Responses to The Tragedy of Party Communism

Two weeks ago Portside published an essay by Michael Brie, The Tragedy of Party Communism. Here Kurt Stand, David Cohen and Jack Radey reflect on their participation in the socialist movement, what lessons there may be to draw on, as well as which to forget. For today's and tomorrow's socialists, they see socialism as a system that could be reformed, capitalism a system that needs to be abolished.
Kurt Stand, David Cohen and Jack Radey
April 9, 2015
The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. - Albert Einstein in the first issue of Monthly Review
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Tragedy and History: A Response to Michael Brie

By Kurt Stand

Socialism in the Soviet Union and the GDR suffered from undemocratic practices - not only the horrific form of the executions and mass imprisonments in the USSR during the 1930s, but also a more "normalized" authoritarianism that limited public debate and expression.  Taken together these prevented the flowering of socialist democracy, and were a key factor behind socialism's collapse and the subsequent restoration of capitalism.  Such practices need to be acknowledged and understood as part of the process of building a stronger socialist movement today and a socialist society tomorrow.  Michael Brie's sweeping indictment of Communist heritage and of Leninism in his essay, "The Tragedy of Party Communism,", however, seems to serve a different purpose, using criticism of Communist legacy to critique anti-capitalist politics in the present.  Below are seven points of response:

1)  The concept of Stalinism serves as an accusation without clarification.  Brie mentions Walter Janka's moving account of his arrest following an attempt in the GDR to create a more democratic socialism post-1956, a reminder of how revolutionary language and discipline were used to justify repression.  But Janka's initiative was also a challenge to Cold War capitalism, part of an attempt to regain the revolutionary impulse of the Communist movement and was inspired or supported by Hungarian Communist Georg Lukacs, German Marxist Ernst Bloch and others who did not see (then or later) their actions or ideas as anti-Leninist.  Wolfgang Harich (arrested with Janka) defended the GDR's legacy post-1990 just as many other Communists unjustly imprisoned in the Soviet Union or other socialist countries remained Communists.   For them and others, socialism was a system that could be reformed, capitalism a system that needed to be abolished; a view absent from Brie's account.

2)  Class, social development, circumstance, are all also absent, replaced by a supra-historical notion of "Leninism" which allegedly determined all subsequent developments.   Implicit in Brie's analysis is the concept of "totalitarianism," which equates socialism and fascism, and assumes that internal development toward change is impossible within those systems.  Quite apart from the inapplicability of the concept to understand fascism and the struggle against it, the outlook ignores the initiatives of many Communist leaders as well as outside critics to build other paths - possible roads not taken is the underlying tragedy of European socialism.  The building of an alternative society means learning from those attempts rather than giving up on the idea.

3)  The background of Soviet history - violent military counter-revolution and foreign intervention, the Nazi invasion in World War II, and Cold War confrontation had something to do with the character of the political system that emerged.  So too, GDR history was colored by the bitter division over support/opposition to World War I within the socialist movement, the violent defeat of revolutionary workers' uprisings from 1918-1923, the repression of fascism, the destruction of war, hostility form a larger, richer, aggressive West Germany -- and by Soviet limitation on the GDR's ability to steer its own course.

4)  A critique of Soviet and GDR socialism also has to take into consideration what was accomplished.  Soviet economic growth and development from a backward economy against the ravages of war(s) remains an extraordinary accomplishment.  The GDR had full employment, free health care and public education, no homelessness, very inexpensive access to cultural events.  These have largely been lost since re-unification with the West, despite reunified Germany's greater wealthy because the provision of public goods is not a value intrinsic to capitalism, and doesn't flow from the nature of a capitalist system.  To talk about social justice and ignore political injustices is to distort history, but to talk about political injustices and ignore what the loss of housing, job, education means is as deep a distortion and reflects an outlook that accepts as natural the kind of world capitalism creates.

