Stalinist iconography is not acceptable

July 24, 2017 at 8:10 pm (AWL, labour party, left, posted by JD, reformism, stalinism, thuggery, youth)

Groups help banners with Stalin’s face on

By Cathy Nugent (of Workers Liberty)

In the recent past there has been a minor craze in and around the Labour left for using 1930s Stalinist iconography. This craze, based in social media, ranges from the use of Stalinist socialist realist “art” to images and memes attacking Trotskyists, including ice-picks emojis etc. Some people, so we understand, who volunteer for Momentum like to use jargon attacking Trotskyists, taken from these social media exchanges, such as “Clear Them Out”. They mean that people who support Workers’ Liberty or Socialist Appeal should be expelled from the Labour Party.

In an effort to draw attention to this phenomena, we commented here on a recent example of Stalinist “theatre”, where a prominent member of the Labour left wore a badge saying “Goodnight Trotskyite”, showing a figure being stabbed with an ice-pick — a reference to the murder of Trotsky by Stalin’s assassin Ramón Mercader.

That person apologised. Others, some “satirical Stalinists” around the Facebook page “Red London”, in an attempt, I guess, to defend their right to wield the virtual ice-pick, responded with something more toxic and slanderous in character. They made claims (and not for the first time) of paedophilia against the AWL, based on selectively quoting from two of our articles, both of which were serious discussions about how the tackle the problem of child abuse! They also tried to make fun of a 15-year old comrade of ours by posting a nasty comment about his fundraising activity. Apologising shortly afterwards, they continued to maintain that the dog-walk, advertised on a charity crowdfunding site, was intrinsically funny, thus continuing to ridicule this young man’s endeavours. The Labour left platform Red Labour commented here on this, arguing effectively why Red London are really very unfunny.

We are not thought police, we have no wish to, nor could we, ban this iconography and group-think. Jokes and memes have their place in the movement, as they have in life. However, we believe it is time to spell out the political implications of the Stalinist craze.

It has been said that real Stalinists – people that adhere to the state ideology of the Soviet Union from the1930s onwards – no longer exist. That very few people in the UK labour movement believe the Soviet Union was a socialist utopia. Pretend Stalinism is therefore fairly “safe” silliness. Not so.

There are small groups of people who are proudly Stalinist. Some of them are very influential: ex-Guardian journalist Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union, are both central to the Labour leadership’s inner circle. Both were members of a former Stalinist sect “Straight Left”, and they have not changed their views. Then there are groups like Red London, and individuals who operate at a very different level to Milne and Murray. (And, to be clear Corbyn himself is not a carbon copy of his advisors, and, always deals with political disputes in a comradely way.)

The likes of Red London use hateful trolling because they know it will be both tolerated and feared, or rather it will be tolerated because it is feared. Nobody wants to get in their way of their slanders. But they get their tactics of abuse and slander, some of it very personal, straight out of the High Stalinist playbook.

Many of today’s Stalinists and semi-Stalinists are inculcated into their views, and an operating policy of slander and lies, through a simplistic world view. For example, that the Soviet Union was a mighty power against Hitler and against American imperialism. That the Soviet Union was a great ally of small and oppressed nations. People, such as ourselves, Trotskyists in general, some anarchists and left libertarians, or anyone who challenges these views are regarded as being on the “other side” of a political binary. We are enemies, collaborators, sometimes we “have right-wing handlers” etc, etc.

Simplistic views are often seductive. Moreover “campist” views have many ways to become operational in contemporary politics. In the Stop the War Coalition, for instance, which for many years, under the influence of George Galloway, refused to make solidarity with Iraqi trade unionists because, they did not show sufficient “vigilence” against the US occupation. The Stalinist “register” can be a useful way to dress-up right wing ideas in left-wing garb, e.g. when taking up an anti-migrant line. As we argued elsewhere: “The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office.”

Stalinism was the ideology of ruling-classes which for over fifty years had a powerful influence in the world. That is why it still has historical weight, still shapes political consensus on the left and is still grasped at by people trying to make sense of the world. It is one of the reasons why it is difficult to make arguments against Stalinism, and why Trotskyists look like “outsiders”, who, by not accepting this consensus, are trying to make life difficult for everyone else.

These views are seductive in another way. Unfortunately, because today’s Stalinist current is associated with people who have some power who have some influence in the labour movement, it has becomes popular, or tolerable to some newer people seeking to integrate themselves or to win positions in the labour movement.

