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Socialism is not a dirty word: A reply to the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones

Karl MarxAs if proof were needed that stupidity isn’t the sole preserve of the right, along comes Jonathan Jones with a new angle in the anti-Corbyn effort. His target is the slight whiff of Marxism surrounding Jeremy’s campaign. Because – gasp – the ‘s’ word is getting more traction these days, it’s time we “have to face up to what was done in the name of an extreme version of socialism in the 20th century.” Quite what the road to the gulag has to do with the Labour leadership contest beats me.

Jonathan’s piece, of course, assumes a great deal. Foremost is that no one on the left has contemplated what the experience of the Soviet Union and its demise means for socialist politics. He speaks of this in hushed tones, like he’s the first to raise this vexatious issue. It’s almost as if social democracy in Western Europe – even in its lefter, statist variants – didn’t define itself against the bureaucratic “socialism” of the East. Or that revolutionary socialists and anarchists failed to believe Stalinism was an excrescence of and barrier to socialism. Or that most of Europe’s Communist Parties were peopled exclusively by those for whom the USSR was the land of socialist milk and honey. Or that no literature from the Marxist stable tried to come to grips with Stalin and his successors.

It makes you wonder what Jonathan would have made of Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red Army and leader of the International Left Opposition, who pointedly argued the main difference between Hitler and Stalin was that Stalin was more unbridled in his savagery. All this stuff is joined by revisions and reworkings of what Marxism is about, and is easily accessible. We have the internet – the days of hunting down well-hidden radical bookshops are long gone. Is Jonathan ignorant or arrogant? Alas, I’m not in a position to say.

This prefaces Cold War boilerplate which, warmed up 26 years on, smells a bit iffy. You’ve heard it all before – Marx was a nice man, but his theories led to horrendous crimes and brutal dictatorships. And far from outlasting capitalism, communism [sic] collapsed in ignominy as the young people of the East put commodities before Komsomol, markets before Marxists. Socialism was out and capitalism was in. Is there anything wrong with this picture?

The first is Jonathan’s handling of the relationship between ideas and reality. If one holds, for example, that the DNA of the gulag is to be found in Marx’s writings or, more properly, Marx’s remarks on a temporarily successful workers’ uprising in his lifetime; then there’s some explaining to do. If Marxist ideas are a rod of iron determining the outcomes of historical processes, why is it the majority of workers’ parties that lay claim to his ideas from the late 19th century on became, in all essentials, little different to Labourism in Britain where a) Marxism never had much purchase and b) steady-as-it-goes constitutionalism ruled the day? As one Marxist party went down the route of revolution while all the others stuck with reform, using a logic analogous to the cold war arguments, today’s social democratic parties have a stronger claim to the logical culmination of Marxism than what happened in Russia by their sheer preponderance.

As materialists, we know the world doesn’t work like that. Marx was a revolutionary democrat. And so were the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s April Theses were a call for the Bolsheviks to orient themselves to the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils that had sprung up all over Russia after 1917’s February Revolution. These bodies were more democratic and accountable than the most representative of representatives democracies. The neighbourhood or workplace council elected the next layer of delegates to a sub-regional/industrial council, which elected the next layer, all the way up to the highest council in the land. The Bolshevik programme was radically democratic because it wanted to place power in the hands of these councils. “All power to the soviets” was more than just a slogan: it was a statement of intent, and that it what the seizure of power that October set out to accomplish. What went wrong? Events …

For people like Jonathan, politics are ideas, debates, compromises, and resolutions. It is those things, of course. But first and foremost politics is always and forever about interests. There are deep philosophical differences dividing the Tories and Labour, for example, but these are symptomatic of an irreconcilable tension between the constituencies these parties ultimately represent. Most of the time these interests compete peacefully, in politics, in the Question Time studio, in the press, on the doorstep, etc.

A revolution, however, is the occasion where the clash of interests break into the open and are only resolved more or less through violent means. Either the regime brought to power by the revolution wins, or the counterrevolution drowns it in blood.

Understanding how a revolutionary socialist party with a democratic programme and an extremely democratic internal life that allowed for factions and factional presses – a bit like the Labour Party now – became an organisation overseeing the establishment of a totalitarian society around a grotesque personality cult requires a paying of attention to what happened in the revolution and subsequent civil war, and the actions of all the key decision makers. For example, the present character of Iran’s Islamic Republic state owes more to the circumstances of its birth and its subsequent history than the holy text it claims fealty to. Similarly one will look in vain for the Soviet Union in the pages of Capital.

