The Real Che Guevara

Many communists uphold the ideas and achievements of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Communists seek to follow his example in liberating the oppressed worldwide. The capitalist class has taken note of this. In response, they have propagated numerous lies about Che, in an effort to not only discredit the gains of the Cuban revolution, but also to sully the moral character of those communists who see him as an inspiration. In this essay, I want to counter two of these claims, and thereby restore the good name of Che and his supporters.

One of the most common claims is that Che was racist against black people. The only evidence of this ever cited comes from a section in Che’s book The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he writes about his experience in a Venezuelan slum. He writes that the black people he encountered there were ‘indolent and lazy.’ He also states that the black people in Caracas were racially inferior to the Portuguese [1]. These statements were written by Guevara in 1952 when he was 24 and encountered black people for basically the first time in his life, during his motorcycle trip around South America. This kind of culture shock would understandably produce an emotional reaction, though this is of course no excuse for bigotry. It is, however, important to provide this context.

Many scholars object to the characterization of Guevara as racist. These include Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor, and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Ché Guevara [2]. Capitalists and their apologists attempt to pass off Che’s racism as an undisputed fact, but not even bourgeois academics are willing to concede this point.

This can also be said of those who knew Che. Che’s Congolese teenage Swahili interpreter for his African expedition,  Freddy Ilanga, lived in Cuba until 2006, and his dying wish was to erect a lighthouse memorial to Guevara in Africa. In 2005 he told the BBC that Che “showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites” [3]. (Emphasis mine)

The full context of this particular statement is addressed by biographer Jon Lee Anderson in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, which is said to be Che’s most well-researched biography [4].  Anderson notes they were “stereotypical of white Argentine arrogance and condescension” [5]. These statements, while obviously indefensible, were by no means exclusive to Che himself. The fact that those who accuse Che of racism do so without also indicating the broader cultural issues of white Argentinians shows that they are being dishonest. They do not care about the well-being of black people, they are only interested in slandering communism and continuing the subjugation of oppressed working people the world over.

At the end of his continental trip, Guevara announced himself a transformed man and even denounced the racism he encountered while living in Miami for a month, awaiting his return to Argentina [6]. Essentially, the quote was from before he was “Che,” in both literal nickname and political beliefs.

While the statements regarding black people are certainly despicable, Che more than made up for them through the actions he took later in life. In August 1961, (nine years after his “indolent” remark), Guevara attacked the U.S. for discrimination against black people and the actions of the KKK [7]. This matched his declarations in 1964 before the United Nations (Twelve years after his “indolent” remark), where Guevara denounced the U.S. policy towards their black population [8]. Further, in 1953, while traveling through Bolivia with his friend Carlos “Calica” Ferrer, Guevara became indignant when he observed that all the dark-skinned indigenous Indians had to be sprayed with DDT (ostensibly to kill lice) before being allowed to enter the Ministry of Peasant Affairs [9].

In 1959, Che pushed for racially integrating the schools and universities in Cuba, years before they were racially integrated in the southern United States [10]. For context, the Alabama National Guard was needed to force Governor George Wallace aside at the University of Alabama in 1963 and forced school busing wasn’t enacted in the U.S. until 1971 [11]. These are just a few events that disprove the idea that Che was a racist. There are numerous others, such as Che leading all-black revolutionary group in the Congo [12].

Many prominent figures in the black liberation movement took note of these great deeds, praising Che as a friend and comrade. The black anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon proclaimed Che to be “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man” [13]. African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela also praised Che for his efforts in the struggle for liberation [14]. Stokely Carmichael followed suit [15]. In light of all this, we can say that the idea that Che was racist is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst totally false.

The other major lie is that Che was a mass murderer, killing thousands of innocent people in pursuit of personal power. This was also debunked succinctly in Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. In it, he says, “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent.’ Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason, or crimes such as rape, torture, or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere”  [16]. Many of the people Che killed were former members of the Batista government, a fascist dictatorship put in place by the US to serve corporations [17]. There is certainly discussion to be had about whether it is morally correct to kill people for desertion during wartime, but it is incorrect to say that Che was a “mass murderer.” On the contrary, Che Guevara was a freedom fighter. All those who dream of a better world would do well to follow his example.

Briefly, I would like to address the claim that Che burned books and music. This, like the above claims, is completely false. This claim was popularized by Humberto Fontova, a Cuban exile, in his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. This book has been exposed as false even by bourgeois academics.  Journalist and Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires Michael Casey reviewed Exposing the Real Che Guevara in his 2009 book Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image. Casey described it as “an art form of mixing frustration with ridicule.” Casey said that Fontova’s prose was a marriage of Ann Coulter with the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and that Fontova “basically yells at his readers, mixing a sarcastic wit with a touch of self-deprecation until it is overwhelmed by disdain for his opponents.” Lastly, Casey observed that Fontova often “lathers himself into a rage” when it comes to the issue of Che Guevara, noting that his barrage of hyperbole leads him to describe Guevara as an “assassin”, “sadist”, “bumbler”, “fool”, and “whimpering-sniveling-blubbering coward” who is “revered by millions of imbeciles.”Other descriptions by Fontova of Guevara, cited by Casey, were “shallow”, “boorish”, “epically stupid”, “a fraud”, a “murdering swine”, an “intellectual vacuum”, and an “insufferable Argentine jackass” [18].

The book is nothing more than propaganda, unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Even the former CIA officer Robert Chapman admits that Humberto exaggerates his claims [19] If even the imperialists are unwilling to support the author’s claims, then we can reasonably claim that the claims are false.

Anti-communists, as we have seen, are more than willing to perpetuate lies about Che Guevara. Many would be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, saying that they are merely unaware that they are making false claims. I am not so kind. Anti-communists are well aware that their statements about Guevara are lies. They deliberately perpetuate these myths. The reason for this is simple. Anti-Communists know that Che Guevara represents something for the working class. He is proof that the workers can liberate themselves from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. This is why it is important to defend him: he is a symbol of what struggle can accomplish.

  1. Guevara, Che. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Melbourne: Ocean, 2003. P. 62
  2. “Did Ché Guevara Write ‘extensively’ about the Superiority of White Europeans? Rubio Says Yes.” @politifact.
  3. Doyle, Mark. “BBC NEWS | Africa | DR Congo’s Rebel-turned-brain Surgeon.” BBC News. BBC, 2005.
  4. “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.” Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life Columbia University
  5. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove, 2010. P. 92
  6. Guevara, Che. “Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics.” Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics
  7. Babbitt, Susan E. José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and global development ethics: the battle for ideas. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  8. Ibid
  9. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997 p. 101
  10. Pedro Pérez Sarduy, AfroCuba, Center for Cuban Studies, p. 88
  11. E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 180
  12. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 769. Op. Cit.
  13. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59
  14. Samuel Willard Crompton, Nelson Mandela: Ending Apartheid in South Africa Chelsea House Publishing. New York. 2006.  p. 45
  15. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59 Op. Cit.
  16. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 92. Op. Cit.
  17. Timothy Alexander Guzman, “Cuba Pre-1959: the Rise and Fall of a U.S. Backed Dictator” Global Research July 26, 2015
  18. Casey, Michael (2009). Che’s afterlife: the legacy of an image. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 249–50.
  19. Chapman, Robert D. “Righting Cuban History”. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 27 (2): 421–4.

The Lessons of the Grenada Revolution

 

Introduction-Purpose for Writing

 

One of the most common arguments against  communism rests on the methods by which it must be achieved. Communists understand that the capitalist class will never allow us to vote away their property. Indeed, the entire legal system of the United States was founded in order to prevent this from occurring. James Madison admitted as much in a 1787 debate, when he said that the senate “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” [1]  In other words, the parliamentary system of the United States was built with the explicit purpose of preventing the working class from seizing the property of, at that time, the landed interests. Today, this extends to industrial interests as well. This proves that the destruction of capitalism, and with it the empowerment of the working class, can never come about by electoral means. Communism requires a revolution.

This fact is undeniable, which leads many to oppose communism. These people argue that a revolution can only make things worse than they were before. Despite all the atrocities capitalism is responsible for, it will always be preferable to the bloodshed and uncertainty of revolution.

Because of the hold this argument has over the masses, it is vital that communists dedicate time and effort to refuting it. One way to do this is to analyze situations in which conditions improved immediately after the revolution. In this way, we can prove that revolutions do not mean chaos. A revolution is not about wanton violence, it is about struggle. The concrete results of this struggle show that the outcome of a revolution will in actuality be preferable to the pre-revolutionary society.

In this article, I would like to use the Grenada Revolution as a case study. I choose to do this for two reasons. The first is that Grenada is rarely discussed. When people think of socialism, they envision China, the Soviet Union, or Cuba. While all three of these societies are superlative examples of socialism, I feel that it is necessary to broaden our conception of socialism as much as possible. The Grenada model is similar to the Soviet one, but with (as we will see), a number of important differences. Most notably, these differences concern institutions of direct democracy and “people’s power.” While it is a myth that the Soviet Union and other socialist experiments were not democratic, Grenada is the most democratic of them all. Democracy is an important concept for the working masses, particularly in the United States. Highlighting this unique aspect helps to encourage working people to think of socialism in terms other than those forced down their throats by the capitalist class. This, in turn, may inspire people to take up the cause of socialism as their own. With capitalism increasingly putting the planet in existential danger, this is of the utmost importance.

The second reason is that Revolutionary Grenada lasted a mere four years, a far cry from the Soviet Union’s seventy. While this is often cited as a disadvantage by both communists and anti-communists alike, I feel that in this case it is actually beneficial. Because of the relatively short time span in  question, we can make the point that the gains of the revolution are essentially immediate. The working class does not have to wait decades for improvement. When they understand this, working people will be more willing to undertake the risks that come with revolution.

 

  1. Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.” Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.

 

Pre-Revolutionary Grenada

 

An analysis such as this can begin at no other place than Grenada prior to the revolution. This, of course, is for the purpose of comparison. One cannot claim that Grenada improved as a result of revolution unless one understands the conditions the revolution grew out of. By the early 1950’s the Grenadian colonial economy was a classic example of a small-scale plantation type economic system. The economy, based on small-sized plantations of cocoa, nutmegs and sugar, was owned by the very small, light-skinned elite group. [1] The peasantry eked out a living on their small plots of land or on seasonal employment offered by the export-oriented plantations. With a per capita income at about $250, unemployment and underemployment caused serious hardships for the Grenadian majority. [2]

This colonial economic system went hand in hand with a Crown Colony government in which power resided in the hands of the British Governor assisted by his civil servants. Until the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1951, the majority of the Grenadian population did not participate in the political process. [3] Eric Gairy came to power on the back of strikes organized by his trade union but quickly betrayed the working class. [4] Gairy’s title was Premier as Grenada became an Associated State in free association with Britain. In general, this new relationship meant that Grenada, led by Gairy, controlled its internal welfare, with Britain responsible for defense and external relations. [5] In this sense, Grenada was a client of the British State, a colony built for exploitation.

By 1967, Eric Gairy had emerged as an extremely controversial figure who generated strong feelings both for and against his leadership. His appeal was based on a curious admixture of a charismatic-type personality; a skillful manipulation of religious symbols including his involvement in voodoo-type worship; and ultimately, the emergence of the “Mongoose gang.” This latter group comprised largely of thugs, roughly akin to the Tonton Macoute of Haiti, emerged during the 1967 elections and were not disbanded until the NJM coup twelve years later. [6]  Gairy’s cavalier attitude toward leadership and administration of state affairs contributed during this period to his ultimate downfall. This administration was characterized by personal corruption, financial mismanagement, fiscal inefficiency, and the emergence of arrogant and somewhat dictatorial leadership. [7] There was little discernible government planning. While the land reform program permitted the government to acquire twenty-six estates, very little of this was redistributed to the poor and landless. [8]

Moreover, the ever present threat provided by Gairy’s Mongoose gang did not contribute to open participation in the democratic process. Between 1974 and December 1976, Gairy’s party controlled 14 of the 15 seats in parliament. The lone opposition member was rarely in attendance. [9] During the second phase from December 1976 until the coup in March 1979, there was a strong opposition party since the government now controlled 9 of the 15 seats. [10] However, during both periods, the Parliament was a mere “rubber stamp for the government decisions that had already been made elsewhere.” [11]  And moreover, because of Gairy’s decision-making style, “questions in Cabinet were not always resolved by debate and majority resolutions (since) Cabinet members merely echoed the views of the Prime Minister.” [12]

It is also interesting to note that during the entire duration of the second independence parliament, a period of twenty-seven months, the Parliament met for a total of eighteen days even though the constitution demanded more frequent meetings. [13] While the formal structure of democratic institutions and processes existed, decision-making over the five year period became increasingly concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Gairy. This concentration persisted to such a degree that Gairy’s own personal idiosyncrasies became serious issues of policy. At the United Nations, Gairy’s Grenada made significant issues of UFOs, psychic research, and the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. [14]  

It was this climate of fear and intimidation of the increasingly economically depressed masses that provided the setting for the New Jewel Movement. In short, the Grenada revolution occurred because of the complete immiseration of the masses. [15] [16]

 

  1. H. Gill, The Grenada Revolution. Mimeo. July, 1983. p. 3.
  2. EPICA Task Force, “Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution.” Washington, 1982, p. 45.
  3. D. Webster, “The Role of ‘Leader Personality’ in The Foreign Policy of Grenada.” M.A. Thesis, University of the West Indies, Trinidad. October, 1983, pl. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 18
  5. Radio broadcast was quoted in EPICA op. cit.
  6. “To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada.” St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  7. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 1989,
  9. Speeches of Maurice Bishop. pathfinders Press, New York, 1983, p. 294.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 295
  12.  Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 302
  14. For a detailed discussion see D. Webster, op cit, summarized from H. Gill, op. Cit
  15. “Grenada : The Birth and Death of a Revolution (Dialogue #34)” Ken I. Boodhoo. Florida International University, Department of International Relations, 1984
  16. Grenade, Wendy C. The Grenada Revolution: reflections and lessons. Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2015.

 

The Revolution Itself

 

A revolutionary movement was bound to arise from the conditions described above. In this case, this was a movement called the New Jewel Movement (NJM). What eventually became known as the NJM actually had its beginnings with the return of Unison Whiteman, a young economist, to Grenada in 1964. Whiteman was disturbed by the conditions in Grenada’s working class. He organized a small discussion group confined largely to the strongly agricultural parish of St. David. [1] In 1972, this group was formalized as the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation – “Jewel.” After legal training and involvement in the West Indian minority politics in England, Maurice Bishop–the son of a middle-class St. George’s businessman–returned to Grenada in 1969. He immediately became involved in domestic politics, protesting with and later successfully defending a group of nurses. The nurses took to the streets to dramatize the deplorable conditions at the government hospitals. [2] In 1972, at Bishop’s initiative, the Movement for the Assemblies of the People (MAP) was formed. The MAP opposed the existing Westminster model of government as non-functional to the needs of the society. The MAP instead suggested a radical alternative:the establishment of People’s Assemblies. The latter was viewed as a practical method for permitting the broader mass of the society to have more meaningful input into the state’s decision-making process. The NJM explicitly wished to expand democracy. It also wanted to improve education, schooling, healthcare, and women’s rights. [3]

Confrontation between the NJM and Gairy’s government was swift and, in most cases, violent. In late 1973, when the NJM was engaged in a brief alliance with the GNP while both organized a series of strikes, Gairy responded with state force. Gairy invoked physical abuse of the opposition, the jailing of its leadership, and eventually, the killing of several NJM sympathizers. [4] The events of “Bloody Sunday” became a foremost example of state violence against the opposition; and eventually, they became the turning point of opposition against Gairy. The revolution gained mass popular support, even among the middle class who had formerly allied themselves with Gairy. This was the climate in which the revolution succeeded. [5]

It should be noted that, although there were violent confrontations in the lead-up to the revolution, the coup in which the NJM took power was bloodless. [6]. This deals a decisive blow to the idea that revolutions are inherently violent. Although there must always be some bloodshed, the idea that a revolution involves indiscriminate murder and war is false. The Grenada Revolution proves this to be the case.

 

  1. Meeks, Brian. Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary theory: an assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada. London: MacMillan, 1993. P. 142
  2. “Grenada revolution: history of Maurice Bishop.” Grenada Carriacou and the Grenadines.
  3. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  4. S. Dabreo, The Grenada Revolution. Castries: M.A.P.S. Publications. 1979, p. 304.
  5. “BLOODY SUNDAY, 18 November 1973.” Bloody Sunday NOW Grenada
  6. Prof. Gus John The Grenada Massacre: Lest We Forget

 

The Achievements of the Revolution

 

Now that this foundation is laid, we can begin to examine the gains of the Grenada revolution. The New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979, “This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children.” [1]

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14% and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% “at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.” [2]

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy program, which all but eliminated illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). [3] The leaders of the revolution realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated, The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.” [4]

Chris Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

“One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.” [5]

By 1983, 37% of the national budget went to education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.”  [6]

For the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated. They chose via a People’s Budget that preempted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. [7] Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.”  [8] The World Bank is an institution whose sole goal is to perpetuate capitalism, so it is unlikely that it would admit such a thing unless it was accurate.

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.” [9]

The revolution was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. The first decree of the revolution was to outlaw sexual victimization, and women’s unions constituted a large part of the grassroots democracy discussed below. [10]

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” [11]

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revolution was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state, built by the Grenadian people themselves. In an impressive show of international solidarity, Cuba, Angola, and Bolivia provided money and labor for the construction of what would come to be known as the Bishop International Airport. [12]

Revolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” [13] This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Given that Bishop promised elections in the first broadcast, there is no reason to assume that he refused to hold elections because they would have threatened his power. On the contrary, he initially argued in favor of them. This should lead us to conclude that specific material conditions prevented the NJM from holding elections after the revolution.

Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.” [12]

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.” [13]

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was instead a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. [14] Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making: the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, and many more which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures. These government figures would have to answer directly to the people [15].

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power. [16]

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs [were] needed or houses [had to be] built, soldiers would be there.” [17]  In Grenada, the Army was built to serve the people. This is quite different from the army in a typical bourgeois pseudo-democracy, which lords above the people rather than moving among them.

