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February 27, 2006



RJ -- excellent questions and a fresh place to start.

so we're all in favor of a new synthesis. fantastic!

I would suggest that R. John's recent post begin a new, discussion on your site BM on the new synthesis.

r. john


I rarely engage the "anarchist-Maoist" debate.

And the way you approach it seems particularly unfruitful (to the things I hope to accomplish in real-time).

And I'm not going to engage your remarks here, which i pretty basically disagree with in toto.

But to avoid being permanently and rudely silent on your remarks, let me just offer a parable as passing analogy:

Real world practitioners of evolutionary science come in from their labors and (after wracking) their brains agree that the previous Darwinian synthesis has revealed some important inadequacies, and needs to be critically rethought in light of new data and developments in genetics and fossil finds.

A fundamentalist (lets call him CM) wanders in, and overhearing them remakrs:

"You’ve identified a lot of important questions, but people have been wrestling with them for decades. It's not exactly news to the body of Christ that Darwinism is inadequate and that our view of human origins needs to be radically different. That is a basic premise of everyone I know and like."

Don't think me rude if i try for a discussion that basically ignores your comments, and revolves around a quite different level of unity and struggle.

Chuck Morse

John, I'm sorry, but your kidding yourself if you think that Avakianism is some kind of an "advance."

r. john

My view is that Avakian has been raising a number of the right questions.

And he has been (uh...) premature (and actually mistaken) in announcing that his synthesis captures the right answers.

And count me among those who hold that Maoism is a powerful basis for beginning to critically assess and creatively forge the understandings we need for all that lies ahead.

I'm sure you don't agree, and I'm content to leave it there.

Chuck Morse

John, I don’t agree with you about Maoism, but that’s not my point: very few of the questions that you identified above are particular to Maoism in any way (the Marxist theory of crisis, is Marxism a science?, problems of vanguardism, etc., etc). Most of the questions that you specified have been discussed widely in the revolutionary left for decades upon decades now. I’m glad that you realize that such questions are important, but you’re playing catch up.

Chuck Morse

To elaborate ... today I was re-reading parts of The Theory of the Avant-Garde by Renato Poggioli. This is an excellent book that contains lengthy commentary on vanguardism. Likewise, I was also reading Posthistorie: Has History Come to an End? by Lutz Niethhammer. This book (which is OK) addresses many issues in the Marxist theory of history. And I ordered Critique and Crises: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society by Reinhart Koselleck (I once read an article by him on the idea of crisis, which I found fascinating). .. I'm just giving you examples from today. ... This is not a Maoist vs anarchist thing and my point is not to hold up these particular books, all of which have their failings and virtues. My point is that people have been wrestling with many of the questions that you identified intensively and for a long time. There's a lot to learn once you get out of the universe of the RCP.

r. john

CM: "Most of the questions that you specified have been discussed widely in the revolutionary left for decades upon decades now. I’m glad that you realize that such questions are important, but you’re playing catch up."

You are mistaken if you believe I have just discovered these questions, or that I am unaware of the long history of exploration of these issues. (Or that "we" have just discovered them!)

That is not the situation, and was not my point.

The point is that I am specifying that these questions (and the answers developed over protracted struggle and exploration among communists) are up again in new ways.

Life moves on. Old, important and correct answers suddenly confront us as partial, inadequate and giving way.

You assumption that I have lived in a bubble and am blinking my eyes in new sunlight is, well, it is mistaken. It reflects your false assumptions, not mine.

And (to repeat an earlier point) I really have little interest in the game of peeling away at YOUR constant, mechanical, self-serving assumptions (which take us so far from what is actually at issue).

Chuck Morse

John, all the questions that you raised could have been (and mostly were) raised about Marxism decades ago. That doesn’t make them any less important, but it is gratuitous to suggest that some new turn of events prompted you to explore them now. They are no more relevant today than they were, say, thirty years ago. I’m glad that you’ve read broadly. You would be in a good position to help challenge the hermiticism within the RCP that discourages others from reading just as widely.


Chuck, you might want to try reading the history of these posts before you respond. The point is not that the questions are new or have not been addressed by many of us. The point is that the questions have not been resolved and we need to tackle them with a new methodology that builds on the the strengths of the past and while integrating the real and significant changed that have occurred in the world since these questions have first been formulated.

There is nothing gratuitous in r. john's suggestions since he enumerated a few concrete changes, like the increasing urbanization of the third world, which throws into question how we conceive of the "third world". How we understand the international situation is crucial for how we understand the national and the local.

