Slavoj Zizek and nostalgic Stalinism

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Irvingite revisionism in Soviet historical studies, and the future of the socialist project

Bob Gould

New Left Review No 238 (Nov-Dec 1999) contains an article by Pan European High Theory wunderkind Slavoj Zizek, “When the Party commits suicide”. This article is a freewheeling reflection on Soviet history and on socialism in the 20th century, taking the form of a review of the book The Road to Terror. Stalin and the self-destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932 to 1939, by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov.

Nothing that I have read for quite a long time has infuriated me more than this article. To explain my anger, a brief biographical explanation is necessary.

I’m an Australian, 66 years old, active in the left wing movement and seriously interested in socialist ideology all my life. I’m one of the generation of 1956, in the sense that I left the orbit of the Stalinist movement after Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.

Since then I have been in several Trotskyist organisations and taken a serious interest in the big theoretical questions of the socialist movement, at the same time as having been intensely politically active for long periods. (For instance, I was the initiator of the Sydney equivalent of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Vietnam Action Committee, for six years.)

I have a more or less complete file of New Left Review, back to the beginning, and sets of Universities and Left Review and the New Reasoner, and even a couple of copies of The Reasoner.

I have followed carefully and participated robustly in, the evolving ideological debates about the nature of the Stalinist states all my life, and the practical political consequences of such analysis have had considerable bearing on my life and political activity. Right now my current ideological preoccupation is the obviously necessary new analysis required to re-equip and rearm the socialist movement to make it an effective force in the new conditions of the 21st century after the overthrow of Stalinism.

These are not academic questions. They exist in the interface between socialist theory and socialist practice, and they always have done.

Zizek’s nasty and light-minded article arouses in me something like blind fury. About the same time as I read Zizak’s repellant article, I read Christopher Hitchins’s review of Robert Conquest’s new book in the Times Literary Supplement, in which he mentions Conquest’s not too fanciful notion of “the united front against bullshit”. Despite my disagreement’s with Conquest’s (and now, Hitchins’s) right-wing political views, I’m inclined to join Conquest’s united front against bullshit in Soviet historical matters.

My first, and more minor, area of irritation is Zizek’s snobbish, high-theory, academic tone. In its own way, it is typical of the type of current academic discourse that is so easy to caricature.

Zizek is obviously excited and flattered by the way the revisionist historians incorporate in their analysis bits of the currently fashionable high theory of which he himself is one of the most classy and stylish practitioners. Zizek’s article contains much erudite discussion of symbols, rituals, psychoanalysis etc, and such names as Freud, Lukacs, Nicholas Malebranche, Lacan, Kant, Althusser, Sade, Linda Fiorentino, John Dahl, Alain Badiou, Frederic Jameson and Foucault and Bourdieu are thrown around with learned abandon, according to the current academic fashion.

The first part of the article is a fairly straightforward repetition of Getty-Irvingite revisionism on the murderous purges and exterminations perpetrated by Stalin’s dictatorship in the 1930s. The Getty-Naumov-Zizek thesis is that the mass purges and exterminations weren’t primarily the responsibility and work of the dictator Stalin, but were largely perpetrated by the nomenklatura of the Communist Party. This thesis does not even have the justification that David Irving’s similar thesis on the personal responsibility of Hitler for the Holocaust.

Irving at least uses for his equally monstrous false theory the fact that there is no physical documentation of Hitler’s direct involvement in the Holocaust. One has to infer Hitler’s direct involvement and responsibility, which is nevertheless absolutely clear from the power relations in Hitler’s Germany, which is sufficient for most people.

The situation on Stalin’s responsibility for the mass murders in the Soviet Union is even more irrefutable in the sense that there is a vast amount of documentary material in the archives, with Stalin’s bloodstained fingers all over it. As even Getty concedes, there are literally hundreds of thousands of death sentences with Stalin’s signature in the archives.

Getty and Naumov rely for their argument as to Stalin’s “diminished responsibility” on material out of the archives, which describe the pathetic attempt of Bukharin and others to save their lives at extraordinary sessions of the Central Committee orchestrated by the monstrous Georgian. It is essentially the same material used by the repulsive ex-KGB general turned anti-Communist historian, the late Dimitri Volgokanov, used in his three books, on Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. Volgakanov used the material to portray the old Bolsheviks as pathetic, desperate, cowardly creatures, to prove that Bolshevism was a monstrous thing at its very core.

One might quote in this context Trotsky’s response to the question: “Why did they confess” advanced by Stalinists and liberals in the 1930s. Trotsky replied that all these confessions proved was that the old Bolsheviks, who had been heroic revolutionaries in the past, were after all human beings. After the quite long bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state, and after being subjected to brutal pressures, their confessions only prove that they were human beings, and that the human metabolism has a tendency to collapse under impossible pressures.