Hence there is a fundamental naivete to Jonathan’s discussion. A naivete that actually whitewashes Stalinism because he abstracts it from the living, breathing material processes that gave it life. For him, the USSR – the gulag, the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the liquidation of the kulaks – these were examples of what the “far left did to human souls when it actually got a chance to engineer them.” In other words, Stalin was brutal but misguided. He aimed to engineer socialist human beings through forced labour and state-sanctioned terror. This is bullshit. Stalin’s crimes and those of his underlings were about power. The knock on the door at two in the morning wasn’t because people were insufficiently socialist. They were actual and imagined opponents of the bureaucratic apparatus erected on the ashes of revolution. Some even got a bullet or a lengthy stay in the gulag if an NKVD officer took a fancy to their apartment. The kulaks were smashed not because they were a danger to the revolution, but because this class of rich peasants represented a potential opposition to the burgeoning state apparatus, to Stalin’s unchecked power, of the consolidation of a range of interests served by running society in a certain way. It had as much to do with molding socialist people as Jonathan’s discussion is relevant to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign.

It’s my polemic, and I’ll cheap shot if I want to. A couple of other points Jonathan might wish to ponder before making ill-advised forays into further red-baiting.

1. You’ve got to take the smooth with the rough. The markets Jonathan heaps praise on wouldn’t be anywhere near as robust if it weren’t for the red juggernaut that is China. Yes, the China run by an authoritarian Communist Party, and whose economic miracle rests on the state exercising tight control over key sectors of the economy – including finance. If the Soviet Union is Marx’s legitimate child, surely a global capitalism dependent on China’s dynamism is as well?

2. Jonathan writes “I am a Labour centrist supporter not out of cynicism but out of principle, because I believe the only ethical politics of the left today has to be moderate, reasoning, and sceptical.” How nice. Then please explain how this kind of “ethical politics” sees its latter day saint providing spin advice for a brutal dictatorship? I am entitled to argue the logic of moderation leads one to cashing the cheques of unpleasant despots?

18 Comments

  1. Bazza says:

    Yes Rosa Luxemburg was to warn of the dangers of bourgeois socialism (top down, elite, undemocratic central committees, secret police etc)
    The Labour Establishment and Right are throwing the kitchen sink and more at us but we want MORE DEMOCRACY with people having more say in all areas of life, bottom up, democratic, participatory and peaceful and driven by social and economic justice.

  2. David Ellis says:

    The Western capitalist class and their cynical politicians and intellectuals are well aware that though Stalin was responsible for his own crimes which were legion it was the West’s successful containment of the European Revolution in the 20s and 30s, the successful strangulation of socialism, that was responsible for Stalin.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      I’m not really convinced that’s entirely true.

      But then the Americans and American capitalism scarcely have a much better record.

      One in eight black men are in jail in America, under the current America Industrial Prison complex system in practice little more than slavery, (often debt slavery,) by another name, (now here in the UK.)

      Then historically there are all those infamous American, “interventions,” throughout the world, Nicaragua, Guatemala, (millions of ethnic Indians were enslaved and died throughout South America during the last century,) Mexico, (“So far from God, So near the US,) the Philippines, (thousands, of Filipinos by some, American, estimates as many as 100,00 killed by US marines,) Cuba, El Salvador, The Congo, Iran and more recently the largely unprovoked attacks, (along exactly the same pattern,) Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, (with Syria next in the sights of the US,) with all suffering, bloodshed and death resulting from not just war, but also the complete collapse, (or the destruction,) of those country’s infra structures and civil government.

      Directly or through proxies and willing stooges like Pinochet in Chile, (or even or it could certainly be so argued, Thatcher and Blair in the UK,) the US probably has as just much blood on her hands as any other country.

      Or the Bloody swathe of blood and tears and suffering inflicted on counties all over the world by the Christian Churches, still going on even now but now being dignified as, “America’s mission to world,” which is an essentially racist and viscerally racially supremacist doctrine that views all other cultures as innately inferior to Americans and which often seems to owe more to the racial doctrines of Adolph Hitler and National Socialism than to the “White mans burden,” but cheerfully embraces the worst elements of both.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        thousands, of Filipinos by some, American, estimates as many as 100,000 killed by US marines,

        1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

          The comment that, “the present character of Iran’s Islamic Republic state owes more to the circumstances of its birth and its subsequent history than the holy text it claims fealty to,” actually serves to illustrate my point above perfectly.

          One such circumstance being the America, “intervention, against Mohammad Mosaddegh; the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 until 1953.

          “An author, administrator, lawyer, and prominent parliamentarian, his administration introduced a range of progressive social and political reforms such as social security, rent control, and land reforms.”

          “His government’s most notable policy, however, was the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC / AIOC) (later British Petroleum and BP)”

          Clearly he had to go.

          But the reason he had to go was because he was, “a communist,” although probably nothing could actually have been further from the truth.

          Does any of that sound remotely familiar?

          1. David Ellis says:

            Yes Western imperialism was responsible for all that but they were also responsible for Stalinism.

          2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

            “Yes Western imperialism was responsible for all that but they were also responsible for Stalinism?”

