comedic double act, with the classic straight man (who is funny and who is straight depends on your sidedness) or the classic nice cop v nasty cop routine. It is therefore no accident that the parliament resembles a stage set, it is a stage set. It is a place in this sense where art meets politics in a very pure way, the design must be right, the rituals and aesthetics of it all must add to the effect, in fact you might say it is a site where there are 'special effects' and a special atmosphere created. If politics is show business for ugly people, then this is their special stage.

All modern political arguments seem to lead to a single argument and question: to Stalin versus Hitler. It was for this reason that Godwin created his 'law' of blogs, although it mainly refers to Hitler and Nazi comparisons (although it may also be expanded to imply any of this type of figure); Wikipedia:

"Godwin's law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies[1][2]) is a humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990[2] that has become an Internet adage. It states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."[2][3]  In other words, Godwin observed that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.
There are many corollaries to Godwin's law, some considered more canonical (by being adopted by Godwin himself)[3] than others.[1] For example, there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.[8] This principle is itself frequently referred to as Godwin's law. It is considered poor form to raise such a comparison arbitrarily with the motive of ending the thread. There is a widely recognized corollary that any such ulterior-motive invocation of Godwin's law will be unsuccessful.[9]

Godwin's law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Nazis."

Whilst the 'law' does not and should not prevent genuine discussion of Nazism and Hitler or fascism where this is relevant, it is often used (wrongly) on blogs in precisely this way, to prevent discussion of the history, specifically of Europe and its last world war. At the same time, the 'blog law' tends to function to deny (whilst secretly recognizing it as a phenomenon) that all blog discussions seem to be inexorably drawn towards the political issue that the last world war was fought over: fascism versus communism. 

Blogs are merely an example of a kind of cultural injunction, almost a taboo that exists in this space. In this sense it tends to act as a prohibition against recognizing everything stated above about the two great camps of politics. Stalin/ism is the real focus of the law. The argument regarding Stalin, Stalin's existence, acts as the universal position that says we may pass through the toll booth without changing our political-philosophical currency. It also says that any defense of Stalin is 'beyond the pale', even more so than Hitler. We may not discuss Stalin even in the context of Nazism, because to do so would be to challenge the accepted ideological norm of a 'balance' of forces, of bourgeois politics as the great balancer between two extremes that are essentially the same, two forms of evil, which of course we all know as the Cold War ideology.

This ideology was the post war switch in the Allies entire ideological position from support as an ally of the Soviets to outright antagonism. It was the switch necessary (whatever the actual complex circumstances) so that the ruling class and capitalism could return to its pre-war narrative of the evils of socialism, a switch it had to make, and was successful in making. For this reason the anti-Stalin position is essential to this ideology. The existence of an evil figure on the Left is essential to the modern concept of democratic politics and the entire notion of political 'extremes' of Left and Right balanced by universalist humanism, extremes which, on the contrary, are the only real political positions that exist today, after the Holocaust.

Are we saying that Stalin and Stalinism did not really exist, that the 'phenomenon' is a figment of bourgeois illusion making, that it is not as evil or equal to Hitlerism, are we saying that Stalin's opposition to Hitler was pure and progressive, 'the good', etc? No, such would hardly be a proper Marxian analysis; but it will be worth looking at the trajectory of the main proponent of the 'evil Stalin as equal to Hitler' ideology.

The Great Purge is supposed to be the fault of Stalin/Stalinism and 'his evil'; Wikipedia (I must say I support this mode of information and see no problem with it) again:

"The Great Purge was a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin from 1936 to 1938.[1][2] It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of peasants, Red Army leadership, and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, characterized by widespread police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment, and arbitrary executions.[1] In Russian historiography the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina (Russian: ежовщина; literally, the Yezhov regime), after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, NKVD.

In the Western World, Robert Conquest's 1968 book The Great Terror popularized that phrase. Conquest was in turn inspired by the period of terror (French: la Terreur) during the French Revolution."

Conquest then joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created for the purpose of combating communist influence and actively promoting anti-communist ideas, by fostering relationships with journalists, trade unions and other organizations.[1] In 1956, Conquest left the IRD and became a freelance writer and historian. Some of his books were partly distributed through Praeger Press, a US company which published a number of books at the request of the CIA.
Some critics have argued that examination of archives following the USSR's collapse in 1991 challenge many of Conquest's statements.[15]

Now, Robert Conquest's personal role in this construction is pivotal in that it is his work that generally feeds into the mainstream media and consciousness as 'the truth' about the Soviet Union (SU) and Stalin as an evil figure representing the SU, and it turn representing all forms of (should we say consistent or authoritative) Left socialism. It is not exactly difficult to detect that he is an agent (whether factually or not) of that thing known as 'the west' (if we treat this term as synonymous with advanced democratic capitalism), and that his ideology fits into the rightist framework of understanding history, and the fact that he started as a Communist only adds to this. 