5)  Brie contrasts the supposed dictatorial means of Bolshevik success with the simultaneous democratic advances in western or central Europe.  Blaming the victim, he holds that revolutionary uprisings were responsible for the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, that revolutionary struggle alongside the negative example of Bolshevism in power inhibited the growth of socialism.  An alternative view would suggest that it was capitalist reaction to the destabilization and mass discontent after World War I which defeated the socialist strivings post-World War I and led to fascist, authoritarian or right-wing conservative governments dominating almost all of Europe on the eve of World War II.    And while Brie is correct that some GDR characterizations of West German society were rooted in the false view that fascism was just around the corner, he fails to see that the continuity in political, economic and cultural leadership from the Nazi era to the West German government speaks volumes to the illiberal, authoritarian nature of liberal capitalist democracy - a view held by radical cultural, social justice, labor and other activists across the left spectrum in West Germany.    

6)  Brie's acceptance of the normative value of capitalism is expressed when he writes that "the horror of Leninism is that it broke with the most important maxims of the Enlightenment and treated people as objects, as a mere means and not only as an end in themselves."  That is a questionable statement about Lenin and his legacy, but however one judges the Soviet Revolution, Brie misses the larger point - capitalist society has long subverted the values of the Enlightenment, and in its very functioning treats people as objects and not as ends in themselves.  That was Marx's understanding and it holds true today.  We live in a system in which economic insecurity for the vast majority sits alongside growing layers of inequality.  The increased numbers of people marginally employed, of old age poverty and youth unemployment, of violence against women and the violence of racism, and the systemic stripping of working people of the rights they need to be more than objects at work are intrinsic to the capitalist system, a system which has never valued human beings for themselves.  This is why we need meaningful anti-capitalist politics and a renewed socialism today.

7)  Lenin and the Communist parties which developed under the influence of his ideas attempted to resolve the contradictions and conflicts which had impeded and divided the socialist and labor movements of their time.  Meaningful gains were made under that influence; in most cases, however, what was attempted fell short.  This is the point where we need to learn to grow, to build from where we've been, to grasp history in all its dimensions rather than issuing sweeping indictments.

In Latin America there are Wonderful Experiments Being Conducted to Build Socialism that are Not Re-creating Mistakes of Previous Socialist States

By David Cohen

In 1973 I attended the World Youth Festival in the German Democratic Republic. A small group of young trade unionists from the US had a meeting with the leadership of the trade union federation. At the end of the meeting someone from the US asked what was the biggest challenge they faced. Forty - four years later I remember the answer as essentially this: "According to the Constitution of the GDR the workers own the means of production and should be running the factories and the country. We have yet to convince them that this is what they should be doing. If we can't convince them to do this it will all fall apart." Some 20 years later it all fell apart and no workers rose up to stop the dismantling of the GDR.

Michael Brie lays out the proposition that Leninism was the basis for the extremes of Stalinism. In this, he goes beyond many of the usual criticisms that are made of Stalinism. This is not new, but deserves to be discussed. Many Trotskyists fiercely opposed Stalinism but continue to embrace a Leninist type party. Leninism to Brie was described as,

    "For communists, the means that was to guarantee the attainment of the great goals became Lenin's centralized and disciplined party of the new type: a party of professional revolutionaries and the masses they led, whose claim to absolute hegemony was based on a scientifically irrefutable truth, whose sweeping effect was to result from the unity of the consciousness, will, and actions of its members and supporters."

I would agree that the vanguard concept did in fact lay the basis for Stalinism. This is not to say that Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, et al, were not great revolutionaries committed to creating a new better socialist society. In my mind however, their replication of capitalist forms of organization (like a hierarchical vanguard party) laid the basis for the failure of that socialist experiment. I would add that hierarchical structures existed in pre-capitalist society also.