Much more can be said, and should be said about how the Soviet ruling class brutally repressed the working-class and cauterised labour movements around the world using the language of Marxism and socialism as it’s ideology. To repeat, it was a powerful movement and the residual notion that it was somehow the champion of the oppressed not only lingers on, but is being renewed and can be renewed further through by helping to give Stalinist iconography currency. Unfortunately, that is how history works: residual ideas, the action plans of the dead, come back into circulation to serve the purposes of the living. As Marx said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

We must continually remind ourselves what this Soviet ruling class was and what it did: of the gulags it built, how it systematically murdered all its political opponents, its callous indifference to mass starvation as a result of its economic plans, at the licensed mass-raping of German women for revenge at the end of the Second World War. And so on. All of these historical events and many more are backed up by serious research and evidence; we have no excuse not to be clear on these points.

Workers’ Liberty often works with people who were members of or influenced by the Communist Party (Morning Star) in labour movement campaigns. Twenty years ago we worked closely with such people, and for a long-time very productively, in the Welfare State Network. But we never told ourselves lies about their political views, nor stood back from stating what and abuse.

Simplistic views are often seductive. Moreover “campist” views have many ways to become operational in contemporary politics. In the Stop the War Coalition, for instance, which for many years, under the influence of George Galloway, refused to make solidarity with Iraqi trade unionists because, they did not show sufficient “vigilence” against the US occupation. The Stalinist “register” can be a useful way to dress-up right wing ideas in left-wing garb, e.g. when taking up an anti-migrant line. As we argued elsewhere: “The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a ‘People’s Brexit’, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office.”

Stalinism was the ideology of ruling-classes which for over fifty years had a powerful influence in the world. That is why it still has historical weight, still shapes political consensus on the left and is still grasped at by people trying to make sense of the world. It is one of the reasons why it is difficult to make arguments against Stalinism, and why Trotskyists look like “outsiders”, who, by not accepting this consensus, are trying to make life difficult for everyone else.

These views are seductive in another way. Unfortunately, because today’s Stalinist current is associated with people who have some power who have some influence in the labour movement, it has becomes popular, or tolerable to some newer people seeking to integrate themselves or to win positions in the labour movement.

Much more can be said, and should be said about how the Soviet ruling class brutally repressed the working-class and cauterised labour movements around the world using the language of Marxism and socialism as it’s ideology. To repeat, it was a powerful movement and the residual notion that it was somehow the champion of the oppressed not only lingers on, but is being renewed and can be renewed further through by helping to give Stalinist iconography currency. Unfortunately, that is how history works: residual ideas, the action plans of the dead, come back into circulation to serve the purposes of the living. As Marx said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

We must continually remind ourselves what this Soviet ruling class was and what it did: of the gulags it built, how it systematically murdered all its political opponents, its callous indifference to mass starvation as a result of its economic plans, at the licensed mass-raping of German women for revenge at the end of the Second World War. And so on. All of these historical events and many more are backed up by serious research and evidence; we have no excuse not to be clear on these points.

Workers’ Liberty often works with people who were members of or influenced by the Communist Party (Morning Star) in labour movement campaigns. Twenty years ago we worked closely with such people, and for a long-time very productively, in the Welfare State Network. But we never told ourselves lies about their political views, nor stood back from stating what is wrong with those views. Therefore we think we are in a good position to appeal to people on the left, people who maybe regard themselves as “not Leninist”, or who are not sure about whether there is a role for Marxist ideas in the Labour Party, not to laugh along with the anti-Trotskyist jokes, but rather, to try to encourage debate on the underlying issues.

There is a wide spectrum of political traditions and current political beliefs among the people who now want to change the world and see it cleansed of oppression and exploitation. Many of us, including ourselves, see a great opportunity to fight back against oppression in a Corbyn-led Labour government. To make a good job of that opportunity we do need to unite, but not by way of dealing with our differences through abuse and puerile behaviour. Fighting to make the most of these opportunities means opening up thoughtful and comradely debate at every level, including on social media.

We need a movement that takes the historical crimes of Stalinism seriously and recognises its current manifestations. We need to be able to debate the historical record, from whatever our point of view, without fear of slander and abuse.

10 Comments

  1. /home/KB (@KB_HORS) said,

    Trotskyism is incorrect and will never generate a revolutionary movement, nor can it even survive anywhere in the world a revolutionary movement is generated. Trotskyist complaints about Stalin’s continued popularity with revolutionaries serve only to further alienate trotskyists and trotskyism from the revolution. If your ideas were correct you would succeed, but they aren’t, so you don’t, so you are reduced to agreeing with the bourgeoisie about everything.

    It’s sad that you don’t even have any replies except the “stalinist” you delete.

    • Jim Denham said,

      “Stalin’s continued popularity with revolutionaries” errr: you think so? Not in my experience. Any popularity is limited to reformist bureaucrats, elderly anti-semites and ignorant, silly kids.

