As the 60th anniversary of the heroic anti-Stalinist uprising in Hungary approaches, Chris Birch – one of the few surviving eye-witnesses – replies to a request for further information in a letter to the Morning Star:
Chris Gould asks (M Star October 11) for an analysis of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its effects. I was working in Budapest before, during and after the fighting and met Matyas Rakoski, the general secretary of the Hungarian Working People’s Party and the man largely responsible for the crimes and policy mistakes that led to the uprising in October 1956.
It started with a student demonstration at the Petofi memorial, demanding to be allowed to travel to Western countries. It had been banned, then the ban was lifted and I went to look.
During the afternoon the demonstration grew to immense proportions, and the party’s first secretary went on the radio to denounce the demonstrators, many of whom were communists, as “counter-revolutionaries.”
He said that the policies of the party and the government were correct and would not be changed. I was in Parliament Square listening to the broadcast, and the good humour of the crowd visibly turned to anger. A fortnight later I found myself trying to bandage Soviet soldiers.
Soon after my comrade Charlie Coutts and I returned to London, we had a meeting with Communist Party of Great Britian (CPGB) general secretary Johnny Gollan, and presented him with a 19-page document simply headed “HUNGARY: Charlie Coutts and Chris Birch.”
It covered our views on party democracy in Hungary, Hungarian and Soviet party relations, democracy and corruption. Gollan passed it on to the Soviet ambassador in London and he sent it on to the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and to the Soviet foreign office in Moscow. It was eventually published in a Soviet journal.
John Callaghan in his “Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68” gives a brief account of what was happening in Hungary in 1956 and a fuller account of their effects on the British party. I hope the above may help Mr Gould.
CHRIS BIRCH London SW6
JD recommends some reading and resources:
1956: the Hungarian revolution – A short and clearly written history of the Hungarian workers’ revolution against the Communist dictatorship.
- Hungary ’56 – Andy Anderson – Excellent pamphlet, published by Solidarity. An invaluable guide to the events of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
- Hungary ’56: “the proletariat storming heaven” – Mouvement Communiste – Analysis of the Hungarian workers’ uprising, stressing the importance of the collective action taken by workers and critically examining the demands and programmes they put forward.
- Hungarian Tragedy – Peter Fryer An account of events in Hungary 1956 by Peter Fryer, then a columnist for the Daily Worker, the official paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
- The Hungarian revolution: 1956 – Anonymous account of the events of the near revolution of 1956, containing interesting information from interviews with participants.
- United Nations report on the Hungarian uprising 1956 – UN special committee report on the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Examines the revolutionary workers councils established by Hungarian workers, and analyses the dangers they posed to both the Soviet bureaucracy and capitalism.
- Hungary ’56 – Nick Heath – History of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, published as a special supplement of Anarchist Worker on the 20th anniversary in 1976.
- The Hungarian workers’ revolution – Syndicalist Workers’ Federation – Revised second edition of a pamphlet written by British syndicalists in 1957.
- Hungary 56 photo gallery – Photo gallery of the events in Hungary 1956
Biteback Publishing, 2016, pp. 320.
By Dale Street (this review also appears on the Workers Liberty website)
Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism is not quite what its subtitle suggests it is. But that does not make the book, published a fortnight ago, any the less worth reading.
The focus of the book is not Corbyn. At its core is an attempt to provide an explanation of “how and why antisemitism appears on the left, and an appeal to the left to understand, identify and expel antisemitism from its politics.”
The antisemitism in question is not the ‘traditional’ racist version. It is an antisemitism which is rooted in “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel”, albeit one which frequently incorporates anti-semitic stereotypes and tropes. The paradoxical result is that its proponents “believe anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews, while not feeling any visceral hostility towards them and while thinking of themselves as anti-racists.”
The historical starting point of Rich’s explanation is the emergence of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Left, argues Rich, turned away from traditional class politics and focused instead on identity politics and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. In its most extreme form, this involved writing off the working class as the decisive agent of social change. Instead, “Third World struggles were the new focus of world revolution”, and armed conflict was the highest form of those struggles.
