Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association (a review)

Nick Malherbe review's Ian Parker's Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association.


Source > Marx and Philosophy

Ian Parker
Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association

Resistance Books, London, 2022. 98 pp., £5 pb
ISBN 9780902869271

In recent years, neoliberalism’s undeniable illegitimacy, along with the rising popularity of several left-wing party leaders (Lula, Sanders, Corbyn, Morales, Mélenchon, etc.), has meant that socialism is no longer stigmatised to the degree that it once was. The same cannot be said about communism, a word that continues to conjure up images of authoritarian control, queues, imprisonment and death. It is largely to Joseph Stalin and his followers that we owe this common conception of communism. It was, after all, under Stalinist regimes that totalitarian violence and repressive social control were wielded in the name of communism.

A materialist, democratic understanding of communism is, however, not one that finds its bearings in Stalinism. It is one that returns us to Marx, who was famously nondescript in discussions on communism. This was because, as Marx saw it, communism was to be made collectively and in response to our historically determined, yet always contingent, material circumstances. It is in the turn away from Stalin’s authoritarian communism and towards Marx’s open communism that we find Ian Parker’s marvellous little book, Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association.

The book begins by acknowledging a debt to Mark Fisher, whose landmark work on capitalist realism made clear to so many of us how neoliberal ideology presents capitalism as the only game in town and, in so doing, closes off the socialist imagination. Parker’s book is concerned with a particular kind of capitalist realism, one that can be found in much of today’s political left, namely, stalinist realism (lowercase, Parker insists, to indicate its pervasiveness). We can think of stalinst realism, perhaps most simply, as the ideological force that binds people to a revolution betrayed. Looking always to a fetishised central leadership rather than the demos, stalinist realism claims to resist capitalism’s liquidity and false promises of freedom. Yet, stalinist realism, Parker demonstrates, can only but function  as capitalism’s ‘malignant mirror’, reproducing many of the most toxic elements of capitalism. Stalinist realism posits that if there is an alternative to capitalism as we know it, it is an oppressive, controlling, bureaucratic and top-down alternative. As such, stalinist realism can only ever deliver on a series of false alternatives or, as Parker prefers to call it, campism. When we are made to choose between US-NATO imperialism or Putin’s atrocious war, for example, we are stuck in stalinist realism. By insisting on centralised control, unflinching party loyalty and the fixity of national and personal identities, stalinist realism represents ‘a political practice and fantasy of order’ (26) that prohibits not only change-making, but our ability to envision change.

Although Parker’s characterisation of stalinist realism does not ignore the tensions and breaks between Mao and Stalin; we are told in the book’s glossary that Maoism ultimately became ‘a form of Stalinism’ (84). As a result of this, Parker claims that Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China represent the two most prominent power bases of stalinist realism today. For the purpose of Parker’s analysis, all of this makes sense. However, questions of what a Maoist realism might look like, and whether this would differ substantially from stalinist realism, are raised implicitly. Stalinist realism may, in some respects, fall short of understanding the political and cultural influence that Mao holds today, both in and outside of China. This is not, however, a shortcoming of Parker’s thesis. It is, instead, a potentially fruitful avenue upon which this thesis can be taken.

Drawing from revolutionary language and symbols, stalinist realism forecloses visions of emancipation by mapping out exactly what emancipation should – or must – look like. This, Parker maintains, will always resemble life under capitalism. We are, therefore, urged to shift our understanding of liberation, focusing on means rather than ends; to building socialism in the material conditions in which we are embedded. A commitment to realising visions of emancipation in the very practice of radically democratic politics represents the most meaningful antidote to stalinist realism. And it is this commitment that Parker calls open communism.

Parker describes open communism as a concrete kind of practice that is concerned primarily with freedom, building solidarity between different struggles and creating emancipatory visions in the process of realising them. To practice open communism is to dream beyond capitalist reality without romanticising the past.

We are told that because open communism is concerned with taking the commons back from capitalism, it represents a decolonial approach to politics. The intersections as well as the incompatibilities between open communism and decoloniality present a number of salient political questions. For example, open communism offers a potentially generative means by which to engage Madina Tlostanova’s work on decolonising epistemology and the post-Soviet imaginary. On a practical level, we might ask what open communism could mean in contexts where labour struggles are pitted by capitalist forces against indigenous struggles for land.