      • /home/KB (@KB_HORS) said,

        Hey look a trotskyist is being eurocentric again. You’re not a revolutionary because you harass people to buy newspapers outside trade union meetings in England. Revolutionaries are the ones that pick up arms. The Naxals, the FARC, Nepal’s Maoists, those are revolutionaries, and they like Stalin very much. Every past communist revolution has been done by people who liked Stalin very much.

        The reason for this is as I said. Trotskyism is incorrect and will never generate a revolutionary movement, nor can it even survive anywhere in the world a revolutionary movement is generated. It can only survive in western europe and north america, as a movement of niche newspaper sellers and sign wavers.

    • Dave said,

      Here’s a reply for you. Trotskyism has
      not succeeded because it’s ideas are not
      correct. Now I’m no Trotskyist but I have
      to point out that it takes more than ‘the
      right ideas’ to succeed politically. VI
      Lenin’s great ‘genius’ was to be in the
      right place at the right time or at least
      he was once he stepped from his
      ‘sealed train’. The fact is that Trotskyism
      and Stalinism represent a split in the
      Church of Lenin with both fighting over
      his bones. As Leninists both stand in
      a revolutionary socialist tradition which
      has nothing to do with democracy and
      so nothing to do with socialism. Look
      at the state Lenin built before Stalin
      took over: all governmental organs were
      subordinate to the Communist Party,
      freedom of expression was crushed and
      a terror state via the Cheka was
      was established. Trotsky for his part
      wanted to militiarise labour and abolish
      Trade Unions which were apparently not
      required in a Worker’s State. The
      breakneck industrialisation which
      claimed many lives was pushed for
      by Trotsky in the 20’s. The show trials
      of SR’s in the early 20’s did not meet
      with Trotsky’s dissaproval but rather
      his enthusiasm. It was only when Stalin
      carried out show trials in the 30’s after
      Trotsky’s political defeat in the USSR that
      ‘the Old Man’ found something wrong with
      them.
      So both ‘traditions’ share the same Leninist
      heritage and it is necessary to ask why
      either a Trotskyist or a Stalinist would
      want to be members of the Democratic
      Socialist Labour Party an organisation
      Lenin despised ‘we support the Labour
      Party as the rope supports a hanging man’.
      The answer is I think a simple one. In the
      modern world Lenninsm is an irrelevance
      and so ‘revolutionaries’ join our Reformist
      Party in order to huddle a little closer to
      the fire and pretend they are somehow
      relevant. Reformist Socialism itself has
      struggled for relevance over the past 30 or
      so years as for Leninism it is rightly
      in the trash can of history. Trotskyism
      has never been politically significant while
      Stalinism was s major world player
      murdering and oppressing millions that’s
      the main difference between the two but
      then Trotsky lost in the 20’s and so never
      had that ‘opportunity.’
      Having covered the history I would say
      however that I find this blog informative
      and that it takes a decent line on a lot of
      contemporary politics from the Middle East
      to Brexit. As for the likes of the Morning
      Star they are a joke and on are like a dog
      sniffing and whining around the corpse of
      dead master the thankfully deceased
      USSR. I’m Putin is appreciative.
      However the Labour Party is not the Party
      of Stalin, Trotsky or VI Lenin.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Dave: you raise some important points that deserve a serious response, but for now I’ll merely point out that you repeat a common error when you state that Lenin said “‘we support the Labour
        Party as the rope supports a hanging man”.

        What he actually wrote was “I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man” (Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder). I think this represents an important difference.

        https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/

        Arthur Henderson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Henderson

      • Dave said,

        Thanks for the reply Jim I accept my Lenin quote was bowdlerised though I don’t
        think Arthur Henderson would appreciate the distinction you made.
        Our Stalinist friend likes his guns doesn’t he.
        Maybe he’s a Trump supporter in disguise.
        Someone should remind him that the rotten,
        maggot ridden edifice of the USSR collapsed
        without the need for fireworks and the spirits
        of the workers if 53, 56 and 68 applauded.

  2. Political Tourist said,

    Does anybody take last the few members of the Uncle Joe fan club seriously at this point in history?

    • Dave said,

      The Morning Star is still taken seriously in some sections of the Labour Movement.
      I’m not saying this is a good thing it isn’t it’s
      a bad thing.

  3. The new left can be post-truth too – Open Democracy – ItsInvisible said,

    […] later, I circulated a link to a timely post by Cathy Nugent, on the Shiraz Socialist blog, titled ‘Stalinist iconography is not acceptable‘. This was greeted by laddish sneering from the […]

  4. The new left can be post-truth too – ADC Voice said,

    […] later, I circulated a link to a timely post by Cathy Nugent, on the Shiraz Socialist blog, titled ‘Stalinist iconography is not acceptable‘. This was greeted by laddish sneering from the same ‘comrade’. It was telling […]

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