Edmund Wilson on Stalin

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Julio Huato

Dec 12, 2011, 4:29:10 AM12/12/11
to Lbo Talk Lbo Talk, Marxist Debate
Carrol stated this "empirical generalization" with "no exceptions":

> No nation has industrialized without immense bloodshed,
> at home and abroad.

Although, fortunately, the usual prospectus clause applies: "Past
performance does not guarantee future results." History is made by
people, constrained by existing conditions and all the rest.

These passages are from works written in the mid and late 1970s by the
same Eastern German author. (When I read them, ages ago, in Spanish,
as a student in Cuba, the works that contained them read to me like an
extension of Marx's Capital and Grundrisse.) I am quoting this author
in extenso, not because I believe he answered our current questions,
but because whatever our own answers may be, they will have to sublate
one way or another (better if explicitly) what is contained herein:

* * *

The revolutionary process since 1917 has led to a quite different
social order than its pioneers anticipated. This is familiar enough to
all who live under this new order. If our conditions are officially
depicted in terms of the traditional Marxist categories, this has long
since been conscious hypocrisy, the deliberate production of false
consciousness. My critique of actually existing socialism is directed
at founding a radical communist alternative, i.e. one that gets down
to the economic roots, to the politburocratic dictatorship which keeps
our society’s labour, and its whole social life, in chains. I put
forward programmatic proposals for the new League of Communists that I
am convinced must be built up on all fronts to prepare and lead the
breakthrough from ‘actually existing’ socialism to genuine socialism.
As I see it, there is no other perspective than a socialist or
communist one. And since this kind of alternative does not bear simply
on some particulars, but rather involves the revolutionizing of the
whole social framework, in fact the dissolution of a social formation,
it must at least be outlined in its full complexity, even if it cannot
yet be completely detailed.

The socialism which Marx and Engels foresaw, and which Lenin and his
comrades undoubtedly hoped for also in Russia, will come. It must be
the goal of our struggle, as it is more than ever the sole alternative
to a global catastrophe for civilization. But nowhere in the world
have there yet been more than the first attempts in this direction,
for instance in Yugoslavia. In the other East European countries there
is not even this. What Marx understood by socialism and communism is
not very familiar to present-day communists, even to those who
genuinely are such. But it is evident enough that Soviet and East
European society is incompatible with the goals set by Marxism.
Socialism as it actually exists, irrespective of its many
achievements, is characterized by: the persistence of wage-labour,
commodity production and money; the rationalization of the traditional
division of labour; a cultivation of social inequalities that extends
far beyond the range of money incomes; official corporations for the
ordering and tutelage of the population; liquidation of the freedoms
conquered by the masses in the bourgeois era, instead of the
preservation and realization of these freedoms (only consider the
all-embracing censorship, and the pronounced formality and factual
unreality of so-called socialist democracy). It is also characterized
by: a staff of functionaries, a standing army and police, which are
all responsible only to those above them; the duplication of the
unwieldy state machine into a state and a party apparatus; its
isolation within national frontiers. Let us confine ourselves for the
time being to this list. Its elements are familiar enough. What is not
so well known is their internal and historically conditioned
interconnection. But more on that later.

In the more developed countries, in particular, a system with features
such as these brings the masses too little real progress towards
freedom. What it provides above all is a different dependence from the
old dependence on capital. Relations of alienation and subalternity
have only acquired an added layer; they persist at a new level. And in
as much as positive achievements of the preceding epochs have been
lost en route, this new dependence is in many respects more oppressive
than the old. This social order has no prospect of winning people to
it, in its present political constitution. Given the total
concentration of social power, the insignificance of the individual
comes still more visibly and universally to the fore here than it does
in the play of accidents and probabilities on the kaleidoscopic
surface of the capitalist reproduction process.

* * *

The shifting of the main line of battle from the internal to the
external contradictions of imperialism, which is reflected in the
slogan "world countryside against the world town," perhaps dubious,
but still highly significant, is of the greatest importance for a
definition of all other positions in revolutionary programmes today.
We must realize that _this was not expected by the classical Marxist
tradition_. It has theoretical as well as practical implications for
the Marxist conception of history. [...]

