Eric Lee debates the AWL on ‘1917: Freedom or Tyranny?’

July 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm (AWL, democracy, Eric Lee, history, Lenin, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Russia, stalinism, USSR)

From Eric’s blog:

Last night I participated in a debate with the Alliance for Workers Liberty in central London on the subject of “1917: Freedom or Tyranny?”. The following is the text of my opening remarks.

I want to begin by congratulating Paul (Hampton) and the AWL on the publication of this book. While we will disagree on some important things – which we will come to this evening – we agree on the enormous historic importance of the 1917 Russian revolution, and I welcome any attempts to grapple with the issues raised.

Paul’s book offers new insights, such as the critical discussion about Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism”. And of course I welcome all the very positive references to Karl Kautsky and the German Social Democracy, which are often lacking in the writings of those who come from the Leninist tradition.

Let me very briefly comment on four of the questions that were posed for this evening’s debate:

Was the Bolshevik party of Trotsky and Lenin a conspiracy of elitist “professional revolutionaries”, or a mass movement organically rooted in the Russian working class?

Maybe it was both.

The Bolsheviks were elitist and conspiratorial and this was pointed out by such leading revolutionary Marxists of the time as Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky himself.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote a blistering critique of Lenin’s view of the Party way back in 1904. She ended her essay, which had the catchy title of “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” with this memorable sentence:

“Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”

In that same year, Trotsky wrote this memorable critique of Lenin:

“these methods lead … to the Party organisation ‘substituting’ itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”

Yet thirteen years later, Trotsky joined Lenin’s Party, and tragically witnessed his own prophecy come true.

But it was not all about conspiratorial elites.

As the Provisional Government in 1917 failed to deal with the challenges facing the peoples of the Russian empire, in particular ending the war and dealing with the peasant hunger for land, the Bolsheviks picked up considerable support among workers in Petrograd and, most importantly, in the army garrison in the imperial capital.

In other parts of the empire, most notably in Georgia, the Bolsheviks had hardly any support at all.

In other words, there are aspects of the October revolution that resembled a popular uprising and others that look more a military coup.

There were elements of both. Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna vs Minogue: “Is Socialism Dead?”

July 1, 2017 at 12:39 am (AWL, class, From the archives, Marxism, posted by JD, USSR, workers)

I’ll be away this weekend, at the AWL’s Ideas For Freedom event. This seems like an appropriate moment to remember the AWL’s Sean  Matgamna debating the Thatcherite Kenneth Minogue at the AWL’s event in 1991. Click here to download pdf

Sean Matgamna

Sean Matgamna

We are discussing “Is Socialism Dead?” because of the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. The question there is: what, if anything, did the Soviet Union have to do with socialism? Yet there is a more immediate reason why we are discussing this issue in Britain. For ten years now the British working class has suffered a series of defeats. If we had not had those defeats we would not have the climate of ideas we now have, and we would not be discussing issues in this way. Quite likely, there would be euphoria in most of the labour movement about the collapse of Stalinism.

We are Trotskyists. We are in Trotsky’s tradition. Unfortunately, “Trotskyism” today means very little. You need more information other than the word itself. To us it means that we are with the people who stood against the rise of Stalinism. We are with the people who were in Siberia, in the labour camps. Who organised hunger strikes in Stalin’s prisons. Who tried to defend the Soviet working class against Stalinism. Who defended working-class freedom in the USSR in the 1920s. We are also with the people who made the Russian Revolution. We do not attempt to ingratiate ourselves with the bourgeoisie. We are with the people who shot the Tsar and who used the state against the capitalists. We stand for genuine Marxian socialism.

The idea that Stalinism has anything to do with socialism is based on a series of misrepresentations. We do not want state socialism. Marxists believe that ultimately society will be organised without coercion, without the state. The real roots of bureaucracy in British capitalist society and of bureaucratic tyranny in the USSR are in the fact that both these types of society are ruled by a minority. This minority cannot tolerate real democracy. At best it will concede — as in Britain — shallow forms of democracy. These societies cannot allow real self-rule by the people. Because real self-rule cannot be allowed, we get bureaucratic rule — although the levels of bureaucracy differ, sometimes greatly. Marxists believe that once the rule of the bourgeoisie is smashed and the self-rule of the people is a reality, we will not have a state in any of the old senses. We will not have the type of bureaucratism characteristic of Stalinism.