I would like to mention here that the democratic institutions analyzed above constitute an excellent translation of the mass line from theory to practice. I have written about this theory in depth here, but it is enough to say here that the mass line is about strengthening the ties between the state and the people. This tie between the people and the state shows that socialist states, while repressive in some limited senses, are substantially more democratic than capitalist ones. Socialism (as well as democracy) gives the masses power. Revolutionary Grenada is a brilliant example of that power.

 

  1. “A Bright New Dawn (13 March 1979).” Grenada Revolution Online
  2. Zunes, Stephenie “Global Policy Forum.” The US Invasion of Grenada
  3. Ibid
  4. Bishop, Maurice Education in New Grenada. July 1979. Grenada Revolution Online
  5. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press,
  6. Mills, Stephanie “Welcome to Bishop International Airport” Workers.org
  7. To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada. St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 19/9,
  9. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  10. Bishop, Maurice. “Maurice Bishop Speaks to US Working People” Grenada Revolution Online
  11. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  12. “Interview with Maurice Bishop.” New Internationalist. 1980
  13. Bishop, Maurice. “Forward Ever.” March 13, 1980 Grenada Revolution Online
  14. Hart, Richard. “Grenada: An Assessment of the Revolution”
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Searle, Chris The Struggle Against Destabilization. 1983.

 

Conclusion-Learning from Grenada

I wrote this essay with the explicit intent to prove a point regarding revolution. I make no attempt to hide my ideological persuasion. I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I advocate a proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism. This view places me far outside mainstream political discourse, due in large part to its aforementioned revolutionary content. In the popular consciousness, revolutions are portrayed as violent, bloody affairs that result only in the misery of the masses. The Grenada Revolution solidly proves this portrayal to be a myth, intended to pacify the working classes and frighten them from revolution. In just four short years, the people of Grenada liberated themselves from a brutal, repressive autocracy. With this came the dramatic expansion of social, political, and economic rights, in addition to a sharp rise in standard of living.

Revolution, far from being a hellish nightmare, is a deeply liberating process that improves the lives of those who undertake it. Therefore, the fact that socialism requires a revolution is not a  factor in determining whether it is desirable.

Revolutionary Grenada also has lessons to teach us regarding the relationship between the state and the community. Many proponents of decentralization argue that centralism necessarily involves taking power away from communities and concentrating it in the hands of the state. Revolutionary Grenada shows us that this is not the case. As I said above, lawmaking during the revolution was carried out on a democratic basis. Community councils and interest groups came together to decide what they needed, and then proposed their plans to the state. The state did its best to unify these goals into a plan that everyone could agree on. The councils could then review the plans and recommend any needed changes. The process would then continue from there as needed. In this sense, law-making remained central, while also empowering communities. The Grenada Revolution shows us that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in so doing, helps to win the masses over to Marxism-Leninism. Returning to the point I made in the introduction, the experience of Revolutionary Grenada helps the masses to think of socialism as a participatory cause which gives them a voice. This will likely inspire them to adopt it for themselves, and therefore hasten its arrival.

Popular Support for the Soviet Union

A common anti-communist talking point is that past socialist societies have only been able to survive on the basis of coercion, rather than popular support. These critics often use this supposed coercion as evidence that socialism does not work or is not in the interests of the masses. If socialism did accomplish these things, reason the anti-communists, then surely the people would not need to be ruled by fear. This is a reasonable argument, but it is not based in fact. In this essay, I will prove that the Soviet system survived by the popular support of the working class, rather than by repression or force.

John Murphy Thomas writes in Stalin that, “Since the moment when they [the Bolsheviks] first secured a majority in the Soviets prior to the November Revolution they have retained the confidence of the majority, or they could not have maintained power.” [1]

Emil Ludwig writes in his book of the same name that, “But if you take the progressive peasants and workers, not more than 15 percent are skeptical of the Soviet power, or are silent from fear or are waiting for the moment when they can undermine the Bolsheviks’ state. On the other hand, about 85 percent of the more or less active people would urge us further than we want to go. We often have to put on the brakes. They would like to stamp out the last remnants of the intelligentsia. But we would not permit that. In the whole history of the world there never was a power that was supported by nine tenths of the population as the Soviet power is supported.” [2]

In Soviet Policy and its Critics, J.R. Campbell writes that “the Communist Party could only function on the basis of the confidence of the workers; that this confidence was not created by propaganda, but by people testing from their own experience the quality of the political leadership of the Party; that before any policy could be carried out, the Communist Party had to secure the cooperation of millions of people who were not Party members, who were not under Party discipline, who could not be coerced into cooperation, but who could only be convinced on the basis of their experience; and that further, if in the progress of the struggle a change of direction was necessary, not only the Party, but tens of millions of non-party people had to be convinced of the need for this change of direction and had to understand the methods of carrying it through.

In carrying out its activities, the Party rests on the trade unions and on the Soviets. Without the support of the 20 million trade unionists, without the support of the peasantry, organized in the Soviets and in the collective farms, the Party could not last for a week, for it is not the dictatorship of the Party, but a dictatorship of the working-class, in alliance with the peasantry.” [3]

Baldwin also writes about this in Liberty Under the Soviets, stating, “Even to tourists in Russia the absence of any moneyed class is at once apparent… No fine shops, no gay restaurants, no private motors–none of the trappings of wealth that lend color and variety to the life of bourgeois countries. Instead, a somewhat monotonous drabness and shabbiness, more than compensated for by the thought of its significance to the masses.” [4]

Many prominent anti-communists have also asserted that the Soviet system was legitimate in the eyes of the masses. Richard Pipes wrote in Under the Bolshevik Regime that, “The British War Cabinet scheduled a meeting for July 29, 1919 to discuss the Russian situation. The news of Kolchak’s reverses emboldened those who had all along wanted an accommodation with Lenin. Their thinking was reflected in a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet by a Treasury official and banker named Harvey. The document grossly distorted the internal situation in Russia to press the argument for abandoning the White cause. Its basic premise held that in a Civil War the victory went to the side that enjoyed greater popular support, from which it followed that since Lenin’s government had beaten off all challengers it had to have the population behind it [the document stated]:

“It is impossible to account for the stability of the Bolshevik Government by terrorism alone…. When the Bolshevik fortunes seemed to be at the lowest ebb, a most vigorous offensive was launched before which the Kolchak forces are still in retreat. No terrorism, not even long suffer ing acquiescence, but something approaching enthusiasm is necessary for this. We must admit then that the present Russian government is accepted by the bulk of the Russian people.” [5] The British state has dedicated millions of dollars and considerable mental effort to promoting anti-communist ideas. It is unlikely that it would utter a kind word about the Soviet Union unless it was absolutely true. The fact that even an ardently anti-communist empire is willing to concede this point is strong evidence that it has merit.

Many opponents would argue that the support enjoyed by the Soviet system was the result of the context in which it was formed. The Soviet people had never known anything but oppression and misery under the Tsar. Any improvement, no matter how marginal, would garner great popular support. Surely, now that the former Soviet citizens have experienced over two decades of capitalist democracy, they understand that the Soviet model is undesirable. Yet this is untrue. Ordinary citizens of former Soviet nations understand that they lived better under Communism. According to an article in the Globe and Mail, Karol, 14, and his sister Alina, 12, everyday trudge to a dump, where mixed industrial waste is deposited, just outside Swietochlowice, in formerly socialist Poland. There, along with their father, they look for scrap metal and second grade coal, anything to fetch a few dollars to buy a meager supply of groceries. “There was better life in Communism,” says Karol’s father, 49, repeating a refrain heard over and over again, not only in Poland, but also throughout the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. “I was working 25 years for the same company and now I cannot find a job – any job. They only want young and skilled workers.” [6] According to Gustav Molnar, a political analyst with the Laszlo Teleki Institute, “the reality is that when foreign firms come here, they’re only interested in hiring people under 30. It means half the population is out of the game.” [7] That may suit the bottom lines of foreign corporations – and the overthrow of socialism may have been a pleasing intellectual outcome for well-fed, comfortable intellectuals from Boston – but it hardly suits that part of the Polish population that must scramble over mountains of industrial waste – or perish. Maciej Gdula, 34, a founding member of the group, Krytyka Polityczna, or Political Critique, complains that many Poles “are disillusioned with the unfulfilled promises of capitalism. They promised us a world of consumption, stability and freedom. Instead, we got an entire generation of Poles who emigrated to go wash dishes.” [8] Under socialism “there was always work for everybody” [9] – at home.

A 2008 report in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, noted that “many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country.” Among the grievers is Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer.  Sribnaya remembers “Pioneer camps when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” [10]

Ion Vancea, a Romanian who struggles to get by on a picayune $40 per month pension says, “It’s true there was not much to buy back then, but now prices are so high we can’t afford to buy food as well as pay for electricity.” Echoing the words of many Romanians, Vancea adds, “Life was 10 times better under (Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae) Ceausescu.” [11] An opinion poll carried out last year found that Vancea isn’t in the minority. Conducted by the Romanian polling organisation CSOP, the survey found that almost one-half of Romanians thought life was better under Ceauşescu, compared to less than one-quarter who thought life is better today. [12] And while Ceauşescu is remembered in the West as a Red devil, only seven percent said they suffered under Communism.  Why do half of Romanians think life was better under the Reds? They point to full employment, decent living conditions for all, and guaranteed housing – advantages that disappeared with the fall of Communism [13].

In the former East Germany a new phenomenon has arisen: Ostalgie, a nostalgia for the GDR. During the Cold War era, East Germany’s relative poverty was attributed to public ownership and central planning – sawdust in the gears of the economic engine, according to anti-socialist mythology. But the propaganda conveniently ignored the fact that the eastern part of Germany had always been less developed than its western part, that it had been plundered of its key human assets at the end of World War II by US occupation forces, that the Soviet Union had carted off everything of value to indemnify itself for its war losses, and that East Germany bore the brunt of Germany’s war reparations to Moscow. [14] On top of that, those who fled East Germany were said to be escaping the repression of a brutal regime. This view is held by, among others, Hope M. Harrison. She is an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. While some may indeed have been ardent anti-Communists fleeing the state, most were economic refugees. Most of those who fled East Germany sought the embrace of a more prosperous West, whose riches depended in large measure on a history of slavery, colonialism, and ongoing imperialism—processes of capital accumulation the Communist countries eschewed and spent precious resources fighting against.

Today, nobody of an unprejudiced mind would say that the riches promised East Germans have been realized. Unemployment, once unheard of, runs in the double digits and rents have skyrocketed. The region’s industrial infrastructure – weaker than West Germany’s during the Cold War, but expanding — has now all but disappeared. And the population is dwindling, as economic refugees, following in the footsteps of Cold War refugees before them, make their way westward in search of jobs and opportunity. [15] “We were taught that capitalism was cruel,” recalls Ralf Caemmerer, who works for Otis Elevator. “You know, it didn’t turn out to be nonsense.” [16] As to the claim that East Germans have “freedom” Heinz Kessler, a former East German defense minister replied tartly, “Millions of people in Eastern Europe are now free from employment, free from safe streets, free from health care, free from social security.” [17].

 

Today, Stalin is considered the third greatest leader in Russian history, according to a poll by Russian television station Rossiya. [18] A Gallup poll confirms that about sixty percent of citizens in the former Soviet Union prefer it as it was before the transition to capitalism. Twice as many ex-soviets see dissolution of the soviet union as harmful than beneficial. “Only Azerbaijanis, Kazakhstanis and Turkmen are more likely to see benefit than harm from the breakup. Georgians are divided,” says the report.  Fifty-eight percent (58%) of people say they prefer state planning and distribution to the market system. [19] It is possible that this is a case of romanticizing the past, but seventy-five percent (75%) of Soviet citizens voted to keep the USSR before its dissolution, indicating that it brought them genuine benefits. [20]

The people of the USSR were by most accounts quite invested in its success. Szymanski wrote in 1984 that, “The Soviet system has a high degree of legitimacy among all of its citizens, and this is readily admitted by its critics both inside and outside the USSR.” [21] This is evidenced by a saying that was common during the Stalin era. “Yes, there was a cult, but there was also a great man.” [22]

A passage from James Harris’ Stalin as General Secretary also supports the view that the general opinion of the Soviet system was positive. He writes that, “It appears that Stalin largely carried the central committee on the basis of his policies and, at the time, the concrete results they brought about.” [23] The idea that Stalin’s rule-and the Soviet system as a whole-was based on coercion is patently false, as this quote indicates.

I would like to conclude with a quote from The Kremlin and the People, written by the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times during the Stalin Era. He writes, “It is one of the strangest things, that the average Soviet Russian honestly believes that the system under which he lives, which we consider a tyranny, or dictatorship, or totalitarian regime, or anything save freedom–the average Russian thinks that his regime is freer than “the plutocratic oligarchy” (as he terms it) under which, he says, Americans live, move, and have their being. That’s what the Russian says, and that’s what the Russian thinks, and he doesn’t believe in our freedoms, but he does believe in his own. It’s amazing, but that’s how it is” [24].

It is an utter myth that Soviet socialism had no popular support, but why should we pay that any mind? After all, it has been over twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I would argue that is important to disseminate positive information about the Soviet Union because of its prevalence in the popular consciousness. Working people rarely object to socialism on theoretical grounds. This is generally left to academics sitting in their ivory towers. The majority of the population see socialism as undesirable because of the supposed oppressive nature of socialist societies. The Soviet Union, of course, is one prominent example. If we can prove that the defects of the Soviet system are either fabricated or nonsystemic, we introduce the idea that socialism is a viable alternative to capitalism today.

  1. Murphy, John Thomas. Stalin, London, John Lane, 1945, p. 173
  2. Ludwig, Emil, Stalin. New York, New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1942, p. 175
  3. Campbell, J. R. Soviet Policy and Its Critics. London: V. Gollancz, ltd., 1939, p. 15-16
  4. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 30
  5. Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993, p. 96
  6. “Left behind by the luxury train,” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2000.
  7. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.
  8. Dan Bilefsky, “Polish left gets transfusion of young blood,” The New York Times, March 12, 2010.
  9. “Support dwindling in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2001.
  10. Globe and Mail (Canada), June 9, 2008.
  11. “Disdain for Ceausescu passing as economy worsens,” The Globe and Mail, December 23, 1999.
  12. James Cross, “Romanians say communism was better than capitalism”, 21st Century Socialism, October 18, 2010
  13. “Opinion poll: 61% of Romanians consider communism a good idea”, ActMedia Romanian News Agency, September 27, 2010.
  14. Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” James Lorimer & Company, Toronto, 2002. p. 232-235.
  15. “Warm, Fuzzy Feeling for East Germany’s Grey Old Days,” New York Times, January 13, 2004.
  16. “Hard lessons in capitalism for Europe’s unions,” The Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2003.
  17. New York Times, July 20, 1996, cited in Michael Parenti, “Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism & the Overthrow of Communism,” City Light Books, San Francisco, 1997, p. 118.
  18. Guy Gavriel Kay, “The greatest Russians of all time?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 10, 2009.
  19. Neli Espova and Julie Ray, “Former Soviet countries see more harm from breakup,” Gallup, December 19, 2013,
  20. ”Referendum on the preservation of the USSR,” RIA Novosti, 2001
  21. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 274
  22. Kreis, Steven, Stalin and the Cult of Personality. April 13, 2012, “The History Guide: Lectures on the Twentieth Century”
  23. Harris, James. Stalin: A New History, 2005. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p.64
  24. Duranty, Walter. The Kremlin and the People. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941, p. 161

Capitalism, Socialism, and Stalin's Cult of Personality

There is a widespread claim that socialism is unworkable because it invariably results in the elevation of a leader beyond reproach. The Soviet Union and Stalin are the most frequently cited examples. This argument takes the premise that cults of personality are universally harmful and extrapolates this to mean that socialism must therefore also be undesirable. In this essay, I will counter this perception.

There was, undoubtedly, a cult of personality surrounding J.V. Stalin. I am unaware of any serious historical account, sympathetic or otherwise, which denies this. The question is whether Stalin himself was the source of this cult or at least whether or not he was complicit in it. Khrushchev seemed to think this was the case. In his “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU, he made the cult of personality the central premise of his denunciation of Stalin and his policies.

I would like to mention here that cults of personality are explicitly contrary to socialism. As I wrote in my post on the mass line, it is not the leaders who make history, it is the people themselves. Socialism is brought about by millions of proletarians acting together, not by one person issuing a decree. As such, it makes very little sense to place so much importance on one man, as cults of personality always do.

The Soviet Communist Party understood this point very well. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Central Committee of the party implemented a policy of explaining concisely and consistently that it is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his “secret speech” that, “At present, we are concerned with a question which has immense importance for the party now and for the future—with how the cult of the person of Stalin has been gradually growing, the cult which became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of party principles, of party democracy, of revolutionary legality.” [1]

It is interesting that Khrushchev stopped short of outright accusing Stalin of being responsible for the cult of personality (perhaps because, as we shall soon see, he could not have justified such a claim). However, in choosing to open the speech in this way, he made the personality cult the focus. Throughout the rest of the speech, he implied that Stalin himself fostered the cult and hoped that others would assume he did. Indeed, many did take it for granted, both within the CPSU—or at least the portion of it that wasn’t purged between the twentieth and twenty-second party congresses—and throughout the capitalist world.

Surely, there can be little disagreement that the elevating of one person to a “superhuman… possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god” is an extraordinarily troublesome and unsavory thing. Stalin did not disagree. All available evidence indicates that Stalin opposed the personality cult surrounding him, and that he spent most of his leadership trying to counteract it. Here is just a small sampling of quotes to support this position.

“I must say in all conscience, comrades, that I do not deserve a good half of the flattering things that have been said here about me. I am, it appears, a hero of the October Revolution, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the leader of the Communist International, a legendary warrior-knight and all the rest of it. This is absurd, comrades, and quite unnecessary exaggeration. It is the sort of thing that is usually said at the graveside of a departed revolutionary. But I have no intention of dying yet.”