The question of the vanguard party isn't going to go away until someone finds a way to overthrow a state without one. But the US state is not the Russian state circa 1916 or the Chinese sate circa 1947. Even if we want to hold onto the necessity of a vanguard party in the abstract, it's concrete form will be much trickier given that this state has a much more sophisticated ideological and repressive apparatus than the other two I've mentioned. The US state over the last 5 years has become even more repressive and intrusive even by their own standards. What are the best means for organizing a viable revolutionary movement under these circumstances that can capture the popular imagination on the ground while preparing for revolution? As part of answering that, we have a lot of history of our own to sum up [yes, that includes, but is not limited to, RCP]. I've read them separately, but now I want to read the Avakian memoir and Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air side by side. At some point, they cover the same time period in the 70's and could be pretty interesting.

The reason Marxism has always analogized itself to science is because Marx, and others, saw in science an investigative set of procedures that helped refine, and accumulate, our knowledge while maintaining a constant self-interrogating stance, in contrast to metaphysical thinking. Whether Marxism's viability requires establishing itself as a science I'm not sure. Meanwhile, changes in the world are happening at a quick pace. Our older ideas are powerful but strained, while "newer" ones [like poststructuralism] seem too fascinated by the shiny things of the world to recognize their own aporias [read John Hutnyk's book Bad Marxism to see how Derrida's politics lead to the same old liberal humanism]. Old frameworks get challenged by new conditions, as they should. This doesn't meant they should be discarded since there are till some fundamental continuities. Imperialism may take on new configurations but it's still imperialism, and driven by the same dynamics described by Marx and Lenin. To understand and change this, we need something rigorous and critical that can also be tested in practice. Science? In a limited sense, yes, but that would need more elaboration than I can give here.

I know that Chris Day has been influenced by the EZLN and would like to hear what he thinks they can contribute to a revolutionary stategy in the US. What about Nepal? What can we learn from them?

Chuck if you can't stop obsessing about RCP that's your business but stop trying to get us involved in that tired discussion.


If I understand Chuck right, he's basically arguing that "we're all post-modern now". So, if one were to reference Marxism as a "tool" of "analysis", then that is fine – but to work from a dialectical materialist approach is simply imposing mechanical teleologies on the world (no matter what Marxists have said and done for the last 90 years).

It's a tired method of argument the insists any living thinking is ipso facto "not" marxist – because Marxism is only defined by its enemies. Then, should we not fit that box, it is either us who are confused or deluded, not the stilted method that boxes us.

Well, I'm not sure I get who the audience for these reductions is... since they jibe so little with the Marxism I've encountered in any quarters...

In other words, if you aren't a dogmatic, class reductionist worshipper of the forces of production... if you don't have a pre-Leninist euro-centrism or view the class struggle as fundamentally incorporating issues of race and gender – well, you aren't "really" a Marxist.

Chuck – my questions to you are easy: what do you want and why don't you listen?


I'm having a hard time understanding the point to which CM is raising regarding "but hey! these others have been raising the same thing decades ago!"

How exactly is it a bad thing to not keep coming at these questions from different angles and viewpoints?

To me, it sounds an awful lot like a "market place of ideas" mentality. Who needs/wants that?

Christopher Day

Chuck is right that some of these critical views of problems within Marxism go back quite a long way. He is wrong when he suggests that changes in the the actual situation in the world don't bear on the relevance of them.

The fact is that the various trends both within and without the main streams of the communist movement (as defined by those who took and held power) -- proved largely unable to constitute themselves as a viable alternative revolutionary project. Trotskyists, anarchists, the Frankfurt School, the New Left, post-structuralism and more all had interesting and important things to say about what was wrong with the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries (and the groups they inspired) but have all proved unable to constitute themselves as an alternative movement able to (or even almost able to) revolutionize social relations anywhere on the planet anywhere near the admittedly constrained accomplishments of the socialists countries.

The actual collapse of the Soviet Bloc countries and the wholesale turn of China towards neoliberalism radically changed the terrain on which we all operate. All the various revolutionary-minded trends of the left were and largely remain confronted with the task of reconstituting the revolutionary project in light of both the failures of the socialist states of the 20th century AND the failures of their left critics to constitute a truly viable alternative.

The collapse of the socialist states exposed not just their rotteness (which had been long apparent to their left critics) but also the ways that the politics of their left critics were defined by the fact of the existence of the socialist states.

The Zapatista rebellion was and remains important because it represented a genuine attempt to rethink and put into practice the revolutionary project with a real awareness of these new conditions. Whether the Zapatistas (or their sympathizers around the world in the global justice movement) have all or even most of the answers we need, they at least were garappling with some of the questions. I think the innovations of the CPN(M) represent a similar moment.