Marxist socialists believe socialism can only come out of advanced capitalism, that it can not come from anywhere else. Trotsky and Lenin did not believe that you could take a backward part of the world, the old Czarist empire, cordon it off and build a viable utopian socialist colony there. Marx laughed at people with basically similar ideas — people who wanted to build socialist colonies in America. The Russian Stalinists tried to build a vast quasi-utopian system counterposed to capitalism. That collapsed because it was not possible for a backward country to overtake and outstrip the power and the might and the wealth of the world bourgeoisie.

The Bolsheviks led a workers’ revolution in a country where socialism was not possible. They were right to take power. They wanted to see a European and a world movement of the workers taking power. They wanted advanced, capitalist Germany, which was ripe for socialism, to be taken by the workers. In 1917 socialists understood that socialism was not state tyranny: socialism was the elimination of the capitalist system, of wage slavery and the substitution of co-operatively organised society, with a real democracy.

One of the central criticisms Marxists make of capitalism is that it develops ideas it cannot make good on, cannot deliver. Capitalism suffers from a giant flaw: capitalism means private ownership of the social means of production, so real equality is impossible in capitalism.

We have formal equality — for example, equality before the law. But economic inequality disrupts and destroys the possibilities for social equality.

If, ten or 15 years ago, someone made a socialist speech like this, the speaker might well be saying that it does not matter if the democracy that existed in Britain were suppressed; that it would not be a bad thing to have a Stalinist system instead. I am not saying that. I think the sort of liberty we have in capitalist Britain would be worth defending against the “stormtroopers” of capitalism who, in all probability, at some time in the future, will come — as they came to Germany under Hitler and to Chile, in 1973, under Pinochet. Nevertheless, British democracy is a great deal short of real self-rule.

The Russian revolution was made by Marxists with the full knowledge that socialism could not be built amid Russian backwardness. The collapse of Russian Stalinism is a vindication of Marxism. That does not lessen the triumphalism of the bourgeoisie at the collapse, or lessen the pressure on fainthearted people.

Mr Minogue attacks the bureaucracy we find in Britain. Minogue attacks the waste of a welfare state, which of course is superimposed on the capitalist system. But to a considerable extent, when Minogue attacks these things, calling them socialism, what he is actually attacking is the evolution of capitalism itself. The sort of statism which has been attacked by the so-called libertarian right is itself the product of capitalism. Monopolies long ago developed across the capitalist world, and the state and industry began to combine — for war and the plundering of colonies — a century and more ago. Into this development have come the demands of the labour movement, for example, for welfare reforms. Desirable and good goals — like a welfare state — have been strangled with bureaucracy arising out of the conditions of the British capitalist class society. Much of what Minogue and people of his outlook attack is bureaucratic monopoly capitalism – for which they then blame the socialists. This is a species of ideological card-sharping.

And there is more cheating about the legacy of Stalinism. Stalinism did not exist in the world on its own. During the long period of Stalinist rule in various countries, the bourgeoisie was the dominant world force. They are now realising their fullest domination with the collapse of Stalinism. Throughout this period many of the horrors of Stalinism can be traced to capitalism. For example, there are few things more terrible than the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. They treated a large part of their own people as Hitler treated the Jews. Yet how were the Khmer Rouge produced? This psychotic social formation arose after the modern, democratic, bourgeois USA bombed Cambodia “into the Stone Age”. Stalinism cannot be taken in isolation from the capitalist world in which it existed. Even Stalinism in the Soviet Union did not happen in isolation from capitalism. Fourteen states, including Britain, invaded Soviet Russia between 1918 and 1921. That was one of the factors which, by its effects on the economy, led to the rise of Stalinism.

One argument we meet is this: despite all the imperfections of capitalism, nevertheless this system is the best we can get. “Anti-utopianism” is very fashionable now. If we want to achieve a better society we are “utopians”. And, comrades, “utopianism” is dangerous! Apparently it leads to Jacobin terror and Stalinism. Of course, Marxists do not condemn capitalism totally. The Communist Manifesto contains a great paean of praise, by Karl Marx, to the capitalist system. He truly says that the capitalists have done wonderful things.

Capitalism is progressive in history. It creates the conditions whereby capitalist ideals of liberty and equality can actually be realised – though the bourgeois class cannot do it. From this point of view, capitalism has been progressive. In previous epochs of history class society was necessary. In ancient Greece, when Aristotle argued in favour of slavery, he was arguing for a necessary condition for their actual civilisation.