Especially in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, this way of looking at the world increasingly identified Israel as a bastion of imperialist oppression. The Palestinians, on the other hand, were allocated a place in the front ranks of the anti-imperialist forces. Two other factors reinforced this overly simplistic and ultimately anti-semitic conceptualisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Firstly, the Soviet Union relaunched a massive state-run “anti-Zionist” campaign based on thinly disguised — and sometimes not even that — antisemitism. Traditional anti-semitic themes — rich, powerful, cruel, manipulative Jews — were recast in the language of “anti-Zionism”. The Soviet campaign portrayed Israel itself as an outpost and bridgehead of US imperialism in the Middle East. It was ultra- aggressive, ultra-expansionist and committed to the military conquest of the surrounding Arab states.
Secondly, British Young Liberals, trying to replicate the success of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, recast Israel as an apartheid state in which the indigenous Arab population suffered the same levels of discrimination as Blacks in South Africa. Rich writes: “The Young Liberals established an enduring template for left-wing anti-Zionism in Britain. … It is common to blame Trotskyists and other Marxists for the spread of anti-Zionism on the left. In reality, this movement was kick-started by Young Liberals and Arab nationalist activists, funded by Arab governments.”
Peter Hain, a future Labour MP but then a leading figure in the Young Liberals, played a particularly prominent role in the creation of this “anti-Zionist” template: “The world cannot allow its shame over its historic persecution of Jews to rationalise the present persecution of the Palestinians. The case for the replacement of Israel by a democratic secular state of Palestine must be put uncompromisingly.”
“They (Israeli Jews) can recognise now that the tide of history is against their brand of greedy oppression, or they can dig in and invite a bloodbath. … [Israel keeps Palestinians] in far more oppressive conditions in fact than many black South Africans live.”
By the mid-1970s the main elements of what now — and long since — passes for “anti-Zionism” on sections of the British left were already in place. Zionism was not just another nationalism. It was a uniquely evil ideology, inherently racist, and necessarily genocidal. Israel was an “illegitimate” apartheid state, a colonial enterprise equated to the dispossession of the Palestinians, and incapable of reform.
Rich goes on to provide examples of how such themes were amplified and built upon in subsequent years. If Israel was, as claimed, an apartheid state, then it was a “legitimate” target for a comprehensive programme of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. This has now “climaxed” in the decision of some British union to boycott the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union federation. If Zionism was, as claimed, a form of racism, then it was “legitimate” for Student Unions to refuse to fund Jewish Societies which failed to disavow Zionism.
The mid-1970s and the mid-1980s saw repeated attempts to ban Jewish societies on this basis. If Zionism was, as claimed, inherently genocidal, then it was “legitimate” to equate it with Nazism — an equation which became increasingly common in sections of the left press and on placards on pro-Palestine demonstrations. And if Israel and Zionism were guilty as claimed, then a common “anti-imperialism” made it “legitimate” to ally with forces hostile to the most basic values of the left. This found expression in the SWP-Muslim Association of Britain alliance in the Stop the War Coalition.
As the ultimate example of this “way of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” Rich quotes from a letter published by the Morning Star, written by a veteran reader and Communist Party member: “Israel, and all that Israel has done and is doing, is an affront to all those millions who fought and died fighting fascism before, during and after the war against fascism. … A few years ago [an Italian partisan who survived Dachau] committed suicide. He left a note saying that the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps.”
As Rich points out, such “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” bring those sections of the left which espouse them into conflict with most Jews in Britain (and the world): “Israel’s existence is an important part of what it means to be Jewish today. The idea that Israel shouldn’t exist or that Zionism was a racist, colonial endeavour rather than a legitimate expression of Jewish nationhood, cuts to the heart of British Jews’ sense of identity of who they are.”
Rich concludes: “There has been a breakdown in trust and understanding between British Jews, the Labour Party, and the broader left. There are parts of the left where most Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. … It’s not too late to bring this relationship back to health.”