The changed circumstances matter a whole lot. There is a real ahistoricism to the "we told you so" school of thinking about the crisis in socialism that is favored by so many anarchists. Its easy enough to rattle off a list of the limitations of orthodox Leninist parties and, yes, many have done so for a long. Its a very different thing to take those criticisms and transform them into a positive revolutionary program that can capture the imaginations of millions and navigate the real challenges of making revolution.

The weight of the criticisms of the limitations of old orthodoxies changes when it commands armies, whether in Chiapas or Nepal, and when the old orthodoxies are represented by one or two small states and not by giants like Russia or China. This doesn't mean the criticisms are all correct, let alone that the programs of these new forces represent a clear path forward.

I think the experience of the Zapatistas and their anti-authoritarian fans in the global justice movement illustrate this quite clearly. These forces were among the first to really seize on the new conditions created by the post-1989 world and they should be thanked for in a sense putting the question of revolution back on the table. But they have come up against the limitations of their orientations in truly profound ways. The heroic factory occupations movement in Argentina and the incremental whittling away of the Zapatistas support bases and allies has revealed the problem of a strategy of dual power that doesn't have a plan for dealing decisively with the question of state power.

r. john

Chris writes:

"All the various revolutionary-minded trends of the left were and largely remain confronted with the task of reconstituting the revolutionary project in light of both the failures of the socialist states of the 20th century AND the failures of their left critics to constitute a truly viable alternative."

There is a lot there, and without being one-sided, i'd just like to take up two points (within this) that I don't agree with:


I don't think it is correct to speak of "failures of the socialist states of the 20th century."

I think there were major socialist advances embracing whole countries an at one point a third of the world. And socialism was ultimately *defeated* there.

Defeat and failure are two different views.

I also don't think that the defeats came mainly or simply from the errors of revolutionaries, or from "flaws" in the socialist countries (or in the conception of socialism that dominated in them). Obviously errors of revolutionaries play a role in any defeat, but it need not be decisive or causative: i.e. not only is it not true that "the people united can never be defeated," but it is also not true that a correct line is a "guaranteur of victory all the way to communism."

I think that the process of transition to communism has proven to involve the emergence and suppression of major socialist revolutions in a complex back and forth that will (hopefully) reach a communist world. The analogy is the emergence of capitalism: which first arrived in the hanseatic city-states scattered across Europe, and struggled for centuries before achieving its first achievement of countrywide power (in France).

Two notes on that history: the first countrywide bourgeois revolution was essentially overturned (in stages, first by the Napoleonic empire, then by Bourbon restoration) within only a few years -- as everything reactionary in Europe converged to undermine and crush it. Within a few decades capitalism had emerged as dominant in much of Europe anyway, by further complex of back and forth.

To make the point again: The French revolution didn't "fail" -- even if it was reversed, even if its loftiest goals of "liberty, brotherhood, and equality" were realized in ways that were defined by the emergence of a capitalist mode of production.

This view of "back and forth" -- of socialist base areas emerging and disappearing as part of a larger process through which the whole world system deepens the preconditions for communism.... this is a process that no one expected before 1956. There had been a view that socialism would emerge, and then enlarge (relatively linearly) to contest as a world system with the capitalist world system. And that is what it looked like after WW2 (very briefly) as the Soviet Union expanded into Europe by military means, and as allied revolutions took power in China (and in Korea and Vietnam as epiphenomena of the chinese revolution).

Part of what we need to sum up more deeply is the implications of this.

But i believe we should not accept language that seems to echo the "socialism failed" view of the capitalists.

One other analogy: Your kid hoists herself up on pudgey wobbly legs, and waddles a few steps across the floor, and falls flat. What do you say as you comfort her, "Sorry baby, walking failed, get used to crawling." Or perhaps "Walking failed, lets think up some more successful alternative mode of getting around?" Nah.

the second point is related:

Chris said: "The collapse of the socialist states exposed not just their rotteness (which had been long apparent to their left critics) but also the ways that the politics of their left critics were defined by the fact of the existence of the socialist states."

Again let me pick at the terminology, since there may be real issues of meaning underneath.

No "socialist states" collapsed when the wall fell. The rottenness that was revealed was the rottenness of the Soviet social imperialist bloc -- that had been drained and undermined by a protracted military standoff with a much larger empire.

By the time of Gorbachev, socialism had been gone for almost two generations (i.e. twenty-five to thirty years).

socialism was not rotten -- but the support for the Soviet government was -- for many reasons, including the sharp contrast between the "socialist" rhetoric of its state/party and the reality of stagnation and class society for the people, and the protracted deprivation of the arms race, and the great discontent in the countryside (which was in part a residue of the process by which socialist collectivization took place.)

