Communists in the global North have typically gone through several progressing periods of disillusionment with bourgeois historical perception and a growing recognition of its general untruth. Unlearning anti-communism is a long and difficult process full of twists, turns, and even an occasional catharsis of immediate negation. “Wait, so it was the Dalai Lama that was bad?” All of this unlearning involves a scale of study that most people would recoil from, even to get a degree in one or another bourgeois indoctrination scheme. Communist history is the most slandered political history that exists, and for reasons that Marxists should readily understand. After all, if you were in the ruling class of a system that exists through exploitation of the rest of the population and general murderous domination, wouldn’t you also produce an endless stream of lies about an alternative system that posed an existential danger to you?
And isn’t that last sentence, at least in the global North, seen as actually a dynamic evidenced not by capitalism, but by communism? A common strategy of the bourgeois ideologists is to project the deficiencies of capitalism onto other social systems. Regardless of to what degree this is done consciously or unconsciously, its effects on the ideology of the global North is a constant obstacle to effectively advocating for Marxism-Leninism. Below I hope to show why obstacles like these shouldn’t be fought with any manner of argumentation that involves concession to bourgeois ideology, but instead should be fought through a respectable defense of the communist project based in a real study of its history that doesn’t shrink when confronted. This style of defense has to be an approach in study as well, even when the works involved are sympathetic to Marxism-Leninism.
Limitations in the Book Human Rights in the Soviet Union
As I was reading the final few chapters of the brilliant Human Rights in the Soviet Union (HRSU), by Albert Szymanski, the importance of defending communist history without any conciliation or compromise to bourgeois historiography became clear. The strategy of HRSU is to defend the Soviet Union through using sources that can be perceived as unbiased towards the USSR in an effort to stand up to bourgeois scrutiny. This approach has its appeal, but when it comes to summarizing political repression in the USSR, this leads to a large distortion of history because no true historiography that would stand up to bourgeois scrutiny on these matters exists. For instance, the best one can say about the Moscow Trials while accepting the narrative that they were falsified, which must be done under these circumstances, is that while under the pressures that the USSR was, it isn’t surprising that the leadership tried to consolidate power in a kind of paranoid reaction to pressures in the lead-up to World War 2. This is basically the argument put forth in HRSU.
To be more specific on HRSU’s perspective on political repression, the argument used is essentially that any state will respond to internal threats through repressing sources of destabilization. In revolutionary periods, political repression is especially acute and involves all manners of abridgments to civil rights. (Bourgeois ideologists in the US tend to overlook how much repression took place in its own history during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Comparisons to these periods do not occur because it would reveal the fundamental hypocrisy and shallowness of the US’s human-rights-imperialism racket.) There is truth to this hypothesis, and the theory has a certain sense of dialectical materialism about it. But what gets lost in these general dialectics of political repression is that often in the case of communist history what is being admitted to did not in fact occur, or at least didn’t occur in the sense that is being argued. HRSU’s theory also focuses too much on form – a moral defense is avoided for an apparently scientific point. But science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the ethics of communism informs its science (not in a way that distorts, but in giving a proletarian direction). The defense of a communist project through means of political repression is more morally defensible than it is in a bourgeois project, and this point shouldn’t be abandoned in argumentation. Bourgeois repression exists to prop up exploitation, and the dictatorship of the proletariat exists to build an alternative society without exploitation.
While the above method of political abstraction causes issues in how some of the history is interpreted, more problematic is that the main sources used for the sections on political repression in the 1930s are from people with a strong anti-“Stalinism” bias. This is used to further the ability of the text to stand up to bourgeois scrutiny, as the author explicitly states, but is this actually an objective position to take? Roy Medvedev and Isaac Deutscher, the two main sources, are firmly part of anti-communist lore. These sources present a more positive assessment of the Soviet Union than NATO’s mercenary historians, which can actually at first come as a relief to someone exploring revolutionary history, but this is always interspersed with propaganda, and it can be difficult to pull one from the other. For instance, Furr convincingly shows that Medvedev lied in his writing on Bukharin, purposefully fabricating a story about his “last plea.” Furr writes,
All the evidence we have points to one conclusion: the Snegov-Medvedev story of the “Letters in Stalin’s desk” is a fabrication. That must be so even if, as he claims, Medvedev actually does possess taped conversations with Snegov in which the latter relates this story. In that case Medvedev has simply been phenomenally careless in transcribing Snegov’s tale. But “tale” is what it is. Like “Tito’s letter to Stalin,” “Bukharin’s last plea” is a fake.