One of the primary ways that he derives huge figures for death rates in the purges is by adding together the deaths from famines. Apart from this simple subterfuge, these famines were a feature of Russian life (and death) long before the Soviets came to power, and the Soviets were of course trying to eradicate them. The other salient aspect of this, however, is the background ideology or philosophy at work here, and the concept of the 'terror', the idea of an all powerful evil force to which any death or destruction may be attributed in a society. Now, it is noticeable that such an ideology is itself rather 'Stalinist', in the sense that it really believes and asserts repeatedly that such an evil overarching quasi-mystical force is actually possible and exists and operates as a factor in history.

The Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser has already remarked on this in his criticism of the rightist interpretation and critique of Stalinism, and counterpoised to this a very different left critique of same that looks at the problem of the cult of personality (in Essays in Self Criticism).

In November 2005 Conquest was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, a president infamous of course for cajoling the fabrication of the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as the excuse for the gung-ho invasion of Iraq to effect 'regime change'. It is noteworthy that President Bush, acting for his class, after the terrorist atrocity of 9/11 used the concept of a widespread 'War on Terror' as the reason to justify the invasion of another nation unrelated to this act of terrorism, and as a rationale for many other reductions in US civil rights at home, also unrelated (unless we mention class). In this way the rightist vision of history of the SU functions to generate just the kind of political conditions that are conducive to the rightists own political aims for a 'strong state', and very peculiarly in other words 'Stalinist' conditions, but minus any socialistic content. To put it more simply: Stalinism here becomes the rationale for Stalinism.

From another direction, may we not assert that Stalinism, or more specifically Hitlerism (which we seem to have forgotten), may justifiably be a real excuse for Stalinism, or a 'strongman', if we are faced with fighting a truly terrible despotic force, one of those earthbound mundane evils that may not have mystical projective powers but certainly cause a great deal of grief and destruction. Every nation, even democracies, do indeed have a way to resort to emergency laws, martial law, and the 'strongman', and we all know that Churchill represents just such an historical figure, a hero for most, but who also had a personal history and reputation that on close inspection cannot be denied of being ruthless and at times cruel (i.e. earlier in Africa, or as regards the firestorm bombing of Dresden and Hamburg).

Attached to all this is the way this same rightist fantasy of evil and good ultimate powers leads also to the repeated insistence on peace as opposed to violence, as if one side (the rightist one) somehow owns the rights to peace as such. The suggestion is that there are, again, two fundamental forces at work: those who want peace and those who are hell bent on 'mindless' destruction and death. 

Lately (in 2011) this argument came to be used against the Arab Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, and against the uprisings of the Tunisian, the Bahraini, Libyan, Egyptian, Yemeni and Syrian peoples, etc. The suggestion is that these uprising have been generated by a kind of will to violence and that the existing state and the stasis it produces is in contrast necessary for peaceful 'stability'. What we find is that the institutions of the state, because it only presents a bureaucratic violence which is insidious and hidden, is framed as peaceful, while protesters who resist repression with an open vigor are regarded as 'violent'. 

Recently this same argument has been leveled at Greek protesters in the context of the (seemingly never ending) negotiations by the Greek government with the troika (the ECB, IMF and EU) that offered to the Eurozone currency group of nations even further austerity measures that were forcing the nation into penury and its people into ever deepening poverty. Protesters, normally peaceful, are in Greece often accompanied (except for the Communists who resisted this) by groups of other protesters (or rioters) who act in an immediately and rather too ready way with violence against the state riot police, who then have the convenient excuse to heavily tear-gas the protesters.

On one occasion in Greece during such protests (February 2012) it was (on video evidence that is widely documented on the internet) the riot police which first began the violence by firing down into the packed crowd of protesters, only after this did the stone throwers begin attacking the riot police, who began their familiar routine of surrounding the mass of peaceful protesters and herding them by copious amounts of teargas. To cut the story short, on this night many shops and buildings, including historic ones, were the next day reported as burnt out, smashed and looted. Some were ostensibly targets of Left wing rage – such as the HQ of the fascist party (Laos), or some were loosely connected to this apparent agenda (the cinema which had been used as a Gestapo torture chamber, as well as banks). The destruction was quite widespread. Naturally the Greek press and the government mostly, but not totally, avoided the question of parastatal elements involved in agent provocateur acts, and described the violence in terms of wanton thuggery and 'mindless evil'. 