Like stalinist realism, open communism is a tremendously fruitful concept, and may well inspire analyses beyond the scope of this book. There is, for instance, much to say on whether or not people are likely to organise their politics under the signifier open communism. We might also probe further into what open communism means in specific Global South contexts – such as Angola – where Stalinism continues to exert its influence today. What, if anything, is the role of the state in developing open communism, especially in its early phases? Does open communism serve as the more radical horizon for an open socialism? The book’s silence on these matters is inconsequential to its evocative arguments. One is led to marvel at the many stimulating provocations included in this short book, rather than lament its exclusions.

Throughout the book, one detects an unwavering and comradely commitment to consolidating open communism and left-wing political practice more generally. If left politics are given critique here, it is always with an eye to strengthening such politics. As we can expect from a title published by Resistance Books, Parker presents his arguments in clear, plain-spoken, elan prose – a testament to the ease by which he traverses a rather complex political landscape. The book strikes an impressive balance in its ability to appeal to comrades well-versed in political practice and theory (both stalinist realism and open communism throw up important considerations for democracy, identity and solidarity, all of which must be taken seriously by everyone on the left), as well as those who may not be as familiar with leftist praxis (Parker takes time to explain any jargon that might otherwise alienate readers, citing very few thinkers by name). The effort taken in the book to render so accessible complex ideas cannot go uncelebrated.

The book’s chapters on human subjectivity are especially illuminating. This is perhaps owed in part to Parker’s background as a critical psychoanalyst. For example, he demonstrates how stalinist realism represses doubts that people may have about the party line, breeding paranoia among comrades. He also insists that because open communism is a practice, rather than an idea, it resists collapsing into a phantasmatic abstraction divorced from material reality. However, it is the chapters on bodies and identity that contain some of the book’s most stirring insights on subjectivity.

Parker posits that notions of the nuclear family – along with identifiable, able bodies – are central to stalinist realism. Putin and Xi share an obsession with normative family relations and the normative bodies and desires that are to comprise these relations. Parker recounts that just as LGBTQI+ groups have been shut down in China, queer sexualities are brutally persecuted by the Russian state. It is in these ways that stalinist realism attempts to contain the body – just like it seeks to contain the nation – within definitive boundaries, requiring all bodies to declare their place in a social, marketised or familial order. Stalinist realism, in other words, imposes order by delineating the coordinates of subjectivity, national borders, bodies and desires, relying on fixed notions of leadership, the party and the state to do so. As such, because travelling across national or gender identity poses such a direct threat to stalinist realism, open communism embraces a radically queer politics that refuses not only the commodified identities hailed by neoliberal capitalism, but also the identitarian strictures demanded by stalinist realism.

Parker offers a useful assessment of open communism’s openness. On the one hand, it is within this openness that comrades can work together to ensure that their class politics are always also a feminist, anti-racist, queer politics. Openness thus facilitates the building of an anti-capitalist solidarity that is necessarily expansive – prying communism open with a range of standpoints. On the other hand, he warns that rendering communism too open risks embracing a kind of liberal pluralism that is hostile to conflict. The plurality of open communism, Parker writes, must be a class plurality propelled by difference and contradiction. The book does a splendid job of emphasising the urgency of this often-forgotten point.

Throughout the 1970s, Ralph Miliband stressed that we cannot cede scholarship on Stalinism to capitalists. The left, he repeatedly contended, must engage critically with – and learn from – the violent atrocities experienced by those living under Stalinist rule. Parker’s book makes a wonderful and very relevant contribution here, offering myriad illuminating insights into the politically imperative task of opening up and democratising communism, and thus taking it back from Stalinism’s abhorrent ideological legacy, stalinist realism. It is by opening communism that we can begin organising and imagining an anti-capitalist politics from where we stand, a politics that, although grounded in material reality, strives to push this reality beyond its immediate possibilities.

The Anti*Capitalist Resistance Editorial Board may not always agree with all of the content we repost but feel it is important to give left voices a platform and develop a space for comradely debate and disagreement.  

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

Nick Malherbe is a researcher at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa and South African Medical Research Council-University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit.

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