I would concede that the capitalism we have in Britain is better than Stalinism. Indeed, it is nearer to socialism. Yet capitalism is still a dog-eat-dog system. Capitalism can work. It can continue for a long time. But in the 20th century it survived only by destroying large parts of the means of production in the Great Slump, creating mass unemployment, and by going into world wars. We hear about the horrors of Stalinism. I do not excuse them. But in this century we witnessed the near destruction of European civilisation — by forces arising from capitalism. If you walk down the streets from the London School of Economics, where Mr Minogue, you find people asleep in doorways. In Lincoln’s Inn Fields, nearby, there are hundreds of people camped. We live in a world where homelessness is nowadays considered almost normal. A world where culture is degraded to the lowest common denominator by the profit motive. Where the mass of the population is not educated to have the possibility of realising real self-rule. All these horrors are rooted in the fact that there is private, minority ownership of the means of production and everything is geared to exercising, justifying and maintaining the rule of that minority of big capitalists.

Capitalism has its horrors, too.

Right now, we can see the outlines of three great trade blocs emerging: America, Japan and Europe. If capitalism once again slows down, and there is no reason to presume it will not, eventually, there is the possibility of conditions something like those of the 1930s. The nightmare scenario of an eventual “1984” world with three great warring powers. Capitalism is not a stable system. Capitalism is progressive, historically, allowing the creation of a working class. But then the working class must seize its historic destiny and put itself in conscious control of society. The alternative will not always be a bourgeois democracy like the one we have in Britain now.

It is arguable that we can not completely do away with the market. Who needs to do such a thing? But what we can do is eliminate the private ownership of the means of production and the wage slavery that is inseparable from it, and introduce real, democratic self-control in all spheres of society, including the economic.

Is socialism dead? No, and it will not die until capitalism is dead. Socialism is a product of and an answer to capitalism. The capitalists can win victories in the class struggle, but they cannot eliminate the working class. The class struggle will continue and the workers’ movement will revive. Socialism will revive.

We are witnessing the purging of socialism of all the encrustations of Fabian statism and Stalinism. This is the purification of socialism. We are seeing the emergence of the opportunity for real socialism to expand. This is not the end of history. This is a new phase of history where real socialism will have a far better chance than it had when our heroic comrades took power in Russia in October 1917.

Kenneth Minogue

Kenneth Minogue

A lot depends on definitions. There are a lot of packaged words: capitalism, socialism, workers’ power, democracy. These have been shuffled like a packs of cards. When Sean Matgamna says “Stalinism was never what socialists believed to be socialism” he is simply wrong. This is a matter of historical fact. Great numbers of people fought for the defence of the Soviet Union as the homeland of socialism. It is only as the project has more obviously failed that they gave it up.

I was struck by a story from the Tiananmen Square episode. It was repeated in Moscow. In both cases some luckless person said: “Now I know what fascism really means”. Now why did these people choose the word “fascism”? These people were communists, not fascists. I think this illustrates one of the ways in which socialism is a type of perpetual virgin, never touched by experience. In Islam, the reward of warriors going to paradise is to meet women for ever reconstituted as virgins. Socialism is like this.

Sean Matgamna says that socialism is sometimes regarded as an ideal which is too good for us. It is a marvellous idea which we can not actually achieve. Matgamna believes it can bc achieved. I believe revolutionary workers’ socialism is pretty dead. All forms of socialism ought to be dead. I would like to see a stake through its heart. It has caused more death, unpleasantness and boredom than almost any other doctrine. Socialism involves a curious conception of society: a society in which there are no rich or poor; no aristocratic or bourgeois; no people dying for love or dreaming of getting rich; no scandal, gossip, monarchy — all the things which keep us enthused. We have little comrades slotted into a society where their needs are perfectly satisfied. This happens not to be the type of world I would like to live in.

If we ask: what is the opposite of socialism?, the obvious answer is capitalism. Capitalism is one of those packages containing everything. Capitalism contains the experiences in this hall, a type of socialism within capitalism. All over Britain you will find Hari Krishna people trying to worship at Stonehenge. You find a vast number of activities. The point about capitalism is that a great number of people do a vast number of different things with a great number of conflicting beliefs. This plurality distinguishes capitalism from socialism. You have to believe in socialism in order to live in a socialist society. You do not have to believe in capitalism to live in a capitalist society. According to quite respectable opinion you better not have a religion in a socialist society. The Russians set up the League of the Godless to remove all the nonsense from people’s minds. The contrast is therefore between socialism as a single way of life, right through society, and capitalism as immensely plural. Read the rest of this entry »

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932 – 2017)

April 15, 2017 at 6:41 pm (Guest post, humanism, literature, poetry, Russia, stalinism, USSR)

 Yevgeny Yevtushenko seen in January 1972, as he arrives at JFK in New York during a four-week tour of the US.

