British Communist Historiography Of Stalin And Stalinism

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In the immediate aftermath of Khrushchev’s secret speech, British communist historiography of Stalin and Stalinism significantly advanced off the back of the creation of The Reasoner. The creation of the journal and the entries published within it allows for an appreciation and recognition of the evolution of the othering process of Stalinism by British communists throughout this period. The Reasoner’s primary purpose was to create a platform in order to discuss revelations about Stalin and his regime. Through its publication of articles and letters, it is evident that there was a digression from the daily worker and other publications positive othering of Stalin prior to 1956 and in the days and weeks immediately after.

The negative othering of Stalinism became apparent in the articles and letters printed in The Reasoner’s first issue. This publication identified the contrast between the myths and reality if Stalinism and how the regime was a deviant from of socialism. Most notably, from the outset, concepts of accountability, morality and blame were prominent: ‘our moral and political reactions have been so feeble….the weakening of the moral basis of our political life necessarily makes less vigorous our practical judgements and our practical activity’, ‘the shock and moral turmoil engendered by the revelations were the result of our general failure to apply a Marxist analysis…’, ‘our irrational approach to the Soviet Union …have brought some socialists to the point of doubting our integrity’. These statements serve to highlight the implied moral deviation of Stalinism through individual moral inadequacy manifesting through support of the regime.

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A letter from the first issue further illustrated this. In this letter, the author’s primary focus was the relationship between Stalinism and the CPGB both prior to and post-1956. Having resigned from the party himself after disagreeing with the post-war period leadership methods under the Stalin regime, the author severely criticised the relationship between Stalinism and the CPGB: ‘you became a generation of irresponsible political innocents, relying on the loyalty of your members and the solidarity of the working-class to cover your political nakedness when you made nonsense of all previous analyses and policies by overnight changes in the ‘line’; ‘You saw every question through Stalinist blinkers and presented every situation in the same way’ and ‘Worst of all, you tampered with your own conscience so that honest human dealings with political opponents and even with your friends – indeed the very idea of ‘conscience’ itself appeared to you to be ‘bourgeois claptrap’’.

It was correspondence like this, filled with freely spoken honesty, that the creators of The Reasoner started the journal for and wanted to encourage. Developing together with further direct references to accountability, morality and blame was the idea that Stalinism had become indistinguishably associated to what it meant to be, or have been, a communist during this period: ‘Stalinism was not ‘wrong things’ about which ‘we could not know’, but distorted theories and degenerate practices about which we knew something’.

Furthermore, ‘the Stalin business’ was highlighted by other articles as to where the responsibility of the Party, especially its leaders lay in. The Party was blamed for its inadequacy in self-criticism and its failure to be cautious and vigilant enough in regard to the issues of Stalinism. Some believed the Party represented Russian interests rather than British and suggested the creation of a totally new party in order to avoid future similarities: ‘Plain English, common-sense, the right of publication within the party, differing views: a Communist Party of a new type – that’s what’s needed.’ The idea of distributing blame was a fundamental theme across the content of The Reasoner. Implicit throughout this theme was the belief that an individual that supported Stalin or his regime should be held accountable as it was seen as immoral and contrasting to positive values. Consequently, for the first time through The Reasoner, British communists endeavoured to now identify themselves as not only dissimilar to Stalin and Stalinism, but also opposed to it.

British communism had once accepted and supported Stalinism, but it was viewed to have corrupted the party. All three editions of The Reasoner referenced recognised forms of othering, for example, a focus on Stalinism as a deviation from socialism. In an article written by Thompson, he spoke of necessary actions in order to eliminate the immorality of Stalin’s philosophy and practice from the CPGB, who’s ‘humanity’ was lost. As a result of the ‘torture, death and slander [of] many of its own best sons’, it devastated the first Socialist Revolution. According to an American socialist, Stalinism and socialism were in fact ‘quite incompatible.’ Moreover, in his writing, Thompson stated that Stalinism was not ‘wrong things’, yet created a list of all of the ‘wrong’ things with it: the approach to discussion, the concept of the Party, the system of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the power-driven theory of human consciousness, the military terminology and the escalation of the class struggle. In fact, Thompson labelled the military vocabulary of Stalinism as ‘strange and offensive’ to the British working class.

Subsequently, differences between British and Russian communism were highlighted. For example, it was voiced that there was a feeling of regret and guilt that the CPGB was not more focused ‘interpreting creatively’ British traditions and instead confused the actual values on internationalism with a submissive attitude towards the Soviet Union. British communists, according to John McLeish, had been compromised by ‘the exposure of Stalinism in our midst.’ Moreover, numerous members of the party were expecting a public denial of Stalinism ‘in our party’ before they would consider re-joining. McLeish’s stress of the word ‘our’ signified the importance of forming incompatible and distinct identities for both Stalinism and British communism.