Despite the book’s subtitle, Corbyn himself appears only spasmodically in the book. Rich rightly criticises Corbyn for various statements on Israel which he has made over the years and for his patronage of campaigns which have served as incubators for left antisemitism. Corbyn’s inability to understand left antisemitism is also highlighted by Rich. Corbyn seems to hold the view that left antisemitism is an oxymoron – only the far right can be anti-semitic – and that accusations of antisemitism are raised in bad faith to undermine criticism of Israel.
More open to challenge is Rich’s description of Corbyn as being “ambiguous” on Israel’s right to exist. It is certainly true that the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine which Corbyn supported in the early 1980s was rabidly hostile to Israel’s existence. (The campaign was set up by Tony Greenstein.) But Corbyn’s overall record has been one of backing a “two states solution”.
But Rich is not overly concerned with Corbyn’s own views on Israel and antisemitism. For Rich, Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader “symbolises” — and Rich uses the word on more than one occasion — something more profound. Corbyn’s “political home” was the New Left which spawned left antisemitism. His election as party leader means that “what was once on the fringes of the left” is now centre-stage. Corbyn’s election was “the ultimate New Left triumph rather than a return to Old Labour.”
This is true in the sense that some people around Corbyn, including ones in senior positions, espouse the left antisemitism which began to emerge in the years of the New Left and then spread like a cancer in subsequent years. But it is also very wrong, in the sense that the primary factor which galvanised support for Corbyn’s leadership bid was the fact that he was seen as, and presented himself as, the pre-Blairite Old-Labour anti-austerity leadership contender.
In an isolated moment of clutching at straws to back up an argument, Rich even cites preposterous claims by arch-Stalinist Andrew Murray and his fellow traveller Lindsey German that the Stop the War Coalition — now little more than a rump and a website — was the decisive factor in Corbyn’s
Such secondary criticisms apart, Rich’s book is a valuable summary of the historical development of left antisemitism in Britain: not just a timely reminder of older arguments but also a source of new insights into its emergence. And no-one should be put off reading Rich’s book by the fulsome praise which Nick Cohen has heaped upon it, albeit at the expense of ignoring and misrepresenting what Rich has actually written: “How a party that was once proud of its anti-fascist traditions became the natural home for creeps, cranks and conspiracists is the subject of Dave Rich’s authoritative history of left antisemitism. … Representatives of the darkest left factions control Labour and much of the trade union movement, and dominate the intelligentsia.”
Cohen once wrote a serious critique of sections of the far left at a certain stage of their degeneration. But now he just bumbles along as a political court jester and professional Mr. Angry. Rich, by contrast, is trying to open up a political argument.
“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:
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. Read the rest of this entry »
August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
You can order a copy of the book here
The death yesterday of Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, reminds us of the pathetic attempt by public school Stalinist hack Seumas Mine to challenge Conquest’s facts about the death-toll brought about by Stalinism.
The following article by Milne, written shortly before the final collapse of the USSR, appeared in the Guardian of March 10 1990. Until we republished it here at Shiraz (29 September 2012) it was not available anywhere else online, nor is it included in the 2012 book, wonderfully entitled The Revenge of History, made up of the “cream” of Milne’s Guardian columns. Conquest was a right-winger and virulent anti-communist: but he was an objective and thoroughly scupulous historian. Milne’s desperate attempt to challenge Conquest’s estimated death-toll (later verified as substantially correct when the Soviet archives were fully opened in 1991) is, perversely, a tribute to an honest man:
In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his pioneering work, The Great Terror (first published in 1968) Conquest stated that in the light of documents released since 1991 from the Presidential, State, Party and Police archives, and the declassification by Russia’s Federal Security Service of some 2 million secret documents:
“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million.”
From THE GUARDIAN Saturday March 10 1990
The figure of 25 million deaths that is being attributed to the Stalin regime should be revised in the light of glasnost reports. Seumas Milne analyses new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations
Stalin’s missing millions
All over South-east of England billboards have appeared in the past week declaring: “Once upon a time there was an uncle who murdered 25 million of his children.” Next to this startling slogan is a photograph of the man who was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union for a generation, hugging an Aryan-looking Young Pioneer with pigtails.