Viewed objectively, “Bukharin’s last plea” would be of little importance even if it were genuine. It would not bear upon Bukharin’s guilt or innocence, for it does not contain any claim of innocence, only of despair.
The final writings of Bukharin that we do have – his appeal of his conviction, his final letter to his young wife Larina – contain no claim of innocence either. In fact, in the two statements in which he framed his appeal for clemency to the Soviet Supreme Court Bukharin fully reaffirms his own guilt.21
Also used in HRSU is J Arch Getty, who seems to have a lot of credence in some Marxist-Leninist circles despite his liberalism. While those in the school of “revisionist” historians of the USSR like Getty are certainly useful for debunking some anti-communism (for instance, see Getty’s work on gulags), none of it can be read uncritically because it does come from a bourgeois historical perspective and any historical materialism that is in evidence is incidental rather than studied. Similarly and more recently, some communists have looked towards Kotkin’s new work on Stalin in the hopes that, as one of these apparently objective bourgeois “revisionist” historians, he’ll have produced something they can finally trust. In his blog Stalin’s Mustache, Roland Boer put out a series of posts about Kotkin’s work that shows the extent of its anti-communist bias. (Worth noting is that Boer has read through Stalin’s Works and has already outlined a book he is writing on Stalin and religion.) Though these historians do put serious study into Soviet history, everything they write is colored by liberalism and anti-communism, and this structural factor in what is written needs to be constantly attended to when reading these sorts of works, or else the reader risks coming towards thinking absurdities about the peasantry being an enslaved class or that people working for each other in difficult circumstances is actually a terrible thing done simply because of propaganda. These sorts of ungrounded understandings are super-imposed on the research in these works almost as a rule.
To expand on the above point on how a point on history is argued, taking a detour into how the DPRK is discussed should be informative. As presented in my previous post comparing democracy in the US and the DPRK, the history of the DPRK is brutal, and the US is behind the vast majority of the misery the country has endured and is likely to endure in the near future. For the most part, those in the global North have none of this context in mind when discussing the DPRK. Now, if I critique Kim Jong Un from a socialist perspective to a liberal under the current circumstances, they wouldn’t have any of the context that would be necessary to actually understand where my critique is coming from. They’ll take every negative and use it to build on their ideological construction of anti-communism, and whatever positives that might come across will likely either not be taken seriously, not be remembered, or maybe not even be heard. This is essentially how Trotsky’s anti-communism was taken in the global North and what made it so appealing for the bourgeois press to spread. After all, why should a communist take seriously a person who would have a (counter-)trial organized with liberal anti-communists as Trotsky did with the Dewey Commission? And isn’t such collusion suggestive of the possibility of a tendency towards fascist collaboration? But more on that later.
Before delving into a more specific discussion on how the above affected how a particularly important topic was approached, I do want to note that HRSU does, even when relying on the dissident Medvedev and Trotskyist Deutscher, debunk a lot of anti-communist propaganda. In fact, it often manages to come across as even more positive than Furr’s work due to its overarching dialectical theory of repression that softens the blows. There is, for instance, evidence produced that shows that the purges around the trials were relatively small (smaller than some previous purges), and that the percentage of the population detained even at the height of the repression of the 30s (about 0.5%) was actually about half of percentage of African Americans in jail in the US in the 70s (about 1%). The figure for incarcerated African Americans right now is more around 2%. In other words, right now in Amerikkka four times as many African Americans are incarcerated relative to the percentage of those incarcerated in the Soviet Union at the height of its repression.
The Moscow Trials as Example
Let’s explore further through focusing on the Moscow Trials, a pillar of anti-communist mythology. In his recent work Trotsky’s ‘Amalgams’: Trotsky’s Lies, the Moscow Trials as Evidence, the Dewey Commission, Grover Furr repeatedly claims, and backs up through his research, that not only were the Moscow Trials in fact not fabricated, but no material evidence exists to show that they were fabricated, nor that any torture or extra-judicial coercion occurred. Instead of evidence there is mere repetition of assertions and demonization of alternative perspectives. Communists quickly become acquainted with how such narratives can dominate global North ideology despite a complete lack of empirical evidence – we come up against it so often!
