Stalin’s Englishmen: the lessons for today’s left

October 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm (academe, anti-fascism, history, intellectuals, left, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, USSR)

“Why the interest? It’s a psychological detective story. Why should clever men at the very heart of the Establishment, who enjoyed its trappings, seek to betray it? Why did they devote their lives to a known totalitarian regime, abandoning friends and family, ending their lives in lonely exile in Moscow? How did they get away with it given their drunkenness, drug-taking and sexual promiscuity? Are there other spies still to be uncovered?  (Andrew Lownie, International Business Times)

The release of over 400 previously unrevealed MI5 and Foreign Office files provides some fascinating insights into the psychological and personal motivations of Burgess, Philby, Maclean and the rest of the Cambridge spy ring and their associates, as well as the sometimes hilarious incompetence of the British security services. However, the underlying political motivation of these upper class Stalinists who’d started out as genuine anti-fascist idealists in the 1930s, has been evident to astute observers for many years, and carries important lessons for serious socialists to this day. Sean Matgamna describes the political background in this 2004 article:

From left: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby.

In The Climate of Treason Andrew Boyle recounts a conversation which took place amongst a group of young communists in the summer of 1933, in Cambridge. Some of them would become the famous traitors who would be exposed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after having served the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades.

Kim Philby had just come back from Germany, and he reported to his friends on what he had seen. There, at the beginning of the year, Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) could rely on four million votes; it had hundreds of thousands of militants; it had its own armed militia, and the strength to physically crush the fascist groups in most of the working-class districts of Berlin — and yet it had put up no resistance at all to the Hitlerites. It had allowed itself to be smashed, without a struggle.

In the years when the Nazi party was burgeoning, the KPD had refused to unite with the Socialists (who had eight million votes) to stop them; and now that the capitalists had brought the Nazis to power, the KPD slunk into its grave, without even token resistance.

It is one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War, Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe the decline and decay of the revolutionary working class movement — all of these things grew out of Hitler’s victory over the German working class movement. Unexpected, and enormous in its consequences, the collapse of the KPD was almost inexplicable.

In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin’s direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR’s interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann (who he would later have shot).

In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men who listened to Philby’s report tried to make sense of the German events. The Communist International was still denying that any catastrophe had occurred at all, denying that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans like: “After Hitler, our turn next.” Those who wanted to stay in the Comintern had to accept this way of looking at it. But was the International correct?

More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought. Maybe Stalin’s critics — Trotsky, for example — had been right. Maybe, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.

“No!”, said Philby, very heated. He denied that the KPD had made mistakes, or that Stalin had got things wrong: further, he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be wrong. As the infallible Pope cannot err where “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, so Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. He denied that there was any left other than Stalin. “W…why,” the future KGB general stuttered, “W…what-ever Stalin does — that is the left.”

It is a statement which sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left. What Stalin did, that is, what the Stalinists in power did — that was the left! The official accounts of what they did; the rationalisations and fantasies which disguised what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” arguments which were concocted to explain why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the traditional hopes and goals of the revolutionary left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning them into incoherent Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left” and “Marxism”. The left was restyled out of all recognition.

A movement rooted historically in the French Revolution, whose drive for democracy and equality it carried forward against the shallow, empty, and false bourgeois versions of these ideas, now championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow intolerant elite.

A movement dedicated to collective ownership and therefore needing democracy because collective ownership is, by definition, not possible unless ownership is exercised collectively, and thus — there is no alternative — democratically, nevertheless championed the idea of ownership by an undemocratic state, itself “owned” by a narrow elite, and confused it with collective ownership.

A movement committed in — Marxist — theory to gathering up and developing, and extending to the millions shut out from the advantages of bourgeois civilisation, the gains made by humanity in the developed bourgeois societies, nevertheless identified with the USSR, where the rule of law and the bourgeois “rights of the citizen” — freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of sexuality — had been stamped out by the totalitarian state, a society which had gone back in time to the Dark Ages before these achievements of West European bourgeois civilisation had come into existence.

The list could be extended over many pages.

“Whatever Stalin does is the left”. What the Stalinist states did defined the left.

That is the left which has, over many decades, provided an easy target for anti-socialists who argue that all socialism belongs in the same pit with Stalinism.

