by Parson Young
In conjunction with the Taipei Philosophy Book Club, New Bloom presents a new column, ‘Keywords’. ‘Keywords’ will review key terms from critical theory and philosophy as they are relevant to Taiwanese politics.
NOWADAYS MOST PEOPLE would associate the word “Communism” with a twisted society plagued by poverty, totalitarianism, and a cult of personality. In the past century there certainly were politicians such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-sung who shamelessly built such societies in the name of Marxism. However, can the formation and the eventual collapse of these governments really prove that Marxism is fundamentally wrong? In this two-part article, I will demonstrate how Stalinism and Maoism ignore or altered important aspects of Marxist sociological analysis, which led to the degeneration and ultimate failure of socialist revolution.
Degenerated Worker State: Trotsky’s Important Observations about Stalinism
FIRSTLY I’D LIKE to recommend that the readers check out an important work in the history of Marxism: Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. This book, along with many other works by Trotsky introduced an important concept that illustrates the phenomenon of the rise of people like Stalin and Mao: Proletarian Bonapartism. Trotsky was a revolutionary who, along with Lenin, led the overthrow of the Russian Tsarist dynasty in 1917, as well as a key theoretician in the development of Marxism in the Soviet Union. Trotsky had significant disagreements with Stalin from very early on, and was exiled by Stalin after Lenin’s death, unable to win over the increasingly consolidated bureaucracy headed by Stalin. Stalin eventually murdered Trotsky in 1940 out of fear of Trotsky’s large influence over socialists around the world.
Trotsky explained how the first successful proletarian revolution won, established state power, and then deteriorated into the first instance of Proletarian Bonapartism, also known as a “degenerated workers state.” Trotsky’s concept of Proletarian Bonapartism describes a situation where after a period of proletarian revolution, the state apparatus was no longer directly controlled by the workers, but instead monopolized by a caste of bureaucrats, forming a degenerated worker’s state: a nationalized planned economy run undemocratically by a bureaucracy that lives better than the masses do.
The state, which was supposed to gradually wither away under control of the workers, as the revolution spread and eventually eliminated capitalist property relations worldwide, was instead strengthened and became authoritarian. Strongman politics thus flourishes in this situation. These governments may enforce quasi-socialist policies, such as certain redistribution of wealth or the prohibition of private property, but the system ultimately favors the minority of bureaucrats that run the system. A true socialist workers’ state should be based on councils or committees organized by workers at factories or workplaces, who would elect representatives to participate in local, regional, or national-level decision making bodies. These representatives are immediately recallable and paid no more than a skilled worker, regardless of what level of politics they participate in. Therefore, a true socialist government should be the most dependent on and protective of democracy, entirely unlike the Stalinist USSR’s top-down management by appointment and state terror.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of Stalinism did not simply come into being due to any individual’s design. Marxists understand that the material condition of the world and of Russia in particular shaped its rise. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the first of a number of socialist revolutions in the world, and at least one or two other socialist workers’ states in industrialized countries were expected to soon follow, the most significant being in Germany at the onset of the German Revolution of 1918, with the largest and most powerful socialist party in the world rising up in the most industrially advanced European nation at the time as what would be the first of a series of future socialist revolutions. When this did not happen and Russia was forced to do it alone in the absence of world proletarian revolution, the industrial backwardness in Russia and the destruction of WWI and the Russian Civil War created conditions for a bureaucracy to grow. In order for the workers to manage the economy, after all, they need time (shorter work week), literacy, infrastructure (roads, transportation, electricity) and plentiful basic goods (food, clothing, housing etc.). Russia alone simply did not have any of these without the help of other countries. Thus, a domineering bureaucracy grew to fill this void.
Trotsky’s concept of Proletarian Bonapartism provides a macro-level analysis of the phenomenon that led to the rise of Stalin and later Mao, under somewhat different but fundamentally similar conditions. The two despots also significantly distorted Marxism both in theory and in practice in a variety of ways to suit their narrow needs, which led to countless historical tragedies as well as a hard blow to the global Left. Let us first critically examine Stalin, whom Mao admired, and then examine the poisonous legacy Maoism has left to the world.