Yevtushenko, January 1972. Photo: Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932 – 2017)

By John Cunningham

I can’t exactly remember when I bought my first copy of the Selected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet/Russian poet who died two weeks ago. It must have been in the late Sixties. I think it was the first poetry book I ever bought and the main poem in that collection, Zima Junction, has stayed with me over the years and I have regularly returned to it. Somewhere between moving to the USA and living in Hungary, I lost my copy. A few years ago I bought a new one. Zima Junction was first published in the Soviet Union in 1956, three years after the death of Stalin and reading the poem today it is difficult to see why it caused as much controversy as it did; maybe it was because the small town, homey, messy reality of the world it portrayed did not conform to the neat, tick-the-box unities of Stalinist (and post-Stalinist) social formulae. Zima Junction (which translates as ‘Station Winter’ –Stantsiya Zima) is in Siberia, a few hundred miles from Lake Baikal, where the poet was born and in the poem he returns there from Moscow where he is a student. He revisits his old haunts, meets old friends and is feted by his family but he is torn between this old, comfortable world where everything has its place and time and the new world he has embraced in Moscow. Eventually he settles for the latter.

Some commentators have described Yevtushenko as a loyal oppositionist, not a dissident. He believed that the Soviet Union could be changed for the better and in this was he joined by people like the Soviet filmmaker Elim Klimov and the composer Dimitri Shostakovich. He can be considered naive; a loyal opposition to the Soviet bureaucracy was never going to be able to achieve much but Yevtuschenko ‘came of age’ – he was 20 – in the wake of the death of Stalin. The desire for and expectation of change was understandable. Things appeared to be shifting as Stalin’s eventual successor, Nikita Krushchev, introduced reforms and prisoners were released from the Gulag. It would be only a few years before Sputnik was launched putting the Soviet in front in the space race.

Yevtushenko’s most notable work was with Shoshtakovich on his 13th Symphony Babi Yar. Using Yevtushenko’s poems as its basis, the symphony recounts the horrors of the Nazi massacre of thousands of Jews near Kiev. He continued to write poetry and his A Precocious Autobiography appeared in 1963 much to the outrage of the Soviet authorities. An excellent novel, Wild Berries, was published in 1993. In all likelihood Yevtushenko’s international fame prevented the Soviet authorities from stifling his voice and he was a consistent critic of many aspects of Soviet and later Russian policy, not least the war in Chechyna.

Looking back I’m not really sure why Zima Junction made such an impact on me, one that has stayed with me all my life. Maybe it is the final section of the poem and the last seven words:

And the voice of Zima Junction spoke to me

And this is what it said.

‘I live quietly and crack nuts.

I gently steam with engines.

But not without reflection on these times,

These modern times, my loving meditation.

Don’t worry, yours is no unique condition,

Your type of search and conflict and construction,

Don’t worry if you have no answer ready

To the lasting question.

Hold out, meditate, listen.

Explore, explore. Travel the world over.

Count happiness connatural to the mind

More than truth is, and yet

No happiness to exist without it.

Walk with a cold pride

utterly ahead

wild attentive eyes

heads flicked by the rain-wet

green needles of the pine,

eyelashes that shine

with tears and with thunders.

Love people.

Love entertains its own discrimination.

Have me in mind, I shall be watching.

You can return to me.

Now go.’

I went, and I am still going.

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Art: Russian avant-gardists against capitalism and Stalinism

March 31, 2017 at 9:35 pm (Art and design, culture, history, modernism, revolution, socialism, stalinism, USSR)

Liubov Popova Space Force Construction 1920–1
Above: Spatial Force Construction, by Liubov Popova, 1920-21

Hugh Daniels reviews Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, at the Royal Academy until 17 April.


The first room in this exhibition is dedicated to images of leaders. While one side is dominated by pictures of Lenin, the other largely has images of Stalin. This opening seems designed to confirm a pre-assumption which many visitors are likely to hold ― that the art of the Soviet Union was designed to glorify its leaders and normalise their rule. Yet, in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924, there was actually considerable debate among artists over how he should be commemorated and how his image should be used.

In 1928, the avant-garde, “left” artist Aleksandr Rodchenko vociferously argued that Lenin ought not to be deified or fetishised and that images should not be used to secure state-authorised truths, but to encourage new forms of critical vision. Rodchenko’s own memorial to Lenin, exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1925, was a design for a workers’ club, largely centred on spaces and resources for collective self-education. Rather than securing an icon of state power, Rodchenko remembered Lenin by giving workers tools with which they could ask questions and formulate their own ideas.

