The Death of Stalin: history as tragedy *and* farce

October 22, 2017 at 2:02 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, cinema, comedy, film, Jim D, murder, parasites, stalinism, terror, thuggery, tragedy, truth, USSR)

Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is, therefore, the return of man himself as a social, ie really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism as fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully-developed humanism is naturalism” – Marx, Third Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, 1844 (Marx’s own emphases).

Stalinism, that murderous negation of Marx’s humanism and the emancipatory ideals of October 1917, seems to be making a minor comeback in British politics. It’s no secret that at least two of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers are dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists and (I’m told) cod-Stalinist iconography and rhetoric is worryingly prevalent within Young Labour. That semi-official mouthpiece of middle class liberalism, the Guardian, recently published a letter defending the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, the alliance between Stalin and Hitler that set off the Second World War.

Since most present-day Stalinists and would-be Stalinists are (in my experience) not particularly interested in either Marxist theory or serious history, perhaps farce is the best way to begin to educate them. The Death of Stalin bills itself as “loosely based on a true story” and it’s certainly the case that director Amando Iannucci has taken plenty of liberties with the facts surrounding the death of the mass-murdering tyrant in March 1953: as historian Richard Overy has pointed out, Vyacheslav Molotov was not foreign minister when Stalin died; Marshal Zukov did not command the Red Army at the time, having been exiled to the provinces; Krushchev, not Malenkov chaired the meeting to re-organise the government; and Beria had ceased to be head of security in 1946.

But all this is really beside the point: the film is a caricature, and like all the best caricatures, it tells a fundamental truth: that the danse macabre of these apparatchiks as they jostled for position following the monster’s death was as grotesque, absurd and cynical as anything Iannuncci has previously satirised in his depictions of contemporary bourgeois politics (The Thick of It / In the Loop and Veep), but more deadly. And, of course, it is all a million miles from the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution that these gargoyles had strangled.

The scenes immediately following the apparent ‘death’ (and brief, terrifying revival, before real death) contain at least two real truths: that the apparatchiks dithered over whether to call a doctor for several interconnected reasons: fear of  being seen as disloyal, the wish to see Stalin gone in order to succeed him, and secondly, the fact that many doctors  had been murdered, imprisoned or ceased practicing as a result of the so-called Doctors’ Plot, an antisemitic campaign in which senior medics were accused, preposterously, of belonging to a “Zionist terror gang” (today’s leftist “anti-Zionists” take note).

Is this a suitable subject for comedy – even comedy as consciously dark as this? Mr Overy thinks not, complaining that whereas “the audience reaction to Downfall was serious reflection about the Hitler dictatorship … The Death of Stalin suggests Soviet politics can be treated as opera buffa”.

Again, I beg to differ: though the film is genuinely very funny, the laughs are frequently brought to a sudden end with the sounds of pistol-shots as prisoners are summarily dispatched, a body rolls down the stairs as a torture session is briefly revealed, and the sadist, mass murderer and rapist Lavrentiy Beria (brilliantly portrayed by Simon Russell Beale) casually orders a soldier to “shoot her before him – but make sure he sees it.”

The diabolical figure of Beria dominates the film like a monstrous, manipulative, poisonous toad whose eventual cum-uppance (another historical inaccuracy, by the way; he wasn’t executed until December 1953, months after the period covered by the film) had me silently cheering – and then feeling ashamed: had Beria, from beyond the grave, degraded my humanity to the degree that I was entertained by a brutal killing?

In fact, it is Russell Beale’s extraordinary performance as Beria that is, simultaneously, the film’s greatest strength and its central weakness: so satanically malevolent is he, that the other apparatchiks seem almost likeable – or, at least, pitiable. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) comes over as a nervous, failed stand-up comedian, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor – Hank from The Larry Sanders Show) is weak, vain and pathetic, while Molotov (Michael Palin) is simply a tragic, broken man, not least when Beria tricks him into denouncing his own wife, in her presence.