The advertisement is a trailer for Thames Television’s block-buster documentary series on the life of Stalin, which begins on Tuesday. Forthcoming press publicity will follow a similar theme, setting out the kind of absurdities which could have led to arrest and execution at the height of the Soviet Terror in the late 1930’s.
The programmes come as glasnost has provoked a stream of new information and memoirs about the Stalin era in the Soviet Union itself, 30 years after Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing his former boss led to the first phase of revelations and rehabilitations. For the most part attention in the Soviet media has turned to more pressing problems. But the flood of new horror stories has emboldened an academic and political current which is bent on overturning the consensus view of Hitler and Nazism as the supreme evil of 20th century history.
Not only is it increasingly common for Stalin to be bracketed with Hitler as the twin monster of the modern era, even in the Soviet Union, but in West Germany and Austria a significant “revisionist” academic trend — represented by historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hilgruber, and Ernst Topitsch — goes on to argue that the Stalinist system was actually responsible for the Nazis and the second world war.
Central to these debates is the issue of the number of Stalin’s victims. Controversy about the scale of repression in the Stalin era has rumbled on in Western universities for many years, and has now been joined by Soviet experts who are equally divided. Thames Television, with its 25 million deaths, has opted for the furthest extreme.
Hitherto, the British writer Robert Conquest who in the 1950’s worked for the Foreign Office propaganda outfit IRD, led the field with his view that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths. Phillip Whitehead, one of the Stalin series producers, says he is not to blame for the advertising campaign but thinks a 25 million figure can be defended if the Soviet dead in the first three months of the Nazi invasion of 1941 are included on the grounds of Stalin’s negligence.
But even that is not enough for Thomas Methuen, publishers of of the companion book to the series, who bid up the figure to 30 million in their publicity and — in an echo of the German revisionists — describe Stalin as “the greatest mass killer of the 20th century.” The record estimate so far has been 50 million, made in the Sunday Times two years nago.
There are three basic catagories of people usually regarded as Stalin’s victims: first there are those executed for political offences, most of whom died in the Terror years of 1937-8. Then there are those who died in the labour camps or in the process of mass deportations. Finally — and almost certainly the biggest number — there are the peasants who died during the famine of the early 30s.
In the complete absence of any hard evidence from the Soviet Union, estimates for a grand total of all three have been made by extrapolating the number of “excess deaths” from census figures. This process is fraught with statistical problems, including the fact that the 1937 census was supported, and the 1939 census is thought to have been artificially inflated by terrified Soviet statisticians.. Add to that disputes about the size of peasant families and the possibilities for discrepancies multiply.
Among Soviet specialists and demographers in the West, the majority view appears to be that the kind of numbers used by Robert Conquest and his supporters are wildly exaggerated. Prof Sheila Fitzpatrick, of Chicago University comments: “the younger generation of Soviet historians tend to go for far lower numbers. There is no basis in fact for Conquest’s claims.”
Some of the most recent Western demographic analysis, by Barbera Anderson and Brian Silver in the US, estimates that the most likely figure for all the “excess” deaths — whether from purges, famine or deportations — between 1926 and 1939 lies in a range with a median of 3.5 million, and a limit of eight million.
Estimates of that order have found support across a broad range of academic work, from Frank Lorrimer’s pioneering post-war analysis to Prof Jerry Hough’s 1979 study to the 1980s research by the British academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, now at the University of Melbourne. But this growing consensus has been thrown on the defensive by Soviet specialists like Roy Medvedev, who — using the same data — have apparently backed Conquest’s position, or something like it.
When it comes to the famine deaths, an exact figure will almost certainly never be known. But suddenly, after years of working in the dark, specialists are obtainingv some hard Soviet data. Last month, the KGB published for the first time the records of the number of victims of the Stalin purges.