All the essentially psychoanalytic material in Getty’s book and Zizek’s article is invoked to bolster an political thesis that is essentially the old thesis of many right-wing anti-Communists: Stalinism was an organic outgrowth, a little mutated perhaps, but essentially something that grew in a straightforward way out of Bolshevism.

All the erudite and learned psychoanalytic material is angled to this conclusion, which is in fact common to many bourgeois anti-Communists and those left-wingers who have a bizarre nostalgia for Stalinism.

This thesis is not based on any new material, politically speaking. The archive material is of enormous interest to people like myself, with a lifelong preoccupation with Stalinism.

The awful detail from the new archive material is fascinating. Nevertheless, the essential facts are not at all new. The archive material only confirms the account of events given in Krivitsky’s book, Orlov’s book and Khruschev’s 20th and 22nd Congress speeches. The shock-horror use of the archive material, combined with the psychological spin on it, relies on material that is not new to buttress Getty’s Stalinism-equals-Leninism theory, which is not new either.

Something that strikes me forcefully, reading Getty’s book, Volgakanov’s books, and Zizek’s article is the way they all revel in the sad picture of the old Bolsheviks prostrating themselves before the baying Stalinist pack, who as we know were equally fearful for their lives, and shouting as loudly as they did in the vain hope that the despot might let them live. (Most of them were murdered by Stalin eventually.)

Getty and company all then use this material to make a quite false political analysis that the secondary actors and satraps of Stalin who participated in this process were in some way as powerful and responsible as Stalin himself. A certain verbal sleight of hand is then performed with the psychoanalytic material to equate the grossly mutated Stalinist apparatus with the absolutely supreme and powerful manipulator Stalin at its centre, with the old Bolshevik Party, which it had replaced. What an obscenity this sleight of hand is, when you consider it coolly.

When I was very young and knocked around the Stalinist movement, the bibles of working class Stalinists about the Moscow Trials were the 1939 History of the CPSUB, ghost-written by Stalin himself, the transcripts of the trials published in the Soviet Union, and particularly The Great Conspiracy against the Soviet Union, by Sayers and Kahn, which was republished by the Communist Party of Australia in many thousands of copies, in a small paperback.

This nasty little book reprinted extracts from the transcripts of the trials, along with fantastic conspiracy theories and psychoanalytic material of a dramatic character, all presented in an exciting way for the gullible. It was supplemented by a similar book about the late 1940s purge trials in Eastern Europe, written by Wilfred Burchett, called Peoples Democracies and another book written by James Klugmann of the British CP, From Trotsky to Tito.

The explosion in the 1990s of new material out of the Soviet archives takes a number of curious forms. A hard core Canadian Stalinist group, Northstar Compass, has dug some Stalin material out of the archives that suits its purposes. One fascinating item in its book, Secret Documents is “A Stenographic Report of a Meeting of Propagandists in Leningrad, 1938. Published in the Russian Journal ‘Archives of Leaders“, devoted to how to study the Short History of the CPSUB.

This bizarre item consists mainly of Stalin personally standing over, for many hours over a number of days, several hundred terrified party and state propagandists to make sure that they got every detail of his self-written hagiography right in their propaganda activities. By the law of averages in Stalinist Russia, a fair percentage of those propagandists who made errors were likely to end up dead.

The saddest thing about the Short History and the other books was that many working class and middle class Stalinists found them satisfactorily politically reinforcing thrillers and swore by them. The way that Getty, Zizek and Volgakanov revel in the archive material of the Central Committee confrontations reminds me not a little of these books.

Zizek uses this material to draw another political lesson:

Here, then, perhaps, Trotsky’s classic analysis of the Stalinist Thermidor is not fully adequate: the actual Thermidor happened only after Stalin’s death — or, rather, even after Khruschev’s fall — during the Brezhnev years of stagnation when the nomenklatura finally stabilised itself into a “new class”. Stalinism proper is rather the enigmatic “vanishing mediator” between the authentic Leninist revolutionary outburst and its Thermidor. On the other hand, Trotsky was right in his prediction from the 1930s that the Soviet regime could end only in two ways: either a worker’s revolt against it, or the nomenklatura would no longer be satisfied with political power, but would convert itself into a capitalist class that directly owned the means of production. And, as The Road to Terror claims in its last paragraph, with direct reference to Trotsky, this second scenario is what happened: the new private owners of the means of production in the ex-socialist countries, especially in the Soviet Union, are, in their large majority, the members of the ex-nomenklatura, so one can say that the main event of the disintegration of “really existing socialist” was the transformation of nomenklatura into a class of private owners. However, the ultimate irony is that the two opposite outcomes predicted by Trotsky seem combined in a strange way: what enables nomenklatura to become the direct owner of the means of production was the resistance to its political rule whose key component, at least in some cases (Solidarity in Poland), was the workers’ revolt against the very same bureaucratic stratum.

