After Stalinism: An Exchange

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Dave Linn and Susan Weissman

I FOUND SUSAN Weissman’s piece “The Russian Revolution Revisited” (ATC 75, July/August 1998) a refreshingly readable synopsis of a complex historical problem. While I agree with most of her analysis (with one exception noted below), I do not think her conclusion follows from this analysis.

Near the end of her article Weissman asks whether “much of the left” has “forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist.” By what criteria and with what evidence can such an assertion be made?

All three of these figures were responsible for the murders of uncounted individuals who opposed them politically. After 1938, Stalin (but to my knowledge not Hitler or Mao) also killed large numbers of people who did not oppose him but whom, in his paranoia, he imagined to be political enemies.

All three of these men temporarily, and largely by coercion, succeeded in transforming their personal whims into national social and political policies. There is, however, an important qualitative difference between Hitler and the other two: Unlike Stalin’s and Mao’s politics, Hitler’s were based principally on ethnic chauvinism.

Certainly there were and are large numbers of Russians and Chinese who are ethnic chauvinists, but this was not a sin of Stalin (himself a Georgian, not a Russian) or of Mao. Thus Hitler’s victims, unlike those of Mao or Stalin, included millions whose only sin was their ethnicity. This fact alone is sufficient to refute Weissman’s comparison.

This is by no means a defense of Stalinism, or for that matter Maoism. Nonetheless, I believe I understand the answer to Weissman’s question as to why “much of the left” pines for their rerun as state systems. For all of their undeniable repression, even brutality, against those within, they nonetheless represented space for hope to those without.

Independent socialist revolutions in living memory, such as those in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Grenada and Angola, not only would not have succeeded (even temporarily) without the Soviet and Chinese examples; they would, moreover, quite possibly not have even been attempted as socialist projects.

Without the USSR, Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnamese comrades might still have been socialists and might still have defeated the French—but they would not have defeated the Americans. Vietnam today could not successfully resist a U.S. invasion; nor could Cuba.

The USSR for all its faults was instrumental in what victories we had. Since its defeat we have had none on a national scale, nor have we had any immediate prospects for any—not even in the French strikes of 1995.

In my work I have opportunity to read standard world history textbooks, for junior and high school students in public schools, written since 1991. When it comes to discussing socialism, there is not enough substance to provoke curious inquiry on the part of those students (relatively few) motivated to actually read the text with interest.

When I was in school, during the Cold War, socialism used to be given a whole chapter, and was sometimes treated respectfully as one would treat a worthy chess opponent. Now it is given a couple of paragraphs, dismissed as a project whose worthlessness needs no further demonstration beyond its defeat —though the word “defeat” is not used, being too respectful; the accepted term is “failure.”

Those right-wing history texts [vilifying the Russian Revolution—ed.] to which Weissman refers are of a different order; they are directed not at working class youth but at intellectuals old enough to remember socialism, who might need reassurance that its destruction was right and proper.

Working-class youth will not see those books. They are effectively forbidden to learn more about socialism than about, say, Jacobinism. What they do learn has nothing to do with the early soviets or their democratic aspirations, and everything to do with the command economic processes of late Stalinism.

If they were taught about the early soviets, how many would see the relevance to their own lives?

There may be, as Weissman says, “grounds for optimism.” I fear, however, that she has not presented convincing ones. Seventy-four percent of Californians were convinced to vote against their own interests in 1996 and reject a universal public health care system. This may not be conclusive symptomatic evidence of what Weissman might call “an epochal defeat of the working class,” but I think the case could be made either way.

We must continue to work in good faith and hope, but we need not comfort ourselves with optimism derived from the stridency (or perhaps, insecurity) of some rightist intellectual fashions. If there is hope, it is in the knowledge that this, too, will pass—that even epochal defeats last only for a particular epoch.

—Dave Linn

Berkeley, CA

Susan Weissman Responds

I’M GRATEFUL THAT Dave Linn took the time to challenge my optimism and my assertions about the nature of the Stalinist regimes, but I have to distance myself from his views.