It is only against that left that what is valid in the currently fashionable anti-socialist wisdom can properly be directed. For the rest, the anti-socialists, philosophers and vulgar tabloid propagandists alike, merely continue the work of Stalinism against real socialism.

For decades the Stalinists — following the dictum so neatly expressed by Kim Philby — buried real socialism under a mountain of lies to establish the principle that what Stalin — or Mao, or Kim Il Sung — said really was socialism. Yes, say the anti-socialists today, Stalinism was real socialism, and the necessary and logical product of all the left that had gone before.

We say: no, it was not! The real socialist tradition is the tradition of those who fought Stalinism in the name of international socialism. That is our tradition — the tradition of Leon Trotsky.

The always very small Trotskyist movement, together with some others — some anarchists, for example — struggled for decades honourably and sometimes heroically against the consequences of Stalinism for the left and for the labour movement.

In the USSR in the 20s and early 30s, in Britain in the period of the General Strike, in China in the 20s, in Germany before Hitler annihilated the labour movement, in France in the middle 30s; in Spain during the Civil War, where the Stalinists conducted a bloody reign of terror against the left; in Europe after the Second World War — in all these arenas our comrades tried to turn the Stalinist-led labour movements in a different direction, towards a struggle for its own real interests and towards a rediscovery of and a commitment to unfalsified socialism.

We failed, not because we were wrong, but because we were too weak, because the rich and powerful Stalinist movement was able — in the interests of the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR — to annex the symbols of the left, and learned to express the interests of the bureaucracy in hollowed-out versions of the old left wing ideas. Depending essentially on lies backed up by physical and ideological terrorism, it hypnotised, confused, misled and used millions of people who wanted to fight for socialism.

We were defeated — and everywhere, for decades, the Stalinists linked to the USSR’s, or China’s, ruling class kept their grip on the would-be communist movement, leading it to bloody defeats, and, as in France and Italy in the decades after World War Two, to rotting, corrosive stagnation.

The real left — the left which continued and tried to develop the traditions of Marx and of the early Communist International — was marginalised and often eclipsed, but it never died. It lives, and it will revive and grow.

That real Marxist left has sustained itself by words and by deeds — often by great deeds which could in the circumstances have no more than symbolic importance, deeds such as the publication by French and German Trotskyists during World War 2, amidst the mad debauch of chauvinism and national hatred, of Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), a paper for German soldiers in occupied France, proclaiming working class solidarity across the national divide. The paper’s producers and distributors, French civilians and German soldiers alike, paid for this work with their lives. Perhaps as many as 30 German soldiers were shot.

The collapse of Stalinism objectly cleared the way for the revival of the left which can justly lay claim to deeds like this. In the collapse of Stalinism the real left gained a chance to live and grow again, and to define itself anew. The way was cleared for the re-elaboration of our working class socialist traditions and Marxist ideas.

Instead of that, we have seen large segments of the Trotskyist and Trotskyisant left adopt variants of the anti-working class and anti-working class ideas that Stalin and Stalinist made “left” and “socialist”. We are seeing a tremendous political collapse of the left in Britain right now — collapse down into the political idiocy of a nameless, classless, eyeless “anti-imperialism” that is now lining up much of the “Trotskysant” left with clerical-fascists and against the labour movement in Iraq.

The historical ghost of Stalinism has taken over such traditionally “anti-Stalinist” organisations as the SWP. Nothing but well-merited political disaster can come to them from letting this happen.

The real Marxist left will revive by way of a stubborn defence of our ideas and traditions — including the Russian Revolution of 1917 — not only against the Right, but also against the neo-Stalinism that is engulfing so much of the left. The serious left will grow and spread as the working class movement revives. And it will revive!

It will be worthwhile, in the present state of the left, to review the ideas which Stalin and Stalinism once made “Left”, and their present-day progeny in the.


  1. februarycallendar said,

    My own view is still, as it has been for a long time, that the hatred of popular mass culture that the Cambridge Spies’ education had instilled in them was a major, if not *the* major factor in their defection, just as it is for paleoconservative support for Putin now – sort of “if the Cold War is in part a war for pop culture, then we’d rather fight it from the other side”.