In 1956 The Reasoner and the Daily Worker were characterised as polar opposites. The Daily Worker represented the CPGB’s official stance of refusing to acknowledge the true occurrences in the Soviet Union at the time of Stalinism and continuing to ignore any form of discussion about it. On the other hand, The Reasoner’s primary focus was acknowledging what happened under Stalin’s regime and sought to provide a platform for discussion. The Reasoner encouraged individuals to understand the theories and practices of Stalinism and where these went wrong. Perhaps most notably, its readers wanted to recognise and admit to their own personal failures through their support of Stalin and his regime. Thus, it initiated a move from the regime. Over the course of its three issues, The Reasoner published articles and letters that created a notion of Stalin as a theoretical and moral other. What is most extraordinary about what the creation of The Reasoner exemplifies, is that for British communists, Stalinism was indistinguishably associated with their personal individual identities. The desire to discuss, comprehend, question, report on and debate Stalinism was rooted in their personal need to understand how they supported the regime and continued to be a member of a Party they had, albeit suppressed, reservations about. Hobsbawm wrote that occasionally the Party’s members and its leadership would disagree intellectually and ideologically. However, he also suggested that whenever these occasional disagreements would occur, every effort was made to ignore or move on from them.

Highlighted in a letter published in The Reasoner written by Doris Lessing, was the detail that some British communists, at times, perhaps doubted Stalin’s leadership. She wrote that:

The facts are that, up to the 20th Congress, if those of us who knew what was going on – and it was perfectly possible to know if one kept one’s mind open and read the plentiful evidence available – if we had said what we thought, in the only place open to us, the capitalist press, we would have been cast out by the party and branded as traitors, and inevitably isolated by bitterness and recrimination from a world movement in which we believed and of which we wished to remain a part.

British communists such as Thompson, Hobsbawm and Saville suggest in their writings that being a British communist throughout the 1950s was an extremely personal matter. For example, Hobsbawm even implied that it was somewhat vocational:

Some of us even felt that it [communism] had recruited us as individuals. Where would we, as intellectuals, have been, what would have become of us, but for the experiences of war, revolution and depression, fascism, and anti-fascism, which surrounded us in our youth?

At a time when the relationship between capitalist and communist states across the world was at the peak of intensity, in order to stand your ground as a communist, conviction and purpose were mandatory. Therefore, the revelations and exposures of Khrushchev’s secret speech had severe implications for British communists and throughout the immediate aftermath of the speech, they ‘lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown’. The dramatic split, in which 7,000 members of Party left as a consequence of the speech, is well documented through various accounts, not only as a result of it delegitimizing a belief in communism, but also as a result of the way in which the CPGB handled it. These events transformed the way in which these and other British communists wrote about Stalin and Stalinism.

It is evident from their post-1956 writing that until Khrushchev’s secret speech, Hobsbawm, Saville and Thompson’s thoughts on Stalin and Stalinism were greatly similar to those of the CPGB, as displayed in articles published in the Daily Worker and other publications. Prior to the speech, all three writers had commented on their commitment and loyalty to the Party and its principle. Saville and Thompson who were close friends and went on to co-edit The Reasoner were both deeply committed party members. For Saville, Stalinism was:

An organisation one was proud to belong to…I was fortunate enough to be of the generation that established the Communist historians’ group and for ten years we exchanged ideas and developed our Marxism into what we hoped were creative channels.

The significance of the CPGB in the lives of its members was perhaps best summed up by Hobsbawm:

The Party (we always thought of it in capital letters) had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolutely priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow ‘the line’ it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it, although we made heroic efforts to convince ourselves of its intellectual and political ‘correctness’ in order to ‘defend it’, as we were expected to.

Consequently, the historiography of 1956 was partially an effort to apologise for their individual actions by involving themselves in a fully detailed analysis of how Stalin’s regime and their support for it even occurred in the first place. This historiography is one of individual beliefs and moral judgement, and eventually for a number of them it appears likewise to have been a catharsis. The Reasoner was created out of the desire of both Saville of Thompson to understand the mistakes and for there to be a platform for other to gain an understanding too. They were not apologising for their confidence in socialism, in fact socialism remained as their political belief – a circumstance in which the need for understanding was only heightened – they were apologising for their confidence in the leadership of the CPGB, Stalin and his regime. Ultimately, they made Stalinism the other to their own socialism.