Dissidence and Solidarity

As Alain Badiou has pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, “really existing socialism” was the only political force that — for some decades, at least — seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really terrifying its representatives, driving them into paranoid reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of human civilisation, every “communist” territory was and is — again, in spite of its horrors and failures — a kind of “liberated territory”, as Fredric Jameson put it apropos Cuba. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the space and the positive content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectation which, among other things enabled us to measure the failure of really existing socialism itself. What the anti-communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very vital assumptions that they themselves drew on to criticise and denounce the everyday terror and drudgery were generated and sustained by the communist breakthrough by its attempt to escape the logic of capital.

These two paragraphs sum up Zizek’s basic political outlook: the Stalinist states were basically progressive until quite late, and all the residual Stalinist regimes, including presumably North Korea, Serbia and China, are to be regarded as “liberated territory” and defended at all costs. Zizek clearly argues that all dissidence in Stalinist states should be opposed. In his view it only leads to capitalist restoration.

This point of view about the history of Stalinism is absolutely poisonous and it’s not virgin territory. The literature is vast. For instance, about the same time as Getty’s book came out, another book was published, by Russian Professor Vladimir Rogovin, The Year 1937, which also uses new material from the archives and proves in a most devastating way Stalin’s direct control over the whole process.

Rather than being some kind of psychological frenzy the bureaucratisation of the Soviet party and state was a profoundly material process, which provided the opportunity for the emergence of the personal dictatorship of one individual, Stalin, who turned out to be an exceptionally malevolent, and who later turned on the bulk of the bureaucracy in a most vicious way to shore up his personal dictatorship. By the time the purges took place, he was in absolute control of the state, police and party apparatus.

All the melodrama at Central Committee meetings was really just an expression of this reality. I wonder if Getty and Naumov have recently re-read Khruschev’s Secret Speech. Khruschev, after all, was there. The stenographic reports of the orchestrated proceedings at these gatherings, in fact, do show them to be desperate human tragedies, with the victimised individuals trying to save their lives, and the fearful satraps temporarily basking in Stalin’s favour watching the monster out of the corner out of the sides of their eyes as they engage in the orgy of denunciation of the current victims, thereby hoping to divert attention from themselves. It’s not primarily a psychological process, but a desperate and opportunist material pattern of behaviour very concretely directed at staying alive.

For most of my adult life, after breaking with Stalinism I defended the view that the Stalinist regimes were in some sense “deformed workers’ states”, in the spirit of the analysis of Trotsky, James P. Cannon, later Ernest Mandel et al.  Concerning the Stalinist states there was another major point of view in the anti-Stalinist socialist tradition, the state capitalist view associated with Max Schachtman, Tony Cliff, Sean Matgamna, David Rousset and others.

The debates between these two schools canvassed every imaginable question concerning these states. Most people, even on the state-capitalist side of the argument, ascribed a certain progressive character to Soviet state capitalism. The literature of these arguments is still of enormous interest, for instance Workers Liberty in Britain has just reprinted most of the documents of the Schachtman school, which is of considerable value. Looking back on those arguments, in which I myself was quite a vigorous participant on the workers’ state side, I now have the view that we were all wrong, both workers statists and state capitalists.

Whatever our concrete description of the class character of the Soviet regime was, either some version of deformed or degenerated workers states, or some form of state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism, we all underestimated the utterly monstrous and physically disastrous characteristics of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

The reality of Stalinism was worse than any of us in the West could possibly imagine. For many years I had the view, as did almost everybody on the anti-Stalinist side, that a political revolution or even, for the state capitalists, a social revolution, would be able to base itself on the way in which we believed that Stalinism had, despite its deformity, developed the productive forces. We were wrong about that. The actual effect of Stalinism was ultimately to disperse and destroy the productive forces. The massacre of the old Bolsheviks, the imposition of a viciously totalitarian political and social structure on the proletariat, the intelligentsia and the peasant masses, produced over time a dramatic reversion to backwardness.

If there had been much of a progressive character about the Stalinist setup, how is it possible to explain the extraordinary social, cultural and economic collapse of production and the social structure in the former Soviet Union after 1990? The Soviet Stalinist regime, with ostensibly the strongest industry, supposedly the most developed in the Stalinist bloc, suffered in fact the most dramatic reverse, to a primitive 19th century Mafia-style robber capitalism, with the parasitic bureaucracy grabbing bits and pieces of whatever was left. The current explosive capitalist restoration in China, which combines 19th century rates of accumulation with a rigid Stalinist political apparatus, also contradicts any idea that Stalinism equates with a socialist path of development. A political strategy that incorporates viewing Stalinist China, North Korea and Serbia as “liberated areas”, is completely bankrupt in the year 2003.