In the UK comparisons were made sometimes to the recent English riots and looting (which nevertheless also gave rise to questions over the sudden reluctance or inability of the nation's police to contain it). The narrative was clear: protest against the state was a form of terror and evil that had to be eradicated, and reflected that there was something fundamentally wrong with the Greek people. This came after months of descriptions on blogs etc of Greek people as lazy and inefficient, too expecting of 'entitlements', and 'not living within their means' and thus needing constant loans in the crisis.

The Greek people, and its kind of state, were essentially becoming the scapegoats for the global capitalist crisis in the western media. The case of Ireland was financially at least as grave, if not worse, than Greece, but all the concentration was on the plight of Greece as a 'special case'. This barely hidden racism, since it had no justification in rationality (in fact in the blogs it was hardly concealed at all, and was allowed as if 'fair comment'), on a broader level was reflected in the insulting name for the badly affected southern states, PIIGS (for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). 

Tellingly, these are all states which still had unfinished business to deal with after the last world war: for instance the legacy of the Junta in Greece and of Franco in Spain; Greek people were actually still in the process of trying to gain some war reparations from Germany over a well known massacre of civilians. Disregarding the doubts over who is responsible for the violence of the protesters, we have here, I would argue, two kinds of violence presenting itself: the one is state violence and the other is people's force resisting this. Part of the state violence, when it is not tear-gassing people, is 'peaceful', in the sense that it presents itself ostensibly at least through lawful methods and bureaucratic processes to implement austerity. Some of these methods are doubtful in terms of their Greek constitutional legitimacy, but we can leave that aside too. 

What is austerity? It is the systematic reduction in the living standards and welfare benefits of the ordinary people of Greece (and other nations). These are generally not the people who were or should be held responsible in the sense of punishment for the global crisis, but who seem to be being treated as such, and we must place this in the European context of big bankers still receiving colossal financial rewards even for their total failure and need to be bailed out from the public purse, i.e. the very people who were being 'punished'. The people of Greece were and are very angry about this situation and they resist it. They feel (obviously) justified in this resistance.

What happens? A few buildings, property, some historic, get burnt in the struggle, little proof of who did it (the earlier Marfan bank atrocity may be the exception). The bourgeoisie are generally horrified. In actual fact the media horror expressed at the buildings and shops being burnt down as a result (apparently) of the anger over the severe state imposed austerity seems to be far higher than, say, passion against the massacres of civilians taking place concurrently in the city of Homs in Syria, who the UN and Arab League have failed miserably to protect even in words. For this we get mere sadness and some mild hand wringing, even prominent Left figures (such as Seamus Milne of The Guardian newspaper) walks away from the Syrian issue saying it is too 'toxic' and offered no plan of action even for the Left

In the UK, persons have been arrested and imprisoned for supporting and encouraging the riots in words only, such as through the new social media. So in this sense free speech is being curtailed over an issue that could be aired in this respect: is violent rioting (even, in contrast to protesting) never legitimate? Is the expression of anger by the people never justified? 

Let us forget for the moment the easy way in which the rightists will confuse and conflate, deliberately and for their own project, riots with protest. Is it never ever justified? Wanton destruction is only wanton and mindless when it has absolutely no point to it. To fulfill this it would have to be to all intents and purposes mad, i.e. psychopathic, and in that sense would lead us to a different problem since psychopaths are not considered responsible subjects. Such destruction as we have seen in Greece is not psychopathic though, it is anger about something and in response to a definite political event. You might say it is an expression (if genuine) of – if you attack me this way, I will attack you this way. The working class and people are unable to defend themselves or express their anger through legal constitutional means from the austerity measures that are (against the legal Greek constitution anyway, and even against the principles, at least, of the European Charter) reducing their lives in fact, so all that is left is (apparently) illegal methods. 

It is clear that by calling these methods 'mindless' (the repeated refrain in the press) as well as naming it 'rioting' is a way to link ordinary peoples protest to the general idea of 'terror'. To fight this 'terror' the (Greek in this instance) state feels justified in its violence or its own 'terror' as a way of combating it, so it resorts to the 'Stalinist' position (or perhaps we should say the Hitlerist in this case). If we add to this the suspicion that the state is encouraging and/or allowing this response and see that parastatal elements are included, then a picture emerges of a state itself going beyond legality, becoming an illegitimate state, a state which is no longer interested in performing its democratic function with regard to its people but only interested in its survival as a form of power become arbitrary and beyond law.