– Stalin, June 1926 [2]

“You speak of your ‘devotion’ to me. Perhaps this is a phrase that came out accidentally. Perhaps… But if it is not a chance phrase, I would advise you to discard the ‘principle’ of devotion to persons. It is not the Bolshevik way. Be devoted to the working class, its Party, its state. That is a fine and useful thing. But do not confuse it with devotion to persons, this vain and useless bauble of weak-minded intellectuals.”

– August 1930 [3]

“Marxism does not deny at all the role played by outstanding individuals or that history is made by people. But… great people are worth anything at all only to the extent that they are able to correctly understand these conditions, to understand how to change them…

Individual persons cannot decide. Decisions of individuals are always, or nearly always, one-sided decisions…

Never under any circumstances would our workers now tolerate power in the hands of one person. With us personages of the greatest authority are reduced to nonentities, become mere ciphers, as soon as the masses of the workers lose confidence in them.”

– December 1931 [4]

Anti-Stalinists may read these quotes and assume that Stalin must have been a hypocrite, that he was merely brandishing a fashionable false modesty while in practice building up a cult around himself. However, Stalin’s opposition to the cult of personality extended beyond mere words. Stalin repeatedly objected to attempts to hold national festivities or propaganda exhibitions in honor of his birthday on the grounds that “such undertakings lead to the strengthening of a ‘cult of personality,’ which is harmful and incompatible with the spirit of our party.” [5][6]  

In 1937, the Politburo attempted to rename Moscow to “Stalinodar,” meaning “gift of Stalin,” but Stalin managed to convince them not to proceed. [7]  In 1938, Stalin opposed the publishing of Stories of the Childhood of Stalin, not only because it contained numerous exaggerations and inaccuracies, but also because in his own words, “the book has a tendency to engrave in the minds of Soviet children (and people in general) the personality cult of leaders, of infallible heroes.” [8]  

In 1945, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR awarded Stalin the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award, yet he refused to accept it. He could not of course prevent the Soviets from giving him the award after his death. [9]

But surely, insist the anti-Stalinists, a man as powerful as Stalin must have been able to do more to curb the cult of personality surrounding him! Few have responded to this assertion as concisely as Grover Furr in his book Khrushchev Lied. He writes, “Some have argued that Stalin’s opposition to the cult around himself must have been hypocrisy. After all, Stalin was so powerful that if he had really wanted to put a stop to the cult, he could have done so. But this argument assumes what it should prove. To assume that he was that powerful is also to assume that Stalin was in fact what the “cult” absurdly made him out to be: an autocrat with supreme power over everything and everyone in the USSR. “ [10]

Stalin was the General Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee. He could be removed by the Central Committee at any time. His was only one vote in the Politburo of the Central Committee. Stalin tried to resign from his post as General Secretary four times. Each time, his attempt was rejected. The last such attempt was at the 19th Party Congress, in October 1952. It too was rejected. [11].  If Stalin really reveled in his position of power, would this have been the case? I think we can safely assume that the answer to this question is a resounding no.

The great majority of evidence points to the fact that Stalin was not only not responsible for the cult of personality that formed around him, he actively attempted to undermine it.

Still, an important question remains. If the cult of personality did not arise from the conscious decisions of Stalin and the Party, where did it come from?  There is a great deal of evidence to support the idea that cults of personality served a material purpose. Scholars since Max Weber have observed that cults of personality can unify a group in times of crisis and inspire them to action. The cult of personality around Stalin rallied the masses around a common cause. It inspired them to not only win the war against the fascists, but also to rebuild their decimated economy after they had done so.  {12]. These specific material conditions necessitated the development of a personality cult. The Civil War could also be said to have contributed to the existence of a personality cult around Lenin. Such cults are far from an intrinsic part of socialism. Therefore, the argument that socialism is undesirable because it leads to a cult of personality is patently false.

This argument is especially spurious when used by proponents of capitalism, especially those living in the United States. When talking about cults of personality or brainwashing, these “principled citizens” conveniently forget (or more likely choose to ignore) the fact that students are all but required to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance every morning. Day after day we see stories in the news about good-hearted police officers rescuing dogs or performing some other “selfless” deed. Both of these practices are regarded as ‘showing respect to authority,’ or simply ‘being patriotic.’

In reality, they are meant to indoctrinate people into believing that America is not an oppressive state, despite it being built on slavery, Native genocide, and exploitation. None of these things are relegated to the past, as many would have you believe. The thirteenth amendment permits prison slavery, a fact that many capitalists have taken advantage of. [13]. Further, Native Americans are still subjected to the same kind of oppression they were during the founding of America. A Gallup independent study found that many reservations were comparable to the third world in terms of living conditions. [14]. The oppressive character of America is still very much alive. American personality cults exist to mask this oppressiveness. They deceive the people rather than inspiring them.

American cults of personality are much harder to spot than that which was present in the Soviet Union, but they exist nevertheless.  They have been normalized through diffusion and subtlety. Although there are no statues of President Obama in the town squares, it is normal to center him in every political discussion. Indeed, this is true of all Presidents. The American personality cults are typically focused on a particular position (such as Presidents or the aforementioned police officers) rather than an individual person. In some cases (as with the American flag) personality cults are even ascribed to symbols. This serves only to obscure them further.

Not one  U.S. head of State has ever disavowed these practices. On the contrary, they encourage them! Unlike the personality cult in the Soviet Union, which existed to inspire the masses to liberate themselves, the personality cults in the United States exist only to perpetuate the oppression of the working class and the marginalized.

On a purely theoretical level, it is apparent that the capitalist system is far more conducive to creating personality cults than any socialist system. Socialism, as mentioned above, is based on collective action undertaken by the masses. Capitalism, however, prides itself on individualism. It preaches the myth that any one person can rise to the top of the social ladder if only they work hard enough [15]. It heaps praise upon  supposed “self-made” billionaires such as Henry Ford and Bill Gates, crediting them with innovation rather than the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers who actually produce products. Capitalism turns billionaires into king-like figures, perhaps even akin to gods, and there is no better definition for a cult of personality than this.

Based on all of the above evidence, we can conclude that if one is opposed to cults of personality, one ought to be a socialist rather than a capitalist.

  1. N. Khrushchev, On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences (1956).
  2. J.V. Stalin, Reply to the Greetings of the Workers of the Chief Railway Workshops in Tiflis (1926).
  3. J.V. Stalin, Letter to Comrade Shatunovsky (1930).
  4. J.V. Stalin, Talk With the German Author Emil Ludwig (1931).
  5. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223.
  6. Ibid., 9.
  7. Ibid.
  8. J.V. Stalin, Letter on Publications for Children Directed to the Central Committee of the All Union Communist Youth(1938).
  9. F. Chuev, Conversations with Molotov. From the Diary of F. Chuev (Moscow, 1994), 254.
  10. G. Furr, 8.
  11. Ibid., 22.
  12. D. Brandenberger, Stalin as Symbol: a Case Study of the Cult of Personality and its Construction (University of Richmond, 2005)
  13. E. Puryear, Shackled and Chained (PSL Publications, 2013)
  14. May 5, 2004, Gallup Independent
  15. “Social Mobility is a Myth,” E. Zuesse (Business Insider, 2013)

Power in Practice: Kronstadt and the Spanish Revolution 

Political discussions aim to draw lines between the powerful and the powerless, between victim and oppressor. This is very obvious if we look at war, which is about violence, the most naked form of power. But this principle is also true of matters such as healthcare. Healthcare is about ensuring that people do not have to worry about minor illnesses or accidents. In a society with universal health care, the populace could be free of these worries and thus spend more time considering how to combat injustice. To argue against universal health care is to argue in favor of the current balance of power; to argue in favor of universal healthcare is to argue against this current balance. Power lurks everywhere and is at the heart of every political argument. If we want to effect political change, we must engage in politics. If we want to engage in politics, we must engage with and struggle for power. To be revolutionary is (in part) to desire an inversion of the balance of power-to grant power to the oppressed by taking it away from the oppressors.

Many self-styled revolutionaries, especially those who identify as anarchists, reject this analysis. They claim that power is not instrumentalized, that it will always be oppressive. Even if those in power claim to be exercising it on behalf of the oppressed, indeed, even if they sincerely believe themselves to be doing so, they will always ultimately pursue their own interests: the continuation of power.

As evidence for this, anarchists often cite the Kronstadt rebellion. The Bolsheviks, who either cloaked themselves as defenders of the oppressed or genuinely thought they filled this role, took power in the interests of the workers. When a group of workers and soldiers rose up against the government at Kronstadt, they were mercilessly crushed. This is supposedly evidence of the corrupting nature of power. In this essay, I will argue that the Kronstadt rebellion was not crushed because of power-madness, but rather specific material conditions and an uncorrupted desire to defend the oppressed. In so doing, I will open up Leninism-a politics concerned with the conquest of political power-as a viable strategy.

I would like to counterpose the effectiveness of this strategy to the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in which a group of anarchists took power in Catalonia amidst a civil war. I have spent considerable time discussing this event elsewhere, so there is little point in spending a great deal of space doing so here. However, I believe it is an instructive example of where the aversion (what we might call an “allergic reaction”) to power will lead us. As such, I want to briefly draw some lessons from it here.

Firstly, I should mention that the Kronstadt naval base was the first line of defense against an invasion of Moscow, the new capital of the Soviet Union. It was a key defensive point. If the government had not exercised iron control over it, the invading enemies could have ended the fledgling socialist state.

The Kronstadt sailors felt that their concerns over worker’s rights and repression outweighed these concerns. Their first move was to form a Provisional Revolutionary Committee. Following this, they put forward a series of demands. These encompassed not only the economic but also the social and political. In the economic sphere, they desired a relaxation of the strict conditions of war communism (a policy imposed, as the name suggests, by the particular conditions of the ongoing Civil War). The rebels also called for Increased food supplies to be sent to the cities. Their political demands included the restoration of  freedom of speech, increased democratic input and consultation in policy formulation, the release of non-Bolshevik socialists from detention, guarantees of civil rights and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Soviets without communists.” Their document asserted that the Bolsheviks were “usurpers” and described the conditions imposed by the new government as “greater enslavement”, “moral slavery”, “a new serfdom” and much greater than the oppressions of tsarism. The Kronstadt sailors called for the revolution to be placed back into the hands of the workers who it had originally claimed to represent.

The popular image that anti-Bolshevik critics cling to is that there was widespread sympathy among the Red Army soldiers towards the rebels. There has been a lot of speculation about the mass of soldiers refusing to take part in the attack for political reasons, as well as stories of mass desertions among the Red Army soldiers. It is claimed that many of them passed to the side of the Kronstadt rebels.

There was one case where one unit moved to the side of those defending Kronstadt. This was during the first unsuccessful attack. It was a battalion from the 561st Red Army regiment. This regiment was recruited from among former Makhno, Wrangel and Denikin prisoners. During the civil war in Russia, some peasant units also changed sides even several times as a result of military failures. This incident was not the result of political ideas or anti-Bolshevism, but rather a desire to remain safe (and, to put it bluntly, alive).

One example of this could be seen when 236 and 237 infantry regiment refused to attack. When questioned as to their motives, they replied, “We’ll not go on the ice.” These peasant units were terrified at the idea of having to attack across the ice this first class fortress defended by battleships. There are other reports about refusals to carry out orders on the part of different units, but in all these cases the causes were such things as the poor quality of food and clothing, the bad quality of the camouflage, and unfavorable weather conditions No political reasons were ever given. 

At this juncture, it is important to remember that the Soviet government had been forced to use its scarce resources to defend itself against the White armies backed by the imperialists who were trying to crush the revolution. They could not devote resources to improving the lives of their soldiers because they were struggling simply to survive. This is the same reason they imposed War Communism in the first place. In light of these circumstances, it is understandable why conditions on the battlefield were so bad.

There was no solid mass of soldiers firmly behind the rebellion. Even bourgeois historians such as Krasnov have had to recognize this fact. Inside Kronstadt, there were clashes between the old revolutionary sailors and the new recruits who came from peasant and petit-bourgeois families. As a result of this lack of unity, the Kronstadt sailors continually shifted positions and acted erratically. Some ships declared their neutrality. Others disregarded this completely and moved against the rebels.

To further illustrate this, we should turn to of the statements issued by the crews of a number of ships: the minesweepers “Ural,” and”Orfei.” They said, “The men of the White guards that are leading the rebels can do a lot of damage to the Republic, and they may not even hesitate to bomb Petrograd.”

The same situation was to be found behind the rebel battle lines. According to the 7th Army intelligence report, many rebel sailors and soldiers wanted to move over to the side of the Bolsheviks, but they were terrorized by their rebel commanders. It is interesting to note that the rebels justified their rebellion as an objection to Bolshevik terror, but were more than willing to use similar tactics when it suited them.

According to documents published in recently declassified Soviet archives, during the attack on Kronstadt, the workers of the town liberated it even before the main forces of the Red Army arrived. Cooperation between the sailors and the Bolsheviks-against the rebels-was far more common than the reverse.

The Kronstadt rebellion itself was not led by the workers. Rather, according to the Kronstadt archives themselves, the rebellion had been instigated by “the men of the White guards that are leading the rebels.” The real command over the rebels was concentrated not in the Kronstadt Soviet, as the anarchist propagandists assume, but in the so-called “Court for the Defense of Kronstadt Fortress.” One of its leaders was rear-admiral S.H. Dmitriev (who was executed after the fortress fell). The other was General A. H. Kozlovsky, who escaped to Finland. Both of these senior officers were allied with Tsarists, and thus very far from having any kind of sympathy for Socialism “with Bolsheviks” or “without Bolsheviks.” The counter-revolutionary forces co-opted Ultraleft, anti-soviet rhetoric to secretly launch an attempt to restore the previous feudal order. This is one reason why the “Worker’s Opposition,” itself formed to defend the particular interests of the industrial proletariat, sided with the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt.

S. M. Petrechenko, sailor and anti-Bolshevik leader, was recruited by Stalin’s GPU in 1927. He remained one of Stalin’s agents until 1944 when he was arrested by the Finnish authorities. The following year he died in a Finnish concentration camp. Even the most prominent leader of the rebellion came to understand that the Soviet state was one worth defending.

The Kronstadt workers and sailors actually understood the real nature of these rebels far better than any of the later intellectuals who have tried to build up the myth of Kronstadt. The same can be said of the counterrevolutionary forces that were operating in Kronstadt. The former Tsarist prime-minister and finance minister, Kokovzev, transferred 225 thousand francs to the Kronstadt rebels. The Russian-Asian bank transferred 200 thousand francs. The French prime-minister, Briand, during the meeting with the former ambassador of Kerensky’s government, Malachov, promised: “anything necessary to help Kronstadt.”

Even if we charitably grant that the Kronstadt sailors had noble intentions, the fact remains that their rebellion was quickly co-opted by reactionary and anti-communist forces, seeking to revive the Tsarist system of rule. This is the reason it was crushed. The notion that Lenin crushed the rebellion because he had a vendetta against the working class is more or less a moot point in light of the above evidence, but I would also like to point out that Lenin called for greater worker participation in the Central Committee. He made that call in April of 1921, the same year as the rebellion. He also fought against Trotsky to give trade unions power in workplaces. A month later, 14 capitalist nations launched a full-scale invasion of the backward Soviet Union. Their only option at the time was to centralize productive forces so that necessary defense material could be produced.

Some might argue that the above evidence does not negate the fact that the Kronstadt rebels had explicitly socialist demands. If these demands were not being met by the Soviet government, it must, therefore, follow that the Soviet Union was oppressing its workers. If this is the case, it must be true that power has inherently corrosive effects. Surprisingly, there are elements of truth to this argument. Apart from the Kronstadt rebellion, there was widespread dissatisfaction among peasants and workers over the state of the Soviet economy. However, claims that this dissatisfaction was the result of Leninism are false. We know this because it was Lenin who called for the New Economic Policy at the Tenth Party Congress. This NEP, in response to the demands of the peasants, ended the policy of forced grain requisition by the State. It also made possible the creation of agricultural co-ops and the private operation of means of production. This was one of the demands of the Kronstadt sailors. Lenin, although he ultimately crushed the uprising due to its counter-revolutionary character, sympathized with many of the expressed demands of its participants.

We can conclude from all of this that Lenin crushed the Kronstadt rebels because material conditions dictated that he had to do so, rather than out of any twisted personal desire. The actions taken by Lenin flowed from said material conditions, not the power that Lenin wielded. 

As with Kronstadt itself, Anarchist propagandists portray the Soviet government as a ruthless, dictatorial body that “crushed” the anarchists for ideological reasons, because the ideology of anarchism threatened the power of the Bolsheviks. Also as with Kronstadt, the truth is very different.

Thousands of anarchists in Soviet Russia were ardent defenders of the Soviet government, giving their energy in battle, their lives at the front and their participation in the soviet institutions. The Bolsheviks worked alongside these anarchists and regarded them as their comrades.

Four anarchists, Bogatsky, Bleikhman, Shatov, and Iatshurk, were members of the Military Revolutionary Committee which carried out the October Revolution—the insurrection which today’s anarchists (wrongfully) denounce as a coup d’état. The armed detachment carrying out the orders of the Soviet Government to dissolve the Constituent Assembly was led by an anarchist named Anatoly Zheleteznyakov. Almost all anarchists were opposed to the bourgeois Constituent Assembly in revolutionary Russia, yet today’s anarchists denounce the Bolsheviks’ decision to dissolve it as having been “anti-democratic”. Historian Jeff Hemmer gives more detail about the aforementioned Vladimir Shatov and other anarchists who staunchly defended the Soviet state:

“A member of the Military Revolutionary Committee in 1917, Shatov became the chief of police in Petrograd in 1918. In 1919 he defended Petrograd against the advance of General Yudenich as an officer in the Tenth Red Army, and in 1920 was appointed Minister of Transport in the Far Eastern Republic. A number of other anarchists followed his example and accepted small government posts, urging their comrades to do the same or at least refrain from anti-Bolshevik activities that would jeopardize the revolution. The Bolshevik cause attracted anarchists from all backgrounds, ranging from former Black Banner terrorists like Heitzman and Roschin to Anarcho-Communists like German Sandomirskii, who took a position in Chicherin’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Alexander Ge, according Victor Serge one of the organisers of Red Terror in the Terek region. Other well-known anarchists in the service of the Bolsheviks were the Anarcho-Syndicalists Shapiro, who joined Sandomirskii in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Daniil Novomirskii, in 1905 a prominent figure in syndicalist circles in Odessa, who entered the Communist Party and became a Comintern official in 1919…

In spring 1918 the Anarcho-Communist Apollon Karelin formed the pro-Bolshevik All-Russian Federation of Anarchist-Communists in Moscow, arguing that a Soviet dictatorship was acceptable as a transitional phase in the development of a free anarchist society. According to Karelin, the defence of the Soviet Government was to be regarded not as an affirmation of authority, but as a means of protecting the revolution. A similar view was put forward by the Moscow-based Universalists, formed in 1920 by the brothers Gordin, who had previously been rabid anti-Marxists and anti-intellectuals, and German Askarov, an Anarchist-Communist who was also a member of the Soviet Central Executive Committee [as was Karelin from 1918]. Roschin, the former Chernoznamenets and staunch anti-Marxist who, in 1919, came to see the Bolsheviks as “the advance guard of the revolution,” seems to have taken these ideas even further; according to Victor Serge, he tried to develop an “anarchist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The support from the “Soviet Anarchists” was welcomed by the Bolshevik leadership, who insisted that the only anarchists that were persecuted in Russia were criminal elements.”