    The basic fact is that, once the line of descent beginning with jazz and the early talkies had been embedded in Britain, the traditional public school worldview could more easily sympathise with Stalinism than the new national mainstream in whose name it was, increasingly reluctantly, still officially working.

    The only surprise is that anyone was ever surprised, even more that they are still surprised now.

  2. Nick Wright said,

    Is this a cross posting from Gerry Healy’s grave?

    • Jim Denham said,

      What exactly is Healyite about the post, Nick?

      • Nick Wright said,

        The bizarre converge between standard Cold War anti communism of the right and torturous WRP-style reasoning.

        You should read the new book on the Maisky Diaries, not to mention Claud Cockburn’s various memoirs, to get a rational view of the period leading up to the Molotov Ribbentrop pact.

        Just how distorted the field of vision is is illustrated by the bonkers suggestion by your correspondent that a refusal of popular culture made upper class students rebels rather than the venality and fascist sympathies of their class.

        The Cambridge spies are to be admired as exemplary revolutionaries for taking their anti fascism to its logical conclusion in the period in which they lived and fir sticking with into the new era of nuclear confrontation with imperialism.

      • Jim Denham said,

        “standard Cold War anti communism of the right”!!!! What bollocks,Nick. No-one in their right mind would take the article as “cold war anti-communism.” It’s an attack on Stalinist totalitarianism, not genuine communism, which has to be based on working class democracy.

  3. Nick Wright said,

    When two notionally distinct ideological forms share the same pathology, language and reach the same conclusions it is necessary to dispense with the surface clothing of rhetorical difference and examine what constitutes the core message.

    The WRP, in the classic tradition of trotskyism always found the militancy and combativeness of the communist movement in its characteristic Leninist form to be more of a ‘betrayal’ than ‘revisionist’ tendencies which sometimes shared more of its basic assumptions about the Soviet Union. There is more than a sniff of the WRP about this ancient piece of anti communism which you have dug up.

    You have to accept that ‘genuine communism’ by which I mean the real life creation of actual people was not, is not and never can be the ideal which trotskyite have created out of their imagination.

    This is why the AWL etc, with their manifold compromises with imperialist ideology and conscious self identification with the main imperialist tropes is unable to either display or understand the tactical and strategic flexibility which characterised the diplomatic practice of the Soviet Union from the initial necessity to stop Trotsky’s disastrous Western offensive to the necessity, pressed on them by the Western refusal to ally against Hitler, of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact.

    • Jim Denham said,

      “self identification with the main imperialist tropes …”

      What a load of Stalinist gobbledegook:

      As for “This is why the AWL etc, with their manifold compromises with imperialist ideology and conscious self identification with the main imperialist tropes is unable to either display or understand the tactical and strategic flexibility which characterised the diplomatic practice of the Soviet Union from the initial necessity to stop Trotsky’s disastrous Western offensive to the necessity, pressed on them by the Western refusal to ally against Hitler, of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact.”

      So you support (retrospectively) the alliance with Hitler, do you, Nick?

      • Nick Wright said,

        Not gobbledegook but a (wasted) attempt to deploy more opaque language to describe the AWL sickening line up with imperialist foreign policy than I might use in a pub discussion.

        Do I support the ….?
        That is a daft question. I was not born yet. Do I understand Stalin’s brilliant move to delay the German attack? I do.

        Try this question. Do you understand why Lenin took the stand he did at Brest Litovsk? Do you understand what he meant when he talked about the necessity for party members to clear their minds of ‘revolutionary cant’?

      • Jim Denham said,

        I don’t think any serious understanding of the Brest Litovsk compromise can compare it with the Stalin-Hitler pact.

        As for “I was not born yet”: do you know what the word “retrospectively” means in this context? C’mon, you seem to have opinions about lots of things that happened before you were born – why not try explaining your support for the “brilliant” deal with Hitler?

  4. Nick Wright said,

    Brest Litovsk compared to Molotov Ribbontrop.
    Brest Litovsk was a necessary compromise to protect the perimeter of the Russian Revolution and to consolidate the borders after Trotsky’s disastrous adventures.
    The German Soviet non aggression pact was a necessary manoeuvre to buy time and territory before the inevitable attack from the West (in a situation where sections of the British ruling class were angling for a Anglo German alliance against the USSR.)