Transcripts from the trials have been researched by Furr, and he convincingly posits that that the progression of the trials, the mass of documentation collected (in particular, the fabrication of the amount of transcripts that are known to exist from the period of investigation would involve an absurd amount of effort and would probably be impossible), the nature of the confessions, and the corroboration between confessions indicate that it is actually very unlikely that trials could have been fabricated. In the trial transcripts that Furr has investigated, the defendants (e.g., Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev) tended to only admit to the extent of the conspiracies against the Soviet leadership that they were involved in after others had already provided testimony of it, and they in fact did hide important facts when it was expedient. For instance, Bukharin did not confess to his knowledge of Ezhov’s (head of the NKVD at the time) role in the conspiracy, which allowed for Ezhov to lead a campaign of arbitrary repression in the country in an effort to destabilize the political situation. (And, of course, this is all blamed on Stalin, though it must also be admitted that Stalin does bear some responsibility for being in his leadership role and not being able to see how misled he was when signing documents enabling these criminals to engage in their campaign of terror.) Many of the confessions made by of those higher up in the Soviet leadership were simply confirmations. In addition to this, Furr gathers evidence from outside of the trials that corroborates the existence of these conspiratorial groups. Evidence outside of the USSR for the existence to these groups was actually found in Trotsky’s own archives, in which there was an evident attempt at cleansing such documentation (this was found out by Getty), but this attempt wasn’t completely successful. The arguments that the Moscow Trials were fabricated rely on the denial of the existence of these groups, so these arguments are fundamentally incompatible with the evidence Furr puts forth.
The KKE’s Resolution on Socialism from their 18th Congress, which defends socialism as a mode of production and communist history in general through a lengthy scientific study, briefly goes over the conflicts occurring in the society and how these became reflected in the leadership.
16. The policy of “socialism’s attack against capitalism” was carried out under conditions of intense class struggle. The kulaks (the bourgeoisie in the village), social strata that benefited from the NEP (NEPmen) and sections of the intelligentsia that originated from the old exploiting classes reacted in many ways, including acts of sabotage against industry (e.g. the “Shakhty affair” ) and counter-revolutionary activities in the villages. These class-based, anti-socialist interests were reflected within the C.P, where opportunist currents developed.
The two basic “opposition” tendencies (Trotsky – Bukharin), that operated during that period, had a common base in absolutiizing the elements of backwardness in Soviet society. During the 1930s their views converged to the thesis that the overcoming of capitalist relations in the USSR was premature. Their positions were rejected by the AUCP (Bolshevik) and were not confirmed by reality.
Along the way, several opportunist forces established contacts with openly counter-revolutionary forces that were organizing plans to overthrow Soviet power in cooperation with secret services from imperialist countries.
The prevailing conditions dictated the direct and resolute confrontation of these centers with the trials of 1936 and 1937, trials that revealed conspiracies with elements in the army (the Tukhachevsky case, who was rehabilitated following the 20th Congress), as well as with the secret services of foreign countries, particularly of Germany.
The fact that some leading cadre of the Party and of Soviet power spearheaded opportunist currents proves that it is possible even for vanguard cadre to deviate, to bend when faced with the sharpness of the class struggle and to finally sever their ties with the communist movement and pass over to the side of the counter-revolution.
If the Moscow Trials are thought to be false, clearly the wrong lesson is taken from the history. The lesson that leftists that accept this narrative take (most obviously Trotskyists) is that there is a danger of the revolution being hijacked by a monster, either due to simple selfishness or because of an entrenched and conservative bureaucracy (even though Stalin was vehemently anti-bureaucracy and his favorite Soviet poet, Mayakovsky, famously wrote this). Even more dangerously, the lesson might be a confirmation of the bourgeois idea that corruption is a necessary extension of power, and that any effort to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat will devolve into one or another kind of top-down oppression.