We can see, then, that there was a strong current of unity between the Marxists and the Anarchists in the Soviet Union. If it were true that the repression of Soviet Anarchists was carried out on ideological grounds, this would not have been the case. If power had an inherently corrupting effect, then it would it be the case that the Marxists would have crushed the Anarchists in the very beginning. They did not do this, and in fact took great pains to accommodate the Anarchists.

If the repression of anarchists was not ideological, as I have argued, how and why did it arise? The answer lies in the anarchist Black Guards, which flourished throughout Russia and Ukraine in 1918. Originally created in Alexandrovsk during the summer of 1917 by Maria Nikiforova, these armed anarchist detachments had spread to Moscow by January 1918, and by April 1918 “there were already more than 50 groups and detachments of the Black Guard, numbering some 2,000 militants” In the city.

“All groups and organizational units of the Black Guard have grouped around the Council of the MFAG [Moscow Federation of Anarchist Groups] and headquarters of the Black Guard, stationed in the House of Anarchy in Malaya Dmitrovka.” Nestor Makhno would later establish similar detachments in different regions of Ukraine which ultimately grew into the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. According to the American anarchist historian Paul Avrich, the MFAG armed the Black Guards “with rifles, pistols, and grenades. From their headquarters in the House of Anarchy, the leaders of the Federation tried to impose a measure of discipline on the Black Guardsmen and to limit the activities of the local clubs to the distribution of propaganda and the “requisitioning” of private residences. This proved to be an impossible task; once armed, a number of groups and isolated individuals succumbed to the temptation of carrying out “expropriations,” and, adding insult to injury, they sometimes acted in the name of the Federation.”

Avrich explains that “armed detachments of Black Guards… held up banks, shops, and private homes. Many of their comrades — especially the “Soviet anarchists” – condemned such acts as parodies of the libertarian ideal, which wasted precious lives, demoralized the movement’s true adherents and discredited anarchism in the eyes of the general public.”

Looting was rife among the Black Guards. The leadership of the MFAG seemed unable to discipline its detachments. The Bolshevik (and former anarchist) Victor Serge wrote that “The anarchists themselves admitted that suspicious elements, adventurers, common criminals, and counterrevolutionaries, were thriving among them, but their libertarian principles did not permit them to refuse entrance to their organizations to any man or to subject anyone to really control. They sensed acutely that their movement needed to be purged, but this was impossible without authority or a disciplined organization. Splits among them and this reverence for principle were slowly leading to the political suicide of the movement, which was becoming more compromised each day…”

The Black Guards were out of control. “Several incidents such as an attack on an American car, the murder of several Cheka agents followed by the summary execution of several bandits, the arrests of “expropriators” who were promptly claimed by the Anarchist Federation, led Dzerzhinsky, the President of the Cheka, to insist on the liquidation of the Black Guard.”

Avrich gives the details of this operation:

“[O]n the night of the 11-12th of April, armed detachments of the Cheka raided 26 anarchist centres in the capital. Most anarchists surrendered without a fight, but in the Donskoi Monastery and the House of Anarchy itself, Black Guardsmen offered fierce resistance. A dozen Cheka agents were slain in the struggle, about 40 anarchists were killed or wounded, and more than 500 were taken prisoner.”

Anarchist propagandists, with their dishonest “selective memory,” take this evening’s events out of historical context; treating it in isolation and ignoring the backward trend of conflict that the anarchist Black Guards had been unleashing in Russia. The Bolsheviks had been forced into carrying out the task that the anarchists were seemingly incapable of achieving on their own; purging from their ranks the “criminal elements” that were pillaging and burgling under the flag of anarchism and causing chaos throughout Russia. As the elected and legitimate government, it was their obligation to restore order.

The Bolsheviks sought to eradicate these “criminal elements” which were considered to be “pseudo-anarchists.” In their view, no genuine anarchist could condone random acts of theft and violence against workers and the Soviets’ officials. Trotsky stated in Moscow on the 14th of April that “these hooligans… are simply raiders and burglars who compromise the anarchists. Anarchism is an idea although a mistaken one, but hooliganism is hooliganism… I have talked about it to the idealist anarchists and they themselves say: ‘A lot of these jailbirds, hooligans, and criminals have smuggled themselves into our movement…’… It is stated that among these hooligans there are a few who are honest anarchists; if that is true… then it is a great pity, and it is necessary to render them their freedom as quickly as possible.” His general argument was that the “honest anarchists” should distance themselves from the “hooligans” so that “one should know once for all… that is a burglar, and this is an honest idealist…” This was not an attack against anarchism or the “honest” anarchists. It was an attack against “the hooligans, who put on the mask of anarchism in order to destroy the order and life and labor of the working class.” Yet “some fifteen anarchists demonstratively left the hall” creating a frightening scene, breaking solidarity and order.

Before long, the anarchists resorted “once more to their terrorist ways.” According to Avrich: “Anarchists in Rostov, Ekaterinoslav, and Briansk broke into city jails and liberated the prisoners” in the middle of a civil war. “[I]n the summer of 1918, Black Guardsmen who had survived the Cheka raids of the preceding months, contemplated the armed seizure of the capital but Aleksei Borovoi and Daniil Novomirskii talked them out of it.” But according to the historian Marcel Liebman — evidently against the wishes of Borovoi and Novomirskii — some anarchists were involved in the Left SR revolt in Moscow on the 6th and 7th of July, which was, of course, an “armed seizure of the capital” that was quickly crushed.

“Lev Chernyi, secretary of the Moscow Federation of Anarchists… joined an organization called the Underground Anarchists, founded by Kazimir Kovalevich, a member of the Moscow Union of Railway Workers, and a Ukrainian anarchist named Petr Sobolev. Though based in the capital, the Underground Anarchists established ties with the battle detachments of the south… On the 25th of September [1919], together with a number of Left SR’s, they bombed the headquarters of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party in Leontiev Street, while a plenary meeting was in session. The explosion killed 12 members of the Committee and wounded 55 others, including Nikolai Bukharin, the eminent Bolshevik theorist and editor of Pravda…”

But even while chaos ensued on the streets of Moscow — terrorism conducted under the flag of anarchism — the Bolsheviks tried their best to meet the “honest” anarchists halfway:

“When Kamenev in 1920 offered the Moscow Anarchists freedom to issue their papers and to run their clubs and bookshops in exchange for their adoption of party discipline and a purge of the criminal and irresponsible elements which had infiltrated into their membership, they indignantly rejected the offer.”

It is clear then from the information I have provided that, contrary to anarchist mythology, the Bolsheviks did not “crush” the anarchists in Soviet Russia for ideological reasons. The Bolsheviks-alongside the anarchists who peacefully collaborated with them -appealed to sincere anarchists involved in the dubious activity to distance themselves from the hooligans who had infiltrated their ranks. The “anarchists” who were subdued had been looting, burgling, engaging in violent and destructive acts and assassinating government figures. The “repression” of these explicitly anti-soviet and counter-revolutionary terrorists should be seen as nothing more than an overdue retaliation to criminal provocation.

We have seen that Leninists have historically been willing to place unity in the struggle over ideology, while anarchists have not. This proves that it is possible to wield power on behalf of the oppressed, and need not devolve into an “authoritarian” nightmare.

Indeed, it is not possible to succeed without wielding power in this manner. This was true during the Spanish Revolution, another historical event that anarchists uphold as a successful example of their theory in practice. Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish historian, wrote about the elections in the period leading up to the Civil War in this way: “the workers affiliated to the U.G.T. voted for their men. But the Anarcho-Syndicalists voted for the middle-class liberals. There were two reasons for this: the first, the unbridgeable enmity which separates Socialists and Syndicalists, due to their rival bid for the leadership of the working classes; and the second, that as the Anarchists always preached contempt for suffrage, they had no political machinery of their own; so that when it coming to voting—which they did this time to help oust the Monarchy—they preferred to vote for the middle-class Republican whose liberal views were more in harmony with the anti-Marxist idea of the Spanish Syndicalists than with the orthodox and dogmatic tenets of the Socialists.”

In this context, anarchist ideology worked against the interests of the proletariat by advancing the interests of the petite-bourgeoisie. Anarchists put their ideology ahead of the struggle. It was impossible for them to avoid doing this because they refused to engage with the centers of power. Ultimately, that is what led to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution.

It has not, historically, been Leninist parties that put their own power ahead of worker’s struggles. On the contrary, Leninists have been more than willing to cooperate with forces which were not ideologically aligned with them for the purpose of making or defending the revolution. The two most successful anarchist movements, Soviet anarchism, and the Spanish Revolution have in fact been guilty of a rank sectarianism. Leninists have stood for workers, Anarchists have stood for themselves.

The anarchist “allergic reaction” to power has, time and again, alienated them from the struggle. The working class instinctively understands that politics is about power. They learn this through their struggle with the bosses, which is ultimately about the balance of power between two opposing camps. This is why the anarchist movement has taken hold primarily among petit-bourgeois artisans and middle-class liberals. In its a priori rejection of power, anarchism dooms itself to discontinuity with the revolutionary agent: the working class. In swearing off power, anarchism also swears off victory.

Bibliography

Kronstadt Tragedy, by Russian historian Yuri Shchetinov

“The Truth About Kronstadt” John G. Wrangel

Kronstadt: 1921,  Paul Avrich

Cronstadt, Jean-Jacques Marie

The Unknown Trotsky: The Red Bonaparte V. G. Krasnov

Blackshirts and Reds, Michael Parenti

The New Cambridge Modern History, volume xxi.

Steve Phillips (2000). Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

The Demands of the Kronstadt Sailors, available at  http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/kronstadt-rebellion/

Hemmer, J. What Was The Role Of Anarchists In The Russian Revolution?

Trotsky, L. The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky – Vol. 2).

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Avrich, P. Russian Anarchists, and the Civil War

Serge, V. Year One of the Russian Revolution

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Trotsky, L. An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Liebman, M. Leninism Under Lenin

Schapiro, L. The Origin of the Communist Autocracy

Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, Cambridge Univ. Press. London, 1950

Spain, a Modern History, Salvador Madariaga, Praeger. N.Y., 1958

The Successes of Socialism in the USSR

In discussions surrounding the USSR, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the negative. Most people highlight the repression that supposedly occurred and ignore the numerous achievements of the Soviet Union, both during Stalin’s time and after. I would like to take a moment to remedy that.

These achievements include equal pay and maternity leave for women. They were also granted universal suffrage and could even hold key positions within the Party. As Francis Randal writes in Stalin’s Russia, “Stalin took a Party with scarcely five percent of women…he left the party with more than 21 percent of women” [1]. Women were also granted the right to defend their country in battle, a right that has only been recently granted to citizens in the United States. Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected it that, “The famous ‘Red Amazons’ and ‘Death Battalions’ are fiction, not fact. But the Army medical services is full of women” [2]. And as Ciliga Ante writes in The Russian Enigma,”The wife of our host listened to her husband and made timid protests. One day when he was out, she opened her heart to us. “The Bolsheviks want to build up a new life; that can’t be done in a day….But look, in the past women had no rights at all, they were proper slaves; the Bolsheviks have given us liberty, have made us the equals of men. The Soviet state guaranteed it especially for young women who got maternity leave longer  than what was in force in France at the time, and access to affordable nurseries open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with no waiting list.  Still, what a contrast with France, where waiting lists are becoming an urgent problem (especially in Paris), where privatization has become synonymous with outrageous costs, where maternity leave as a fundamental right is questioned” [3]. Women’s rights were much further along in the Soviet Union than anywhere else. 

The predictable retort here would be to point out supposed hypocrisy on the part of communists. If we make a point of saying that women serving in the United States military is not progressive, why is the same not true of the Soviet military? The answer is one of function. The United States military is an imperialist one, formed for the purpose of resource extraction and the expansion of Western hegemony. The Soviet military, on the other hand, was formed for the purpose of defending socialism against counterrevolutionary forces, and later used as a weapon in the struggle against fascism. Those who served in the Red Army had the opportunity to build and defend their own society. It gave the people a tremendous amount of power. As such, progressive policies in the Soviet military ought to be highlighted.

The same is true of racial justice. Several black artists, intellectuals, and activists spoke highly of their time in the Soviet Union. Among these are singer Paul Robeson, boxer Muhammad Ali, poet Claude McKay, and activist WEB Dubois. Full accounts of many of these experiences can be found in “Black in the USSR” by Joy Gleason Carew [4]. I also recommend Harry Haywood’s autobiography Black Bolshevik [5]. as well as William Mandel’s Soviet but not Russian [6]. At a time when Jim Crow was at its peak in the United States, black refugees fled to the Soviet Union in search of liberation. While the USSR was by no means free of racism, Soviet criminalization of racist speech meant that it was much closer than any society that existed at the time [7].

The USSR also saw the creation of a universal healthcare system. No other country had more physicians per capita or more hospital beds per capita than the USSR. In 1977, the Soviet Union had 35 doctors and 212 hospital beds per 10,000 compared to 18 doctors and 63 hospital beds in the United States [8]. (Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, 1984). Most important, healthcare was free. Life expectancy went from about 30 to about 70 after the revolution, and has not increased since the fall of the USSR [9].

Literacy and education also soared. The Bolsheviks set up teaching programs, even sending teachers to peasant’s homes to educate them [10]. [11]. Socialism, far from being an economic failure, led to numerous incredible feats. The USSR was, at one time, the fastest-growing economy in history, which fell into recession only during the war years. Soviet GDP per capita growth exceeded that of all other countries but Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. GDP per person grew by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 for Western Europe and 3.3 for the Western European offshoots such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand [12].

While Soviet GDP per capita growth rates compare favorably with those of the major capitalist economies, a more relevant comparison is with the rest of the world. In 1928, the Soviet Union was still largely an agrarian country, and most people worked in agriculture, compared to a minority in Western Europe and North America. Hence, the economy of the USSR at the point of its transition to public ownership and planning was very different from that of the industrialized Western capitalist countries. On the other hand, the rest of the world resembled the Soviet Union in also being largely agrarian [13]. It is therefore the rest of the world, not the United States and other advanced industrialized countries, with which the USSR should be compared in the economic sphere. From 1928 to 1989, Soviet GDP per capita not only exceeded growth in the rich countries but exceeded growth in all other regions of the world combined, and to a greater degree. Hence, not only did the publicly owned, planned economy of the Soviet Union outpace the economies of richer capitalist economies, it grew even faster than the economies of countries that were most like the USSR in 1928. For example, outside its southern core, Latin America’s GDP per capita was $1,332 (1990 US dollars), almost equal to the USSR’s $1,370. By 1989, the Latin American figure had reached $4,886, but average income in the Soviet Union had climbed far higher, to $7,078 [14]. Public ownership and planning had raised living standards to a higher level than capitalism had in Latin America, despite an equal starting point. Moreover, while the Soviet peacetime economy unfailingly expanded, the Latin American economy grew in fits and starts, with enterprises regularly shuttering their doors and laying off employees.

Perhaps the best illustration of how public ownership and planning performed better at raising living standards comes from a comparison of incomes in Soviet Central Asia with those of neighboring countries in the Middle East and South Asia. In 1928, these areas were in a pristinely pre-industrial state. Under public ownership and planning, incomes grew in Soviet Central Asia to $5,257 per annum by 1989, 32 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Turkey, 44 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Iran, and 241 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Pakistan [15]. For Central Asians, it was clear on which side of the Soviet Union’s border standards of living were highest. In 1950, the Soviet economy was only one-third the size of the US economy but had grown to almost one-half only eight years later [16]. By 1975, the CIA estimated that the Soviet economy was 60 percent as large as the US economy [17]. According to figures provided by Allen, Soviet GDP per capita grew at an annual rate of 3.4 percent from 1928 to 1970, but at less than half that rate, 1.3 percent, from 1970 to 1989 [18]. Finally,in 1955 industrial production in the Soviet Union stood at twenty-five times the level in 1913 [19].

These extraordinary achievements can be attributed directly to socialism. Unlike capitalism, which seeks only to enrich a tiny minority of people, socialism seeks to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of people. This includes not only economic needs, but also cultural ones, such as the liberation of women and other oppressed minorities. While errors were certainly made, it is evident that the USSR attempted to achieve these goals, and made tremendous strides in doing so.

It also created many technological wonders. The Moscow Railway, built in 1931, is still in use, and the iron and steel complexes “rivaled any in the capitalist world,” as the BBC once put it [20]. The Soviet accomplishments in space technology are also worth remembering. These include the first satellite, the first animal in orbit, and the fist spacewalk [21].  As Fredrick L. Schumann writes in Soviet Politics, “Foreign critics readily conclude that the Soviet intelligentsia is in helpless bondage and consists of sycophantic automatons, reduced to complete sterility. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No government anywhere at any time has done more than the USSR to promote art and science by providing facilities for training, work, and publication, and by giving scientists and artists economic security through regular salaries plus generous rewards for achievement through royalties, prizes, and numerous privileges. That this policy has paid dividends in shown by the striking accomplishments of Soviet music, drama, cinema, and literature as well as the biological and physical sciences” [22]. The USSR did much to promote cultural and scientific development, far more than in the United States or the rest of the globe. This is, again, a product of the socialist drive to fulfill human needs and develop the working class to its full potential.