It was only realistic of Marx to conclude in 1853 that the British
rule in India would objectively tackle the task of creating the
material foundations for a Western, i.e. capitalist, social order. The
question was not "whether the English had a right to conquer India,
but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the
Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton." For while
"there cannot ... remain any doubt that the misery inflicted by the
British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and _infinitely
more intensive kind_ than all Hindustan had to suffer before," England
had still brought about "the greatest, and, _to speak the truth_, the
only *social* revolution ever heard of in Asia." "The question is, can
mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the
social state of Asia?" But because the history of British rule in
India scarcely displayed anything beyond the destruction of the
traditional social structure, "The Indians will not reap the fruits of
the new elements of society scattered among them by the British
bourgeoisie till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall
have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus
themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English
yoke altogether."

This last mentioned alternative, however, is evidently
uncharacteristic of Marx's future perspective, and the outcome of the
Indian uprising a few years later proved him right in this. It was
also without any further consequences that Engels made a more
favorable assessment of the chances of the Taiping movement in China,
fighting as this did with more suitable methods. The two friends
ultimately held firmly to the general rule with which Marx ended his
concluding essay on India: "When a great social revolution shall have
mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world
and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common
control of the most advanced peoples (*sic*), only then will human
progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not
drink the nectar from the skulls of the slain." For Russia, for
example, Marx held that such a revolution in the West would actually
provide the possibility of a comprehensive social reorganization along
the lines of the Chinese people's communes of today. The traditional
village communities were to join together on a regional basis, and to
take over and apply the industrial achievements of a now socialist
West on this broader scale.

The same basic position is repeated in Engels' final statement of 1894
on the prospects of the Russian revolution: "However, it is not only
possible but inescapable that once the proletariat wins out and the
means of production pass into common ownership among the West-European
nations, the countries which have just managed to make a start on
capitalist production, and where tribal institutions or relics of them
are still intact, will be able to use these relics of communal
ownership and the corresponding popular customs as a _powerful_ means
of considerably shortening their advance to socialist society.... But
an inevitable condition of this is the example and active support of
the hitherto capitalist West.... And this applies not only to Russia
but to all countries at the pre-capitalist stage of development.
However, this will be relatively easiest done in Russia, where a part
of the native population has already assimilated the intellectual
fruits of capitalist development..." The overthrow of Tsarist
despotism would "also give a fresh impulse to the labour movement in
the West, creating for it new and better conditions for struggle and
thereby advancing the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, a
victory without which present-day Russia, whether on the basis of the
community or of capitalism, cannot achieve a socialist transformation
of society."

History has furnished a decisive corrective to this original Marxist
prognosis. While the capitalist order is already in a third phase of
its internal contradictions, _and *moving* in them instead of
succumbing to them_, as Marx predicted for its first phase, and Lenin
conclusively for its second, many peoples in the pre-capitalist
countries have set out on their own road towards socialism. The
proletarian revolution in the West did not take place; and its
appearance in the form previously anticipated has become ever more
improbable. The nature and character of a revolution are only
determined up to a certain point by the programme and heroism of its
vanguard, who can only achieve the first steps. The Soviets of 1905
and 1917 continued the Paris Commune, but after them this continuity
was broken. Today, adherence to the hope of a classical socialist
overthrow in the West must lead to _a pessimism that is actually
groundless_. _The revolutions in Russia and China, in the Balkans and
in Cuba, have probably contributed not less but rather more to the
overall progress than the proletarian revolutions hoped for in the
West could have done_.

Marxism, in other words, set out on a different journey, via Russia to
Asia, Africa and Latin America, a route associated with the names of
Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, Nkrumah and Castro. _It represents today
something incomparably greater and more diverse than in the era of
Marx_, and also in regard to its significance for Europe. It is not a
question of its "purity," but rather that it can simply no longer be
monopolized as a tool for study and for changing social realities.
(The variety of these must be stressed, so as to understand _the
differentiation_ of Marxist thought as something *positive*.)
Historical materialism itself prohibits us from judging whether
conditions in the Soviet Union, People's China, etc. realize
"authentic Marxism," though it can explain why the official
representatives of the various tendencies struggle for sole possession
of the truth. What is authentic is not the letter of theory, but the
historical process. If Leninism already represents in its theory, and
especially in its practice, a considerable "revision" of the orthodox
doctrine, that is the great merit of the founder of the Soviet Union.