But all of that is useless. A real lesson to take is that the contradictions in society, including those external to the country the party operates in, will become reflected in even the most successful and disciplined of parties. Though this is in agreement with the more formal aspect of the theory put forth by HRSU, the content of it is completely different, and a strategy for maintaining the dictatorship of the proletariat among the sharp contradictions of revolutionary periods can only be successfully formed with a knowledge of the particularities of how contradictions in society become reflected in the party. A focus on form here merely means that political repression should be expected to be necessary at certain points – this leaves a party vulnerable to how the political repression would cause shifts in societal contradictions and how those shifts can cause splits in the party, leading to a subversion of the dictatorship of the proletariat due to ideological differences that become rifts.
Also noted in HRSU, though this point isn’t developed as it should be due to the denial of the legitimacy of the Moscow Trials, is that those in the party that were put on trial (and also many that were purged around this time) were mostly of a petty-bourgeois type of background. Reading transcripts reproduced by Furr in both part one of his work on Trotsky – which includes transcripts from many of those put on trial, as well as Trotsky himself at the Dewey Commission and in other contexts – and his works on Bukharin (here and here), one can see this influence on the arrogance of the defendants in reaction to their loss of influence on the party and country (though, due to Bukharin’s desperate position, his arrogance is mostly visible only in his own hindsight). After this period, these vacant positions were filled with people from more proletarian backgrounds. HRSU quotes Isaac Deutscher:
This was the new intelligentsia whose ranks filled the purged and emptied offices. Its members . . . were either hostile to the men of the old guard or indifferent to their fate. They threw themselves into their work with a zeal and enthusiasm undimmed by recent events.
So there is a lesson lost here, and this is a telling loss: those of a petty-bourgeois type of background are potentially a fatal danger for sustaining a proletarian dictatorship, to the point even of pursuing concessions to fascists through conspiracy. Lenin pointed out the vacillating nature of the petty bourgeois class in his work on “Left-Wing” Communism, and the dynamic he presented there is displayed here (though in a more subtle, professional manner – these were, after all, leaders of discipline). The reasoning behind these concessions were that they would lessen the contradictions between the fascist powers and the Soviet Union (for instance, they involved ceding territory to Germany and Japan in exchange for more peaceful relations) and could help the dissident factions within the party come to be the leadership, which was now seen by them as necessary because only they could really save Soviet power. I’ll suggest that it was the latter quasi-delusional determination that produced the former perceived need for concession. It is worth noting that this danger was also found in the experience of the Chinese Communist Party and was fought against in (probably all) other parties as well.
Instead of the above lesson, HRSU gives us an excuse (and an excuse that really is an excuse and will seem like one to someone not already convinced of the ubiquity of anti-communist propaganda) that this was all simply paranoia. That after Kirov’s murder, the “Stalinist regime” became completely unhinged for a few years and lashed out at phantoms not only directly through mass political repression, but vicariously through elaborately fabricated trials of some of the most important party and military officials in the country. Though this might seem like a satisfactory answer to someone of a communist leaning who is seeing history through the lens of post-Stalin revisionism, the collection of evidence produced by Furr is, at least in my opinion, much more convincing and logically consistent. This is especially true once one considers the possibility that, seeing how widespread the dissident faction(s) were in the party, the death of Stalin produced an opportunity for those more sympathetic to Bukharin and/or Trotsky’s views to do exactly what those people aimed for: an attempt to lessen the contradictions with the imperialists (now armed with nuclear weapons) through concessions. Is it not possible that one of these concessions, one also fitting in with past aims, would be to denounce Stalin? It’s worth noting that Stalin’s allies were sidelined in the period following his death, and this denunciation in the party would allow for a sweeping under the rug of past collusion with the indicted factions.
While getting historical lessons right is important for a scientific understanding of revolution, as required by Marxism-Leninism, there is a more quotidian aspect to anti-revisionism that is probably more immediately relevant to those who are reading this.