In fact, the technological innovation achieved  by the Soviet Union was so great that the United States eventually adopted it, albeit in a twisted form. A 2008 study by Block and Keller found that 77 out of R&D Magazine’s top 88 innovations had been fully funded by the public sector, as was the case in the Soviet Union [23]. These include algorithms used in the Google search engine, the technology present in the iPhone, and groundbreaking new vaccines. What this shows is that the popular myth of free enterprise encouraging innovation is a falsehood. The reasoning for this is obvious. Developing new technology is risky, since there is no guarantee that investors will see a return. As a result, those with capital prefer to invest in more profitable, less innovative properties. However, this means that things life-saving medicines often go underfunded. Vaccine development is not profitable, but it is necessary. This is why it is important to structure the economy around meeting human needs, as the Soviet Union did with its public-sector R&D.

In these discussions, it is often forgotten that the USSR began as a largely agrarian, feudal empire. Stalin and Lenin transformed it into a world superpower, largely through the five-year plans. These plans were so effective that many capitalist economists in the 1930s supported them. As Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected It, “American engineers who came to help build the new industries often said that the five-year plan was ‘utterly logical,’ but added, ‘if the people will stand for the sacrifices’” [24]. She also wrote that, “With the conclusion of the First Five Year Plan, the Soviet Union plunged into the second, which did three times as much new construction as the First Five Year Plan had done and did it with much less strain. Soviet industry was completely reorganized and equipped throughout with the latest machines and methods. Greater emphasis was given than previously to producing goods of consumption. This, together with the rapid improvement of farming, caused a fairly swift rise in the general standard of living” [25]. As Gill Graeme writes in Stalinism, “The reconstruction effort, added to the increased capacity which had been developed in the Urals and Siberia during the war, insured that by the time of Stalin’s death the Soviet industrial infrastructure had recovered from the ravages of the war” [26]. What capitalist economy could say the same?

In light of this evidence, we can safely say that the Soviet Union made a number of achievements that were well worth highlighting. If the USSR could achieve all of this while it was underdeveloped, imagine what socialism in an “advanced nation” such as the United States could accomplish. Study of past socialist experiences proves that socialism is the economic system which most benefits the masses of people.

  1. Randall, Francis. Stalin’s Russia. New York: Free Press,1965, p. 104
  2. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 115
  3. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17528631.2015.1027324
  4. https://libcom.org/history/black-bolshevik-autobiography-afro-american-communist
  5. Toby Terrar, GeoJournal Vol. 17, No. 1 (July 1988), pp. 151-154
  6. Szymanski, Albert (1984). Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1984.
  7. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 40
  8. M. Ryan, Life expectancy and mortality date for the Soviet Union, 1988
  9. http://missinglink.ucsf.edu/lm/russia_guide/russianhealth2.htm
  10. S. Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s peasants: resistance and survival in the Russian village after collectivization, 1994
  11. M.V. Kabatchekno, L.D. Yasnikova, Eradicating Illiteracy in the USSR, Literacy Lessons, Vol 10, 1990
  12. Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Sherman, Howard J (1969). The Soviet Economy, Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
  17. Kotz, David with Fred Weir (1997). Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
  18. Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. Op. Cit.
  19. Emile Burns, An Introduction to Marxism (NY: International Publishers, 1966), p. 78.
  20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5axVunzQSA
  21. Wade, Mark (1997–2008). “Soyuz”. Encyclopedia Astronautica.
  22. Schuman, Frederick L. Soviet Politics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1946, p. 332
  23. Block, Fred and Keller, Matthew R (2008). “Where do innovations come from? Transformations in the U.S. national innovation system, 1970-2006,” Technology and Innovation Foundation, July 2008. http://www.itif.org/files/Where_do_innovations_come_from.pdf
  24. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 68
  25. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 70-71
  26. Gill, Graeme. Stalinism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990, p. 43

Socialism and Democracy in the USSR

Many proponents of capitalism claim that socialism is undemocratic because past socialist societies (such as the Soviet Union) have not had formal elections like those seen in the United States. As such, power was concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable elite, rather than the people themselves. In this essay, I will explain why this perception of socialism is incorrect on both a theoretical and practical level.

Firstly, there is strong evidence to suggest that the United States is in fact a society in which power is managed in an undemocratic manner. A study by Martin Gilens from Princeton university shows that “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent influence on US government policy, while the average citizen and mass-based groups have little or no independent influence” [1]. This study and others prove that money, not popular will, is the driving force behind the passage of policy and the election of candidates. We can therefore conclude that, based on the definition of democracy proposed previously, the United States is an undemocratic society.

This is not the result of an anomaly or a freak accident, but rather the normal workings of capitalism. It is a system in which a tiny minority of people-the capitalist class-control the means of production. Means of production are things like factories, farms, tools, and offices. We require these things to produce food, housing, education, and everything else that facilitates our existence on this planet. It is only a slight exaggeration to assert that you only live because the capitalists allow you to. If our very lives are controlled by another person, how can we say that we have genuine power? We cannot. Therefore, we cannot say that capitalism produces genuine democracy.

Socialism represents a meaningful alternative. Let’s use the Soviet Union as a case study so we can learn why this is the case.

One of the most common criticisms of the Soviet Union is that all popular opinion was crushed, and every important decision was made and carried out by Stalin and his cronies. While democracy in the USSR was a deeply flawed system, the conclusion that it was nonexistent is not based on hard evidence.

To begin refuting this notion, we must examine the idea of the ‘economic elite’ more closely. A key part of capitalism as a system is that the people with real power-business leaders, politicians, and so forth-have a much better quality of life than the masses of people. They have access to the best food, healthcare, and educational institutions,  among other things. By contrast, many workers are unable to procure even the barest hint of a meal, much less a fulfilling higher education. The result of this is that those with real power cannot possibly represent the interests of the working class. They simply have no idea what life in poverty is like. As such, power cannot be in the hands of the working class.

The Soviet situation was entirely different. In East Germany, for example, party leaders were given a yearly allowance of only $725.00 in hard currency. The party leaders were, admittedly, housed in complexes on the outskirts of Berlin with saunas, pools, and fitness centers. However, these amenities were shared by all the residents, so there was very little disparity in their quality of life. Further, both leaders and the masses were permitted to buy goods such as clothing or electronics. The disparities in income between Soviet leaders and normal workers was generally modest. The metric was at 5 to 1, compared with 10,000 to 1 in the United States. These statistics were included in John Gunther’s 1940 publication Inside Europe, in which he writes, “One should keep in mind, however, that big incomes are still extremely rare. Earning power may vary in the Soviet Union, according to artistic or technical proficiency, but the extremes, as Louis Fisher has pointed out, are very close. No such “spread” is conceivable in the USSR as exists in Britain or America between say, a clerk in a factory and its owner. Among all the 165 million Russians, there are probably not ten men who earn $25,000 per year” [2]. Michael Parenti agrees, writing in Blackshirts and Reds that, “Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov…lived not in lavishly appointed mansions like the White House, but in relatively large apartments in a housing project near the Kremlin…they had none of the immense personal wealth that most U.S. Leaders possess” [3].

It is clear that the Soviet leaders lived within the means of the working class. Therefore, they were better able to represent the interests of the vast majority of people.

The USSR was a single-party state. There is nothing in particular in Marxist-Leninist thought that asserts that this must be the form a dictatorship of the proletariat takes. Certainly, Leninism holds that the Communist Party should play the leading role in politics, but this does not preclude the existence of other parties. For instance, China was founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, and there is currently a Maoist Party that exists in opposition to the state [4].

In practice however, after the October Revolution, the Communist Party in Soviet Russia and subsequently the USSR very quickly became the only legitimate political organ. This should be understood as a consequence of the fact that in their early form, the Bolsheviks were unprepared to deal with political opposition, but also of the fact that the political opposition of the time was totally unwilling to work within the system. This general scenario is a result of the intense aggravation of class struggle that occurs immediately following a socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie do not simply roll over and allow their power to be usurped; they fight back and attempt to retake it. Opposition parties in a period of counter-revolution tend to be manipulated by the bourgeoisie, or they become opportunistic in their opposition and actively seek allegiance with elements of the bourgeoisie. The result is that opposition parties tend to serve counter-revolution themselves, which is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia. Every opposition party except the Social Revolutionaries refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet system, and even the latter party eventually withdrew. The consolidation of political power into a single party was solidified after the civil war with the 1922 trial of Social Revolutionary leaders for treason, but as Edward Hallett Carr points out in The Bolshevik Revolution, the acts the Social Revolutionaries were tried for “under any system of government would have been criminal” [5]. So the single-party system arose out of the harsh conditions immediately following revolution, and similar scenarios have played out in nearly all of the other socialist revolutions of the 20th century. This was a result of concrete material conditions, and cannot be expected to occur in every socialist revolution.

Despite this, many still assert that the Soviet Union was undemocratic. They assert this on the basis that everyone who disagreed with Stalin was sent to a violent gulag to be executed. However, taking this view demonstrates ignorance of what life for prisoners in the Soviet Union was actually like. Yes, they were sent to gulags, but those were primarily used for housing real criminals rather than political prisoners. According to Albert Szymanski in Human Rights in the Soviet Union, political prisoners accounted for only twelve percent of all Gulag detainees. More than half of all gulag deaths in the entire 1934-1953 period occurred in 1941-1943, mostly from malnutrition caused by the war [6].

John D. Littlepage supports these assertions, writing his book In Search of Soviet Gold that, “I was told that political prisoners, including members of other revolutionary groups and disgruntled or disgraced Communists, are seldom if ever put into such prison camps or gangs. If they are considered dangerous, they are confined in concentration camps or isolated prisons. If they are considered merely a nuisance, they are given what is called free exile….the free exile system is a comparatively mild punishment” [7]. Gulags, it turns out, never housed a majority of political prisoners. Instead, they housed thieves, murderers, and the like.

As Michael Parenti writes in Blackshirts and Reds, “There was no systematic extermination of inmates…the great majority of gulag inmates survived and eventually returned to society when granted amnesty or when their terms were finished. In any given year, 20 to 40 percent of the inmates were released, according to archive records” [8].  The gulag population never exceeded 2.6 million prisoners a year throughout its existence. For 454,000 to have died throughout nearly 20 years of this penal system, this is simply a mere fraction of the alleged 60 million deaths.

Side note: the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, “About 1 in 36 adults, or 2.8% of adults, in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision at year-end 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.” It also records a population of 6.9 million people at year-end 2014 [9]. This, of course, concludes that the highest year of gulag population, which was 1950 with 2.6 million, was still at least a third of the U.S prison population in 2014.

It is also important to note that labor camps-and secret police-existed in Tsarist Russia prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Both Lenin and Stalin were exiled at one point or another in the course of their revolutionary activities. Although the Soviet Union founded new ones, they largely made use of what they already had. Penal labor was common practice throughout most of the world at the time, including the United States. The Soviet Union followed in the footsteps of most other nations, ending the practice in the 1950s [10]. The United States, however, has recently seen several prisoners strike in protest of forced labor [11].  Several right-wing and even unabashedly anticommunist regimes have also made use of labor camps. There is nothing about them that is intrinsically socialist.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the Soviet Union had a progressive prison and exile system. As Chamberlain writes, “The Soviet prison system, as applied to ordinary criminals, embodies a number of progressive penological ideas. Educational and manual training instruction courses exist in the more advanced prisons; prisoners are not required to wear uniforms; and the well-behaved prisoner receives a vacation of two weeks every year, which is certainly a unique Russian institution” [12].

In Stalin: Man of Contradiction, Kenneth Neill Cameron writes that, “In the 1930s, as we have seen, the spread of industrialization and collectivization brought about a socialist state with a broad spectrum of social and political rights. As we would expect from such a state, the legal and prison systems that it established were essentially just and non-punitive. In fact, they were praised and admired by liberal attorneys and penologists throughout the world. People’s courts, in which ordinary citizens sat with a professional judge on the bench, tried 80 percent of all cases, and legal services could be obtained free of charge. As a desirable alternative to prisons, ‘agricultural and industrial labor colonies’ were established where some prisoners brought their families and where they were allowed to marry. The basic objective of the system was rehabilitation, not just in words, as in capitalist states, but in reality, as was dramatically shown, for instance, in the film Road to Life, depicting the regeneration of teenage criminals. One of the most extensive industrial camp projects was the building of the Baltic-White Sea Canal by prisoners, a vast enterprise whose three chief engineers were former “wreckers.” At the completion of the project, 300 prisoners received scholarships, 12,000 were freed, and 59,000 had their sentences reduced. Such was the normal course of working class justice in the USSR” [13].

In Khruschev Remembers, Strobe Talbott writes that, “Actually, I’d say that on the whole our convicts received fairly humane treatment. They were considered to be the products of capitalist society. Therefore, it was felt that our socialist society should reeducate them rather than punish them” [14].

Even the ardent anticommunist Robert Conquest admitted in Stalin: Breaker of Nations that, “Many prisoners were quoted as expressing their joy at having been saved and turned into decent citizens” [15]. In May 1934, detainees in Soviet labor camps were given the right to vote, according to Siegelbaum and Sokolov in their book Stalinism as a Way of Life [16]. American prisoners, it is interesting to note, are not afforded this right [17]. How can we call the Soviet Union undemocratic when more of its citizens had the right to vote than ours do?

In fact, Stalin argued for a dramatic expansion of democracy. This is argued convincingly by Grover Furr in Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform. In 1936, a draft for the Soviet Constitution approved by the All-Russia Congress of Soviets included new provisions for secret ballot, contested elections, and re-enfranchisement of certain groups, including kulaks and those who had violated the “law of three ears.” These additions were insisted upon by Stalin and he continued to vigorously fight for them. The rest of the Central Committee of the Party strongly disagreed with some of these provisions however, and given the panic caused by the uncovering of forces within the state collaborating with Germany and Japan, not all the democratic expansions made it into the final Constitution [18].

There is no evidence anywhere that Stalin ever removed anyone from a position of leadership because they disagreed with him. The notion that Stalin removed his political opponents from power is perhaps the greatest fabrication told about the man. There is simply no basis for it. The accusation is backed only by hearsay and rumor, and the sparse anecdotes that appear to show that Stalin hated opposition, refused to compromise, made decisions unilaterally, etc. are easily countered by the numerous contrary accounts given by those who worked with him.

G.K. Zhukov:

After Stalin’s death appeared the tale about how he used to take military and strategic decisions unilaterally. This was not the case at all. I have already said above that if you reported questions to the Supreme Commander with a knowledge of your business, he took them into account. And I know of cases when he turned against his own previous opinion and changed decisions he had taken previously [19].

His style of work, as a rule, was businesslike. Everyone could express his own opinion without being nervous. The Supreme Commander treated everyone the same way—strictly and officially. He knew how to listen attentively when you reported to him with knowledge of your topic. He himself was laconic, and did not like verbosity in others [20].

Anastas Mikoyan:

I must say that each one of us had the full ability to express himself and defend his opinion or proposal. We frankly discussed the most complicated and contested questions (as for myself, I can speak on this point with the fullest responsibility), and met on Stalin’s part in most cases with understanding, a reasoned and patient attitude even when our statements were obviously disagreeable to him.

He was also attentive to the proposals by the generals. Stalin listened carefully to what was said to him and to counsel, listened to disagreements with interest, extracting intelligently from them that bit of truth that helped him later to formulate his final, most appropriate decisions which were born in this way, as a result of collective discussion. More than this: it commonly happened that, convinced by our evidence, Stalin changed his own preliminary viewpoint on one or another question [21].

  1. A. Benediktov:

Contrary to the widespread view, all questions in those years, including those involving the transfer of leading party, state, and military figures, were decided in a collegial manner in the Politburo. At the Politburo sessions themselves arguments and discussions often flared up, different, sometimes contradictory opinions were expressed within the framework, naturally, of party directives. There was no quiet, untroubled unanimity—Stalin and his colleagues could not abide that. I am quite justified in saying this because I was present at Politburo sessions many times [22].

Even if we discount all of these statements (and there are many more like this), the fact remains that there is simply no record to support the idea that Stalin was not collegial or that he removed his political opponents for disagreeing with him.

Additionally, Stalin sought to change the role of the Communist Party in relation to the state. Over the history of the USSR, the Party and state had effectively merged. Stalin did not see this as inevitable or particularly desirable, nor did most other Marxists. A political party that must also carry out the state’s executive functions has little time for healthy ideological life and can become degenerate. Moreover, party-state mergers are breeding-grounds for bureaucracy and opportunism, a view Stalin seems to have held. Thus he advocated that the role of the Party should return to one of agitation, ideological leadership, nominating cadres, etc. while the executive functions of the state should be carried out separately, and nominations to the Soviet congresses should be carried out by the people. Effectively what Stalin was discussing was a separation between Party and state. Although the 1936 Soviet Constitution did vaguely reflect this concept, the desired democratic shift never fully materialized [23].

As we have seen, Stalin argued that many oppositional forces should have their rights restored. Although this was not achieved to the fullest extent possible, there was great freedom given to the opposition on both sides of the political aisle. As J. Arch Getty writes in The Road to Terror, “The Stalinist leadership had often permitted the publication of statements and articles by various oppositionists within the Party….Trotsky’s works were published until the mid-1920s…Stalin had personally nominated Bukharian for the editor of the government newspaper Izvestia,” and, “In cases where there was no firm ploy, debate, negotiating and lobbying were possible, even in the Stalin years” [24].

As Baldwin writes in Liberty Under the Soviets, “Former Mensheviks or Social Revolutionists, still numerous in the unions, are now not expelled even when critical. But their criticism must be “constructive,”–intended to remedy the evils and defects of the accepted system and program, not to attack its purposes….But the general policy is to encourage ‘helpful’ criticism and the fullest rank and file participation in solving industrial problems” [25].

