An article by Garry Maclachlan, “The Problem with Stalin and Stalinism“ appeared on the Solidarity Website 27 Feb 19. Some discussion ensued on Facebook, but I thought it would be best to write a response here.
Why should anyone be concerned now, about a Soviet politician who died almost seventy years ago?
What makes it worth discussing him in a small Scottish socialist party?
Socialist parties exist to propagate the ideas of socialism and to attempt to win political power. The basis of their appeal has to be the political and economic programme that they advance in the here and now. They do not impose on their members a single view of history. We do not insist that party members have a consistent view on the causes of the First World War, Churchill’s policy on the Second Front, or the correctness of Gaitskill’s policy towards the Common Market. If we can allow a diversity of views on history that has affected our own country, there is certainly no need for uniformity on Soviet or Turkish history. The strengths and weaknesses of Attaturk or Stalin as leaders of their countries in the 20th century does not affect Scotland in the 21st.
Garry says he is perturbed by seeing well-intentioned socialists sharing quotations by the late Soviet leader on Facebook. But why should this be worrying?
|Figure 1. Stalin – banner of our victories!, archetypal Soviet war poster.|
Presumably, the quotes themselves seem to say things that most socialists can readily agree with. It does not seem to be what the quotes say that perturbs him. Instead, he seems to think it risky that, well after the cold war, young people forming a favourable view of the USSR.
This is because the individual person, Stalin, came to represent much more than one person. In the terminology of Soviet propaganda, Stalin became a ‘banner’ (Figure 1). His name and face became a symbol for the victory of Soviet Power over German Imperialism, and still, within the countries of the former USSR is a symbol of the power of the working classes over the new capitalist classes (Figure 2).
|Figure 2. Stalin as a banner in the modern world: a communist workers demonstration in the former USSR.|
For the capitalist classes in the West Stalin has become the symbol both of the peril that was defeated, and of the communist spectre that they fear may haunt them in the future. Stalinism is the label that the press here give to the economic system the Communists established: publicly owned industry, coordination by national plans, the subordination of the market to the plan, prohibition of the private employment of wage labour.
When the Labour Party takes timid steps back towards Clause 4 socialism, it is denounced by the liberal press as becoming ‘stalinist’. But that only works as a denunciation if ‘stalinism’ is seen as a very bad thing indeed.
So we have a paradox. In Russia, the opinion of Stalin is overwhelmingly favourable. A recent Levada poll shows that 57% have a favourable opinion of Stalin, 18% having a negative view (with the rest don’t know or no opinion). This from a population made up of people either old enough to directly remember the USSR or who hear about it from their own family.
|Table 1. Opinion poll evidence from Russia still shows strong support for Stalin among the public. (https://www.levada.ru/2018/04/10/17896/)|
Garry Maclachlan worries that the ruling class uses Stalin to discredit socialism. That is certainly true in Britain, but they can only do that as the end result of a propaganda campaign running over decades. In the West, it is enough to label a politician like Corbyn as being sympathetic to ‘stalinism’ to discredit him.
But who has the more realistic view of Stalin, Russians or us?
Are the Russians right to believe their own memories rather than our press?
Turn it around. Who will have a more realistic view of Thatcher, people in Scotland who experienced her, or Americans who only got favorable press accounts of her?
A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre
The negative image Stalin now has in the West had to be constructed. Back in the 1940s the popular view, including the press view, was favorable (Figure 3). Communist ideas enjoyed broader supporter support than at any time since. CP membership peaked at 56,000 in the late 40s. They won two MPs and over 100,000 votes in the 1945 General Election, with its candidates getting an average vote of 14.6%. The Party also took over half a million votes in the following year’s local council elections winning 215 council seats. At this point, during Stalin’s lifetime, association with him did not harm socialists. Stalin was the veritable spectre of communism and the fear this spectre instilled in our ruling classes allowed Attlee and Cripps to embark on the nearest thing to a transition to socialism that Britain has ever seen.
|Figure 3. In the 1940s the public image of Stalin in the West was also favourable. This had to be deconstructed by propaganda after the Cold War started.|
In due course, the powers of Old Europe entered into their holy alliance, NATO, to exorcise this spectre. Along with military preparation went ideological warfare. Contemporary readers will be familiar with the Integrity Initiative, which exists to covertly spread anti Russian stories through the press and internet. We know that they directly pay stipends to reporters, including some in Scotland to ensure that they place such stories.