    Again! Read the Maisky Diaries, read Claud Cockburn.

    • Jim Denham said,

      I must admit to being unfamiliar with the Maisky Diaries, but Cockburn was an upper-class Stalinist hack journalist, not a serious historian nor, as far as can be judged, an educated Marxist of any kind.

      Best Litovsk was, indeed a necessary compromise. The deal with Hitler was a matter of choice for Stalin who was (to put it at its most mild) indifferent to the possibility of a Nazi victory. Stalinist propaganda (including the Daily Worker) between 1939 and 1941 was not “neutral”: it was positively pro-Nazi. The military weakness of the USSR in 1939 was the result of Stalinist purges, just as the rise of fascism in the first place (1933) was due to the Stalinist Third Period (which you, Nick, would no doubt call “brilliant”).

      As the Trotskyist Max Shachtman wrote at the time:

      “Stalin capitulated to Hitler? Exactly! And that brings us to the question of why Stalin felt obliged to sign the shameful pact. The Stalin regime enjoys only the bitter hatred of the Soviet masses. Its basis continues to narrow every day. And the capitalist world, largely thanks to Stalinism’s criminal policies, is far more sure of itself as it faces the working class in 1939 than it was in 1919. Scratch beneath the surface of the optimistic fairy tales told in the Stalinist press and you find that, under Stalin’s rule, the Soviet Union is in an advanced state of degeneration. Stalin’s clique is at once the product and the producer of this degeneration.

      “Now we are in a position to deal with the question: Which of the two partners in the Stalinazi pact was the stronger, which is in the better position to gain from the pact? It is a bitter truth for us to observe, but we must not refuse to see that in the past six years Hitler has not only consolidated but has vastly expanded his power. He took power in Germany without meeting with the slightest resistance by the Social Democrats or the Stalinists (1933 marked Stalin’s first capitulation to Hitler!) He denounced the Versailles Treaty limitations on German armaments in 1935, and nobody stopped him. He reintroduced conscription without opposition. He remilitarized the Rhineland and nobody stopped him. He won the Saar territory in a plebiscite. He succeeded in smashing to bits the whole labor and revolutionary movement. In March 1938 he annexed Austria without firing a shot. Six months later, Czechoslovakia was raked in. Another six months passed, and he took Memel, without a fight. He won his fight in Spain. By the time this appears, he may have Danzig [Gdansk] and the Corridor, if not all of Poland.”

      Read and learn, Nick:

  5. Nick Wright said,

    Arguing with unreconstructed Trotskyists of the AWL/Schachtmanite stripe is a bit like arguing with cultists. They inhabit a hermetically sealed world where reason, experience, argument and facts are not allowed to intrude and reading outside of the Cannon (bad pun) seemingly forbidden.
    But let us take it step by step.

    “I must admit to being unfamiliar with the Maisky Diaries, but Cockburn was an upper-class Stalinist hack journalist, not a serious historian nor, as far as can be judged, an educated Marxist of any kind.”

    Maisky was the Soviet ambassador to Britain before and during the war. His diaries have been recently edited by an admittedly critical but scholarly historian and are now the subject of an interesting and informed debate. However, anyone with a passing interest in this period, and especially on the left, will have know about the insights Maisky provided for decades.

    Claud Cockburn, who reported from the Spanish War also edited The Week which published highly revealing inside information from within the bourgeois circles to which he had privileged access and which spelled out the complicity of our ruling class in manoeuvres to construct an anti-Soviet alliance and accommodate Hitler (Munich etc). Thus, when the Daily Worker was banned so was The Week.

    He published numerous autobiographical accounts of the period and Cynthia Cockburn wrote an account of The Week.They have the advantage, for our polemical purposes, of being contemporary accounts, written from personal experience and observation and largely supported by subsequent events.

    It takes immense chutzpah to quote the renegade Schachtman whose take on the Soviet Union in 1939 exactly paralleled the most reactionary section of the bourgeoisie when he writes: “The Stalin regime enjoys only the bitter hatred of the Soviet masses. Its basis continues to narrow every day.’
    Events rather proved that judgment to be at best ill-informed or most probably prejudiced.