In The Truth About Soviet Russia, Sidney Webb writes that, “Indeed it is amusing to discover that nearly all the books that are now written proving that there is corruption, favoritism, and gross inefficiency in the management of industry and agriculture, are taken from reports of these discussions in the Soviet press, in Pravda, the organ of a Communist Party; in Izvestia, the organ of the government; in Trud, the organ of the trade union movement, and in many other local and specialist newspapers” [26]. What this means is that critics of the Soviet Union got their information from communist sources.

In “A Reply to Robert Conquest,” Robert W. Thurston writes that, “Stalin, the press, and the Stakhanovite movement all regularly encouraged ordinary people to criticize those in authority. At the very top, Stalin was certainly an unassailable figure, but during the Yezhovshchina anyone several rungs below him was fair game. If the citizenry was supposed to be terrorized and stop thinking, why encourage criticism and input from below on a large scale?” [27].

Baldwin writes, “Though I found a few opponents who were fearful of speaking out, and many cautioned me not to quote them, I found nowhere such universal fear as marks opponents of the dictatorships in Italy or Hungary…. Speech is fairly free everywhere in Russia. What the authorities land on is any attempt at organized opposition” [28].

Szymanski writes that, “Toleration of widely diverse viewpoints within the Party, continued throughout the period of the New Economic Policy…. While the center-right alliance of those around Stalin and Bukharin had the upper hand in the period after Lenin’s death (they were united on the continuation of the New Economic Policy and a fairly moderate international line), their left opponents continued to occupy leading positions” [29].

In Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Alan Bullock writes that, “The leaders were not arrested or shot; even Trotsky was banished, not imprisoned or executed, and most of the others, like Zinoviev and Kamenev, were allowed back into the party–even, like Bukharin, to hold official posts” [30].

James Harris writes in “Stalin as General Secretary” (published in the anthology Stalin: A New History from Cambridge university press) that, “Despite their expanded powers, challenges to the authority of local secretaries remained a fact of political life,” [31]. and that, “New archival sources only serve to reinforce our sense of the succession  of struggle as a see-saw battle of thesis and counter-thesis, of alternative visions of the future…presented to the Party elite and broader membership. In his letters to Moscow, for example, Stalin insisted on responding publicly to…his rivals” [32]. He also writes that, “The [party] secretaries did not submit passively to his [Stalin’s] directives. They had their own agendas of which they were aggressive advocates” [33]. Stalin’s political line was not unquestionable, nor was it decided without input from the rest of the committee.

Said committee was not packed with Stalin’s cronies, as many believe. According to figures published in The Soviet Elite, by 1925, in the election of the central committee at the Fourteenth Party Congress, 217 voters struck Kamenev off their ballots. 224 struck off Zinoviev. By contrast, 87 struck off Stalin and 83 Bukharian. Harris writes that, “Stalin had the clear advantage, but his failure to obtain those 87 votes suggests that if he did try to stack the central committee with his cronies, he was not doing a very good job” [34].

There is also this quote from Duranty Reports Russia, (written by Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent to Russia during Stalin’s rule),although ‘Free speech’ and a ‘free press’ in the western sense are unknown in Soviet Russia, Moscow newspapers are now indulging in such a loud chorus of complaints, rebukes, and pessimism as has probably not been equaled since Jeremiah was the “official spokesman” of Israel. To read the newspapers one would suppose the country was headed straight to perdition” [35]. What this means is that critics of the USSR got their information from communist sources. I cannot stress this enough.

This is in line with Stalin’s thoughts on the matter. He once wrote that, “Comrades, oppositionists can and should be allowed to hold posts. Heads of Central Committee departments can and should be allowed to criticize the Central Committee’s activities” [36].

A study of the Politburo supports the view that Stalin was not all-powerful. J. Arch Getty writes in “Stalin as Prime Minister” that, “Politburo members were not slaves, nor was their power reduced as Stalin’s increased. Sometimes Politburo members argued with Stalin…and occasionally won the argument” [37]. He goes on to write that, “One source of Stalin’s authority from the earliest days was his ability to…listen, to refer…to steer the conversation towards consensus. This earned him the respect, cooperation, and loyalty of senior Bolsheviks,” and further that, “His office logs do not suggest a lonely and solitary dictator who made decisions without…discussion with others” [38].

All of this considered, an analysis of democracy (or lack thereof) in the Stalin era would be incomplete without discussion of the purges. Much ado is made about the expulsions from the party, the arrests, and the executions that occurred under Stalin’s leadership, especially those between 1937 and 1938, where the purges reached their height. The extent of executions is often exaggerated, and there is evidence today that many who were accused of crimes were in fact involved in espionage or other sabotage—that is to say, they were guilty of the crimes they were accused of. According to figures from Yeltsin’s archives and published in Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Keeran and Kinney, the number of executions during the Stalin Era wa  799,455. This is a far cry from the millions typically posited by anticommunists. And keep in mind that Yeltsin, who released these figures, was staunchly pro-capitalist. Thus, it is highly likely that even these figures are exaggerated [39].

This is a complicated topic, and is generally beyond the scope of this analysis. However, Chapter 11 of Grover Furr’s Khrushchev Lied contains a detailed and thorough account of how Pospolov’s report—which Khrushchev used to “rehabilitate” many who he claimed had been falsely accused during the purges—is extremely fraudulent [40]. This is highly recommended reading. Also recommended is Robert Thurston’s Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, in which he writes that, ”Ordinary…workers…frequently reported no contact with the security apparatus” [41]. The purges mostly targeted government officials who, as we have discussed, were in fact guilty of criminal activity.

Nevertheless, it is well-known that many innocent people were killed during the purges. The question is whether Stalin was responsible for the excesses. The worst offenses of the purges were carried out by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) during the tenure of Nikolai Ezhov as its director. Ezhov is sometimes described as Stalin’s “loyal executioner,” but the Soviet archives demonstrate he was anything but. He was part of a Rightist conspiracy to undermine the Central Committee’s effort in ousting right-wing cadres from its ranks. The plan was for the NKVD to protect the Rightists by diverting attention away from them, fabricating evidence against honest communists and bringing them to trial and in many cases execution. Here is the 1939 statement from Frinkovsky, one of the deputy heads of the NKVD during the purges:

“Before the arrest of Bukharin and Rykov, Ezhov, speaking with me quite openly, started to talk about the plans for Chekist work in connection with the current situation and the imminent arrests of Bukharin and Rykov. Ezhov said that this would be a great loss to the Rights, after that regardless of our own wishes, upon the instructions of the Central Committee large-scale measures might be taken against the cadres of the Right, and that in connection with this his and my main task must be to direct the investigation in such a way so that, as much as possible, to preserve the Rightist cadre…

After the arrests of the members of the center of Rights, Ezhov and Evdokimov in essence became the center, and organized:

1) the preservation, as far as possible, of the anti-Soviet cadre of the Rights from destruction; 2) the direction of the blows against the honest party cadre who were dedicated to the Central Committee of the ACP(b) [the Communist Party as it was called at the time]; 3) preservation of the rebel cadre in the North Caucasus and in other krait and oblasts of the USSR, with the plan to use them at the time of international complications; 4) a reinforced preparation of terrorist acts against the leaders of the party and government; 5) the assumption of power of the Rights with Ezhov at their head” [42].

Thus in his effort to preserve right-wing cadre, to undermine the Central Committee, and to concentrate power to himself, Ezhov falsely accused and killed huge numbers of innocent people. This is pretty damning. Adding further to this is Ezhov’s own confession, where he admits that he was committing espionage on behalf of Poland and Germany. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Stalin was a part of this conspiracy, and it is absurd to suggest that he was. The conspiracy that Ezhov headed was explicitly a response to anti-Rightist efforts initiated by Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee. Stalin himself was a target of removal for Ezhov. When his heinous crimes were exposed, Ezhov was arrested, tried, and executed. When Beria took control of the NKVD in 1939, the chaos that marked the previous two years largely subsided.

This is not to say we should absolve Stalin of all responsibility. When massive treachery such as this happens under one’s leadership, even if the leader is totally unaware of it, the leader must to some extent be held responsible. If Stalin was in error here, it was in trusting Ezhov and his cronies. It could also be said that Stalin and the rest of the Communist Party created power structures that were ripe for saboteurs to abuse. Furthermore, the general idea of widespread purges as a means of suppressing internal counter-revolution tended to create a climate which blurred the distinctions regarding contradictions between the people and their enemies, and healthy contradictions within the people themselves, as Mao argued in his sympathetic critique of Stalin. However, to understand all of this as a product of a “villainous” Stalin is a theory that holds about as much water as a sieve. Instead, we should recognize that Stalin fought to combat degeneracy within the party, to expand democracy, and to suppress counter-revolution, but along with the rest of the Party he made some serious errors. Although we should not downplay the significance of these errors, we should understand that they were the product of a leadership grappling with something entirely new: how to build a socialist society, and how to do so in the midst of sabotage and generally extreme conditions at that.

It is also worth noting that ‘purge’ in this context is a mistranslation of the original Russian word. The word ‘purge’ was deliberately chosen by anticommunist scholars to conjure images of genocide. In reality, the purges were more akin to yearly performance reviews than massacres. Walter Duranty writes that the Bolsheviks did not often kill those that they purged, and many so-called victims were readmitted back into the Party [43].

I am not trying to argue that the USSR was a utopia in which everyone had complete freedom. Freedoms were indeed curtailed, often to an unnecessary extent. (As with art or religion under Lenin.) However, the suppression did not occur to the extent that is commonly believed. The historical record is consistent with this view.

The practice of suppressing free speech is not as uncommon as some anticommunists would have you believe. It also occurred during the American Revolution. The property of Loyalists was seized during this time. The great libertarian hero Thomas Paine lived in a home stolen from a loyalist. As Szymanski writes, “Beginning in 1775, states started passing legislation making it a seditious act to libel or defame congress…eight states formally banished Tories” [44]. None of the Tories, so far as I’m aware, were ever given key positions in government, as Bukharian was. From this we can conclude that it is not socialism which requires repression, but revolution. We should evaluate the morality of the revolutionary cause when considering the use of repression. The aim of socialism is the elimination or reduction of hunger, want, and exploitation. What higher aspirations could one have?

I should also mention that the repressive measures utilized by the Soviet Union mostly targeted Nazis. Some might say that this is irrelevant, as it does not change the fact that the Soviet Union engaged in undemocratic practices. However, denial of freedom of speech to Nazis constitutes an expansion of freedom to the oppressed people who no longer have to live in fear of them. The freedom to walk down the street without being assaulted is greater than the freedom to assault. And, contrary to what liberals would have you believe, ideas can be considered as bad as actions. Take Dylan Roof for example. He had written a manifesto before actually carrying out the shooting that took nine lives. Had his white supremacist speech been criminalized, he would not have been able to carry out that act of terror, and nine innocent people would still be alive. In cases such as these, impinging in freedom of speech can benefit the people rather than hindering them.

A concrete example of this can be found in the Soviet Union. Prior to the revolution, Jews were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms, which were endorsed by the Tsar. The Bolsheviks made anti-semitism punishable by death, and refused to allow the circulation of anti-Semitic literature. This meant that Soviet Jews no longer had to live in fear of being massacred. In this way, restrictions on the free speech of one group led to increased freedom for another group. This is why we should take a nuanced approach to understanding repression. We should look at who it serves and what it accomplishes rather than decrying it offhand. For more on this, see Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, as well as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times [45].

Finally, it is incorrect to say that formal elections did not exist in the Soviet Union. Although the members of the Central Committee were not directly elected by the people, local politicians were. These politicians would elect the people above them, and so on until the Central Committee had been chosen. These elections usually took place in factories, and candidates were chosen from two lists. The Communist Party was often the only organization that was able to muster candidates, but the Mensheviks remained “tolerated rivals” until the 1920s, according to How the Soviets Work [46]. These elections were obviously very different from those seen in the United States. However, they still existed, and the will of the people was the genesis in carrying them out. There was a definite attempt at democracy within Soviet elections. One could even argue that local Soviet elections were more democratic than local elections in the United States, given that the people could recall unsatisfactory representatives instantaneously. Despite this, many would assert that the elections were “meaningless” or “frauds.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this is true. If the United States can have elections and be undemocratic, it stands to reason that a society without traditional elections could remain democratic in spite of that. Elections are not the end-all, be-all of democracy. They are merely a tool used by the people to exercise political power. This is the true marker of democracy.

I would also like to mention that the Soviet system of elections was similar to that which is used in many countries today. This includes the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The people do not directly elect the President, the Prime Minister, or the Senate. They are split into forty-one electoral districts. The people in each elect a representative as a member of parliament. These members of parliament elect the Prime Minister. The Senate is then appointed by the President, the Prime Minister, and the Opposition Leader. The President is not directly elected by the people, either. The Parliament and the Senate jointly elect the President. Recently, Trinidad and Tobago introduced what is known as the right to recall. This is a practice in which a district or constituency can request for their representative to be replaced. This was first practiced in the USSR. Despite these obvious similarities, I have never heard an anticommunist refer to Trinidad and Tobago as being undemocratic. In fact, the American state department describes it as a “parliamentary democracy” [47]. This is evidence that they care more about slandering communism than actually learning anything about how these systems function. Anticommunists, especially those in America, are engaging in the most profound intellectual dishonesty. Therefore, they ought not be considered credible sources on this subject.

The reason for this stems from America’s presidentialism. Citizens of the United States tend to elevate their Presidents to incredible heights. It is assumed that the President is the most powerful and impactful government official. Thus, it is assumed that governments can only be democratic if the President is directly elected. As we have seen, this is far from the truth.

The Soviet Union also made tremendous strides in fostering democratic institutions outside of the electoral system. Most notable among these was the workplace. Sociologist Albert Szymanski writes in Is the Red Flag Flying? that production conferences were held in factories throughout the 30s and 40s, and again from 1957 onward. Members of the production conferences were elected at general meetings of all the workers, and the conferences themselves were made up of employees, scientific and technical societies, trade unions, and members of the Youth League.  The conference members took part in drafting production plans, determining wages and resource allocation, and protecting workers. They were required to report back to the masses at general meetings, at which there was a high level of participation. If the conference members did not adequately represent the workers as a whole, they could be recalled [48].

One utterly mainstream Soviet history book reminds us that.

Workers did sometimes suffer arrest, for example in several cases when they produced too much waste on the job… Yet the sources indicate overwhelmingly that industrial toilers were the least likely of any social group to be arrested in the Great Terror; this was the consensus of the thousands of emigres, for example, who answered questionnaires in the Harvard Project survey after the war. Since considerable evidence argues against the view that the population generally feared arrest, it follows that workers would have felt even less of a threat from the state than other individuals.

Former Soviet workers sometimes described their situation in the late 1930s using terms that support the view of their peers as fear-ridden slaves. Virtually all of the twenty-six emigre factory workers or employees interviewed by J.K. Zawodny in the early 1950s said that they had been afraid to complain about anything. For instance, a former coal miner spoke of ‘this horrible fear of being arrested’. Many analyses of the period rest upon such generalizations, but in fact this is only the beginning of the story, for the very same people who made these statement sometimes offered specific evidence from their own experiences which undermines their general observations. Were this inquiry a legal trial, any court would rule that the second kind of evidence (if the first is really evidence at all) is considerably mroe important.

Stalin emphasized the importance of the party’s ‘ties to the masses’. To maintain them, it was necessary ‘to listen carefully to the voice of the masses, to the voice of rank and file members of the party, to the voice of the so-called ‘little people’, to the voice of ordinary folk [narod]’. The party newspaper Pravda went so far as to identify lack of criticism with enemies of the people: ‘Only an enemy is interested in seeing that we, the Bolsheviks… do not notice actual reality… only an enemy… strives to put the rose-coloured glasses of self-satisfaction over the eyes of our people.’

But were not these calls merely a vicious sham, so that only carefully chosen, reliable individuals could make ‘safe’ criticisms? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Besides offering informal verbal criticisms and writing to newspapers, workers utilized other means of expressing dissatisfaction. First, they could go to the Rate and Conflicts Commissions (RKKs) within each factory to challenge decisions regarding pay, job classification or dismissal. These bodies had an equal number of representatives from the employer and from the factory or shop union committee. If workers failed to win their cases at that level, they could appeal to the people’s courts or to the central committees of their unions… [L]abour unions, usually pronounced all but dead by this time in Western literature, in fact had some power to act on workers’ behalf. Other examples of the same point will be given below.

Workers participated by the hundreds of thousands in special inspectorates, commissions, and brigades which checked the work of managers and institutions. These agencies sometimes wielded substantial power. For instance, the former worker turned inspector V.R. Balkan, together with a union official, investigated an accident at his Moscow factory in 1937. Finding the cause in improper testing of materials, the two fined the head of the production shop 100 roubles, about a week’s pay, and placed a reprimand in the foremand’s record. The book which recounted this story was published as a guide to action for other union officials and inspectors and therefore also encouraged similar action by workers.

The Stakhanovite movement was not a crude bludgeon used to beat all workers into vastly greater production, despite the drive to raise norms. However, it did accomplish something else for the industrial labour force which was of grave importance. The movement provided new status for workers in voicing criticism, urging and even demanding changes in production processes, and getting supervisors’ attention in general. New forums appeared in which Stakhanovites could speak out, while some old and weak mechanisms for input now revived.

Worker enthusiasm was essential to boosting productivity. In order to help whip up zeal, the party leaders were quite willing to encourage workers to speak out; workers needed to feel that the Stakhanovite movement was theirs in a meaningful way. Therefore with Stalin, Molotov, and other top officials sitting behind him, Izotov was blunt:

Stakhanovites spoke to me and asked me to convey the following to the government: they earn a lot, but there is little to buy. One says: I need a piano, another – a bicycle, a third, a record player, radio and all sorts of cultural goods, which are necessary, but which are not [available] in Donbass.

[P]robably recognizing that repression was only likely to spread discontent, in March 1936 the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the USSR announced a change in policy: ‘In many cases courts have incorrectly judged individual backward workers as enemies of the people for incorrect remarks’, the Presidium reported. In its view such statements often reflected the workers’ inability to cope with the new conditions; this is, some workers could not make the new norms. Their negative remarks do not ‘indicate their opposition to the Stakhanovite movement or sabotage’. What was needed was not court action but ‘mass explanatory work’. In other words, workers were not to be punished for speaking against the movement; instead, managers and other officials were directed to help discontented workers master the new standards.