The restoration of capitalism (in both China and the USSR) -- which took place long before the Gorbachev "collapse" -- was also not a sign of the "rottenness" of real socialism, but a function of (a) its profound and inherent contradictoriness, and (b) the long-term difficulty of maintaining/deepening socialist revolution in a hostile world.

Socialism either moves forward to communism or it quickly ossifies as state capitalism. And the forward motion is made quite difficult by capitalist encirclement

In the case of the Soviet Union, that meant the Nazi invasion, but not just that. It meant that the socialist USSR was almost permanently on a war footing from 1917 through 1956, faced with embargo and invasion. It endured a massive intervention in 1918-21, that fueled and deepened the incredibly bitter civil war, then enforced hostile isolation, then after 1933 the mounting approach of invasion by the worlds most advanced modern army. This played a major role in the dampening of revolutionary ferment and experimentation, in helping the conservatizing the vanguard itself, and in the general exhaustion (and attraction to private life) among the people.

Again: the Soviet Union stood up to Hitler (when NOONE thought they could). Hardly rotten, and not even defeated from without.

There was a "rottenness" revealed by capitalist restoration in both cases -- but it was not a rottenness "of socialism."

The notion that socialism "failed" and proved "rotten" -- seems (perhaps unfairly) tied to a notion that what we MAINLY have from the past is NEGATIVE experience (mainly examples of WHAT NOT to do). And it wold suggest that the ideas, verdicts and methods concentrated in MLM should be viewed MAINLY as a ideological distillate lifted from a "failed" process, and therefore mainly critiqued, not upheld.

So these questions go to the core of many related questions

Anyway.... those are my two "nit picks" on Chris's remarks.

* * * * * *

To move on from that:

There is a long standing problem that socialist revolutions erupt (not where capitalism is most advanced) but where feudalism has been most decrepit and where (for larger world historic reasons) there is a "weak link."

Russia was the most backward of the countries drawn into WW1. And it had its revolution. After two world wars, the Euro-colonial powers were mutually exhausted -- and so (into the semi-vacuum) arose two new developments: U.S. imperialism's bid for the world, and a wave of ground-pounding anti-colonial revolutions, with China at the spearpoint.

But the result in both cases, gave the victorious proletariat two large, impoverished countries exhausted by world war and civil war -- in a world still dominated by imperialism.

History has confirmed that you can move down the socialist road in one country, but that you can't endlessly advance without new positive factors on the world scale.

Further, we are now in a situation where the most advanced Maoist revolutions are erupting in (literally) some of the most extremely backward places on the whole planet -- Ayacucho in Peru, Rolpa/Rukum in Nepal, Bihar and the Tribal Areas of India and so on.

Obviously it is better to have revolutions in those areas than no revolutions. But the problem the Nepali comrades are grappling with is not "how to take power" (which they had pretty much solved militarily) but "how to do so in a way that you can advance on the socialist road."

Some people say (incorrectly imho) that Maoism only applies in countries most similar to China 1930, and that as an ideology it is not suited for a world where conditions are generally very different from that.

This is only true if you view Maoism as the prescriptive path of "New Democracy and protracted peoples war" that Mao himself walked. But if you view it as our most advanced methodology and worldview, then it applies anywhere.

But it does need to be applied: someone has to do it, and in that process someone has to deepen Maoism itself.

That's our challenge.

Chuck Morse


There was not one critical word about Stalin in your appraisal of the Soviet Union.

Among other things, Stalin liquidated the original Bolsheviks and turned the USSR into a totalitarian state ruled by terror. Your comments suggest to me that you celebrate and endorse Stalin’s legacy. Is that true?

Is that true for the other Maoists around here?


Oooh. Chuck said "Stalin".

I guess we're supposed to supplicate ourselves now and act like the leader who defeated Hitler is the bad guy of the 20th Century...

Interesting fact: the section of the Russian population most disposed to upholding Stalin is... the generation that remembers it.

Chuck Morse


I didn't ask you to do any supplicating. I posed a simple question: Do you "celebrate and endorse Stalin’s legacy?"

This is one of the most important issues in the history of the left.

Where do you stand?


I celebrate and recognize the fact of Soviet power, that this was the first successful workers revolution and that from its influence and support, an international movement dedicated to the destruction of imperialism was founded, spread, and gained unimagined successes over the course of several decades.