So this is not definitive history, and makes no pretence of being so. But it tells a real truth: that Stalin and his courtiers were at least as venal and corrupt as the very worst bourgeois politician, and a thousand times more murderous (OK: Trump may yet cause me to reassess that judgement). They, and the regime they created out of the ruins of the October revolution, had nothing to do with socialism or communism – not, that is, if like Marx, you believe that communism must be “fully-developed naturalism [and] humanism.” It’s a tragedy that a new generation of would-be socialists (some not even born when the workers of Eastern Europe overthrew Stalinism in 1989-90) are going to have to learn this lesson from scratch. Let us hope that Iannucci’s darkly comic and horrifically wise film sets at least some young comrades on a journey to the truth.

20 Comments

  1. rotzeichen said,

    ““Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is, therefore, the return of man himself as a social, ie really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism as fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully-developed humanism is naturalism” – Marx, Third Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, 1844 (Marx’s own emphases).

    Stalinism, that murderous negation of Marx’s humanism and the emancipatory ideals of October 1917, seems to be making a minor comeback in British politics. It’s no secret that at least two of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers are dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists and (I’m told) cod-Stalinist iconography and rhetoric is worryingly prevalent within Young Labour. That semi-official mouthpiece of middle class liberalism, the Guardian, recently published a letter defending the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, the alliance between Stalin and Hitler that set off the Second World War.”

    I read thus far, anticipating that the drivel written above was really an overt attack, once again on Jeremy Corbyn.

    I note the constant tendency on this site to accuse people of being Stalinists or anti-Semites, particularly those that speak in support of Jeremy Corbyn.

    When following through this diatribe referred to as an article, one could assume that we are being overrun by Stalinists in every corner, that I had better look under my bed at night just in case one is hiding there.

    This is clearly just more propaganda attacking our modern Labour Party under a dedicated leader who stands for everything this so called Socialist site doesn’t.

    The only Stalinists that I have ever encountered, is ones that perpetrate this form of propaganda on this site.

    But then Jim Denham, will very quickly jump up from the depths to announce that of course if you disagree with this propaganda then you must by virtue be a Stalinist.

    People that call other people names have already lost the argument, I would also point out that it is a good job you don’t mention who the so called people you accuse of being stalinists as you could find yourselves being charged for slander, because that is exactly what it is.

    So prove me wrong and name these two who are so say close to Jeremy Corbyn.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      The fact that tens of thousands paid their money to get a vote for Corbyn speaks for itself. Where were they, what were they doing and what party did they belong to previously? It seems to me that the mad left began to realise they would never get elected and changed tact.
      Corbyn will never lead a Labour Government.

    • Dave said,

      You will see from my other comment on this thread that I don’t ‘exactly’ agree with
      everything in this piece. However to see it
      in any way as an attack on JC would
      require a paranoid conspiratorial
      mindset of some grandeur.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    rotzeichen: Half of what you describe as “the drivel written above ” was written by Karl Marx, not me.

    As for ” it is a good job you don’t mention who the so called people you accuse of being stalinists as you could find yourselves being charged for slander”, I have already done so in previous posts, and never been threatened with legal action: I am happy to do so again: Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray.

    In fact, such is my confidence in the truth I tell, and the inability of Stalinist wankers to challenge me, that I’ve added this link to the ATP:
    http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2017-07-26/dangers-stalinism-labour

    OK? Proved you wrong, comrade?

    • Dave said,

      Have to agree, Murray and Milne are
      Stalinists as well as being over-privileged
      arse holes. Ooooh I love posh tankies,
      they want to kill everybody on behalf of
      the rest of us.

      • rotzeichen said,

        Clearly you are well up on conspiracy theories, only to promote your own version for propagandist material found in the gutter.

        Desperate stuff, for desperate causes, it never ceases to amaze me how reactionary people degrade themselves thinking that others can’t see through them.

      • Dave said,

        And then after some thought they want
        to kill the rest of us.

    • rotzeichen said,

      I would hope they would take action against you, as you deserve it, but perhaps they think you are so insignificant as to be not worth the bother, name callers have in anyway already lost the argument.

      By the way you are no comrade.