[W]orkers in the city which had supposedly suffered at least as much as any other in the ‘Great Terror’ were still able to criticize a director to his face and apparently to get a job back after cursing a supervisor.

While sane, calm, and sober, no worker would have dared to say that socialism was a poor system or that Stalin was an idiot. But such bounds allowed a great deal that was deeply significant to workers, including some aspects of production norms, pay rates and classifications, safety on the job, housing, and treatment by managers. This occurred at a time when American workers in particular were struggling for basic union recognition, which even when won did not provide much formal influence at the work place.

Far from basing its rule on the negative means of coercion, the Soviet regime in the late 1930s fostered a limited but positive political role for the populace… [A]t lower levels of society, in day-to-day affairs and the implementation of policy, [the Soviet political structure] was participatory. Earlier concepts of the Soviet state require rethinking: the workers who ousted managers, achieved the imprisonment of their targets and won reinstatement at factories did so through organizations which constituted part of the state apparatus and wielded state powers.

Only by staying on the surface of the story and limiting the use of evidence to certain kinds of sources can the system be described as one in which coercion overwhelmingly determined the course of workers’ lives… This and similar issues meant that ultimately relatively little was controlled by government or party decree, which often expressed pious wishes rather than commands which were then fulfilled.

It is also worth noting that no party leader was allowed to hire other people and accumulate great personal wealth off the labor of another. To quote William Henry Chamberlain’s book Soviet Russia, “No private person may legitimately make a penny of profit out of this system of state and cooperative industry and trade, banking and transport. There are no individual shareholders in the state industrial enterprises; and the financial columns of the Russian newspapers are restricted to brief quotations of the rates of the state loans. All the normal means of acquiring large personal fortunes are thus pretty effectively blocked up in Russia and if there are some…private traders who have become ruble millionaires through lucky dealings in commerce or speculation, they are certainly neither a numerous nor a conspicuous class” [49].

In his book Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Albert Szymanski writes that, “Making a living through means other than work was prohibited. Hence, deriving an income from rent, profits, speculation or the black market…social parasitism was illegal” [50]. Put simply, the Bolsheviks never got much out, personally, of the revolution. If they wanted great power, they certainly could have done better.

Chamberlain also stated that, “The new class of state managers, or ‘red directors’ of factories, who have replaced the former capitalist owners, are mostly Communists and former workers…..by the very nature of their position they must look at industrial life from a rather different angle from that of the workers. Although they make no personal profit out of the enterprises which they manage, they are supposed to turn in a profit for the state….But the general view of the…critics of the Soviet regime, that there is a deep rift between a few Communist officeholders at the top and the working masses at the bottom is, in my opinion…quite at variance with the actual facts of the Russian situation” [51]. Although Party members often did not engage in labor, they clearly remained closely connected to the working masses.

Chamberlain’s admission that state-run industries were expected to turn a profit might at first appear to lend credence to the idea that the USSR was not socialist, but in fact State Capitalist. A key part of the capitalist mode of production involves turning a profit, which comes from extracting surplus value from wage laborers. If the Soviet Union engaged in this practice, then surely it must have been State Capitalist rather than socialist. What this analysis ignores is that, under capitalism, profits serve only to enrich the owner of an enterprise. The wealth does not go to benefit the public good. This was not the case in the Soviet Union. In Liberty Under the Soviets, Roger Baldwin writes that, “They [The workers] labor not for the private profit of employers, (save for the small proportion employed in private industry), but for the profit of the whole community. State industries, like private, must show a profit to keep going, but the public use of that profit robs it of the driving force of exploitation” [52]. So while it is true that workers were paid for their labor, they were also provided with vital services and a considerable degree of autonomy in the workplace. Thus, it is unreasonable to say that the Soviet proletariat was an exploited class, especially given Szymanski’s findings discussed above.

Another facet of the leftist critique of the USSR is that workers were still alienated from the productive process, as they had no say over how work was to be conducted. To a certain extent, they were correct. Most economic planning was carried out by the Central Committee or other parts of the state apparatus. But, as I mentioned previously, the workers still had a large degree of autonomy. As one Western business analyst wrote in the 1980s, “There is little doubt that worker participation goes considerably beyond that found in American firms.” Albert Szymanski writes that, “About 45-50% of workers report that they participate actively and regularly in some organization of the factory…that number has increased over time” [53]. While there were still managers, “The rate of upward mobility between workers and administration is quite high,” [54]. and, “at the general meeting of an enterprise the administrative personnel must report to the worker vis-a-vis the goal of the economic plan….any director who suppressed criticism would…not only be removed, he would be tried.” (Emphasis mine) [55]. As a result, the managers of the enterprises were far more connected with rank-and-file workers when compared to the West. This reveals a crucial fact about management as a whole. Managers under capitalism are undesirable because they are pawns of the bourgeoisie. They exist to extract as much surplus value from the worker as possible. Under socialism, however, they serve an entirely different purpose. Managers exist to motivate workers and ensure that enterprises can communicate with one another more effectively. The antagonism between workers and managers does not disappear under socialism, but it is mitigated.

Szymanski goes onto say that, “The role and power of Soviet unions have grown…collective agreements have become more important as mechanisms of establishing rules,” and further that, “the norm is that before there can be promotion…there must be prior discussion with the work force or their representative bodies” [56].

In Is the Red Flag Flying, Szymanski goes further into the subject of unions, writing, “Regular meetings of rank and file trade unions are held in each enterprise. All union organs from the bottom up are elected by union members and accountable to the majority” [57].

John Reed echoes these sentiments, writing in Soviets in Action that, “As all real socialists know, and as we who have seen the Russian Revolution can testify, the workers of Russia have fashioned….an economic organization which is evolving into a true industrial democracy” [58].

In her book The Stalin Era, Ana Strong writes that, “All kinds of people who made achievements in production…a milkmaid…a scientist…would be invited to discuss…how and why it was done.” She also writes that, during the first of the Five Year Plans, “In factories and villages, people discussed what they wanted, what they could make, what they needed…their local plans went by channels to the center, were correlated and sent back for local adoption” [59]. This suggests that individual workers were in fact given a suitable degree of autonomy in production discussions. Plans were not simply handed down by despotic leaders uninterested in the mass of workers.

As Sidney Webb writes in The Truth About Soviet Russia, “As we have described previously, free criticism, however hostile it may be, is permitted, even encouraged, in the USSR, of the directors of all forms of enterprise, by the workers employed, or by the consumers of the commodities or services concerned” [60]. Even in situations where the State devised production plans, workers across the Soviet Union still offered input.

In American Trade Unionism, Foster writes,

“The government planning agency now submits [the economic plan] for consideration through the several commissariats and other centers, to all the enterprises and organizations whose proceedings for the ensuing year it will govern….In each factory or office the part of the Plan relating to managers and heads of departments, but also submitted to the whole of the workers concerned, through their various factory or office committees, production conferences and trade union meetings… All sorts of suggestions and criticisms are made, which are considered by the foreman and managers, and finally transmitted to the government planning agency… Very often, during the last few years, the workmen’s meetings have submitted a counter-plan, by which the establishment would be committed to a greater production than the Provision Plan had proposed” [61]

He goes on to write,

“In 1934, the [Soviet Union] government abolished the existing national department of labor and turned its functions over to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, it being taken for granted in a socialist regime that no group in the country is more competent or trustworthy to administer the nation’s labor laws than those persons most directly concerned, the workers themselves.

But imagine what a wild outcry such a proposal in the United States would wring from the reactionaries. The Soviet trade unions, in protecting the rights and welfare of the workers in the industries, have the power to issue regulations having the binding force of law, and for whose infraction careless or bureaucratic factory managers may be punished. To supervise the country’s great labor protective service the trade union movement has its own system of factory inspectors. Each factory council has a commission to attend to problems of local enforcement in the plant, mine, office, or railroad.

This is a concept utterly unthinkable in any capitalist system” [62].

Finally, I would like to quote an anecdote from the groundbreaking 1981 study, Human Rights & Freedoms in the USSR. In it, Fydor Medvedev and Gennady Kulikov write,

“Antonina Pokhmelnova told us a typical story.

‘At a trade union meeting we were discussing what to do in order to raise the output of clocks. i’d like to quote here only one of numerous proposals because I believe it shows how the workers’ opinions are valued in the USSR. My friend, assembly worker Lyudmila Ataulina, suggested that we do without the assembly line. Of course, everybody was surprised: was it possible? I remember the shop superintendent asked the chairman of the meeting (who was our fitter) to give him the floor immediately.

‘What are you going to use instead of the assembly line?’ he asked. Indeed, at the time the assembly line was considered (and is still considered) indispensable for intensive industrial production, the clock industry included. But Lyudmila stood her ground: the assembly line imposed a certain rhythm, which kept the worker under constant strain. Without the enforced rhythm people would assemble clocks quicker and better, while those who were still unable to work quickly and efficiently would be given help. Lyudmila had calculated the time to be spent on every operation, and the meeting discussed it and came to see her point. The managers also endorsed the initiative, which made labour less monotonous and more efficient. Both the workers and the factory stood to gain” [63]

Workers at all levels had a tremendous amount of influence in the productive process. It was organized in a participatory way, with special emphasis placed on the physical and mental well being of the workers. Exploitation and alienation, the primary sources of worker’s misery under capitalism, were combatted. This was a process that took place in all eras of the USSR’s existence, from its inception in 1917 to the mid-1980’s. I have chosen not to delineate time periods too much here, because my goal is to show that democratic management of the means of production was common in all periods of the USSR’s existence.

All this sounds like worker control to me, especially given that less than ten percent of Russian workers were not affiliated with unions [64]. In Is the Red Flag Flying? Szymanski puts this figure at closer to five percent [65]. In addition to all this, the Soviet Union also made other strides in worker’s rights. To quote David M. Kotz in his essay, “Socialism and Capitalism: Lessons from the Demise of State Socialism in the Soviet Union and China,” “Employees had a high degree of bargaining power on the job, with obvious benefits in job security, and management paying close attention to employee satisfaction. Article 41 of the 1977 constitution capped the workweek at 41 hours. Workers on night shift worked seven hours but received full (eight-hour) shift pay. Workers employed at dangerous jobs (e.g., mining) or where sustained alertness was critical (e.g. physicians) worked six or seven-hour shifts, but received full-time pay. Overtime work was prohibited except under special circumstances” [66].

From the 1960s, employees received an average of one month of vacation which could be taken at subsidized resorts [67]. All Soviet citizens were provided a retirement income, men at the age of 60, and women at the age of 55. The right to a pension (as well as disability benefits) was guaranteed by the Soviet constitution (Article 43, 1977) [68]. More on this can be found in Roger Keeran and Kenny Thomas’s Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union [70]. as well as in Herwig Lorouge’s essay How the October Revolution and the Soviet Union Contributed to the Labour Movement in Western Europe, and More Particularly in Belgium [71].

Even dissidents had to admit that the USSR was not only interested in providing for its working class, it successfully did so. Tariq Ali quoted Soviet dissident Zhores Medvedev writing in 1979, “There is no unemployment…a greater variety of job choice for workers. The average working family can satisfy its immediate material needs: apartment, stable employment, education for children, health care….The prices of essential goods…have not changed since 1964” [72]. What this means is that the policies of the USSR were focused on providing for the proletariat. The laws ensured a decent existence for the working class, which is strong evidence that the working class held power in this society. This is the basic definition of socialism. Since the working class is the majority class in any society, it can fairly be said that power in the hands of the working class means power in the hands of the people as a whole. Put another way, socialism means democracy.

What all this means is that the means of production were managed by the broad masses of working people, rather than a tiny minority of capitalists. Again, means of production are responsible for things like food, housing, and education. These are all things we require to live. They grant us the power to do so. In the Soviet Union, the things which grant us power were controlled by the masses. Thus, power was in the hands of the people. It therefore follows that the Soviet Union was a democratic society.

This is true of all socialist societies. Socialism is a system in which the means of production are organized to meet the needs of the people as a whole. As such, it is inherently democratic.

 

    1. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/21/americas-oligarchy-not-democracy-or-republic-unive/
    2. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 131
    3. http://www.greanvillepost.com/2015/05/23/left-anticommunism-the-unkindest-cut/
    4. https://redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/the-growing-discontent-of-revisionist-china-by-the-working-class/
    5. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 190.
    6. Albert Szymanski Human Rights in the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1994. p. 76
    7. Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 135-139
    8. http://www.greanvillepost.com/2015/05/23/left-anticommunism-the-unkindest-cut/ Op. Cit.
    9. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus14.pdf
    10. Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 102-104
    11. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/prison-strike-inmate-labor-work
    12. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 124 Op. Cit.
    13. Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Stalin, Man of Contradiction. Toronto: NC Press, c1987, p. 128
    14. Talbott, Strobe, Trans. and Ed. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little Brown, c1970, p. 99
    15. Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York, New York: Viking, 1991, p. 186
    16. Siegelbaum and Sokolov. Stalinism as a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, c2000, p. 97
    17. Holding, Reynolds (November 1, 2008). “Tomes Magazine”. Reason.
    18. G. Furr, Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform, Part One (2005), pp. 20-36.
    19. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223
    20. Ibid, 9
    21. Ibid.
    22. Ibid.
    23. Ibid.
    24. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223.
    25. Getty & Naumov. The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 103
    26. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 169
    27. Webb, Sidney. The Truth about Soviet Russia. New York: Longmans, Green, 1942, p. 34
    28. Thurston, Robert W. “On Desk-Bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspectives, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest.” Slavic Review 45 (1986), 239.
    29. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 178
    30. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 211
    31. Dr. Stephen White, New Directions in Soviet History
    32. Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Knopf, 1992, p. 182
    33. Harris, James. “Stalin as General Secretary: the Appointments Process and the Nature of Stalin’s Power.” <i>Stalin: A New History</i>, edited by Sarah Davies and James Harris, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 63–82.
    34. Ibid.
    35. Ibid.
    36. Evan Mawdsley and Stephen White, The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev: The Central Committee and its members 1917-91. Oxford University Press, 2000. Ch. 2.
    37. Duranty, Walter. Duranty Reports Russia. New York: The Viking Press, 1934, p. 369
    38. Stalin, Joseph. Works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1952, Vol. 6, p. 44
    39. Stalin: A New History. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p.99
    40. Ibid.
    41. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. iUniverse, 2010. P.63
    42. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 8
    43. Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 253
    44. Lubianka. Stalin I NKVD – NKGB – GUKR “SMERSH”. 1939 – mart 1946 (Moscow, 2006), pp. 33-50
    45. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2010/20100112002re/20100112002re.pdf
    46. Albert Szymanski Human Rights in the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1994. P.153
    47. Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 84-88; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 169, 186-87.
    48. https://www.marxists.org/history/archive/brailsford/1927/soviets-work/ch03.htm
    49. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/160175.pdf
    50. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 54-55
    51. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 131
    52. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 139
    53. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 177
    54. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 29-30
    55. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984 p.141
    56. Ibid.
    57. Ibid.
    58. Ibid.
    59. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 55
    60. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1918/soviets.htm
    61. Strong, Anna L. The Stalin Era. British and Irish Communist Organization, 1976. P. 51
    62. Webb, Sidney. The Truth about Soviet Russia. New York: Longmans, Green, 1942, p. 74
    63. William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, pg. 331
    64. Ibid.
    65. Medvedev, Let History Judge,1989  Columbia University Press p. 24
    66. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928 p.166
    67. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P.55
    68. Kotz, David M (2000). “Socialism and Capitalism: Lessons from the Demise of State Socialism in the Soviet Union and China,” in Socialism and Radical Political Economy: Essays in Honor of Howard Sherman, edited by Robert Pollin, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar, 2000, 300-317.
    69. Ibid.
    70. Ibid.
    71. Lerouge, Herwig (2010). “How the October Revolution and the Soviet Union contributed to the labour movement in Western Europe, and more particularly in Belgium”, Belgium Works Party, May 05, 2010.
    72. Ibid.
    73. Keeran, Roger and Kenny, Thomas (2004). Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004. P. 21
    74. Tariq Ali The Idea of Communism London: Seagull Books, 2009. P. 81-82

Imperialism in the Neoliberal Era

One of the primary theoretical components of Leninism is the theory of imperialism he elucidated. In this essay, I want to argue that this theory remains relevant in the neoliberal era.

Lenin’s analysis of imperialism can be found in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916. Before we can understand Lenin’s theory, it is important to consider the context in which he wrote it. Lenin wrote the text in the middle of the First World War, as a response to the socialist parties who backed their own governments in the conflict. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party was the only organization that maintained opposition to the war and, by extension, opposed the government of Russia. This was because Lenin held that the war was an imperialist conflict, in which all sides attempted to gain new territory and spread their influences. The goal of Lenin’s book is to show that the imperialism found at the beginning of the 20th century was a fundamentally economic phenomenon, rooted in changes in the capitalist mode of production.

Lenin described the text as a “popular outline,” meaning that it was flexible and open to change. We must evaluate it in the particular contexts in which we find ourselves.

It is also important to note that Lenin never claimed that there was no imperialism before the late 19th century. As he explicitly noted, “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practiced imperialism.” But, Lenin added:

“general” arguments about imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background the fundamental difference of social-economic systems, inevitably degenerate into absolutely empty banalities, or into grandiloquent comparisons like “Greater Rome and Greater Britain.”

Even the colonial policy of capitalism in its previous stages is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.

What Lenin was attempting to explain was the extremely virulent form of imperialism that began to emerge in the late 19th century, resulting in the scramble for Africa from the 1880s, and the increasing tensions between the major powers that eventually led to world war. This capitalist imperialism differs from earlier forms (such as that seen in the Mongol empire) because only capitalist imperialism can systematically accumulate capital on a world scale. Capitalist imperialism is less focused on the direct plunder of natural resources (though this certainly still takes place) and more focused on investing in other countries. Capitalist imperialism seeks to dominate the economic, cultural, and political life of the Third World and other imperialized countries.

