What is ‘Stalinism’?

Ben Ughetti writes on how the term has gained popularity amongst sectarian and reactionary political forces
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Everyone from Marxist-Leninists to conservatives such as Putin have been accused of being ‘Stalinists’ especially recently with war in Ukraine. The first question is what does this mean? The former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin passed away in 1953 and left behind a legacy of achievement wiping out illiteracy, a massive increase in labour rights for workers, building of public infrastructure that had never been seen before and most incredibly the defeat of the Axis powers in WW2. However, how is this relevant to now and why is the word still being used?

The first recorded usage of the word appears to come from an associate of Stalin, Lazar Kaganovich in the 1930’s who said, “Let’s replace Long Live Leninism with Long Live Stalinism!” Stalin immediately denounced this claiming that such slogans created a cult of personality. Reading and understanding the works of Lenin and Stalin it is clear that communists must do everything possible to stop cults of personality occurring. The real hero of revolution is the working class themselves, not individuals. However, what is true is that Stalin was a Marxist-Leninist, as was his theory and works. All of which are still crucial for communists to read and understand.

Khrushchev after Stalin started a process of what he saw as the “destalinisation” of the Soviet Union. What this actually meant was erasing the revolutionary history of the Soviet Union. When discussing the fall of the Soviet Union it is clear to understand that it starts with Khrushchev. Under Khrushchev is a clear ideological distancing from Marxism-Leninism in an opportunistic attempt to establish destalinisation. After Khrushchev, being a party member wasn’t about holding the ideological values of Marxism-Leninism, it suddenly became about advantages of being a party member. Revisionism had taken over in place of Marxism-Leninism.

Trotskyism firstly emerged in the form which we know and understand today in Britain in the 1930’s with the Balham group. This group was short lived and never gained much traction in comparison to other parties and organisations on the far left at the time, such as the Communist Party of Great Britain. However, one of the key features of the group was its opposition to so-called ‘Stalinism’. In many ways this for decades and up until this day inspired anti-‘Stalinism’ on the Trotskyite left with some groups claiming to be against “capitalism and Stalinism” with countless blogs, newspapers and speeches warning of the dangers of ‘Stalinism’. This begs another question – why when the menace of capitalism is so prevalent in modern society do these groups feel the need to attack other groups on the left for being ‘Stalinists’?

Trotskyism in itself has to be understood as a state of mind of total defeat. Unlike Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites have failed in every instance to take power for the benefit of the workers; however, the sectarian outbursts often seen is a unique tendency of British Trotskyism which is probably also why at a current estimate there are 32 different Trotskyist groups in Britain. Trotskyists do not have to be this way despite their political difference with the Marxist-Leninist positions. In the Cuban Communist Party exists Trotskyites who support the revolution and the will of the Cuban People.

In the 1980’s the CPGB was under attack by a different ideological threat known as Eurocommunism. In major communist parties in Europe this strain of Eurocommunism also sought to defeat what it felt was ‘Stalinism’ holding the party back and then communism as we knew it had been defeated. One of the leading figure heads of the Eurocommunist movement was CPGB member Nina Temple. Under Temple it was sought that the CPGB abandoned any form of Marxism-Leninism at all. Today ideologically Eurocommunism has died, Marxism-Leninism or as Eurocommunists used to call it ‘Stalinism’ lives.

Today surprisingly most usage of the word ‘Stalinism’ comes from people on the left – you will usually find it being used in the columns of publications such as the Guardian and by journalists such as Paul Mason. This is incredibly opportunistic and dangerous as Stalinist is now being levelled at anyone who supports Actually Existing Socialism (AES) or even more recently anyone who criticises the crimes currently being committed by the Ukrainian government and its allies.

Today there are two main usages of the phrase. To address the first usage of the term, those of us on the left who critically support AES countries such Cuba, China, Vietnam etc are dismissed as Stalinists. All these countries enact socialist policies which those who use the term Stalinist frequently find themselves advocating for. It is almost as if there has been a death of debate; the ‘anti-Stalinist’ left now find themselves completely avoiding any form of dialogue on contemporary issues and now shut down all debate with one-word responses.

The second and far more harmful usage of the word Stalinist that has been used more recently is for people of any political stripe who decide to criticise the Ukrainian government. Currently in Ukraine the government has decided to align itself with fascists such as the Azov Battalion and the Right Sector who themselves have been committing heinous acts against ethnic minorities and people of different political viewpoints. There have been videos of Romani people being tied against lampposts and beaten in the streets. Every political party on the left has been banned. Two members of the Communist Party of Ukraine have been arrested by government forces simply for being members of the Communist Party. Criticising the Ukrainian government does not mean that someone is defending the crimes of Putin. However, when you raise all this happening there are still voices in the mainstream left who will call you a Stalinist for having the slightest concern when discussing the conflict.

It is clear that the word ‘Stalinist’ has become a weaponised sectarian term which seems to only be exclusively used by reactionary forces on the left. As previously explained, the consequences of such name calling on the left are having a clear effect on the left’s ability to constructively challenge injustice, fascism and inequality.

Ben Ughetti, is a member of the YCL’s South Yorkshire Branch

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