Between 1930 and 1953, the report states, 3,778,234 people had been sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities or anti-state crimes,of whom 786,098 were shot. From his office at the Hoover Institute in California yesterday, Conquest said it was difficult to say whether the figures were right, but he thought “they could be true.”
Even more remarkably, the records originally made by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) of those held in labour camps and penal colonies during the Stalin years are now becoming available. An article from a “restricted access” Soviet Interior Ministry journal has been passed to the Guardian, which lists the total Gulag populations during the 1930s and 1940s.
Originally collated for Khrushchev in the 1950s, the figures show how the camp numbers rose relentlessly from 179,000 in 1930 to 510,307 in 1934, to 1,296,494 in 1936, to 1,881,570 in 1938 at the height of the Terror. The population fell during the war, but reached its peak in 1950 when 2,561,351 people are recorded as detained in camps or colonies.
These figures published openly here for the first time are huge: but they are a long way from the 19 million camp population estimated by Robert Conquest. The Soviet report records that an average of 200,000 were released every year, and puts the death-rate in the camps at 3 per cent a year per on average, rising to more than 5 per cent in 1937-8. The camps were mostly emptied of political prisoners after Stalin’s death.
Are the figures credible? In the context of the current political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and the fact that they were in a restricted publication, it seems improbable that they have been tampered with. Of course, they do not cover the famine and other disasters. But they do begin to add credence to the mainstream academic view that the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies was closer to 3.5 million than 25 million.
Why do numbers matter anyway? After all Robert Conquest may be out by a factor of five or 10, but the repressions were still enormous.
If, however, a figure of 20 million or 25 million becomes current currency, it adds credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison. Already, anyone who questions these figures — even in the academic debates — is denounced as a “neo-Stalinist.”
As the Irish writer Alexander Cockburn who started what turned into a highly emotional exchange last year in the American journal, the Nation, puts it: “Any computation that does not soar past 10 million is somehow taken as being soft on Stalin.” And by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war.
JD adds: This last comment (“it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war”), suggesting that Conquest’s aim was to down-play Nazi genocide, is a simply despicable piece of Stalinist guilt-by-innuendo against Conquest, a proven and consistent anti fascist (which is more than can be said for the tradition Seumas belongs to). It demonstrates just how well the contemptible Milne has leaned from the filthy, lying methodology of Stalinism.
I’ve just heard the news of the death of Robert Conquest, historian, entertaining right-winger, debunker of liberal pro-Stalinist mythology, and master limerikician. I shall write more, in due course, about Conquest’s politics and his role as a historian. But, for now, let’s just enjoy his limericks …
… all of which brings me on to the true limerick – lewd, obscene and offensive – and the widely-acknowledged master of the genre, Robert Conquest. To the best of my knowledge, Conquest’s limericks have never been published in a proper collected edition, though several have appeared in his friend Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs and Collected Letters.
Here are some of the best:
A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite.
Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.
There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.
That snobbish surrealist, Garsall,
Once did himself up in a parcel;
He addressed it ‘Lord Garsall,
The Keep, Garsall Castle’
And mailed it first-class up his arsehole.
There was old Scot named McTavish
Who went for an anthropoid ravish
But the object of rape was the wrong sex of ape
So the anthropoid ravished McTavish
Possibly my favourite, entitled AT THE ZOO:
There was plenty of good-natured chaff
When I popped in to fuck the giraffe,
And the PRZS
Could hardly suppress
A dry professorial laugh.
Kingsley Amis wrote a follow-up:
When I came back to roger the gnu
I was scarcely delayed coming through,
and the staff – most polite –
cried, “please stay overnight”,
it’s a priviledge granted to few.
70 years on from the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where at least a million died, Steven Spielberg’s film, which includes testimonies from survivors is essential viewing; put aside 15 minutes to watch:
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.
For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.
Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.
To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.
The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.
Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.
According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.
By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.
The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.
The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.
In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.
When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.
To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.
So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.
The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.
Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.
The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.
The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.
It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.
We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.
The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.
The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.