I note that this did not produce a communist world, and that over the corpses of millions (5 million estimated in Southeast Asia, millions in Korea, 20 million Soviets dead in WW2, etc.) the imperial powers succeeded in limiting the spread of these systems. I will give the reactionaries no free pass, as you seem disposed to doing or acting as if these were mere "experiments" carried out under laboratory conditions... There were civil wars, steep learning curves, mistaken objectives, and that state capitalism did develop within socialism – and will have tendency to do so whenever and wherever revolutionary regimes take hold.

I believe that a commandist vision of socialism took hold in the Soviet Union, in particular, that was imposed internationally – and that where this viewed socialism as a "chess board" it was doomed to failure. To say it another way, that the subordination of the proletarian movement to the state necessities of the Soviets (or China, as a paper I'll be posting shortly argues) did tremendous damage – and that there was never, in any socialist country, some simple monolith. There was always line struggle – some of it quite sharp. And the good guys were (obviously in hindsight) not guaranteed victory.

But I won't act like they shouldn't have fought, or that the capitalist/reactionary consensus of socialism is simply "true" or that "everybody knows".

I will not sum up that the crime is revolution. Which, I do believe, is the only summation your method allows for. Any victory or exertion of authority is to you the inversion of intention. I don't believe that anymore than I think Chavez taking RCTV off the air is "censorship" today. I celebrate it and will celebrate the day we take Murdoch's empire while they cry about "totalitarianism".

That communists were (and are) driven out of public life since the 1950s – for over half a century – is no secret.

But on the Stalin legacy, I am most definitely on the side that didn't field a racially segregated army, that consciously opposed fascism through popular mobilization and refused surrender in the face of a genocide machine. Sorry, but I do. 50 years of propaganda aimed at softening US and European audiences up for nuclear war doesn't mean that these propaganda tropes are simple facts. It doesn't, and your refusal to acknowledge even a degree of shading in this history... well, it goes far in explaining the paralysis of those who adopt your method. That's the point.

Put another way, every liberal doesn't need carry the cross of Hiroshima, Jim Crow and the interment of Japanese-Americans during the war in order to even speak... or that anarchists are deranged assassins and murderers of nuns... etc.

Stalin doesn't have "a" legacy.

What is to be celebrated, I will celebrate with clear eyes. I also plainly reject the "legacy" of Popular Frontism, suppression of basic liberties (beyond brief crisis periods), the concept that popular agency resides simply in state policy, as well as any of a dozen other particular subsets of these basic issues.

I am thankful for the role that the Comintern played in promoting a central politics of African-American self-determination among radicals in the USA. As well as the great gains made for the "everyday life" of working people in the Soviet Union. Thanks, too, to the Communist citycouncilman from NYC, Ben Davis, for helping get rent control. I remember it every time I'm not just thrown out of my apartment so the landlord double the rent. I've lived in cities without rent control, and that's what they do. Another pernicious legacy of the "Stalin Era" right here in Brooklyn!


Chuck –

The Soviet Union was not one long atrocity. That's an incorrect, fundamentally distorted perspective. Your demand is indeed for supplication, you just rely on the ideological pervasiveness of the demand to do the heavy lifting for you.

In other words, this is how what you call "totalitarianism" works. It's not just through disappearances, torture and brutality. No. You know this. Those are the clumsier, weaker means of enforcing ideological hegemony.

What we have is the self-disciplining of the revolutionary instinct. The demand is to always preface every dream with a "oh, we don't plan to commit crimes of state".

Sorry, but that is the political equivalent of demanding an answer to "when did you stop beating your wife?"

Could you post some links to engaged critical analysis of the EZLN, that you think represents an engaged effort to understand the compromises and constraints they have faced?

Could you also include a link to reporting on gender relations, particularly in regards to marriage patterns and open non-heternormative relationships, etc., in the autonomous areas of Chiapas?

If it's from them, great. Really though, here I'm more interested in how popularizers of the Zapatistas are learning.


Actually, Chuck, the more important question is, do you understand Stalin's legacy? The convergence between anarchism and Cold War anticommunism means you already have your answers - or I should say, Robert Conquest has already supplied them for you. For the rest of us, it is a complex period that requires assessment after analysis, not before.

Much anti-Stalin sentiment on the left, particularly from Trotskyists and anarchists, is empiricist and sounds like it came from the US State Dept. Your use of the imprecise word "totalitarian" only demonstrates this point. It sounds meaningful, but historical investigation shows it to analytically vacuous. Those on the left who uphold Stalin [a minority to be sure] are either wholly apologetic [WP of Belgium] or are somewhat critical, but have inadequate arguments [RCP].

You are right that Stalin is one of the most important issues on the left. Far too important for pat arguments or a false belief in settled verdicts.