This curatorial “oversight” exemplifies an exhibition which continually glosses over the complexity of the artistic debates which raged after the revolution. In a later room dedicated to modernism, a painting by Wassily Kandinsky is placed near another by Liubov Popova. Both are abstract and viewers are led to assume that these artists were working along similar lines.

However, Popova was vehemently opposed to Kandinsky and the principles of his practice. Like most of her constructivist peers, Popova conceived of her paintings not as autonomous art objects, but effectively as props to help both her and her audience to think through design principles. She believed that, by encouraging reflection on the formal and material qualities of different compositional methods, artists could contribute towards a renewal of engineering, architecture and design in the fledgling socialist nation. Like other constructivists, she saw this as a challenge to the power of bourgeois specialism. Popova thought Kandinsky was a bourgeois artist, producing rarefied commodity objects and thus failing to acknowledge the questions posed to art by the revolution.

What form should art practice take in a socialist society? How would it contribute towards the construction of a new world? However we feel about the different approaches taken by these artists, it is vital to see that their work represents not a shared commitment to modernism, but a debate over the meaning and the fate of the revolution at a time when these questions had no definitive answer.

The RA exhibition makes the relatively unusual decision to combine modernism and socialist realism in one exhibition and to dedicate more space to the latter, whereas western art history has traditionally viewed the former as far more valuable. It is certainly worth studying the cultural products of Stalinism, just as we study other aspects of its history. Here, however, it feels as if the originality of this gesture is taken as its own justification, especially since the exhibition ultimately does little to challenge received understandings of its content beyond implying that socialist realist paintings are worth viewing. The exhibition reproduces a thoroughly standard account of Russian art after 1917.

This narrative is extremely convenient for western institutions, because it presents post-revolutionary Russian modernism as a continuation of liberal, bourgeois, post-enlightenment culture, which was snuffed out in the dark days of barbarous state communism. Exponents of this perspective commonly suggest that the avant-garde was purged because its complex abstract designs could not easily be used for propaganda purposes. Communism is thus presented as a thoroughly instrumental worldview, which sees no value in culture except as a political tool. It is no coincidence that this story was largely fashioned in the USA at a time when American institutions were presenting themselves as both inheritors and saviours of all that was good in European culture.

All this exhibition really adds to the standard account is an acknowledgment that Stalinist artists could be skilled in their manipulations, producing a cult of the healthy proletarian body, which has a clear sensual and ideological appeal, rather than being an utterly transparent sham. This view fails to acknowledge that the most radical avant-gardists made work in ways that were absolutely inimical not only to authoritarianism, but also to capitalism.

The Russian avant-garde established artistic and political principles which presented a significant challenge to all forms of hierarchical rule. In inviting both her fellow artists and her audience to critically examine the formal principles of design, Popova was not just offering new kinds of imagery, but radically questioning what Marx called the “relations of production”, challenging the control that technocrats and specialists held over the production of social wealth.

A good art historian should aim to place us back in the moment of an artwork’s construction, when the possibilities it conjured were still open. By closing down the debates of this period and failing to properly acknowledge those strands of Russian art which ran against the grain of both the bourgeois tradition and Stalinist oppression, this show instead presents us with a totally binary situation in which the only options are bourgeoisification or barbarism.

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Chris Birch: eyewitness account of Hungary 1956

October 18, 2016 at 1:37 pm (CPB, history, liberation, posted by JD, protest, stalinism, students, tragedy, truth, USSR, workers, youth)

Image result for pictures Hungary 1956

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.

Other recommended reading

Other media

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Review: ‘The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism’

September 21, 2016 at 4:56 pm (anti-semitism, israel, labour party, literature, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, USSR, zionism)

1875742996

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
victory.

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.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna on the two Trotskyisms

September 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, USSR, war)

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:

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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.

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You can order a copy of the book here

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Stalinist Seumas’s (failed) attempt to take on Conquest

August 5, 2015 at 6:48 pm (apologists and collaborators, genocide, Guardian, history, Human rights, murder, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Russia, stalinism, terror, truth, USSR)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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Conquest’s filthy limericks

August 5, 2015 at 1:37 am (Jim D, literature, poetry, stalinism, terror, USSR)

 Above: Robert Conquest with Aretha Franklin and Alan Greenspan

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.

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