Above: Goodman plays to his Russian audience, 1962
The death in May of Joe Wilder, a beautiful, underrated trumpet player and delightful human being, reminded me that Joe had been part of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on its tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. The tour was arranged by the US State Department as a sort of cultural exchange at the height of the cold war: I believe the Bolshoi Ballet visited the US in return.
Anyway, the Goodman tour was superficially quite successful (despite Khrushchev expressing a dislike of jazz in the course of a conversation with Benny), but behind the scenes it was a disaster in terms of band morale. The Goodman band included Joe Wilder on trumpet, Teddy Wilson on piano and as such ‘modern jazz’ luminaries as trombonist Jimmy Knepper, altoist Phil Woods and drummer Mel Lewis. Amongst the other ‘greats’ in the band were Bill Crow on bass and Zoot Sims on tenor sax, and when later interviewed about the tour, Zoot said “Everywhere you go with Benny is like Russia.”
Here are the edited highlights (with an emphasis upon moments involving Joe Wilder) extracted from a full account of the tour by Bill Crow. Bill has kindly given me permission to use excerpts from his often hilarious article:
Because his music was lovely, most musicians expected Goodman to be lovable as well. The stories about him make us laugh because they describe our astonishment at discovering his true nature. They may sound exaggerated to anyone who never dealt directly with the man. Benny apparently did something to insult, offend or bewilder nearly everyone who ever worked for him. He put together some wonderful bands, but he had a reputation for spoiling the fun. During my brief time with him, I watched him completely demoralize an excellent band.
Jay Finegold [BG’s manager] had been nagging us for weeks about the contracts Benny wanted us to sign. A few guys had signed them, and he used whatever leverage he could devise to get the rest of the signatures. Joe Wilder’s trunk became a focus of his attention.
We had been warned that the laundry service would be poor and dry-cleaning nonexistent in Russia, so most of us had brought suitcases full of extra clothes and drip-dry shirts, but Joe Wilder had the largest single piece of luggage, a steamer trunk filled with the dapper suits and neckties he always wears. Jay told Joe that Benny was going to charge him for overweight baggage if he didn’t sign his contract.
Besides being a flawless musician, Joe Wilder is courteous, cooperative, and sweet-natured. He was delighted to be hired for the tour and was ready to do a professional job, and he couldn’t believe the way Benny was treating us. Joe never uses profanity. His strongest adjective is “blamed,” his most violent epithet “shoot!” If he quotes someone who uses strong language, he’ll say something like,
“He said to get the F out of here!”
But Joe said the secret word in Tblisi when Jay told him that Benny was going to charge him for his luggage. It was the last straw. He indignantly refused to ride on the bus with Benny that night. He walked from the hotel to the concert hall, a distance of two or three miles.
During the last week in Moscow, Jay told Wilder that Benny wanted him to give all the lead parts he’d been playing to John Frosk, since Joe was going to Sweden after the tour and wouldn’t be available for any work in the States. Then, on stage one night, Benny acted surprised that Joe wasn’t playing lead on Bach Goes to Town. Before one of the last concerts, Benny called Joe into his dressing room. He said,
“I just wanted you to know that I think you’re a fine musician.”
Joe wasn’t having any.
“As miserable as you’ve made life for me and the rest of the guys on this tour, do you expect me to be complimented?” he asked.
Benny received an invitation for the band to do a week of concerts in Warsaw on the way home. We were curious about Poland, and we could have used the extra money, but nobody wanted to go with Benny. Jim Maxwell called his wife and told her to send him a telegram saying there was an emergency at home and he was needed. The telegram she sent said:
“COME HOME AT ONCE. THE DOG DIED. THE CAT DIED. EVERYBODY DIED.”
Joe Wilder and Joe Newman were trying to get their flight information from Muriel [Muriel Zuckerman, BG’s secretary]. They were to fly from Moscow to Stockholm to meet their wives, and wanted to let them know when to expect them, but Muriel didn’t get them the information. Before the evening concert she repeated her ultimatum. No contracts, no paychecks. We talked it over and decided that the only remedy was to refuse to play the last concert until we got paid.