I am personally not inclined to uphold Stalin but I admit that I need a deeper understanding of the period before I can claim I've learned anything substantial from it. It's not about surface "facts" - even then some of them are suspect [Shine the Path clarified the nature of the "Hitler-Stalin pact" a while back] - but about how they interrelate with each other on different scales: local, national, international in a given historical period. Applying this to the Stalin period, one first has to put aside, but not repress, deeply ingrained anti-Stalin conditioning. We all have a good idea what Stalin did, the questions are: what were the historical factors conditioning the range of possibilities? Why were some explored and not others? There's a lot more to learn and some of the most interesting work available is from liberal revisionists like J. Arch Getty, Robert Thurston and Sheila Fitzpatrick.

Unlike anarchists, I make an effort not to confuse prejudice with knowledge.

Chuck what about this idea that you accompany your critique of our legacy and with a critical assessment of yours? In print, all I know about is Day's essay. If there's anything else available in this rich legacy of rigorous anarchist self-evaluation, please let us know so that we may reach the heaven of knowledge rather than the clouds of error [apologies to Hegel].

Chuck Morse

Jed and Zerohour, I'm not sure why my question about Stalin should evoke such defensiveness on your part. This whole thread is about defining and learning from the errors of the left, which is why John mentioned the Soviet Union and why I asked about his (and your) views on Stalin. I have not posed any trick questions here or raised an off topic issue: I have simply asked for a clear statement of your position on one of the dividing lines of the 20th century left.

Jed, it is unclear to me where you really stand on Stalin. Do you think, for example, that Communists should have supported and defended Stalin during his rule? Do you think those who question or challenged his rule should have been executed and/or imprisoned?

Zerohour, are you suggesting that Stalin was not a totalitarian? If so, what word do you think is more appropriate?


There's no defensiveness here but there is a rejection of the limited parameters you set, and assumptions behind them. By now it's pretty well known that Stalin is anarchism's favorite signifier for Marxism. So upholding Stalin means upholding Marxism's inherent repressivenss and rejecting Stalin means we therefore aren't upholding Marx either. Is that where this is going? Motives aside, it is an important question if not for the reasons you find compelling.

"Totalitarianism" is a useless term meant to evoke emotion more than aid in understanding. So, no Stalin was not a totalitarian, nor was Hitler. Their societies were too complex for that.

Here's a definition of totalitarian that I found: "of or relating to a political regime based on subordination of the individual to the state and strict control of all aspects of the life and productive capacity of the nation especially by coercive measures (as censorship and terrorism)" Notice the qualifier "all". This is key to the theory of totalitarianism. Anything less would not be so "total." But even if the term were changed to "most" or "some" it would not be any more illuminating. On the surface, it seems to describe the Stalin period. These features were prevalent under Stalin but so were the many worker rebellions against bureaucratic shop managers. So was Stalin's pioneering efforts to get the Comintern to have a policy towards third world revolutions [discussed in Robert Young's great book Postcolonialism: An Historical introduction]. Not to mention that Stalin's concerns abut espionage and sabotage were not unfounded paranoia. Would Lenin have handled things better? I think so, and I would think most of us here do. The task is to develop a rigorous historical understanding and not go along with prevailing orthodoxy, or insist on using ahistorical, nonsensical terminology because it's easier than thinking.

I suggest you look up those liberal revisionists I listed above. They are all anti-Stalin but at least they tried to provide reasoned analysis, not rhetoric. I'm not endorsing any of their conclusions but they are suggestive of the kind of inquiry communists have to seriously take up.

What "word" do I think is appropriate? None that I can think of at the moment, however, I think your reductionism is completely inappropriate for any serious inquiry.

Still waiting for that anarchist self-criticism...


Another notable thing about the concept of totalitarianism is what it excludes: class.


Zerohour's articulation of some of the basics on that is excellent.

Chuck asks: Do you think, for example, that Communists should have supported and defended Stalin during his rule? Do you think those who question or challenged his rule should have been executed and/or imprisoned?

I don't know if those are the two most important questions, but pretending like we live in a world where there's no consequence to refusing the (real) party line on Stalin...

Do you think, for example, that Communists should have supported and defended Stalin during his rule?

Yes. The people who defended Stalingrad were correct. The Communists of the USA were correct to form a party, and to participate in the COMINTERN. The greatest war in human history was fought over the defense or destruction of the first proletarian state – and all democratic-minded and communist people were compelled into defense of the Soviet State, with Stalin as it's marshal.

Do you think those who question or challenged his rule should have been executed and/or imprisoned?

