Socialist Worker

Who was first to oppose Stalin?

by Ian Birchall
Issue No. 1842

THE FIFTIETH anniversary of Stalin's death has given the press a new opportunity to misrepresent the real socialist tradition. The Financial Times published a piece by Robert Conquest - friend of Margaret Thatcher - claiming that 'it is 35 years since Conquest's book The Great Terror revealed the full depth of Stalin's crimes to the world'.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Freedland told Guardian readers that because of Stalin the left has been afraid of a 'grand vision for humanity' and has preferred piecemeal change. The world did not have to wait until the 1960s to learn the full extent of Stalin's villainy.

In the 1930s there were already extensive accounts of how Stalin had betrayed the original principles of the revolution. But the likes of Conquest and Freedland would like to sweep these under the carpet because the first analyses came from revolutionary socialists. Ante Ciliga was a leading Yugoslav Communist, driven out of his own country for his political activity.

He went to Russia and was imprisoned because he criticised Stalin's regime. He published an extensive account of repression in Russia, The Russian Enigma (1938). But Ciliga never abandoned his 'grand vision'. In 1949 he wrote that the only way to fight imperialism and Stalinism was by struggling for 'world union on the basis of the brotherhood and equality of all peoples'.

Victor Serge was originally an anarchist. He risked his life to travel to Russia in 1919 to help the revolution.

And he stood by the revolution through the darkest days of the civil war. After being imprisoned and exiled by Stalin, Serge came to the West and wrote dozens of pamphlets and articles exposing the brutality of Stalin's Russia. Serge's Destiny of a Revolution (1937) was published as Russia Twenty Years After. It devoted several chapters to a detailed account of Stalin's prisons and concentration camps.

But Serge never abandoned his enthusiasm for the early years of the revolution. And he never surrendered to Cold War anti-Communism. In one of his last letters he wrote, 'We shall get nowhere if we seem more concerned with criticising Stalinism than with defending the working class.'

Leon Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed (1936) spelt out in great detail how 'the bureaucracy has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses', producing a society based on privilege, inequality and brutality. But Trotsky never abandoned his fight to build a new, truly socialist movement. Stalin feared him so much that he sent hired killers halfway round the world to get rid of him.

While revolutionary socialists were exposing Stalin, it was not only the abjectly loyal Stalinists in the Communist Party who were backing the brutal regime in Russia.

The Observer described Stalin's Moscow Trials, which were rigged and based on blatant lies, as 'genuine'. Labour Party dignitaries like Beatrice and Sidney Webb praised Stalin's rule. In 1944 Winston Churchill sat down to an expensive meal with Stalin, and divided up Europe on half a sheet of paper.

So long as Russia was a military ally of the West, little was heard of his crimes against his own people - just like Saddam Hussein half a century later. In 1948 Tony Cliff, a follower of Trotsky, argued that Russia was a form of state capitalism.

He showed how the forced labour and other atrocities of Stalinism were not produced by some mysterious 'totalitarianism', but by Russia's need to catch up with the industrialised countries of the West. Russia was doing what Britain and other countries had done in the 19th century - but doing it even more brutally because it was doing it faster.

It may not be a comfortable conclusion for the likes of Conquest and Freedland, but who can deny that the basic cause of Stalinism is the very system they are so fond of?

Cliff remained true to revolutionary principles. He concluded his account by saying that Russia could only be liberated by 'the masses conscious of socialist aims and led by a revolutionary Marxist party'.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 15 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1842
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.