21 January 2011

Stalinism: its meaning and role

It is unhelpful to use the term “Stalinism” to discuss contemporary British politics.

In nearly every case, it is much better to use: authoritarian, illiberal, intolerant, bureaucratic, arbitrary, etc., depending on the exact meaning one wants to convey. Comprehension is always aided by choosing precise language to represent social phenomena. But what is Stalinism? And when is it correct to use the term?

I think it is possible to distinguish two valid uses of Stalinism. In a narrow usage, we can talk about the politics of Stalin in the Soviet Union, and by extension in the world communist movement, from the late 1920s through to Stalin’s death in 1953. In discussions of British politics that usage is only relevant for reflecting on the history of the British Labour movement.

In a broader sense, however, we can use Stalinism to refer to Stalin and his henchmen’s poisonous bequest to the worker’s movement across the world. Stalinism has the following characteristics:

- The party is committed in name to realising the interests of the working class and bringing about social progress.
- A hierarchical top-down managed party is desired in which members are required to obey the leadership.
- Party policy has the form of a directive which is binding on all members; dissent amounts to treason.
- Intellectual and cultural matters are subordinate to party policy and thinking.
- All other organisations should be brought into line with party policy.
- Maintaining the leading role of the party is the first priority of all activity and trumps all moral and other political principles.

When parties of this kind come into power the whole of society is organised around these principles. These ideas formed the backbone of communist rule in Eastern Europe 1948-89; though often in practice some of these principles were compromised.

In the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Stalinism cast its dark shadow, not just within communist parties, but also as a pathology which came to plague many people on the wider left. Let me give one extreme example to indicate the pathology.

Artur London, a Czech communist, suffered the show trials of the early fifties, and despite his wife calling for the severest penalties to be inflicted on her husband, he was merely sentenced to life imprisonment. On rehabilitation in the early sixties, he was asked whether his confession had resulted from torture. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but had I insisted upon my own innocence, some people would have believed me and that would have undermined people’s faith in the Party.’

The Artur London syndrome, namely total personal identification with a political movement, functioned effectively because it drew on two sources. One was to summon up a subconscious desire for religion and submission to a God, though in this case a secular one, the Party. The other was the practical idea (but in my view a false one) that a monolithic body of people acting always in unison could achieve the Promised Land whereas an assembly of free individuals never could.

Today, the influence of Stalinism in Britain remains in two locations, both quite marginal. One is the tiny groups of people who run political parties, which resemble sects or political museums. The other is a generation of older New Labour politicians who were themselves once members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, e.g. John Reid, Kim Howells, who carry their Stalinist political baggage like a prisoner with a ball and chain.

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