On the left, there is an increasing tendency to disavow Stalin and the USSR. It is either claimed that these things do not deserve defending, or that it is more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialist experiences than it is to defend their gains. In this essay, I will take a different position. Socialists should make every effort to oppose bourgeois propaganda, defend actually-existing socialism, and only discuss mistakes privately, among comrades.
First, I would like to provide a framework through which we can understand past socialist experiences. Past socialisms were not utopias for workers, nor could they be. Past socialist experiences took place in countries ravaged by war and imperialism. The workers had to contend not only with the threat of their internal deposed bourgeoisie, but with the towering bourgeoisie of imperialist countries. They had to build socialism in countries that had been devastated by war, resulting in underdeveloped productive forces. We should judge these experiences based on this chaotic beginning, rather than on an ideal conception of socialism that exists only in our heads. Many leftists who want to critique actually-existing socialism fail to do this, which serves only to hold back our movement.
What these conditions mean is that socialist leaders were forced to, in many cases, make decisions that would seem counterintuitive to the establishment of working class rule. One example of this is Lenin’s choice to increase labor hours and crack down on strikes following World War One. (in a policy known as war communism). These measures were necessary in order to rebuild the shattered economy. Although they did lead to the temporary emmiseration of workers, they are not evidence of a lack of working class power.
To further illustrate this point, I want to turn to the United States. The USA is a capitalist country, yet this does not mean that the capitalist class gets its way every time. Indeed, labor often wins its individual disputes with capital. This is why we have an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage. No one would take this as evidence of socialism in America. By the same token, we should not zero in on individual moments in which workers were suppressed as evidence that the Soviet Union and other such countries were not socialist. Class rule does not mean class utopia. Building socialism in any context takes hard work. Failing to accept this fact in our analysis of past socialisms makes us less likely to accept them in our own efforts. If we are not prepared to make difficult choices, we will fail. Our criticism must reflect this.
My next point is that in many cases, “critique of past socialist experiences” is often nothing more than an excuse to parrot bourgeois propaganda. Those who wax poetic about the need to criticize Stalin are rarely doing so in good faith. They do not want to engage in rigorous analysis of the material conditions Stalin faced, or the inherent difficulty that comes with trying to build an entirely new kind of society. All they want to do is parrot lies about suppression of free speech and the like. Socialists who argue that Stalin must be criticized openly almost always want to argue that Stalin was an evil monster rather than a human being engaged in complex revolutionary work. The problem with this is that this narrative is one that the bourgeoisie has been pushing for decades. By airing these “criticisms” publicly, socialists only play into the hands of the bourgeoisie. This is because the bourgeoisie can use socialist denunciations of Stalin to bolster their own credibility. They can say, “we must be right. Even the Socialists agree with us.” This serves only to divide the movement and turn the public against us. It makes us seem as though we are fractured, chaotic, and unfit to lead. The worldwide socialist movement is still comparatively small. We are nowhere close to taking power, much less holding onto it. We must be vigilant in the struggle for power. We cannot allow exploitation of criticism to stop us in our tracks.
This is not just a hypothetical. Bourgeoise cooptation of socialist rhetoric has a long and storied history. One example of this can be found with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When it was clear that the Chinese socialist economy was successfully meeting the needs of its people, FDR and others took to calling them “radishes” because they were “red on the outside only,” meaning that they were communists in name only. To quote an article in All China Review,
Unable to come to terms with their blind ideology, FDR, Washington and the popular press simply could not bring themselves to say “communists”, so Mao and Co. were dubbed “the so-called communists”. Joseph Stalin helped shape this legerdemain of the tongue, by telling wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Roosevelt that the Chinese were “radishes”, red on the outside, but white below the surface – not real communists. Thus, the square peg of CPC reality was crammed into the round hole of Western denial. At least the occidental imperialists got one thing right. Not only did the CPC sweep Japan and the Western colonialists out of New China, but it chased the KMT all the way to Taiwan” .
We can see that left-socialist criticism has been used as a weapon by the imperialists in the past. FDR and Churchill used the label “So-called communist” to discredit China and turn the public against communism by disassociating it from the achievements of China. Left-socialists, by refusing to recognize China as communist, do the same. Whether or not they mean to, they serve the imperialist bourgeoisie by denouncing actually-existing socialism. Failure to uphold actually-existing socialism-and to abide by principles of unity and discipline-these do nothing but weaken our movement. It only makes us more vulnerable to bourgeois influences.
This can be seen today as well as in the past. Across the world, there has been an increase in the amount of anti-fascist groups that violently protest against reactionaries like Donald Trump and Charles Murray. Most of these groups are anarchist, and as such I have my critiques of them. However, their suppression of reactionaries is commendable and can only further the struggle for liberation. Reactionaries advocate violence on a much larger scale than the antifascists. Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at Berkeley University before anti-fascists shut him down, planned to out undocumented students and encourage his audience to “purge [their] local illegals” . Milo and other reactionaries are themselves violent. Any violent action taken against them serves to prevent more violence, and as such can be seen as self-defense. All socialists should recognize this and support anti-fascist groups in their effort to combat reaction.
This is especially true in light of the coming crackdown on anti-fascist groups. These groups will assuredly be targeted by the state at some point, as has been the case at nearly every point in history. A surge in left activity has always been met with a surge in repressive right-wing activity. In an era where this is becoming increasingly likely, it is vital that all socialists stand against the capitalists in their support of anti-fascism. Only when we do this can we hope to defeat fascism once and for all.
