On ‘Stalinism’

The problem with coming up with a simple definition of Stalinism is that – since the term has been used to talk about such diverse elements as ideology, political practice, political parties and movements, forms of state governance and so on – to avoid a definition that is hopelessly unwieldy and ridiculously over-inclusive an a priori decision as to what exactly the term is to be applied has to be made, a decision which methodologically logically requires in turn some sort of definition. This elemental tautology lies at the heart of the great bulk of discussions on the nature of Stalinism. This lack of methodological clarity is only compounded by the fact that the very term itself has passed into the vernacular of politics as a term of abuse, applicable to anyone one doesn’t like, especially anyone with an ‘authoritarian’ bent: thus not only was Gerry Healy a ‘Stalinist’ in his pomp, but so was Tony Blair and in turn Margaret Thatcher too. Does the term have any value then? I am going to argue that it does, but what I intend to do here is try to return an analytical content to it, and to strip it of its pejorative force. A subsidiary objective of mine will necessarily be to argue strongly against the increasingly common view that the question of ‘Stalinism’ – or, more accurately, the matters to which the label ‘Stalinism’ is, not always fortuitously, applied – is now an historical rather than a contemporary one – a view which has been very much current within USFI circles over the last ten years or so. I shall suggest that an account of how the concept of Stalinism has been dealt with by ostensible non-Stalinists over the years raises questions acutely relevant to the kind of political clarification that revolutionaries need in the here and now and will need in the at least foreseeable future.

* * *

The best place to begin all this is not to try to come up with a ‘new’ definition of Stalinism, since that would be merely to repeat the methodological tautology just referred to, but look at how the term itself has been used in the past, to see what can be rescued from its usage, and what has to be abandoned. For logical reasons, not the worst place to start would be with the writings of Trotsky: and although I say ‘logically’ so, another subsidiary target of mine is going to be the straightforwardly silly idea that there are two fundamental currents within Marxism, Stalinism and Trotskyism, the one definable by what the other is not. I hope to make it clear by the end that conceptions of this type are very much a part of our problem and not of a possible resolution.

More (pdf: 166KB): On stalinism

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