Socialist Worker

Stalin

Did the 1917 Russian Revolution have to end in tyranny? Was Stalin the same as Hitler? Charlie Kimber replies

Issue No. 1817

MARTIN AMIS'S book Koba the Dread has caused a storm of comment. Its subject is Stalin, socialism and the possibility of social change. He argues that the reality of Stalin's crimes has been largely ignored, especially by the left.

Amis is not simply a nasty right winger. His Einstein's Monsters was a sustained assault on the horrors of nuclear war. Much of his fiction is (at least partly) a comment on the emptiness of a money-obsessed society.

That just makes the latest book seem even more appalling. It is a strange mixture of personal memories, rows with friends and an attempt to write history. Sometimes this jars badly. In one passage Amis tells how he was so discomfited by the crying of his six month old daughter that nanny had to be summoned to take charge.

''The sounds my daughter was making', I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, 'would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror. 'That's why I cracked and called the nanny'.'

Really? A child's tears, and torture? Who is trivialising the past here? The historical debate about Stalin is hardly new - although Amis often gives the impression that he is revealing a hardly-glimpsed truth: 'Have you heard? Stalin was a bloody tyrant!' But it has real relevance today.

Amis not only wants to bury any lingering admiration for Stalin. He wants to close the door on the entire project to fundamentally change the world by revolutionary means. He denounces the revolts of 1968 and after for being 'revolution as play'. That is hardly a fitting description for the biggest general strike in history in France, for the movement that swept the US black ghettos, for the demonstrations and resistance that helped to end the Vietnam War, and for the toppling of dictatorships in Portugal and Greece.

He moves on to say that the 'afterlife' of that movement today is 'anarchistic, opposing itself to the latest mutation of capital: after imperialism, after fascism, it now faces globalisation.' A large part of his argument is the insistence that Bolshevism led to tyranny right from the start.

He writes, 'Lenin and Trotsky did not just precede Stalin, they created a fully functioning police state for his later use. 'October 1917 was not a political revolution riding on the back of a popular revolution. It was a counter-revolution.' This aspect of the book has secured it a warm welcome even from those who recognise its weaknesses.

Tribune columnist Paul Anderson calls Amis's book 'riddled with factual errors' and says it 'barely deserves to be taken seriously'. But at the same time he thinks 'Amis is on to something' because, says Anderson, 'embrace Bolshevism and you embrace terror - however reluctantly or abstractly.'

The tradition that Socialist Worker stands in always strongly rejected the idea that Stalin's Russia was any sort of socialist society. For us Stalin was the gravedigger of the revolution. He was the leader of a bureaucracy which climbed to power after the defeat that followed the revolution's failure to spread beyond Russia.

Under Stalin Russia was a state capitalist society where the bureaucracy acted in accordance with the same dynamic of accumulation as the private owners of Western capital. But it is important to look at what actually happened in 1917 and afterwards. Amis is cavalier with facts and dates in his book.

But it is much more worrying that he uses tainted sources about Stalin's record. Amis relies almost entirely on a few right wing historians such as Robert Conquest (who advised Margaret Thatcher) and Richard Pipes (who advised Reagan). The collapse of the USSR enabled historians to examine secret police files for the first time. Historians such as R W Davies and Alec Nove took part in an immensely detailed study of the truth about Stalin's crimes.

They found plenty of evidence of murder on a terrifying scale. There were, for example, 353,000 executions in 1937 and 293,000 the following year. The number of people in the prisons and labour camps rose from 2.5 million in 1933 to 5.5 million in 1953, with a death rate up to nine times that among the population outside.

This implies a toll of perhaps two million deaths over a 25-year period. The famine that was the result of collectivisation in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan led to as many as five million further deaths. But the cumulative death total, however shocking, is a long way short of the 20 million that Amis quotes or the 40 million which he says is possible. More importantly, there is an immense difference between the scale of repression during the years immediately after the revolution in 1917 and the period of Stalin's rule.

In 1921 the total number of executions was 3 percent of the number in 1937. There were 100 times as many people in the camps in 1936 as before 1928-9, the year when Stalin consolidated his rule. The level of repression immediately after the revolution was much lower than in the US today. This was during a time when the revolution was fighting for its life against internal opponents backed by armies from 14 different countries.

The qualitative shift in repression from Lenin's era to Stalin's was a symptom of a much more crucial break. During Lenin and Trotsky's time there was democracy in the Bolshevik Party and the workers' councils (soviets) and women won the right to divorce and abortion. Also oppressed nationalities had the right to break away from the old empire, and workers had influence on industrial and social policy.

The ultimate aim of everything was international revolution. Under Stalin all democracy was smashed, women's rights disappeared, Great Russian nationalism rode triumphant over the minorities, workers were stripped of all power and the ultimate aim of everything was 'socialism in one country' - building up the Russian state.

Amis sees continuity between these two eras. In truth there was a total gulf. Amis talks about a 'collapse in the value of human life' after the Russian Revolution. He should look at the history of imperialism, of what the European powers did to Africans and Asians. He should look at the First World War where, in the interests of capitalist competition, tens of millions were sent to slaughter one another. But Amis is not interested in accounts that suggest the truth is more complex than he paints it.

He boasts, 'No, I haven't read Isaac Deutscher's The Prophet Armed and The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast...Trotsky was a murdering bastard and a fucking liar. He was a nun killer, they all were.' Amis also leaves out the reality that it was the left who first unmasked the real nature of Stalinism.

Marxists such as Trotsky, Boris Souvarine, Victor Serge, C L R James and Tony Cliff denounced Stalin when he was tolerated or feted by much of conventional opinion. Tories like Winston Churchill were happy to carve up the world with Stalin.

There are times in the book when Amis equates Stalin with Hitler. Certainly both were murderous opponents of genuine socialism. But there were still important differences between them. Stalin's barbarism was a result of his determination to industrialise Russia through the bloody methods used to carry the industrial revolution through in countries like Britain.

There was the same use of force to drive the peasants from the land, the employment of child labour, and terror against those who might resist. Stalin carried through in a couple of decades what had taken 300 years to achieve in Britain. The result was a death toll enormously concentrated in time. The death toll in the labour camps was probably much lower than that of the Atlantic slave trade, but took place over 25 years, not 250 years.

The death toll through famine in Ukraine and Kazakhstan was certainly lower than in the famines that resulted from the British pillage of Ireland and India. Stalin's barbarism against the minorities was not genocide in the Nazi sense of the killing of a whole people because of their alleged ethnic characteristics. Nazi barbarism was not just directed at its political enemies or those who opposed its schemes for increased exploitation.

It was above all concerned with diverting the frustrations of a middle class hit by economic crisis into a crusade to exterminate the whole of Europe's Jewish population, along with Gypsies, gays and others. Hitler did not merely build labour camps like Stalin's in which large numbers died from brutality and neglect. Hitler built death factories.

Those who supported him wanted to see that Holocaust carried out beyond Germany. In contrast the people who looked to Stalin, however misguidedly, wanted an end to Hitler's barbarity. Against Amis we argue that revolution, far from inevitably leading to tyranny, is a process that can bring about the end of suffering and the liberation of humanity.


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

Article information

Features
Sat 14 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1817
Share this article


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