Stalinism’s Main Theoretical Mistakes
STALIN’S GREATEST disservice to Marxism is likely his theory of “socialism in one country.” Stalin stated that before establishing a socialist world, socialism must first be strengthen within the one country where socialist revolution succeeded before aiding the rest of the world on revolutions. This theory has several vital mistakes. First, Marx already had realized that socialism couldn’t happen in isolation. Socialism is international or it is nothing. Successful socialism must be global in nature in its establishment, because reactionary forces opposed to revolution would simply flee to other countries and counterattack with the power of capital.
Secondly, every country has different material conditions. For all countries in the world complete self-sufficiency is impossible, as we see in the global market of capitalism and the interlinked nature of international capitalism. Therefore, only by enlarging the cooperative sphere of socialism can economic resources be evenly distributed to everyone globally. This means that a socialist system will ultimately be weakened by its country’s economic shortcomings should it chose to be confined within national borders. Socialism begins where capitalism leaves off as a worldwide system, but coordinates the distribution of economic resources in order to realize global economic equality. Under policies of isolationism, the worker’s state would either be recaptured by capitalism, or succumb to Proletarian Bonapartism. This is why from the start, Marx had argued for internationalist revolution.
Stalin’s Crimes in Practice
THE ISOLATION OF the Russian Revolution lead to the formation of a bureaucratic caste, which followed Stalin as a useful leader whose outlook coincide with their interests. All of Stalin’s Marxist “theory” was to justify his practice and his practice was set by the needs of the caste at that moment in time. The theory of socialism in one country went along with the interests of the bureaucracy, which did not want new revolutions elsewhere to awaken the Soviet Union’s working class, thus ending their privileged position. Stalin gradually transformed the USSR, which under the Lenin period was probably the most liberal period in Russian history up to that point in history (notably, the Soviet Union was first nation in history to legalize homosexuality and abortion under Lenin—this was later repealed under Stalin), into a terrifying totalitarian nightmare.
In order to solidify his personal power, Stalin endlessly purged the party and massacred innocent citizens. He even deliberately cut off food supplies into the Ukraine to cause a historic famine there, in order to punish the Ukrainians who rebelled against him. On the international stage Stalin was an opportunist, at times even cooperated with reactionary figures such as Hitler and Chiang Kai-shek. After World War II, by way of the Comintern, Stalin sought to prop up regimes friendly to him such as North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung and many Eastern European dictators. (a process extensively analyzed by British Trotskyist Ted Grant, who also spoke of the emergence of anti-USSR Proletarian Bonapartist regimes). These states, unlike the USSR, which had a healthy worker’s state after a successful revolution and then degenerated into deformed worker’s state, were deformed to begin with because they were directly put into power by the Soviet Union and thus directly molded in its shape—or sought to model themselves after the distorted image of the Soviet Union even in such cases when a supposed socialist regime came to power without the direct guiding hand of the Soviet Union. A true socialist workers’ state would not allow an individual to have so much power over the decision making process of society, as in Stalin, or other supposedly Communist dictators such as Kim Il-Sung.
The question of right of self-determination, which the Taiwanese audience is particularly concerned about, was also trampled under Stalin’s “socialism in one country.” Stalinist Russia in practice still succumbed to Russian chauvinism and nationalism, which necessarily created problems with the large ethnic minorities within the USSR. Stalin’s later policies of forced migration and banning of ethnic language against minorities in Russia were all the products of the logic of “socialism in one country” in which the Soviet Union claims to be a multiethnic state, but actually belied Russo-centrism. In a previous New Bloom article, I’ve already discussed how Taiwan can gain true and meaningful right of self-rule and self-determination through socialist revolution. New Bloom editor Brian Hioe’s comprehensive critique on the pro-unification Left and the pro-Independence Left in the Sinophone world also clearly explained a Marxist analysis on the issue of self-determination.
As Stalin reigned over the USSR with terror, there was a zealous admirer of Stalin in China, who would later lead his “Communist Party” to take power there. He would go on to write some of the most bloody, tragic chapters in human history.