At curtain time that night we were ready to play but wouldn’t go onstage without the checks. Muriel and Jay conferred, and told us that all they really needed was the first page of the contracts, the agreement on wages, in order to satisfy the paperwork required by the State Department. We conferred, and agreed to sign only that part. The other clauses were crossed out, the contracts were signed, and the paychecks were distributed as we were going onstage, twenty minutes late. Joe Wilder looked at his check and discovered that a couple of hundred dollars had been deducted for “excess baggage charges.” He told Benny he wanted his check corrected.
“Come on and play. We’ll talk about it later.”
Joe was adamant. He stayed backstage, and we played the last concert without him.
Joe Wilder decided to try one last time to get Benny to refund the baggage charge before he caught his plane to Stockholm. Benny said that such things were in Jay’s department, and not his concern. Joe called him a schmuck, and said,
“If we weren’t here for the State Department, I’d jump on you and beat your brains out!”
Muriel squawked, “How dare you speak to Mr. Goodman that way!”
Joe had a full head of steam.
“If it weren’t for shame,” he told Muriel, “I’d break your broom so you couldn’t fly out of here!”
Joe told me later that he wasn’t proud of that remark, and had apologized to Muriel when he ran into her a few years later.
“But I was really disgusted with Benny,” he said, “and I still am.”
After he returned to New York, Joe Wilder made a complaint to Local 802 about the money Benny had withheld from his salary. Officials at the local said it had happened outside their jurisdiction. They sent him to the national office of the American Federation of Musicians, where he filed charges against Benny.
The day before the hearing was scheduled, Joe got a call from a secretary at the AFM. She said,
“Mr. Goodman is willing to forget the whole thing.”
Joe reminded her that he was the one making the complaint, and insisted on seeing it through as a matter of principle.
At the hearing Joe produced a receipt from the post office in Seattle proving he had sent home everything over his allotted forty-four pounds when Jay had first complained that his baggage was overweight. Nothing had been weighed after Seattle. Goodman and his staff had just assumed he was still overweight, and had used it as a pretext to harass him.
Benny told Joe, “In all my years in the music business, you’re the first one to take me to the union.”
“That’s because I’m not afraid of you,” said Joe.
Joe told me he knew musicians who had been pressured into doing what Benny wanted through Benny’s influence with their other employers, especially in television. He said he wasn’t doing any work that Benny could interfere with, and he certainly didn’t ever want to be in his band again.
The AFM officers reprimanded Joe, saying he should have played the last concert and then brought his grievance to the union. They didn’t require Benny to refund his money, and Joe never got it…
By Dale Street (first published by Workers Liberty)
Sam Williams has written 16,000 words to claim that Russia is not imperialist, even when its tanks are rolling through other nations.
He describes the old Stalinist states “the former socialist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.” In those days there was “no true Soviet imperialism”, claims Williams, because “wealth was not accumulated in the form of capital, and therefore not in the form of finance capital — there was not a single kopeck of finance capital.” Any other view is down to “imperialist Western propaganda and its bought and paid-for historians.”
And Russia retains its non-imperialism even after it has unambiguously reverted to capitalism. “Has the military-feudal imperialism of pre-1917 Russia been restored?” asks Williams. No, it’s not feudal. (But it was not the feudal residues in Tsarist Russia which made Marxists of the time classify it as imperialist. It was its domination and exploitation of other nations).
“What about a modernised Russian imperialism based on the rule of monopoly capitalism and finance capital?” He rejects this argument as well: Russia is “very poor in finance capital. … (Therefore) today’s Russia is very far indeed from becoming an imperialist country.”
This is really just a re-run of Williams’s denial of Stalinist imperialism. There was no finance capital in Stalin’s USSR, and therefore no Stalinist imperialism. Today’s Russia is “very poor” in finance capital, and therefore there is no Russian imperialism.
However, Williams’s equation of “imperialist” with “rich in finance capital” obliges him to classify Taiwan, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand as imperialist powers. Read the rest of this entry »