In the after 1956, there is evidentiary support that suggests deviance from socialism and moral judgements remained a fundamental part of British communist writings on Stalin and Stalinism. Examples of this are show in The New Reasoner publications. The New Reasoner was editorial of Thompson and Saville that took over from The Reasoner. They published articles in this journal throughout the years 1957-59. Saville’s writings continued to reference the ‘intellectual degeneracy’ of Stalinism. He later wrote about Marxism in its Anglo-Saxon form of being, ‘a morality that does not accept ethical justification for unpleasant deeds that have to be done.’ Furthermore, another article in The New Reasoner, written in the form of a letter addressed to Thompson, discussed the writer’s moral disgust towards the Party. Imre Nagy, a Hungarian communist politician who was executed in 1958 by the Soviets for treason wrote also of the moral question in his journal of a 1955 internal party communication. The journal had details and notes on the incompatibility between ‘public morality’ and leadership positions being held by persons who had previously been to blame for the murder and suffering of innocent individuals and asked, ‘Can one speak of the morality of public life when the ‘battle of opinions’ is waged with such depraved tools…’

Margot Heinemann wrote of the Stalinist parody of Socialism and in 1976, Malcolm MacEwan, who had previously edited the Daily Worker, wrote about Party members not being able to ‘stomach passing off the mistakes of Stalinism as the cult of the individual’. Years after, in the 1990s, Hobsbawm’s writing claimed that the system and regime in which Stalin was practising would have ‘outraged’ the likes of Lenin, the older Bolsheviks and Marx. Later again, Hobsbawm wrote of 1956 and the ‘traumatic’ memories he had of the events of that year, writing that:

Even after practically half a century my throat contracted as I recall the almost intolerable tensions under which we lived month after month, the unending moments of decision about what to say and do on which our future lives seemed to depend, the friends now clinging together or facing one another bitterly as adversaries, the sense of lurching, unwillingly but irreversibly, down the scree towards the fatal rock-face.

In 1992, Willie Thompson, historian and CPGB member wrote about the way in which the CPGB had respected and idolised Stalin:

At a distance of more than fifty years it is impossible to read this material – and the Left Book Club examples were more restrained than the newspaper articles and pamphlets – without a feeling of shame that individuals who were in other aspects of their lives humane and upright could have lent their intelligence and energies to such abomination.

In more recent historiography of Stalin and Stalinism, Western Marxist historians have persisted in clearly differentiating Stalinism from socialism. An example of this is seen in Tony Cliff’s writings and his theory of ‘state capitalism’. Cliff’s theory implies that Stalinism was in fact not socialism, but instead a form of capitalism. Moreover, writings by Chris Harman suggests different forms of socialism, the one represented by Stalinism and the one embodied by classical Marxism. Socialists endeavour to differentiate themselves from the Stalinist other has continued to be strongly prevalent.

To conclude, the primary and secondary sources analysed in this thesis validate the notion of Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ as a catalyst for a swift and dramatic development of British communist writing on Stalin and Stalinism. The tone of British communist writing transformed from the pre-1956 period of positive othering published in Daily Worker articles and other works to the post-secret speech era when the Party suffered a dramatic split when numerous members made an attempt to realise and accept the revelations and disclosures of the speech. While accounts and documents on the Party’s split are plentiful, the way in which this dissertation analyses the evolution of how Stalin and Stalinism were re-evaluated and considered by British communists throughout this time has offered a new lens to look at Western perceptions of Stalin. Without examining these sources, a fully incorporated analysis of Western othering of Stalin and Stalinism would remain at large restricted to that of anti-communist persons. this, in turn would neglect the significant and pertinent material that can be seen all throughout the works used in this dissertation. In particular, these works have served to highlight that the ideas of deviancy and morality became fundamental to the attempts made by British communists in coming to terms with Stalin and his regime as well as their own belief systems and behaviour. The topic of individual moral accountability both directly and indirectly implied that Stalin and his regime were risky, immoral, and corrupt and that accepting their own mistakes and faults was a necessary process that British communists hoped would help eradicate any taint of Stalin and Stalinism from themselves and from socialism.

These works also reveal the significant gap between the writings of British communists that that of Western Sovietologists. This is made even more remarkable by the reality of them being written throughout the same time. And while the two may possibly appear to develop and work separately from one another, these British communist writings would indeed impact on the totalitarian model and Western scholarship on Stalin and Stalinism and the direction in which this developed. Hobsbawm exemplifies this later in his argument that Stalinism was not totalitarian. According to Hobsbawm, totalitarianism represented an extensive centralised structure that enforced not only complete physical command over its population, but through its monopoly and domination over sectors such as education and propaganda, achieved success through the population actually adopting its ideals. He acknowledged that a sense of adoration of Stalin was achieved however, in every other regard, Stalinism was not totalitarianism: ‘It did not exercise effective ‘thought control’, let alone ensure ‘thought conversion’, but in fact depoliticised the citizenry to an astonishing degree’.

When one considers the future effect of British communist historians’ writings on social history, this gap between the works of British communists and that of the totalitarian model scholars becomes even more important to the historiography of Stalin and Stalinism. For Hobsbawm, there was little doubt that British communists were to be mostly credited for the huge progress made in the rise of British ‘social history’, particularly in the field of study termed ‘history from below’. Hobsbawm, in particular, references himself, E.P. Thompson, George Rude and Raphael Samuel. They were especially interested in working-class theory, the ideologies fundamental to social movements. According to Hobsbawm, it was ‘still largely identified with historians of this provenance, for the social history of ideas was always (thanks largely to Hill) one of our main preoccupations’.   

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