The analysis that was closest to reality, I now believe, was put forward by David Rousset in The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution, published by Allison and Busby in 1982. Rousset locates the critical point in the development of the Soviet bureaucracy with the rupture of the revolutionary process in the 1920s, and with the benefit of hindsight, I believe he is right. (Another critical set of documents is the appeals by Rakovski to Communist Party congresses in the early 1930s, also published by Allison and Busby in a book. These appeals document, from the heart of the Stalinist camps, the rapid degeneration of the bureaucracy.)

What is absolutely obvious, is that there was a decisive and total break between the ideas, aspirations, perspectives and practices of Bolshevism (that is of anything that can be associated with Lenin’s ideas and practice), and the political and social counter-revolution that crystallised as Stalinism. It is absolutely poisonous to treat Stalinism as some sort of organic development of Bolshevism. Whatever nostalgic form Getty and Zizek give it, this is just the old Stalinist bullshit. Had Lenin lived much longer, it’s clear that he would have taken the most vigorous action to remove Stalin and embark on a different course. If Lenin had lost, no doubt Stalin would have removed and murdered him too.

It is in the sphere of current politics that the major aspects of Zizek’s view are most pernicious. Socialism has to be rearmed and rebuilt as a political movement in both theory and practice in the new century. The notion of giving support to the Stalinist bureaucracy in China or North Korea, for instance, is surreal, dangerous, fantastic, anti-working-class and inhuman.

The Australian Marxist group, the DSP, with which I don’t always agree, went through the quite painful process of having a major discussion on the class character of Stalinist China. On the basis of this discussion they have come to the conclusion that the Chinese regime is no longer a workers’ state. On this matter I agree with them. Anyone who can, at this stage in history, confuse the total, monolithic, centralised political power in Stalinist China, which is presiding over the most rapid privatisation on earth, with a workers’ state, has to be blind, deaf and dumb. (China is an allegedly socialist state where trade unions are effectively banned, and the most recent special nationwide “honoured worker” for the May Day celebrations, was the chief executive of a western capitalist corporation trading in China.)

This Chinese Stalinist regime is so threatened by any kind of dissent that it locks up middle-aged Taoists, prohibits effective trade unionism, censors the internet, and at the same time uses its exclusive political power to enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the population, via the road of the most speculative and chaotic 19th century style capitalist development. “Liberated territory” a la Jameson. Not for me, thank you very much, and not, it seems to me, for the working class and peasants of anywhere in the Asian region, including China, and any embryonic socialist political organisations there. This view of the Chinese masses is sharply underlined by the recent extraordinarily widespread mobilisation in Hong Kong in defence of basic democratic rights against the Stalinist bureaucracy in Beijing.

I wrote most of this piece in 2000 with the intention of sending it to New Left Review but I didn’t complete it, not being aware then of a convenient place to post it, like Marxmail, etc. About four months ago I joined up to Marxmail, the Green Left discussion site, the Socialist Register site and Leftists Trainspotters, and as a result of this, between 100 and 200 bits and pieces lob in my inbox every day. I’m forcefully struck by the number of nostalgic Stalinists who still seem to exist in the world, if postings on these sites are any sort of representative example. On Marxmail, Maripower, the late Mark Jones and others represent this trend, and I was fascinated yesterday to see on Trainspotters, a vintage long-winded defence of the the Moscow trials, by the Socialist Unity Centre in India.

Coincident with this, over the past couple of years I have been deepening my knowledge of the bittereness, cruelty and counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism, from all the books based on newly available material from the Soviet archives, particularly the series published by Yale University, of which the Getty-Naumov book is one example. (The Getty-Naumov book, despite its bias, is still interesting and useful.) The most recent and traumatic book that I’ve seen from Yale University Press, is Stalin’s Secret Pogrom edited by Rubenstein and Naumov (2001), which contains the extraordinary transcript of the secret 1952 trial of the leaders of the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee, during which the 75-year-old Solomon Lozofsky, courageously repudiated the confession that had been extracted from him by force.)

The pro-Stalinist nostalgics on the websites, and the horrific archive material, might well exist in two science-fiction parallel universes. As a result of this sharp clash of cultures, I intend soon to assemble a comprehensive bibliography of books of memoirs about the Stalinist camps, and books based on the archive material out of the Soviet archives, with a view to trying to correct, if that is possible, the weird Stalinist misinformation that I’ve encountered of late on the web.

One Response to “Slavoj Zizek and nostalgic Stalinism”

  1. Erkki Jantunen Says:

    Thanks, this was very informative. I’ve been trying to situate Zizek in all of this, and this was very helpful. What about the bibliography? is it up somewhere already?

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