Lenin's view of the revolutionary possibilities of the Asian peoples
was rendered more acute right from the beginning by his understanding
of the semi-Asiatic character of social relations in Russia. As early
as 1900, when the Russian reactionary and liberal press were
accompanying Tsarist participation in the imperialist police action
against the so-called Boxer rebellion in China with a campaign of
hatred against the barbarian Chinese, those enemies of culture and
civilization, Lenin stressed, as he was repeatedly to do later, the
similarity of the social problems facing the peoples of Russia and
China: "The Chinese people suffer from the same evils as those from
which the Russian people suffer -- they suffer from an Asiatic
government that squeezes taxes from the starving peasantry and that
suppresses every aspiration towards liberty by military force; they
suffer from the oppression of capital, which has penetrated into the
Middle Kingdom." The term "Asiatic" here describes a specific form of
relations of domination. In the same sense, Lenin was later to write:
"In very many and very essential respects, Russia is undoubtedly an
Asian country and, what is more, one of the most benighted, medieval
and shamefully backward of Asian countries."

Against the background of this historical affinity, he observed how
the Russian revolution of 1905 was followed by very similar events in
Turkey, Persia and above all in 1911 in China, while India and
Indonesia also began to stir. There could be no doubt, Lenin concluded
in 1908, that the European policies of robbery and oppression would
steel the Asian peoples for a victorious struggle against their
oppressors. The Russian revolution had *two* great international
allies, one in Europe (the modern proletariat) and one in Asia. In
1913 he gave an article the significant title "Backward Europe and
Advanced Asia," and wrote earlier the same year: "The awakening of
Asia and the beginning of the struggle for power by the advanced
proletariat of Europe are a symbol of the new phase in world history
that began early this century." If the mention of Asia was initially
contingent, it indicated none the less the beginning of a shift of
emphasis. In considering the historical destiny of Marxism in the same
year 1913, Lenin emphasized with respect to the new "source of great
world storms opened up in Asia": "It is in this era of storms and
their 'repercussions' in Europe that we are now living.... Certain
people who were inatentive to the conditions preparing and developing
the mass struggle were driven to despair and to anarchism by the
lengthy delays in the decisive struggle against capitalism in
Europe.... The fact that Asia, with its population of eight hundred
million, has been drawn into the struggle for these same European
ideals should inspire us with optimism and not despair.... After Asia,
Europe has also begun to stir...."

Characteristic of Lenin's position is his reference to the way that
the philosophical and political slogans of the anti-imperialist
liberation struggle derive from the ideals of the bourgeois and the
proletarian revolution in Europe. The new role of Asia in no way meant
that "light shines only from the mystic, religious East." "No, quite
the opposite. It means that the East has definitely taken the Western
path," which Russia had itself embarked upon. At least at the
theoretical level, Lenin continued to the last to hold the conviction
that "the social revolution in Western Europe is maturing before our
eyes." But after 1917, while the Bolsheviks _waited passionately_ for
the outbreak of the revolution in the West, and in Germany in
particular, which was to come to the relief of the Russian October and
secure its future, a different orientation came more and more to the

In November 1919 Lenin developed the following idea in addressing
representatives of the Communist organizations of the East: since the
imperialists would not allow the European revolutions to take their
course easily and swiftly, and since the "old socialist compromisers
are enlisted on the side of the bourgeoisie," "the socialist
revolution will not be solely or chiefly a struggle of the
revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie
-- no -- it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed
colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against
international imperialism." The programme of the Russian Communist
Party was based on the union of the civil war in the advanced
countries with wars of national liberation. "It is self-evident that
_final_ victory can be won _only_ by the proletariat of _all the
advanced countries_ of the world, and we, the Russians, are beginning
the work which the British, French or German proletariat will
consolidate. But we see" -- and _this is a completely new formulation_
-- "that they will not be victorious without the aid of the working
people of all the oppressed colonial nations, first and foremost, of
Eastern nations. We must realize that the transition to communism
cannot be accomplished by the vanguard alone." The task Lenin
proposes, therefore, is to "translate the true communist doctrine,
which was intended for the Communists of the more advanced countries,
into the language of every people," and "our Soviet Republic must now
muster all the awakening peoples of the East and, together with them,
wage a struggle against international imperialism."