I thought about this most when I visited Leon Trostky's last abode in Mexico City, which was in the neighborhood of Frida Khalo's house – my true destination. Her last painting was of Stalin, it sits incomplete (and unmemorable) on her bedside easel.

I don't think Trotsky should have been killed, or that the development of a "Trotskyite" boogyman should have been used to stultify communist political culture and conformity-as-virture.

I don't weep, particularly, for the Black Hundreds, or their decendents who collaborated with Hitlerism, or those poor Polish officers intent on claiming a government of privilege and national subordination to Anglo-American imperialism.

The conflation of counter-revolutions with socialist dissidents (such as anarchists, liberals or the various Bolshevik oppositions) is kind of accepting the stilted arguments of Stalin, which I'll reject in how the CPSU was run (and ran ruffshod over any form of autonomy or inflection of thought) and I'll reject in the denial of that complexity then.

The question is, more accurately posed: "Do you all communists intend to construct a 'totalitarian' police state, regulate the color of people's underwear and degrade people's religious faith?"

Is the vision a totalizing state?

Not among any communists I know. I've heard of such people, and met some who I'll just say didn't worry me too much in their capacity to pull it off.

What I think you would find is disagreement that the sky was always gray, or that there were not real necessities that a multi-national socialist state will face in a world actively dominated by imperial powers.

This is not to say that all problems are external, but that genuine "internal" class struggle isn't on some fair playing field – and the imposed militarism of the situation is one of the profound issues we face.

Today, the CPN(M) has discussed radically down-sizing the national army and replacing it with a close-to-the-ground militia structure and the main form on national defense and civil order.

This from people who include Stalin's visage along with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao on the walls where they meet.

The Stalinist boogyman you accept is not unlike the Trotskyite boogyman used to stifle debate within communist parties. I don't think you'll accept that – because as has become so unfortunately common among self-professed anti-authoritarians, you are used to developing consensus by limiting acceptable participation.

That's why your exasperated (and/or amused) by the refusal of the larger world to meet your narrow analysis.

After all, how else would you explain the ideological bans from the Life After Capitalism conference to the failed attempt to impose such restrictions on SDS by sectarian anarchist elements?

Accusations of tyranny are used to limit debate. "They hate us for our freedom." Sound familiar?

r. john

Mao spoke about the importance of making a distinction between Yenan and Sian when making criticisms.

Yenan was the base area of the revolution in the 1940s. Sian was the headquarters of the reactionary government.

We should be fearless and materialist in our self-interrogation. We should avoid mythologizing and covering our tracks.

But it serves nothing to erase the difference between the revolution and the counterrevolution -- when evaluating and contextualizing what we uncover and what we expose.

And this should be our approach -- not because it makes us feel better, or because it makes "our side" look better, or because it might provide excuses or mitigating circumstances -- but precisely because it corresponds with reality, with objectively existing distinctions. And because, for that reason, it is essential for actually understanding what went down, what the leading communist forces were trying to accomplish, and what methods would better serve the cause of humanity's emancipation.

* * * * * *

There are things to celebrate and things to grieve in the Soviet revolution.

this was our first attempt at countrywide power -- and there was much that was unknown (or misunderstood) going in.

there were horrific conditions to deal with so that the revolution faced being "drawn and quartered" at every moment -- and so that every move played out its implication on a huge board of great stakes.

there is much to uphold about the early Stalin -- he was basically correct (or more correct) in his struggle with opponents like Trotsky and Bukharin. And where he was wrong on major questions in dispute, they were generally more wrong on precisely those issues (theory of the productive forces, underestimation of the protractedness of transition, confusion between bourgeois democracy and proletarian dictatorship, etc.)

Even given the great errors we can now see in method and approach, there was (in that first decade before 1933) a clear effort to rely on the people to push forward the revolution.

With the power of hindsight (meaning: based on our ability to sum up precisely these experiences) we can see many ways key contradictions could have (and even should have)been handled differently.

In the late 1930s, when the bloody yersovschina struggles broke out in the Soviet Union, there were Chinese exiles and representatives who brought reports back to Yenan. (The purges particularly affected the international communist exiles in Russia with some special severity and apparent lack of justification.) The Chinese central committee resolved to never use mutual execution to resolve internal line struggles -- and (with the exception of Lin Biao's death during escape) this was carried out by mao.

There is much to sum up, much to do differently -- it goes into the very concept of what socialism is, of the role of the masses, of the nature of the state, the view of socialist countries within a larger world rev and how to handle those contradicitons, it has to do with philosophy, a view of the relative importance of rule of law under socialism, the question of constitutional protections, the importance of adversarial procedings and evidentiary rules.