    Your quote from Schachtman then goes on to list the conquests made by Hitler. Conquests which were only possible because of the refusal of the Western powers to reach a deal with the Soviet Union – as Maisky, Cockburn and almost every sentient being at the time knew and understood.

    As a footnote you should read Alan Merson’s ‘Communist resistance in Nazi Germany’ which is based on the documents of both the KPD and the Gestapo and which reveal an extended period of quite heroic endeavour by hundreds of thousand of workers and party members.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    “Arguing with unreconstructed Trotskyists of the AWL/Schachtmanite stripe is a bit like arguing with cultists. They inhabit a hermetically sealed world where reason, experience, argument and facts are not allowed to intrude” … unlike, presumably open-minded, “reasonable” worshippers of Joseph Stalin who describe his support for Hitler and the Axis between 1939 – 41 as “brilliant.”

    BTW: in what sense, exactly did “the renegade Schachtman”‘s “take on the Soviet Union in 1939 exactly paralleled the most reactionary section of the bourgeoisie?” In opposing a deal with Hitler?

    • Nick Wright said,

      He thought the Soviet people hated the regime, that its social basis was narrowing, that the Soviet Union was in a an advanced state of degeneration.
      This is the state, party and government for which millions fought and died and in doing so ‘tore the guts out of the nazi army’.
      No wonder he later moved to a congruent anti communist position as a Cold war ‘social democrat’ and supporter of the viciously right wing, pro US imperialist AFL CIO leadership.
      It didn’t take much of a journey.

  7. Jim Denham said,

    The heroism of the soviet peoples and military in WW2 (once the Russian ruling class had changed sides) is not in dispute, but cannot be credited to Stalin and the parasitic “Soviet” ruling class.

    The supposed mass support for the regime and the system was shown to be illusory in 1991, wasn’t it? If it was any kind of “workers’ state” by then, one would have expected the workers to rise up to defend it, surely? Elementary Marxism should teach us that workers will defend their own state and sometimes, too, even their “own” ruling class: but if they don’t do that then it surely is not any kind of “workers; state.”

    As for the hoary old canard about Schachtman’s later political evolution … what about the “renegade Kaustsky? Are all his writings and theoretical works invalidated by his capitulation in 1914?

    • Nick Wright said,

      Hardly a telling comparison. Kautsky was a grand old man of mainstream marxism who collapsed in reformism.

      By way of contrast Schactman was a low grad polemicist who simply rebadged his inveterate anti communism.

      The finest possible link can be deduced from the fact that both were unable to stomach the trials of the actual revolutionary process, Kautsky in relation to the necessary measures to win state power, Schactman for those to hold it.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Shactman was a Marxist intellectual of considerable learning and sophistication as a well as being a labour movement activist who played as leading role in – for instance – the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of the 1930’s. Even his much later retreat into reformism does not diminish his contribution, which stands out in brilliant contrast to the tawdry anti-Marxist dogma and wretched betrayals of Stalinism during his lifetime. For a tenth-rate apologist of the Stalin-Hitler pact to call him “a low grad (sic) polemicist” betrays the sheer ignorance and philistinism of the person making that charge. P.S: I’ve taken the trouble to read Shactman’s impressive body of writing, which is most certainly a better expenditure of time and effort for a Marxist activist in the labour movement, than bothering with the scribblings of a petty bourgeois hack lor some “Soviet” ambassador.

      • Nick Wright said,

        I am sorry for any hurt you might feel

  8. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Nick and Jim. I enjoyed reading your comments. Nick, you know the Soviet Union was not socialist and deep down you probably knew it would collapse. You so called Reds did do your best to undermine NATO for decades and under the cloak of CND tried to disarm Britain and break the relationship with the USA. You lost and now all you ex commies are left with is Putin the arch capitalist and former KGB man. You must feel sad and betrayed. AYE.

    • Political Tourist said,

      Tartan Labour vote to kick Trident into touch.
      Wonder what Better Together will make of that?

      • Glasgow Working Class said,

        Strange lot Labour are nowadays. Would they refuse like the Joke Nat sis to tax the rich and end food banks, who knows.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      I love CND, they write anti-nuclear weapon articles in the pro-nuclear Morning Star newspaper. I mean the MS is anti Britain and America having them but pro China and Cuba having them.

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