I think Michael Lebowitz does a good job in his last book "The Contradictions of Real Socialism" in showing how the vanguard concepts were applied not just to the organization of the Communist Party, but to society, to the economy and the resulting damage that did to creating a real socialist society. He covers the period after Stalinism was exposed in the USSR. His discussions on the nature of leadership, "the conductor and the conducted" and the effects on workers being "conducted" are well worth reading and discussing. As he points out, workers who are "conducted" even while engaged in a worthwhile project do not grow as human beings.

"What individuals lose in this process is the opportunity to develop their own capacities by exercising their knowledge, judgment and will collectively." Lebowitz, The Contradictions of Real Socialism

In Latin America there are wonderful experiments being conducted to build socialism that does not re-create the mistakes of previous socialist states. They are not all following the same "blueprint," but are trying to lay the basis for building a society that allows human beings to develop to their full potential as the goal of socialism.

Brie demands rightly that the legacy of Stalinism and Leninism be dealt with because if it isn't, then "one's history can never be recovered and preserved in the long term." That maybe true, but the result of analyzing ones history would better be put to use in building a truly just socialist society in the future.


Our World Movement Never Really Came to Grips with Stalinism, 'Because It was All that We Knew'

By Jack Radey

Face it, our world movement never really came to grips with Stalinism, 'because it was all that we knew', and we very carefully avoided really thinking through the problems, because, face it people, we treated it the way the religious folks do.

You cannot ask people to stand up to monopoly capital, and put their lives, their family's lives, and the lives of their fellow workers at risk to advance some vague theoretical notions, so we insist that we have a plan, and a scientific analysis, and we know it will work!  We can discard the way society has functioned to build a new and more just society, which we KNOW will work, because of Karl's inexorable LOGIC!!  Never mind that logical assumptions are precisely what is meant by the term, "idealism".  Ideas.  Based on reality, but simpler and far less interactive and dynamic than reality. And then, since we do know from long experience that we need unity and discipline to defeat our powerful and bloodthirsty foe, we require ourselves and others to unquestioningly support our formulations, plans, and ideas.

And the very best people with the very best intentions, and unlimited courage; born rebels who burn with a hatred for injustice and who have a willingness to lay down their lives if necessary for the cause of humanity, willingly go along with the destruction of yesterday's comrades in the name of Party Unity.  I recently spent the evening with some old friends and comrades who happen to be Trots. They all expressed admiration for CP people, who you could depend on to do the work, be responsible, and not to push their own organization or program to the detriment of the mass movement.  But, "How could you guys put up with all that defense of Stalinism?"  The answer, of course, is simple.  We almost never thought about it.

And another little secret that we really need to face: there are no correct answers. Nearly every policy, and nearly every person, has strengths and weaknesses.  You gain some things, you lose some things, no matter what policy you adopt.  It is often appropriate to try many different policies in different places, and see what the results (sometimes unanticipated and undesired) are. And make adjustments based on reality.  Or you can insist you have it all right, force it on everyone, and shoot those who say, "But are you sure?"

Commandism is perfectly appropriate for a military situation.  It is totally inappropriate for a civil one, and involves the horrible dangers that Stalinism and Maoism demonstrated.  Once you put your power in the hands of a very few, or in the hands of one supreme individual, no one retains any control over the situation, except the "vozhd", the boss.

Brie suggests that the Civil War was strictly Lenin's and the Bolsheviki's fault, while who led the counter-revolution, on what platform, and how, never gets mentioned. And it's hard to prove that participatory democracy can make a revolution, or defend it from an attempt to overthrow it.  But anyone who fails to come to grips with the dangers of going to the dark side to win this fight, and who doesn't understand the vital necessity of backing away from letting Comrade Mauser, the voice of the gun, settle all questions during the construction of socialism, is doomed to failure.

[Portside thanks these readers for sending in their responses to the original posting by Michael Brie - The Tragedy of Party Communism
If Portside readers send in their responses, we will publish and share those that are thoughtful and do not personally attack the contributions of any of the authors. Together, we want to help build an alternative society to capitalism.]

April 9, 2015