It is this kind of arbitrary power, which is being ascribed to radicals constantly under the name of Stalinism, yet arises from the position of Stalinism (or Hitlerism), which says we must not voice this position as the people, even as a concern about power, and we must accept that we all want 'peace', even though this is a peace which kills us: what is, we must ask, the ultimate austerity measure, do we not already know? Yes we do, it as Auschwitz. The same people who would call this hyperbole would call those who alluded to the early indications of the rise of the Nazi party and its dangers as conspiracy mongers and paranoiacs. 

There is a fundamental and deep hypocrisy at work here and it can be simplified down to this: they, the bourgeoisie, feel it is wrong to make a revolution, to overthrow an oppressive regime if there is nothing for them to gain from it. In Libya there was something to gain for capitalists from intervention: politically Gaddafi had appeared sometimes in the popular press as 'socialist', so intervention could be seen to be both anti-socialist (a strategic political gain), and there was oil present, plus the geography and demography helped, it was 'doable'. In Syria this was not the case, and the much vaunted democratic moral imperatives did not play a strong role, all the capitalist nations failed (at least in the first months, as I began to write this) in their self appointed 'duty' (including China and Russia). If Syria is a bourgeois revolution with working class components as well as an independence struggle against foreign tyranny, and as well as against home grown corruption and despotism, the world's bourgeoisie can only, at the moment, see its working class aspect, its courage and real violent resistance, as a threat.


An additional aspect of the problem of Stalin and Stalinism is a historical difficulty: if this were to be taken as true, how may we approach the bare fact that the Soviet Union and Stalin was an ally during the war and that our (say, British) press was affectionate towards the figure of Stalin (Uncle Joe etc)? Should we 'westerners', to be consistent, say that this 'realpolitik' (at best) was complicity in war crimes? This would of course be very awkward and in fact of course it does not happen, in its place there is a void, the question is not confronted, it is simply never grappled with. Instead a kind of historical anachronism is produced, wherein, if 'we' ever think it, for the duration of the war it was 'normal' to be allies with the Soviet Union, but now, after a certain dividing line in time, it is not, and this 'doublethink', although contradictory, coexists. Common ideology has no inbuilt necessity, after all, to be consistent.

The existence of this line of demarcation, the division of future from past and the inability to rationally configure the one by and with the other, creates an historical anachronism and leads to a kind of violence in the present, based on it. For, if we cannot address this, it is a kind of repression. What is being repressed? If we were projected back to, say, Europe 1943, a British subject could not so easily openly exclaim "Stalin is an evil bastard", but now it is the reverse, if you do not claim he is an evil bastard you are an evil bastard. The violence here is that which prevents us from examining this as a genuine historical and ideological problem. It prevents us from researching the subject matter in a serious way. The only option that appears to be open to us is to strike the rightist attitude and interpretation of history. 

As stated, this rightist attitude does not exactly replace the figure of Stalin with anything much other than its own vision of a 'strong man', i.e. with its own Stalinism (e.g. Putin for instance). The violence of ideology is always based in this rejection of rational discourse, but the rejection does not appear so much in ideology, since it is irrational and therefore in a sense outside of ideas, but in affective practice, or in the affective practice that accompanies the ideology and appears at the moment it becomes aware that the line of demarcation and the prohibition is being challenged somehow, which in this case is a kind of historical line. In other words, it surfaces as an emotional response. This emotional response is, after the fact, usually excused through moral and ethical terms: with indignation, horror, astonishment, bluster, apoplexy, and a shutting down of the lines of rational communication, and then, censorship, the final act of which is to actually kill. And yes, ironically, Stalinism (if it is indeed what they say it is) itself followed this course, even (and this is the sad aspect of it) after it became unnecessary for the ruthlessness of war. We have in the Stalinist insistence on the end of class struggle in socialism the illusions of the post war Soviet state, since a state, of course, cannot be the end of class struggle given its end is the ending of the necessity for a state (this is the simple, basic, Leninist principle).

This is why here, on this ground, socialism grew its own, home grown, false dialectic. On the one side we have the notion of gradualism and total cessation of struggle in Stalinism, and on the other the ideas of the total continuation of continual revolutionary struggle in Trotskyism. What this represents is actually the same repression, in the end the repression of the science of social change that is Marxism, by being happier with the condition of stasis produced by holding apart these two sides and preventing synthesis. Why should this happen within socialism (ignoring the antagonistic pressure from outside)? A provisional answer may be this: socialism has no magic immunity from ideology, and especially from the ideology of its own victories and disappointments. There is an ideology of Marxism as much as any other politics, in fact even more so because of what is at stake.

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