In March 1923, when he wrote his final testamentary essay, "Better
Fewer, but Better," Lenin took a decisive step further. "Shall we be
able," he asked, "to hold on with our small and very small peasant
production, and in our present state of ruin, until the West-European
capitalist countries consummate their development towards socialism?"
After surveying the contradictions between the rich imperialist
states, he reached the conclusion that "the outcome of the struggle
will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc.,
account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe,"
a majority schooled and trained for the struggle by capitalism itself.
He then indicated what he saw as the basic contradiction and central
task of the epoch introduced by October: "*To ensure our existence
until the next military conflict between the counter-revolutionary
imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East, between
the most civilized countries of the world and the Oriental backward
countries which, however, comprise the majority, this majority must
become civilized.* We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to
pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political
requisites for it." Two months earlier he had written: "If a definite
level of culture is required for the building of socialism... why
cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite
level of culture _in a revolutionary way_, and *then*, with the aid of
the workers' and peasants' government and the Soviet system, proceed
to overtake the other nations?" In this way, therefore, Lenin derived
from the enforced circumstances which the Russian revolution had
arrived at by its isolation the programmatic basis of subsequent

For the heroes of the Second International, who charged the Bolsheviks
with violating "Marxist orthodoxy," and their imitators of today,
Lenin offered the following consideration: "Our European philistines
never even dream that the subsequent revolutions in Oriental
countries, which possess much vaster populations and a much vaster
diversity of social conditions, will undoubtedly display _even greater
distinctions_ than the Russian revolution." What singular Leninists,
then, are those who would today play schoolmaster to the Chinese
revolution, the revolution of a good quarter of humanity!

Marx only touched in passing on the question as to how the
non-European peoples were to appropriate the achievements of the epoch
of private property, i.e. the wealth of Europe with its industrial
preconditions. It seems that he did not realize the full implications
of either the tremendous material gap or the gap at the level of the
subjective factors, the historical human types, between Europe and the
colonized sector of the globe. The characteristic drama of the
present, which we denote with the abstract term "development," would
have been no less a problem if the hopes of the European socialists
had been fulfilled -- on the contrary! Both Hegel and Marx liked to
refer to the unexpected, unforeseen breakthrough of a historical
necessity as the "cunning of reason." Should we not see such a cunning
of reason at work in the fact that the masses of the "Third World"
have anticipated the revolt of Europe?

The peoples of the backward countries today are involved in a race
with catastrophe, a catastrophe which could claim far more victims
than the molten iron of the Russian revolution -- and needless victims
at that. Revolutions such as the Russian and the Chinese are the
precondition for victory over hunger. One of the earliest ideas of
Marxism, that the "overthrowing" class, or the formerly oppressed
classes, needs the revolution _as its own action_, in order _to "rid
itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society
anew_," is _nowhere more valid_ than for those doubly oppressed
peoples whom capitalism found at a lower stage of social development.
What they need is not bread from Canada, but rather bread from Asia,
from Africa, and for this they need a new form of life, similarly
non-capitalist to that in the Soviet Union and in China. How else are
the colonized peoples to overcome their inferiority complex, to find
on a massive scale the new consciousness and self-consciousness
required for their ascent, except through a revolutionary liberation
of their own? The external conditions for this may be favoured by the
existence of other socialist powers, but the popular masses of the
Southern hemisphere can _in no case_ be freed from outside.

What they initially require most of all, for their material
reconstruction is _a strong state_, often one that is in many respects
despotic, in order really to overcome the inherited inertia. And such
a state power can only draw its legitimation and authority from a
revolution, and thus put a stop to the decay and corruption
characteristic of the old "Asiatic mode of production." This state
power *must* be in charge of any "development aid" that comes from
outside with technical knowledge, and is therefore always inclined to
fall into the old colonial manner. There are very few people like
Norman Bethune. That is why state power resulting from liberation must
be established _before_ any European advisers proclaim a
"*Communauté*." It must take the same attitude towards advisers of
this kind as the young Soviet power did to bourgeois specialists. And
if such advisers are now coming from the Soviet Union itself, as well
as from other countries tied to it, the same arrangements must apply
to them too, until they have given proof of their internationalist
solidarity and fraternity. For the history of the liberation movement
since the Second World War has proved irrefutably that the pace and
the effect of emancipation for the masses depend on the achievement of
precisely this state of affairs.