It has to do with how we view dissent (and the difference between dissent and counterrevolution), and where we perceive counterrevolution coming from.

There are many important (and even painful) questions to extract from the Soviet experience. And to answer it all with simple condemnation of the Soviet Union itself, or Stalin in particular, is actually to ignore and deny the degree to which these issues arise from the revolutionary process itself, and will inevitably assert themselves as contradictions, which we NEED to LEARN how to handle better (in a way that leads toward communism, not toward the depolitication and defeat of the revolutionary society).

* * * * *

Again: I think that the discussion of these things would take place on a higher plane if we weren't forced (repeatedly) to revolve (or devolve) the discussion around the most crude and simplistic anti-communist or anti-totalitarian arguments.

Certainly it is necessary, broadly in society, because of the low level of political understanding generally, to explain why Stalin and Hitler are not comparable. But repeating those basics (as several people have done) does not actually get us much further in the work WE have to do in summing up these experiences from a communist point of view, and examining (in a fresh and critical way) previous revolutoinary communist summations of the Soviet experience.

As part of the break with simplification and over-reliance on formulas -- i think that the use of the 70-30 summation should be temporarily banned. Not because we should assume (yet) that it is wrong, but because so often arguments and evidence have been marshaled knowing the algebraic verdict at the end.

It is worth noting that the Stalin experience reveals that not everyone with a "new synthesis" is a new Lenin. Stalin forged a new synthesis called "Marxism-Leninism" -- presenting much of it as merely his defense of lenin's development of marxism. There was embedded in it a great deal of mechanical thinking, repeated over simplification, assumptions of inevitable causality and linear development, overestimation of necessity and universality.

I was thinking today about "Foundations of Leninism" -- which both popularizes extremely important and correct insights of Leninism, but does so in a now-familiar way that reduces these ideas to dicta, and drains communist theory of its genuinely scientific character.

Even the promotion of correct ideas can be done in ways that serve incorrect ideas.

I think there needs to be a period of defending complexity, and respecting the particularity of contradictions. There is a far too easy profesion of generalities. And, I believe, that often when communists discover something true around them, there is a far to quick leap to assuming and proclaiming that it is genreally and universally true.

Avakian grappled with the fact that the Black national question involved a people that were internal to a multinational state and proletarian (not a colonial people in semi-feudalism). But that materialist analysis did not justify proclaiming that there was now a "nation of a new type" -- a third stage to the national question with larger and perhaps international implications.

The decision of the Nepalis to go from guerilla war to a final urban insurrection, may make sense in their context. But to proclaim this as "universal" CAN'T have been thought through well.

It is true that in France public intellectuals like Sartre play a particularly important role in the political process, and can genuinely sway public opinion and social views on important matters (like the Algerian war). But the U.S. is a different place, where for distinct historical reasons, there is a gap (and even hostility) between many strata and intellectuals. And where there is no equivalent of a Sartre in history. to treat a particular as a universal, to try to make a Cornel West or Edward Said into American political equivalent of a Sartre would be to mistake where you are and how it works.

All of this requires more breaks with the kind of thinking we inherited from the Comintern (i.e. from Stalin). And a fight to reclaim a real scientific spirit that eshews cheap and easy analogies or superficial vest-pocket verdicts. there has been far too much of that.

REality and history are complex. Political events are a thicket of contradictions and countercurrents. Everything has causes but few things have a cause. And we need to take distance from the method that leads to repeated reductionist overestimations of current trends.


This is a point that Zizek has returned to again and again, here expressed by R. John:

I think that the discussion of these things would take place on a higher plane if we weren't forced (repeatedly) to revolve (or devolve) the discussion around the most crude and simplistic anti-communist or anti-totalitarian arguments.

Of course that's true – and it's exactly why so much intellectual capital is invested in renewing a "confessional" anti-communism.

One the distinction between Yenan and Yenan is made, as it were, then we can orient ourselves on an essentially revolutionary path. To not allow for that path, what Zizek calls a denkverbot or "prohibition on thinking", we've ceded the ground of debate to the terms of the bourgeoisie.

It should come as no surprise that in denying a difference, essentially, between revolution and counter-revolution – these same arguments end up telling us the best we can do is mind the margins. At best this means valorizing things like the Argentine syndicalists... at worst we'd end up sort of like a Ford Foundation funded hack like Walden Bello running scrimage for the reactionary state's legitimacy.

I don't think Stalin is the issue – but it's a big one, and the issue isn't a man or set of wrong choices – it's whether socialists have the right to exercise dictatorship over the bourgeoisie.

To that I answer yes. Yes.

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