It’s true that my line about “bourgeois humanist” in comparing Stalin/ Mao and Hitler was a rhetorical excess that unfortunately obscured my real point: It is pathetic that we have to get in a contest over who killed more in this century of barbarism, an argument that within the left is in fact the basis for a defense of Stalinism.

These were monstrous, grotesque regimes; as socialists we cannot defend any part of them.

Yes, the USSR could have ensured victories, but any support it actually gave was an example not of international solidarity but of geopolitical realpolitik—nothing to do with working-class solidarity, everything to do with protecting the interests of the state and the elite.

Remember the Stalin-Hitler pact? And let’s not forget that both the Soviet and Chinese regimes supported the Shah of Iran, that the Chinese were the first to turn away Chileans seeking refuge in the Chinese Embassy in Santiago during that awful September 1973, or that the USSR had splendid relations with the Argentine junta and the Brazilian dictatorship.

Linn seeks “an important qualitative difference” between Hitler’s genocidal murders and Stalin and Mao’s pursuit of class enemies, real, imagined, actual or potential. But try to convince the Crimean Tatars, deported to the far reaches of Siberia after living five centuries in the Crimea; or the Kalmyks from the north of the Caspian Sea or the Chechen-Ingush, Balkars and Karachsi from the northern Caucasus, all of whom were shipped to Siberia and Central Asia—in trains acquired through the U.S. Lend-Lease aid program—that Stalin wasn’t an ethnic chauvinist!

Not only did Stalin deport one million ethnic Germans from the Ukraine and Volga region, he didn’t even spare his own Georgians—he was too much of a great Russian chauvinist for that! At least Stalin was an equal opportunity ethnic cleanser (back then it was called population dislocation). Stalin engaged in “resettlement” on a gigantic scale, even threatening to deport the whole Ukrainian nation—which he backed away from when cautioned that there were, after all, forty million of them!

On another matter, I too used to engage in the politics of difference, i.e. to say that Hitler had death camps while Stalin had labor camps—where conditions were so hideous that one-third of the inmates died. I thought this a “qualitative difference,” until the unearthing in 1988 of the killing fields of Kuropaty near Minsk, revealing the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles and Balts who were executed in the forests, lined up head to head so that each bullet would kill two.

These people weren’t on their way to camps, they were simply executed. Well, it was wartime . . .

Such realities may have been ignored by the Stalinist and semi-Stalinist left, but they were well-known to millions of workers in the West of Eastern European origin, helping to create a deep reservoir of hatred for anything resembling socialism.

Nor should we forget the Stalin regime’s periodic use of anti-Semitism, first in the course of his rise to power and ultimately in the purge of Jews he was preparing at the end of his life.

So yes, I cheer the end of Stalinism and can’t understand how any socialist could pine for these anti-socialist, anti-human regimes. Neither inside nor outside did they represent hope for a socialist future. Rather, the USSR in dominating the world communist movement was in a position to crush the revolutionary efforts that embarrassed her, while promoting the others.

Linn’s one-sided view of unbroken defeats since the demise of the USSR overlooks real victories that have occurred in the 1990s, some of which were facilitated by the end of the Cold War: the downfall of Mobutu, the overthrow of Suharto, the end of apartheid, the fall of the Ethiopian Dergue and independence for Eritrea—not to mention the arrest of Pinochet! It’s true that these are not “socialist” victories, but neither are those (Vietnam, Angola etc.) that Linn cites.

Further, despite the real and undeniable defeats we’ve suffered in this country around issues like welfare and (as Linn mentions) health care, it’s notable that the collapse of the Soviet “hope” has not led to a right-wing political ascendancy—witness the defeats of right-wing governments in Britain, France, Italy and Germany, and the setbacks suffered by the religious right in this country.

I maintain that the death of the monstrous Stalinist regimes represents space for hope. It was Victor Serge who reminded us that socialism can only win “not through imposing itself, but by showing itself superior to capitalism, not in the fabrication of tanks but in the organization of social life, if it offers to humanity a condition better than capitalism: more well-being, more justice, more liberty and a higher dignity.”

Susan Weissman
Los Angeles, CA

ATC 78, January-February 1999