Let us try and imagine what the peoples still under pre-capitalist
conditions and colonial exploitation would have obtained if the West
European proletariat at the turn of the century had anticipated the
liberating revolutions outside of Europe. Can we assume that a spirit
of human solidarity, the practice of equality towards all who bear the
human countenance, would have immediately and unreservedly been
achieved? The working classes of Europe are objective participants in
colonialism, and this was never without its ideological effects. At
the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International in 1907, a
clause in the draft resolution that the Congress did not condemn all
colonial policy on principle, since under socialism this could have a
civilizing effect, was rejected by only a narrow majority. Lenin also
reported how the attempt was made in the Congress's commission on the
colonial question "to ban the immigration of workers from backward
countries (coolies -- from China, etc.)." "This is the same spirit of
aristocratism," Lenin observed, "that one finds among workers in some
of the 'civilized' countries, who derive certain advantages from their
privileged position, and are, therefore, inclined to forget the need
for international class solidarity."

The immediate, trade-union interests of the Western working classes,
who would have developed a considerable need to catch up, both
materially and culturally, and would not have been as driven to
solidarity from the foreign policy standpoint as was the poor Soviet
republic, could have been kept on reins only by the most extreme
revolutionary consciousness and selflessness. The bureaucracies of the
social-democratic parties and trade unions, however, tended rather to
cultivate colonialist prejudices. For the sharpened awareness of the
present-day reader, even Frederick Engels' position is not completely
free from a certain "expert" European arrogance, as can be seen for
example in many of his articles on the Indian insurrection of 1857-9.
More than a few authorities of the Western labour movement would have
had a good try at teaching the "savage" and "half-civilized" peoples
how to behave, and after the first unsuccessful attempts to spread a
Protestant work ethic in Asia and Africa, withdrawn angrily like the
righteous guardian from his ungrateful ward. The labour bureaucracies
were all inclined, at the very least, to an _educational colonialism_.
And nothing is more likely than that the peoples affected would have
been forced to turn against such hypothetical socialist governments --
even if under somewhat more favourable conditions than before, and
with a European left-socialist minority on their side.

Above all, we must repeat once more that _these peoples have an
unconditional *need to rebel for themselves*, if they are to reshape
their society_. They must begin by taking a cultural distance from
Europe, even while assimilating its technical achievements. For the
export of European civilization is _colonialist to the roots, even if
pursued by a workers' government_. Neither Russia nor China would have
managed to attack their own problems of development at such pace, with
such an unleashing of the human productive forces, if they had not
been forced to solve them in revolutionary self-preservation against a
hostile environment.

If a socialist or communist order, as we have since had to realize,
cannot be based on material preconditions that are merely provincial
in character, then _the task of overcoming the lack of civilization
which Lenin referred to must be fulfilled by the revolutionary peoples
themselves, by creating the labour discipline they need in the course
of their struggle, this being the major world-historical task in
preparing for socialism_. _*With the revolutions in Russia and China,
with the revolutionary process in Latin America, in Africa and in
India, humanity is taking the shortest route to socialism*_. There, in
the "East," the real wretched of this earth have awakened. The role of
the working class, who gave the decisive impulse to the Russian
revolution and who obviously have a task in Europe, must be seen
afresh in this context. Moreover, even their revolution in Europe
would not have led directly to the socialism for which Marx hoped, but
far more probably to the phenomenal form so familiar to us, which
Bakunin already feared from the look of the Prusso-German
Social-Democrats and the style of leadership in the International.
Time and again, our bureaucratic centralism is explained in terms of
Russian backwardness, though _in fact_ this is only responsible for
certain excesses. In so far as the hierarchichal apparatus of
functionaries of the workers' organizations is the potential state
machine, what this is preparing is not a new Paris Commune, but rather
a state monopoly freed from capitalism.

We can envisage the state monopoly tendency better, a tendency which
is coming to form the object of the liberation struggle the world
over, if we compare this modern transition period towards classless
society with the ancient economic despotism which was the predominant
form of entry into class society. This is a further reason why the
history and present developmental tendencies in the East are of
particular interest to us. We shall see that the character of this
epoch, as it develops into the "conflict between the
counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and
nationalist East," is the present consequence of all former world
history. On the essential points, it needs only the further
development of the premises already provided by Marx and Engels in
their materialist overview of historical evolution.

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