            I’ll confess that I’m having some trouble getting to grips with that one; although I think I get why you might argue along those lines.

            If you have time and the inclination to expand on that, I’d be genuinely interested hear why you think that?

            It’s an interesting point.

    2. David Ellis says:

      Well not surpirisingly Western imperialism’s reaction to the first workers state was to hem it in and head it off. Fourteen imperial armies and a vicious blocade supported a White Russian-led civil war. Fascism and other forces were deployed in the rest of Europe to smash the continent-wide revolutionary movement of the working classes. The soviet union was isolated. The working class withdrew from politics. The bureaucracy moved in. The benefactors of the West’s successful containment of the revolution and they set about a grand slaughter on an unprecedented scale to consolidate their rule whilst they peacefully co-operated with imperialism and built socialism for one bureaucracy.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        Thank you that’s an entirely valid point and it was the also one I thought you were probably making.

        I wouldn’t entirely disagree with you about any of that; but the sting in the tail may yet be that in deliberately bankrupting the USSR, America has also weakened themselves and achieved at best only the most Pyrrhic victories anyway and may even have hasted the collapse of both American capitalism and of America as a nation, (no longer the country it once was,) by decades ?

        Or not?

        But thank you for clarifying the point it was a good one.

        1. David Ellis says:

          I agree it was completely Pyrrhic. Capitalism is an historically contingent mode of production on its last legs. The effort of containing socialism despite the collaboration of counter-revolutionary Stalinism and the effort to establish itself as the sole and only post Cold War super power which ended in military disaster in Iraq and economic collapse in 2008 clearly shows that the effort bankrupted the sytem. It is finished.

  3. James Martin says:

    Part of the problem at the moment is that the extreme right wing media as well as the far-right in the Party (f-wits like Danczuk) confuse Corbyn’s rather traditional social-democratic socialism and Keynes-based economics as ‘Marxism’, and so then throw in the usual insults of ‘stalinists’ and ‘trotskyists’ and every other sort of ‘ists’ that are apparently using a clever time machine to take us back to the 80s/70s/other meaningless decade of choice.

    I don’t actually believe that Corbyn’s programme and economic strategy actually challenge capitalism at all, rather it just tries to chip off the worst excesses. And the problem with that is that I’m not convinced Keynsian economic policies in this period will knock nearly enough of the rough edges off, although it’s a start at least, and could open up further debates as to what a genuinely socialist transformation would look like.

  4. Karl Stewart says:

    Don’t understand why there isn’t a massive outcry for the immediate suspension of Rochdale MP Simon Danzuck, pending an investigation into whether the quotes currently being attributed to him in the Independent and Telegraph are accurate.

    If they are accurate, then we have a democratically elected Labour MP, a Labour MP, openly calling for a fascist coup

    If these quotes are accurate, then surely this person must be immediately suspended pending an investigation, and then immediately expelled if the quotes attributed to him are established to be accurate.

    Or are you guys relaxed about having fascism within your party?

    1. John P Reid says:

      He’s questioning where it was a fair contest if people in other political parties are breaking the rules and voting,

      1. James Martin says:

        No John he isn’t, I listen to the LBC broadcast (the clip is still on their website, I suggest every does the same) and it was very, very clear that he said a plot to depose Mr Corbyn would begin “on day one, if not before, as soon as the result comes out.” There is no gloss you can put on that – it is simply an disgraceful and expellable offence under Labour Party rules and at some point after the leadership election is over I hope that this nasty publicity obsessed drunk is dealt with properly and has the whip removed from him. In fact I intend to write a formal complaint about his comments to Iain McNicol as general sec requesting that a formal investigation is began.

  5. John P Reid says:

    When one labour candidate who lost after the 87 election said as we’ve lost we will arm the workers and seize control of the state,, isn’t that suggesting a Fascist coup?

    1. James Martin says:

      You really need to stop eating cheese before bedtime John.

  6. David Pavett says:

    Jonathan Jones’ piece in the Guardian was just minor contribution to the avalanche of ill-informed anti-Corbyn articles in the Guardian/Observer. It made no pretence at analysing anything that Corbyn says. It is enough that he and those around him do not fight shy of the word “socialist”. Jones says that he belongs to the non-socialist left i.e. the “left” which has decided that capitalism is the only and the final game in town. His article had no substance whatsoever and Jones has no political standing so I wonder if it makes sense to even react his daft musings.

    There have been two articles critical of Corbyn from a much more considered view which I think would merit a response: those by Frank Field and Chris Mullin. I thought that field actually touched on a weak point in Corbyn’s ideas and Mullin speculated on possible consequences of a Corbyn victory that merit serious reflection. It would be harder to deal with their points that the superficial nonsense of Jonathan Jones but it would raise issues of real importance for a Corbyn victory.

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