But this is but a pale shadow of the efforts that the Secret Intelligence Service(SIS) and the CIA ran from the 50s to the 70s to disseminate stories hostile to the USSR. This effort went to the extent of funding historians and whole University schools (Glasgow School of Soviet Studies comes to mind) in order to develop and spread this propaganda. As a result, several generations grew up in the Anglo Saxon countries with anti-communism and anti-stalinism as part of their education. For the working class who did not go to university this came in the form of crude tabloid stories. For those who, with the expansion of university education, got a higher education there were the more sophisticated stories developed by paid historians like Conquest or the openly fictional works of the fascist Solzhenitsyn.
Tories were not the targets of this propaganda. The target was the labour movement and the left. The aim was to cultivate a ‘responsible’ left who would repudiate the USSR and in doing so would reject the ideas of a nationalised planned economy. The state would then pitch these against those in the labour movement who were seen as potentially sympathetic to the communism. From the MI6 standpoint these were a broad group which, in the 1970s ran from Harold Wilson to Arthur Scargill.
The SIS propaganda really paid dividends when Kinnock chucked nationalisation of industry and adopted the market socialist ideas developed by Prof Nove of Glasgow( a man with a SIS background). Shortly after, when Blair completely removed clause IV from the Labour constitution the work was done, and the schools of (anti-)Soviet Studies could be disbanded.
Now, 20 years later, the capitalist press is worried that the Spectre is re-awakening. A new generation, not exposed to the intensive propaganda of the past is expressing support for communism. The Nov 4 2017 Washington Times ran the headline:
Another poll reported
“One in five (23%) of Americans age 21-29 consider Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin a ‘hero’; 26% for Vladimir Lenin; 23% for Kim Jong Un,”
This is understandably worrying for the capitalist press in the USA. The last thing they want is to return to the situation of the 1940s when Stalin was widely seen as a hero. But it is strange that a member of a small Scottish socialist party should have the same worries.
A revival of Soviet imagery on the internet goes hand in hand with increases in class polarisation and increasing support for socialism. Far from being inversely related as Garry seems to fear, when Soviet imagery captures the imagination of youth, support for socialism rises. We should welcome it with open arms.
The last thing we should be doing is reviving the old SIS lies about communism killing millions. Thanks to the internet, Millenials have access to counter-narratives that were out of reach to previous generations. Just two links for now:
From Sputnik Holodomor Hoax: Joseph Stalin’s Crime That Never Took Place and from CounterPunch The Ukrainian Famine: Only Evidence Can Disclose the Truth
The Western press spreads absurd stories about 66 million deaths under Stalin. Well in one sense, all social systems have a 100% mortality rate. None offer immortality. So in a big country, there will be millions of deaths per decade. This real issue is how many premature deaths there are and whether life expectancy is going up or down.
You can not hide millions of premature deaths. They show up as declining population and declining life expectancy.
When you look at the actual population figures they show the opposite of what Garry claims. It was the deconstruction of the ‘stalinist’ system in the 1990s that brought about a catastrophic rise in the death rate. Figure 4 shows the trend of the Soviet population, steadily rising, except when interrupted by the German invasion. It is worth noting that anti-soviet sources often include deaths due to the German invasion as ‘victims of communism’.
|Figure 4. The growth of Soviet population up to the fall of the Stalinist system. Dark dots are an actual census or published counts. The top trend line shows what the population would have been without the loss of some 26 million during the war. The effect of a big excess of death is clearly visible.|
If we contrast that trend up to the fall of communism with what happened after, the difference is dramatic (Figure 5). As soon as capitalism is restored deaths of poverty and despair shoot up. For Russia this amounts to some 12 million excess deaths. They are clearly visible in the graph. For a year by year breakdown, see Table 2.
At a time when capitalism in the UK and in the USA is bringing about terrible rises in death rates and declining life expectancy, what is point of repeating discredited cold war propaganda about life expectancy in the USSR? We should unhesitatingly state that it is socialism that brings longer life expectancy and capitalism that brings poverty despair and early death (Figure 6).
|Figure 5. Population prior to and after the restoration of capitalism around 1990. The sharp decline in population due to the higher death rate is clearly evident in the figures. (Plotted by me from UN population database)|
|Figure 6. The rise in mortality due to the diseases of despair, USA|
|Table 2. Demographic effects of anti-stalinism. Excess deaths consequent the introduction of capitalism in Russia amount to some 6 million over 10 years. Data from successive UN Demographic Yearbooks, table 18. The death rate started rising with Perestoika, and shot up under Yeltsin.|