The International Socialist Organization does not recognize the necessity of this. In an article for Socialist Worker, Mukund Rathi writes “They…shift [everyone’s] attention to the violence” . Not only does this deny the violence perpetrated by reactionaries, it also gives the corporate media an excuse to defend these reactionaries. In an article for the Washington Times, Shawn Steel uses this condemnation to advocate for the violent suppression of “extreme radicals.” He calls for the the Justice Department to “get tough with black-clad rioters” . Here, again, we see the cooptation of left-socialist critique by the bourgeois media. In this case, socialist critique has been used to call for the active crushing of our movement. This is a perfect example of my point: left socialism can often inadvertently serve the capitalists. It is important that we keep our critiques internal so that they are not used as weapons against us. Our movement, as I said above, is too small to afford any division.
Many left socialists would say that it is necessary to critique past and current socialist practice because they were authoritarian. These socialists, like those in the ISO, hold that it is undesirable and unnecessary to suppress speech, even violent speech. They hold that a willingness to criticize the authoritarian measures of Stalin, Mao, and the like is the only way to convince others to join our cause. If we do not repress free speech, according to them, the capitalists will be unable to tar us by invoking the “horrors of socialism.” This is an example of the highest idealism. Capitalists can never be “convinced into socialism” because socialism involves expropriating their property. It is contrary to the class interests of the capitalists to ever fight for socialism, even if this could be done peacefully. This is evidenced by the fact that capitalists are more than willing to spread propaganda about socialist atrocities now, even if there is no real evidence that these atrocities have ever taken place. Even if we are peaceful, even if we spill no blood, they will still slander us. No matter how nuanced our approach is, the capitalists will take every opportunity to split our movement and turn the public against us. We should absolutely highlight the mistakes made by socialists in order to learn from them. However, we must do this privately, so that they cannot easily be used to divide us or dissuade new leftists.
When socialists criticize Stalin and others for suppressing free speech, they are not only playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie, they are also denying history. It has always been necessary to suppress free speech in the name of revolution. According to Albert Szymanski, eight states formally banished tories following the American Revolution . When ultra leftists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they make it impossible for us to win. It is in this way that their critique serves the bourgeoisie: it is not only a criticism of Stalin, it is a rejection of victory.
This does not mean that we can never critique socialists for going too far in their repression. When we do this, however, we should do it away from the prying eyes of the capitalists and their pawns. Further, we should uphold the goals of the socialists we are critiquing. A good example of such a critique is that which Mao gave of Stalin. Mao argued that Stalin went overboard in his suppression of counter-revolutionaries. What he did not argue was that Stalin did not want to build socialism, or that the repression of free speech is inherently immoral. On the contrary, he held the opposite views . By accepting these premises, his critique acted against the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is possible to critique socialists without serving the bourgeoisie, and we must take great pains to determine who our critique actually serves.
As evidenced by Szymanski’s findings and the above-mentioned call for a crackdown on antifascists, the bourgeoisie has always been willing to repress free speech in service of its own goals. Therefore, when socialists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they are not arguing in favor of free speech absolutism. In agreeing with the bourgeoisie that suppressing free speech in the name of socialism is immoral, socialists are de facto agreeing that suppressing free speech in the name of capitalism is moral. This is how the bourgeoisie is framing the discussion, and it is more than willing to use socialists as tools in doing so. In effect, socialists who hold that Stalin is a monster (for many of the same reasons capitalists do, no less) they are accepting the hegemony of bourgeois narratives. Unless we counteract these narratives, we cannot win. Making our criticism public-and using bourgeois ideas to make it-only hinders our ability to construct a socialist counter-hegemony.
Before I conclude, I would like to address the argument that socialists should not spend time building this counter-hegemonic narrative. It is ostensibly more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialisms than it is to defend their gains. I do not disagree with the first part of that argument. It is vitally important that we should learn from past socialisms in order to improve our current practice. However, it is impossible for us to do this if the prevailing narrative is that these socialisms were hell on earth. If we begin with the assumption that Stalin was a heartless monster, what could we possibly learn from him? We cannot learn from the mistakes of socialists if we assume every action they took was a mistake. In order to seriously learn from socialism, we must clear away the cobwebs of famine and oppression. We should assume that the old socialist leaders wanted to improve the lives of the working class and were willing to do whatever it took to make this happen. Only by casting socialism in a generally positive light can we convince people that there is something to be learned from this experience. Doing this requires unified defense and the construction of an unflinching socialist counter-hegemony.
In order to create this hegemony, we must combat bourgeois critiques of socialism and only engage in our own critiques when we are safely among comrades. It is only under these conditions that we can build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalist-imperialism.
Deny the lies publicly, discuss mistakes privately!
Uphold actually-existing socialism!
- Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union. Zed Books, 1984, p. 143
7 thoughts on “A Critique of Socialist Criticism”
But if we shouldn’t criticize existing communist countries, how can we talk about how states like Laos and China have been steadily compromising for years, letting more and more capitalism into their country, so we don’t build a world vulnerable to the same?
Certainly. My argument wasn’t that we shouldn’t criticize socialism at all, merely that we should do it in good faith. If we want to talk about the mistakes of China’s compromises, for example, we should frame them as compromises rather than an abandonment of socialism
This post completely ruins your credibility on the topic of Stalin and Mao. Sounds like you’re basically saying that they could be terrible authoritarian murderers, but you would only admit it in a private conversation. I like this blog, and I found your latest article on Mao fantastic, but absolutely no one (who isn’t already a communist) is gonna take any of it seriously if they read “On Socialist Criticism” afterwards.
I’m sorry if this sounds harsh. Again, I do really like your blog. I’ve learned a lot by reading your articles, and I get excited everytime I get an e-mail notifying me you’ve posted something new. But I think this article could be incredibly damaging to your credibility.
Hm? The idea that socialist leaders are terrible authoritarian murderers is a lie, which is something I would deny publicly. That’s the reason I publish these articles
This article made my heart happy.