This investment plugs up the falling rate of profit, and is a central feature of capitalism. The source of profit under capitalism is the extraction of surplus value from workers, in a process known as exploitation. This process mutates and replicates across the entire economy. The logic of capital necessitates expansion. It is the job of capitalists to extract more value than they invest, ceaselessly searching for new ways to do so.

If capitalism is exploitative at home, then it must be expansionist abroad. The expansionist nature of capitalism causes it to spread, as Marx and Engels put it, ‘over the whole surface of the globe.” The expansionists crush entire societies that refuse to bend to the whims of the global market. Self sufficient peoples are driven from their land and transformed into wage laborers, in a process remarkably similar to the land enclosure system that gave birth to capitalism in England. From the very beginning, capitalism was driven by its need to expand, to grow. Lenin analysed this dynamic and determined that a new form of imperialism had arisen from it. Those who challenge capitalist-imperialism are, whether they know it or not, challenging the foundational logic of capital: expansion.

For Lenin, any worthy definition of this new imperialism needed to include “five essential features.” They are:

1) The concentration of production and capital is developed to a high enough degree that it creates monopolies, which play a significant role in economic activities. This means that capitalists join together to crush competitors. They fix prices, coordinate production, and make agreements among themselves to prevent others from entering the market.

2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital to create finance capital. This, in turn, leads to the creation of a financial oligarchy. This had already occurred during Lenin’s era. Three to five big banks manipulated the economies of the major industrial countries.

3) The export of capital becomes extremely important and is distinguished from the export of commodities.

4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies which share the world among themselves.

5) The completed territorial division of the world among the greater capitalist powers.

Lenin was clear that the most important item on this list is the first. He wrote that imperialism was “the monopoly stage of capitalism.” He argued that the rivalries and wars between capitalist powers came about due to the tendency for capital to become more centralized and concentrated. Imperialism arises when the dominant capitalist firms acquire monopoly (or near-monopoly) status in particular sections of the national economy.

This caused capitalism to “decay” as Lenin put it. There is a tendency for production to decline under monopolies, as technological progress and innovation are discouraged. Any innovation could disrupt the monopolies, and so is avoided.

The acute concentration of capital also created inequality between those who owned capital and those who did not. Monopoly capitalism created a large stratum of capitalists known as renters. These are capitalists who live solely on the interest or dividend made on their investments.

This inequality meant that the general population could not absorb the mass of commodities (new products) generated by increased productive capacity. They were simply not wealthy enough. The rate of profit would begin to fall, necessitating the expansion of banks and factories. This expansion would open up new regions for investment, sources of raw materials and cheap labor, and new consumer markets. This, in turn, would allow goods to be produced more cheaply. The masses would again be able to purchase commodities, plugging up the falling rate of profit. Think of imperialism as putting a bandage on the contradictions of capitalism. This is obviously advantageous  for the capitalist class, but it works against the interests of the international proletariat. This is further discussed below.

Lenin worked from the premise that the capitalist class controls the state. It followed that monopolistic firms would become linked to the state, using its machinery for the purpose of colonization. Capitalists would use this process to produce commodities and raw materials cheaply, as well as to undermine indigenous industry, making the colonies dependent on investment from imperialist nations. The overall effect of this is that the imperialist nations pumped wealth out of the countries they controlled. The wealth flowing into the domestic economies of imperialist nations stalled the aforementioned falling rate of profit.

This is accomplished by a phenomenon known as super-exploitation. One of the key points in the Marxist analysis of capitalism is that workers are exploited by the bourgeoisie. I have written about this before, but it is worth reviewing the concept in some detail here. Part of the working day is taken up by the time necessary to reproduce the worker. This is known as Necessary Labor Time, or NLT. The worker is paid a wage that is more-or-less equal to this amount. But it does not take the worker all of the working day to produce an amount of value equivalent to the amount necessary to sustain them. The rest of the value they produce goes to the capitalist, not the worker. This value is called Surplus Value. This is the ‘secret source’ of all profits under capitalism.

It is the job of the capitalist to extract as much profit from their workers as possible. As such, they will do whatever they can to increase the rate of exploitation. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. The first is that the capitalist can simply make the working day longer, so that the worker spends more time producing surplus value. However, labor laws in many imperialist countries prevent this, so this is not always possible. This is one reason why imperialism is so common under capitalism. Capitalists need to increase the rate of exploitation, so they will often move their factories to countries with fewer labor regulations. This requires the state to mediate conflict, giving rise to imperialism.

The second is that the capitalist can increase productivity in industries that produce goods for workers, whether by increasing automation or engaging in other strategies, such as cutting wages. This impoverishes workers, because they no longer have jobs. This, in turn, reduces the amount of goods they can buy. This has the effect of reducing the value of wages below that of labor power. Wages no longer represent the amount of value a worker needs to sustain themselves. This is super-exploitation, and it most often takes place in imperialized countries. This is both because of the aforementioned lax labor laws, and because these countries are rich in the natural resources that are required to produce goods. Multinational corporations use the state to buy up these resources, further undermining indigenous sovereignty. It is through super-exploitation-the driving of wages below the value of labor power-that goods are able to be produced more cheaply. This plugs up the falling rate of profit that necessitated imperialism in the first place.

Two notable consequences followed from imperialism. The first was that the surplus value extracted by imperialist nations paid for the creation of the labor aristocracy, a section of well-paid workers with similar interests to those of the capitalist class. This made socialist revolution in imperialist countries less likely than it would have been otherwise, since the working class more closely identified with capitalism.

The second consequence was that nation-state rivalries in the imperial system intensified nationalist sentiment among the working class. This diverted their focus from class struggle. Like the development of the labor aristocracy, this nationalism strengthened the bourgeoisie  against the proletariat.

Lenin argued that this strategy could only be effective for a relatively short period of time. In the long term, it would undermine capitalism rather than strengthen it. Competition between imperialist nation-states would escalate to war. These wars would cause financial drain and destruction of productive capabilities. That drain and destruction would weaken imperialist states because their ability to exploit their victims would decay. Nationalist and anti-colonial movements would also weaken imperialist nations, leading to increased class antagonisms, increased class consciousness, and eventually socialist revolution.

Imperialism hit its stride, as Lenin argued, in the 19th century. Industrial nations were plagued with a falling rate of profit exacerbated by economic inequality. They saw the Third World not only as a source of raw materials and cheap labor (which would make goods cheaper and therefore stem the falling rate of profit), but also as a market for goods that had already been produced. Barely a century later, the industrial nations were exporting not only goods, but capital. This capital often took the form of machinery, investments, and loans that were used to control the markets and governments of Third World countries. This was a vital part of the “new imperialism” that Lenin identified.

Although the world has seen dramatic changes since Lenin’s book was published, the core points of the theory are more relevant now than ever.

Most obviously, monopolies or near-monopolies play massive roles in economic life. A handful of  corporations and banks, based primarily in the United States and Europe, have unprecedented power over policy and global markets. In the late 1980s, twenty-seven percent (27% ) of world manufacturing industries were dominated by four firms or less, according to John Bellamy Foster’s The Endless Crisis. By 2007, forty percent (40%) of the industries here examined were concentrated in this manner.

Further, these monopolistic entities are fused with the states in which they are based. Investment banks and other firms use the power granted by these states (in the form of the military, legal centers, and so on) to appropriate and concentrate the surplus value of the international working class. This creates yet more inequality, where the capitalist class lives in luxury, and workers in imperialized countries live in abject poverty.

Modern Multinational corporations do, admittedly, constitute a higher form of capitalist monopoly than the cartels and trusts of Lenin’s era. But Lenin  never argued that specific forms of monopoly (that is, specific technical stages) represented the highest “stage” that monopoly could take. The specific forms monopolies take is not the point of Lenin’s analysis. What matters is that monopolies increase the degree to which property is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The stifling of competition that follows from this is part of what leads to imperialism. Thus, the fact that multinational corporations are not necessarily owned by the states in which they are based (as was generally the case in Lenin’s time) matters little when discussing the continued relevance of his theory of imperialism.

It is a strengthening, not a weakening, of capitalist monopoly that has made a greater degree of private control possible. In earlier capitalism, the state (or private and semi-private militias etc.) had to substitute for the weakness of undeveloped capitalist commodity relations. State-sanctioned monopolies like the British and Dutch East Indies companies gave way to higher forms of commodity exchange. Slavery was replaced by wage labor. Colonies won political independence. Bukharin’s “state capitalist trusts” are now superseded by Multinational Corporations. These all represented advances within capitalist relations of production.

The neoliberal era illustrated one principal advantage of private monopoly over state ownership. Private corporations can have a more flexible relationship with the state. They can call for state intervention when they are in crisis, thus allowing multinational corporations to socialize their losses while privatizing their profits. Capitalists also achieve far greater security of privilege when a business is held as private property. The “decoupling” of monopolies from the state does not represent a blow to Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Rather, it shows that the capitalist class has a greater degree of unmediated control over markets. In the neoliberal era, imperialism is more prominent and likely, not less.

Foreign investment, the export of capital, plays an even larger role today than it did when Lenin was writing. The exception was paradoxically the years of the post-war boom (1950s and 1960s) when the rate of growth of international trade generally surpassed the rate of growth of foreign investment in as the growth of international finance was consciously restricted to be mainly the handmaiden of trade.

But this has changed under globalization of the 1980s and 1990s, which is proof in itself of the re-emergence of the classical features of imperialism in this its latest phase.

US income from trade and from investment, 1960-2000 (in bns US dollars)

1960
1970
1980
1990
200
Trade
25.9 56.6 271.8 535.2 1,065.7
Investment income
4.6 11.7 72.6 171.7 352.8

What is noticeable is that income from capital invested abroad grows in importance as compared to profits from sale of merchandise exports. It amounts to 17 percent of income from trade in 1960 and increases steadily until in 2000 it reaches 31 percent.

Again, it flows from Lenin’s concept of finance capital as essentially loan/banking capital that investment income is conceived entirely as income from “interest and dividends” and hence “speculation” and the source of “parasitism”. But as the last century wore on, it was more and more the case that income from abroad was profits repatriated from fixed assets operated by MNCs in other countries.

On breaking down the above figures for “income receipts on US-owned assets abroad” one discovers that the proportion of income from investment in fixed assets held abroad grew faster than income from bonds and loans in the decades up to 1980 for example.

But interestingly, as with Britain 100 years ago the more mature the imperialist power becomes the more it relies upon “parasitism” (Lenin, following Hobson, also calls it “coupon clipping”). So since 1980 overseas income from bonds and loans outpaces the growth of income from fixed assets.

The UK alone for example today receives a staggering 26 percent of all global US foreign investment. Hence the main capital exporters are also the main capital importers (although the reverse is not necessarily the case).

In a perverse way of course this is a confirmation of the point Lenin makes that, “The export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported.”

Exported capital also comes in the form of foreign “aid.” This is often used by the United States to alter the policies of victimized countries. One example of this would be anti-gay laws in Uganda. In this case, there is a lack of direct coercion involved in the passage of the laws. The imperialists are not literally forcing anyone to pass these laws, but the governments of these countries often feel compelled to follow the wishes of the imperialists so that they do not lose what little aid they are given. This is one way in which imperialism is used to expand the hegemony of capitalist states.

Lenin’s conclusion that imperialism would lead to war has also been validated, though not in the form he anticipated. Wars between differing imperialist powers appear to be a thing of the past, but the capitalist class’ unceasing drive to consolidate their control over markets has led to endless bloodshed and countless deaths. One of the results of, for example, the Iraq War was that the United States directly appropriated the oil that belonged to Iraqis. This is an act of imperialism carried out for the express purpose of maximizing the profits of the capitalist class.

Lenin pointed out that the oligarchy of finance capital in a small number of capitalist powers, that is, the imperialists, not only exploit the masses of people in their own countries, but oppress and plunder the whole world, turning most countries into their colonies and dependencies. This leads to independence movements in the colonies. The imperialist countries will do anything they can to crush these movements, including war. Imperialist war is a continuation of imperialist politics. World wars are started by the imperialists because of their insatiable greed in scrambling for world markets, sources of raw materials and fields for investment, and because of their struggle to re-divide the world. So long as imperialism exists, the source and possibility of war will remain. War is inevitable under an imperialist system. Since imperialism is a specific stage in capitalist development, it follows that we cannot abolish war until we abolish capitalism. Lenin pointed this out over one hundred years ago, and it remains true to this day.

Finally, we come to Lenin’s idea that imperialism is used to exploit the labor of workers in other nations, thus driving down the price of goods and plugging the falling rate of profit. The clearest example of this takes place in the Congo. Corporations such as T-mobile buy up military officials, who then force residents of nearby villages to work themselves to death in cobalt mines. These workers are, in many cases, young children. They are subject to the super-exploitation mentioned above.

It is worth noting that in the neoliberal era, the category of imperialism itself enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among the imperialists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, many writers asserted that “Western imperialism-though few will like calling it that-can now unite the European continent.” Even Foreign Policy, a journal in the pocket of the state department, asserted that “the logic of imperialism….is too compelling…to resist.” Far from being irrelevant in the epoch of neoliberalism, imperialism has become so ubiquitous that even members of the capitalist class have been forced to say so.

Before I conclude, I want to say a few things about what Lenin’s theory means for the concept of “humanitarian intervention.” Put simply, Lenin proves that it is a myth. Imperialism is born out of the necessity to resolve contradictions within capitalism. Whenever the imperialist countries intervene anywhere, this is what they are doing: ensuring their own survival. They do not care about the welfare of the people in the imperialized countries. Indeed, the logic of capitalism means that they cannot care. To care would interfere in their ability to extract super-profits.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism answers vital questions. Why is the United States always at war? Because war is a tool to plug falling rates of profit and stifle class struggle. War is not the result of a few individual politicians. It is baked into American capitalism. Only when we understand imperialism as a systemic issue-arising from dynamics inherent to capitalism-can we hope to combat it effectively.

The above facts make Lenin’s book as timely as it was when it was first published, and the analysis of imperialism contained within is vital for the victory of the revolutionary movement.

Debunking the "Human nature" Argument

I debunked the so-called “iPhone Argument,” in an article here, so I figured I’d tackle another common objection to communism. This one pisses me off more than any other, because it’s both incredibly common and incredibly dumb. Basically, it states that humans are naturally greedy and/or competitive, and so a system based on cooperation is doomed to fail. As you would expect, I have several objections to this idea. The biggest one is that it is simply an empirically false assertion.

There are numerous studies showing that cooperation and empathy are just as integral to who we are as people as competition. To quote an article from Psychology Today, “In experiments conducted by Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, one person is given an amount of money and then offers any amount of his or her choosing to a second person. They are told these rules: the receiver can either accept the offer, in which case the cash is shared according to the offer made, or the receiver can reject the offer, in which case neither person receives anything. If people acted purely out of self-interest, the offers would always be low and receivers would always take what is offered. Over more than two decades, the experiments have shown that typically an offer is between 25-50% and the receiver rejects an offer of less than 25%. People offer more than necessary and reject offers that they consider too little. What seems to motivate both givers and receivers is a sense of fairness.

“The facts are clear,” Fehr says. “Many people are willing to cooperate and to punish those who don’t, even when no gain is possible.” Such behavior, Fehr and others reason, is best explained by the fact that it leads to social cohesion. Working together had an evolutionary purpose in that it allowed our ancestors to form strong groups thereby fostering maximal survival.”

Further, there’s this article in Scientific American, going over several studies on the matter, which says, “Studies show that in the first year of life, infants exhibit empathy toward others in distress. At later stages in life we routinely work together to reach goals and help out in times of need,” and further that, “any benefits derived from selfishness may be short lived.”

Even in the face of such evidence as this, some capitalists still object to this notion. They cite examples of humans behaving badly as a substitute for presenting any actual scientific evidence. However, there’s no reason to assume that their anecdotes are in any way representative of all or even most humans, so they become utterly meaningless. Further, they always cite examples in the current system, like the greed of business owners. When they do this, they are essentially saying, “Cooperation doesn’t occur in a system which does not promote cooperation!” This ignores that this very fact is why we want to change the system. This counterpoint is bullshit because it uses the conditions of capitalism to justify capitalism. But if it is precisely the existing conditions one objects to, then the argument has no value.

Socialist George Bernard Shaw made this point well when he spoke of racism in America. “The American White relegates the black to the position of shoeshiner, and he concludes from this that the black is good for nothing but shining shoes.” This is exactly the same sort of an argument as the one made by the capitalists. It ignores that the capitalist system is what causes human nature to manifest itself in selfishness, not the other way around.

It’s telling, I think, that the capitalist never cites any data to support their position that humans are not altruistic. They can’t. Communists, on the other hand, can. In addition to Dr. Fehr’s experiments, there’s a lot more data to support our position, such as a report from Robert Trivers published in the Quarterly Review of Biology. He conducted several decades’ worth of anthropological analysis and found that most early humans lived in a kind of primitive communism, in which cooperation was the order of the day. He discovered something which came to be known as reciprocal altruism. In a nutshell, it is a principle which states that people are more likely to help individuals that have helped them. Witnessing altruism inspires altruism in others.

A report  published in the journal Nature by David G. Rand, Joshua D. Greene, and Martin A. Nowak finds that, “Cooperation is central to human behavior.”

If yet more evidence is required, I would encourage you to look at this PROUT article, which reviews several academic texts and states, “Many new studies…point to quite different conclusions. Robert Augros and George Stanciu, in their book The New Biology: Discovering the Wisdom of Nature, found that, in fact, cooperation, not competition, is the norm in nature, because it is energy-efficient and because predators and their prey maintain a kind of balanced coexistence. They found that, ‘“Nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature.”’ Today most anthropologists and psychologists assert that the question of nature or nurture is not an either/or issue, but one of interrelationship. We are born with certain instincts and tendencies, but through education, upbringing and our own conscious choices, we can transform our conduct, nature and personality.”

To me, all of these passages seem to suggest that if we want people to cooperate, we should create a system which incentivizes them to do so. That system is socialism, which organizes production in a harmonious and democratic manner, putting the neesa of humanity above the enrichment of a minority of capitalists.