The inspiring and prolific Eric Draitser of stopimperialism.org recently defended Stalin temperately by way of W.E.B. DuBois on Facebook:
Draitser almost immediately makes an ambiguous concession: “I’m not an uncritical defender of Stalin (not even close)….” This is one of the discursive strategies that has to be avoided: nothing of substance is said, and whatever remnants of vague anti-Stalin ideology that a reader holds onto is maintained. This sort of strategy, at least from my experience, is mostly done consciously, because typically a communist – or even someone who thinks of themselves more as simply an anti-imperialist, as I believe Draitser does – doesn’t have the confidence that they can defend their position point-for-point against a possible surfeit of anti-communism with the limits of their historical knowledge (or just their limits of time and sanity), and so this ambiguous defense is thrown up preemptively. These perceptions aren’t necessarily wrong, especially in the case of Facebook, where there seems to be swarms of liberal “Marxists” that exist solely to come down on anyone posting Marxist-Leninist views in the various groups that exist there. Fortunately, Draitser’s fan base has mostly seemed to have lost all faith in the bourgeois media and are ready to defend Stalin where Draitser isn’t, including with several comments that reference Grover Furr explicitly (one even says that Furr is the only balanced historian of the Stalin period, which I’m actually inclined to agree with at this point even though I don’t see Furr as strictly “balanced,” at least in a liberal sense) and related sources.
I don’t think there’s a single Marxist-Leninist that would be wholly “uncritical” of Stalin – this has always been a straw man. Even arch “Stalinists” Harpal Brar and Grover Furr take this position (though admittedly neither act on it very often). However, and I think this goes back to my above point regarding the DPRK, it must be kept in mind that critique needs the proper context and purpose. The main purpose of being critical of Stalin in Marxist-Leninist strategy should never be to make communism seem more acceptable from a bourgeois perspective. Criticism of Stalin should take place as it is relevant for understanding and furthering the communist project.
Communists should struggle to make the two most frightful hobgoblins of Marxism-Leninism, the DPRK and Stalin, acceptable to talk about without immediate demonization from all parties involved, including preemptive demonization that some leftists take part in before trying to put up a modest defense. “Yes, Kim Jong Un is a dictator and North Korea is run by a hereditary monarchy, but…” While active class struggle is necessary for most people to become accepting of revolutionary ideology, preparing the ideological ground for the emergence of a really revolutionary movement through a defense of communist history, based in a scientific approach, is still an important task. Ideological guerrilla bases of anti-revisionism will allow for these ideas to stay alive until the constant crisis that is the capitalist mode of production condenses and makes Marxist revolutionary theory again as necessary as it was in 1917. Stalin and the DPRK will always be used to argue against communism, and these jabs can’t be effectively dodged through a Trotsky-esque concession to today’s fascism. Even if such a thing takes some weight off in the immediate situation, over the long term such vitiation becomes dangerous.
In addition, one concession leads to another. If you can’t defend the Syrian state, what will you say when someone points out the PSUV of Venezuela defends it happily? If you can’t defend the Jamahiriya, what will you do when the imperialists come for Algeria? If you can’t defend the violence of Cuban or Vietnamese revolutionaries, what business do you have shedding tears while watching the Look of Silence? If workers can’t defend their history of revolution in general against the lies of a system that through tortuous starvation kills over 7.5 million people every year, with three million of these being children, what hope does humanity have for a just future? The web of imperialist lies can only be defended against by puncturing through the whole of it.
Bourgeois historical distortion is ubiquitous and gross. They say communism caused 100 million deaths. This statistic is calculated by anti-communists on anti-communist assumptions, but if you applied similar statistical methods to how many lives were gained or lengthened by socialist states, this “death toll” would be balanced FAR in the positive direction. But even going purely by a negative based on anti-communist lies, how long does starvation alone under capitalism take to completely overwhelm this accusation of communism’s death toll? Only a couple decades. And these are just abstract calculations of deaths – the unremitting terrorism that capital imposes on workers, especially those in the global South, is a horror without equal.
Communists who feel vulnerable with regard to their defenses of Marxism-Leninism, perhaps thinking that the process of revolution is maybe a bit too messy to advocate for in polite company, should take time to look at past struggles to hearten themselves. Though the current period is a low point for communism, the successes of the workers’ movement, made in the most difficult circumstances, have been beautiful. There is no other word that could describe, for instance, the victory of the Vietnamese revolutionaries over the imperialist United States and its genocidal war machine. Vacillation is unnecessary: the truth is on the side of the working class. These vulnerabilities should lead to study, not capitulation.