  3. Dave said,

    Ain’t it strange that every time Marxism steps
    from the text book to the real world we
    end up with this shit. And I seem to
    remember that there was also a bit of
    ‘cynical’ maneuvering on the death of the
    Dictator Lenin who established the foundations
    of the one Party state, suppression of all
    Opposition and terror via the Cheka as a
    routine function of government. It was the
    Bolshevik Putsch of October that ‘strangled’
    the February Revolution and ended any hopes
    that Russia had for democratic socialism.

    • Dave said,

      Rotzeichen: try responding with argument
      me old mucker rather than generalised
      insult. On what do you base
      ‘reactionary’? nice little throw away line.
      Safety blanket for the ultra-left,

  4. John Rogan said,

    Straight Left was a newspaper and name of the Stalinist opposition within the old CPGB. As an entryist group, what distinguished it was that it had members in both the CPGB and Labour Party. Their newspaper persuaded leading Labour and TU people (Joan Maynard MP (and Labour NEC) and Ray Buckton ASLEF) to serve on the editorial board.

    Seumas Milne (Corbyn’s “Executive Director of Strategy and Communications”) was a member of the Labour Party and the business manager of the newspaper Straight Left. Andrew Murray (who recently joined Labour from the Communist Party of Britain and helped in the General Election) was also a member of Straight Left. In contrast to Milne, though, he was a member of the (now-dissolved) Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Recently, another ex-member of Straight Left, Steve Howell, was deputy to Milne but has now left that post.

    More on the Straight Left here –

    https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/category/straight-left/

    • Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) said,

      How would you describe socialism from the Shiraz perspective?

      • John Rogan said,

        Shiraz is a member of the AWL. I wrote a piece a while ago giving my view on the AWL and democracy. Here’s the link and something which gives a taste of it –

        “Democratic Socialism vs Revolutionary Socialism.

        So, what is the attitude of the AWL to democracy and, in particular, parliamentary democracy? Their claim above is that they are “democratic” and that Trotskyism is a “democratic” tradition.

        The Labour Party is a supporter and defender of using parliamentary democracy to further its programme. Trotskyists (including the AWL) see parliament as a platform to further the cause of revolution and, ultimately, overthrow it and counterpose a “better’ democracy, a “workers’ democracy”. In the same way, to the AWL, being in the Labour Party is a tactic in the building of a “better” party namely, a revolutionary party.

        The AWL stand in the traditions of the Bolsheviks who, in February 1918, overthrew the fledgling Russian parliament, the Constituent Assembly, when they received only 25% of the vote.

        They proposed instead “All Power to the Soviets” and, when the votes there didn’t go the way they wanted, banned democratic socialist parties, anarchists etc and, ultimately banned factions in their own party as they consolidated their one party state.”

        View story at Medium.com

  5. Craig W Simmons said,

    Communism in the USSR, as is usually the case elsewhere, left those republics better off than the countries and areas preceding it. Of course there was brutality under Stalin, although the death toll is obviously inflated by those with various agendas (e.g., unstable estimates from 3 to 80 million).

    • rotzeichen said,

      That is the sum total of the debate here, it’s ok for capitalists to brutalise their populations, but when it comes to socialism the inflated outrage grows with every condemnation, without a genuine diagnosis of the reality.

      I would say it’s the difference between those that believe in democracy and those that are intent on subverting it.

      • Craig W Simmons said,

        Thank you rotzeichen. Indeed, many ‘socialists’ require a Stalin symbol- refurbished as needed of course, He serves as absolution for their inactions and unspoken preference for market based lives. Very useful to them when their Macrons mock the poor or their Mitterands blow up Greenpeace ships.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Craig Simmons: you mean Stalin’s just a “symbol”? Some sort of post-modern simulcrum who didn’t really exist? And he *wasn’t* responsible for the deaths of millions (rather more than the Macrons and Mitterands of this world)?

        Or what the hell, exactly. *do* you mean?

      • rotzeichen said,

        Jim your scatter-gun approach to politics is to tar anyone that doesn’t fit into your narrow agenda as Stalinist.

        You condemn yourself every time you use it.

  6. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Craig W Simmons, you must be a public school boy! Perhaps Cambridge.

  7. Craig W Simmons said,

    Not sure if that’s a slam or a compliment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: