Stalinist Realism part 1

Ian Parker in this long read, on how capitalism as a global system of rule is accompanied by its terrible twin, ‘stalinist realism’ that works its way into ideas about political camps, bodies, identity and organisation.

 

Mark Fisher gave us a cutting-edge analysis in 2009 of what he called ‘capitalist realism’; the ideological claim that capitalism is the only possible reality today, that there is no alternative. Mark’s analysis showed us that this kind of ‘realism’ locks us into place in capitalism, and is suffused with fantasies about our passivity and the impossibility of radical change. ‘Realism’ here is the mantra of those who want the world to stay the same, of those who want exploitation to continue as it is, of those who want to convince us to give up struggling for another world beyond capitalism.

There is an alternative, and Anti-Capitalist Resistance works alongside other revolutionary organisations here and across the world to build that alternative. Mark Fisher showed us that we need a deep analysis of the ideology of ‘capitalist realism’ precisely so we can better challenge it. Understanding the world, for us revolutionaries, is intimately connected to challenge and change, to struggle and transformation. That is what socialist politics is for us.

But we also face another threat, one Mark understood well, and which this little book focuses on. There is a weird flip-side of capitalist realism that pretends to offer a way out of global capitalism but which locks us all the more tightly into exploitation and oppression. That false path, a poisonous trap for the left, is ‘stalinist realism’ (a telling phrase we owe to comrade Ali); little s for stalinist here to mark it as a pervasive cultural-political phenomenon on the left. Stalinist realism is very present in the explicit politics of some groups that say they are communist and in the politics of their fellow travellers who are well-meaning but deeply mistaken.

Stalinist realism is a kind of weird malignant mirror of global capitalism; it repeats many of the most toxic aspects of capitalism while posing as an alternative. It is not an alternative. It is part of the problem. Here we explain what stalinist realism is, and why it needs to be avoided.

To understand what stalinist realism is, we will need to quickly backtrack to its origins, and show how it reflects and reinforces capitalism. Then we will look at different kinds of supposedly ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘feminist’ arguments made by stalinist realist politics, arguments that seem to be progressive but are in fact deeply reactionary, betraying anti-imperialist and feminist struggles. These arguments have consequences for organisation and struggle. Revolutionary democracy is, against the stalinist realist tradition, the basis for authentic anti-capitalist resistance.

Stalinism

Stalinism is one form of defeat and demoralisation, of failure of revolutionary hopes, and it has a brutal practical existence, a kind of ‘reality’, in the bureaucratic hierarchical regimes that appeared in different parts of the world after the 1917 Russian revolution. That revolution, the 1917 ‘October’ revolution, was a popular uprising, a time of revolutionary democracy both inside the Bolshevik Party, Russia’s communist party, and in the wider society. It was an opportunity and moment for radical experimentation, a flowering of rebellious movements in the fields of politics and art, of national liberation and sexual politics.

That revolution was crushed by the intervention of the surrounding capitalist countries, by capitalist regimes intent on preventing the revolution from spreading, preventing it connecting with rebellions in other parts of Europe, other parts of the world. It was crushed in part by those interventions and by the civil war that led to the militarisation of Russian society as it tried to defend itself. But it was also crushed by the internal counterrevolution that rose on the back of that militarisation.

During the 1920s Joseph Stalin came to power in the new Soviet Union, and the ‘soviets’, which were once the basis of revolutionary democracy, were turned into tools of control. In place of open debate there was the implementation of a line from the top, from the Kremlin in Moscow, and Stalin ruled from the height of a bureaucratic apparatus that betrayed the revolution. The communist party directed by Stalin claimed to defend the revolution, but it betrayed it, and the ‘Stalinist’ Soviet Union became a kind of mirror-image of the worst, most oppressive capitalist regimes.

Democracy

Capitalist regimes hypocritically complained about the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union, but loved that Stalinism was smearing the reputation of revolutionary socialist politics in blood. Capitalism, and the kind of ‘capitalist realism’ that tells you that there is no alternative, was mirrored by Stalinism and a ‘stalinist realism’ that tells you that the only alternative is oppressive and controlling. This is how stalinist realism appears in the politics of the communist parties around the world loyal to Stalin, a kind of realism that tells you there is no hope for socialism except as a kind of military discipline.

Revolutionary movements had to defy Stalinism to overthrow capitalism in their own countries. As an ideological force stalinist realism insisted that the only reality was either capitalism or bureaucratic control, that these two systems should peacefully coexist, and not interfere with the functioning of each ‘camp’ or part of the world. If you took sides, you were told, it is one side or the other, either with capitalism or with the bureaucracy, and so with Stalinism.

China broke from Stalin, but after its own revolution against capitalism it quickly adopted the same kind of political form in which the local communist party had been schooled in, part of the oppressive mirror-world of stalinist realism.

That Stalinist mirror-world gathered many fellow-travellers to support the bureaucratic regimes, useful idiots willing to overlook abuses of power, cover up for the crimes of the regimes they were loyal to. And so when they argued for ‘peace’ and ‘peaceful coexistence’, for example, it was only to reinforce the idea that there were two ways of living, capitalist or ‘socialist’, and that the ‘socialist’ parts of the world were a heaven where man did not exploit man.

The joke made by revolutionaries was that in the Stalinist countries that claimed to be ‘socialist’, it was not so different; under capitalism man exploited man, but in the Soviet Union, it was the other way round. And with that exploitation came the reinforcement of other kinds of oppression, including the revival of the nuclear family and the power of men over women, as well as colonialism, with Great Russian chauvinism rearing its head again to control the less powerful nations in its assumed domain.

Reform

Attempts to ‘reform’ the Soviet Union, and attempts to bring about a ‘cultural revolution’ and then implement ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in Beijing, showed that there was always desire for something better. People in those countries who had been told by the regimes that this is ‘socialism’ demanded that the regimes were true to their word, and attempted to implement socialist politics for themselves, by themselves. Those movements were beaten back time and again, and the bureaucratic regimes eventually transformed from a brutal mirror-image of the capitalist world into a part of it, becoming fully capitalist.

Sometimes, as in China, the old ‘socialist’ rhetoric was used, is still used, to justify repression, but Russia and China today are capitalist, tied into global capitalism, part of the chains of colonial and imperialist expansion, and signed up to the forms of racial and sexual oppression that makes power under capitalism work so efficiently. The ‘stalinist realism’ of the old regimes, and their supporters in communist parties around the world, had to adapt to the new reality, to the globalisation of capitalism that has become the only ‘realistic’ option, with no alternative whatsoever.

After the final incorporation of Russia and China and its various dependent satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and South East Asia, is the world of ‘capitalist realism’. And in such a world it really does seem that if you are to be ‘realistic’, you must accept that capitalism is the only game in town. You have to play by its rules, give up hope for a better world, for socialism. But there is a twist, and the twist is that Stalinism is not dead.

The old military-style bureaucratic conception of ‘socialist’ politics still lives, and while it pretends to be an ally of the left, it is a deadly enemy of it, kicking us while we are down. Stalinist realism is the kind of politics that tells you that if you dislike capitalism, if you are searching for another reality, then this, obedient and stupid agreement with bureaucratic power, is the only alternative you can hope for.

Camps

It is an overwhelming problem that there was always a material basis for capitalist realism – systems of production and consumption that locked people in place as if there was no alternative – and for stalinist realism in the ruling ideology of the actually-existing bureaucratic regimes that claimed to be socialist. There still is that material basis for both, for global capitalism and its malignant mirror-politics. The material basis for stalinist realism today is the existence of the regimes that are now capitalist but still hypocritically use old socialist symbolism to cloak their agendas, and the existence of the old communist parties that are still geared to the needs of those regimes.

The two main power-bases for stalinist realism today are Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, and stalinist realism is the ideological force that glues some well-meaning radicals into the agenda of those regimes. The material apparatus of the regimes extends into the so-called ‘communist’ parties that cover up the crimes of Putin and Jinping, and into the network of ‘front’ organisations controlled by those parties, as well as the array of different movements that buy into stalinist realism.

There are those who mistakenly believe that China is ‘socialist’, and there are even those pretending that Russia has not fully embraced capitalism. These lines are handed down by the leaderships of the ‘communist’ parties, even though many of the members of those parties do not really buy that. The pity is that there are groups on the left who know well that these are capitalist countries, but their own ways of organising fits with the way those regimes operate, and they simply overlook what their own analysis shows them for pragmatic political purposes.

Stalinist realism as a bureaucratic top-down way of doing politics – a parody of alienated capitalist ideology and betrayal of revolutionary politics – has a number of components. One powerful component is the claim that the world is divided into different ‘camps’ and that you need to make a choice, that if you want to oppose capitalism and its own militarised NATO world then you must, of necessity, opt for the other camp, as if that is a progressive alternative. The illusion that there is a ‘progressive camp’ in the world now is an integral part of stalinist realism.

Strength

The trap is that strong state power presents itself as the only alternative to apparently looser liberal free-capitalism. So it seems as if when you oppose capitalism you have to opt for one of the strong states, and sign up to the kind of command politics that one of the old ‘communist’ parties engages in. At its worst, that means being obedient, following the rules of a kind of ‘democratic centralism’ that is highly centralised, and staying silent about abuses of power. Internal democracy is viewed as a threat by some left groups, and this leads them into campism when they should know better.

By forcing a choice between support for capitalist powers or one of the old ‘socialist’ states, global politics is reduced to a zero-sum game, which was always one of the ideological pillars of the Cold War when Stalinism was in full force. Forcing a choice for one camp or the other, as if Moscow or Beijing were somehow more progressive than Washington or London, is ‘campism’. Campism as part of the ideological worldview of stalinist realism then subjects you to the host of explicit and implicit conspiratorial propaganda ploys promoted by naïve supporters and algorithm-driven internet bots.

This is where you are made to draw lines. For example, lines between the supposedly progressive and ‘socialist’ regime in Beijing attempting to bring ‘civilization’ to its eastern regions, and to the Uighur Muslims in Xinxiang concentration camps. They are not really ‘camps’, you say, it is a fiction, invented by the West. Then, perhaps, you take the next step, and start to disbelieve Tibetans who are suffering under the military occupation because they are in the wrong ‘camp’, the Western camp. That is stalinist realism, as if the only possible alternative to the rotten West are these supposedly nicer regimes.

Because you oppose ‘Western intervention’, you then make the fatal mistake of believing the propaganda of, say, the Assad regime in Syria, that tells you that the main threat is Islamic terrorist insurgents who are being bravely opposed by the friendly Russian air-strikes. Or you proclaim that ‘the main enemy is at home’, which is true, but which then leads you to forget the deadly enemies of those you should be in solidarity with, the main enemy in their homes. In short, you risk ending up in the crazy mirror-world of stalinist realism, even painting the White Helmet humanitarian support initiatives as imperialist puppets because they are critical of the Assad regime, or even denying that this regime carried out deadly gas attacks.

Because NATO is a Western imperialist alliance – which it is, no doubt, and we should call for it to be dismantled as one of our tasks – then you slide into the campist assumption that those who are opposing NATO are the good guys. There is a real danger that you slide into a pacifist refusal to send people arms to defend themselves, abstain on supporting struggles for liberation. Then, bit by bit, you are drawn into the conspiracy theories promoted by the Kremlin, the idea that Ukraine is a Western puppet regime, that Ukraine’s attempt to assert its independence is merely a ploy to provoke Putin, who only has Russia’s legitimate ‘security concerns’ in mind. Does he hell; his concerns are for his own security and property.

Sides

The pity is that stalinist realism sucks in revolutionaries who once proudly declared that they refused to take sides, that they would choose neither Washington nor Moscow but struggle for international socialism. They were right then, and were suspicious of Stalinism to the point where they would never side with a brutal regime or cover up happening there. They were right then in the face of sustained propaganda from the West, when it was more difficult to get information out from inside Russia and China about what was really happening.

Now, with almost immediate online contact with our comrades around the world, we are, paradoxically, faced with more complete ideological control, the world of ‘capitalist realism’ where it seems as if the only possible global reality is international capitalism. And, as its mirror image, we have stalinist realism and its ideological apparatuses pumping out the message that we must choose, between our own government or theirs, between Washington or Moscow, or Beijing.

As with capitalist realism, this suffuses power with fantasy. Here the fantasy is that we can escape from a world of ‘soft power’, a world of empty alienating consumer fake choice, a world in which we are free to shop but not to collectively organise our own lives for the good of all. The fantasy that stalinist realism provokes and feeds is that there is good power, state power you can happily offer yourself to, that you can trust what those leaders tell you, and that deaths in Xinxiang or Tibet or Syria or Ukraine are myths or a price worth paying.

Those deaths at the hands of Putin or Jinping, you tell yourself, are not deaths at all – they are fabricated, made up, untrue – or they are little deaths compared to the bigger world picture in which our imperialism and its NATO weapons is finally being opposed and could be ended by regimes that are fantastically and marvellously stronger. Our weakness, our helplessness, finally finds a force that is more powerful, that will rescue us, so it is best to be grateful, keep quiet about the problems, and choose the good camp.

Bodies

Stalinist realism loves strong borders, strong boundaries, it loves to know what is what and who fits where. And so it is not surprising that, just as Stalin revived the idea of the nuclear family inside the Soviet Union to make the regime rest on millions of little points of power – little dictatorships in every home – so ‘family’ and ‘normal’ family relationships are an obsession of Putin and Jinping.

While revolutionary Marxists seek alliances with all the movements of the oppressed, of Lesbian and Gay, Queer and Transgender movements as part of their fight for a world in which we are free to be who we want to be, stalinist realism tells you what reality you must accept and live with, what you cannot even think about changing. LGBTQI+ groups have been closed down in China now because they pose a threat to the regime. That is not only because those groups were places to speak that escaped the immediate control of the regime, but because sexual freedom and experimentation itself throws the regime into question. A key feature of stalinist realism is that there should be state control of bodies, that our bodies ourselves are not for us to experience and define and live in.

In Russia, the legal prohibition on what Putin calls ‘pretended family relationships’ – that is, gay and lesbian sexuality – is accompanied by state violence, persecution and imprisonment and by para-state physical attacks by religious and quasi-fascist groups. This situation inside Russia, and in China, mirrors the worst of the homophobic attacks on the gay and lesbian communities in the West. Control of bodies is a key feature of stalinist realism, and ideological control is enforced through fake-scientific knowledge about what ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sexual and gender development is.

Trans

Stalinist realism makes deep claims about the nature of reality, and especially the supposed reality of the essential biological difference between kinds of bodies. It defines ‘reality’, not only at the level of experience – of who and how we love and what kind of beings we imagine ourselves to be – but also at the level of biological difference. Just as stalinist realism wants to define who is a Russian and to deny the ethnic reality of Ukrainians – they are told they do not exist, and Putin blames Lenin, among others, for promoting Ukrainian independence – so this kind of ‘realism’ pretends to define who is Chinese and depict Tibetans as relics of the past, and Muslims in Xinxiang as uncivilised remnants.

As with nations and strong borders beloved by old Stalinist states – something those states learnt from Western colonialism and imperialism, something that mirrors capitalist realism and the brutal control of populations – so it is with sexed bodies, and the division of people in the world into ‘real’ men and ‘real’ women. Those who travel across borders and claim their identity are treated as a threat, bodies to be contained, and those who travel across traditional gender categories are likewise treated as a threat, to be medically treated, corrected.

This is why there is such hostility among the stalinist realists and their fellow-travellers today to trans people, to those who either want to transition from their assigned gender to another or are ‘non-binary’, that is, refuse to conform to existing gender categories that enforce masculine and feminine stereotypes about how men and women should behave and think. Trans people are a threat to stalinist realism, and here is a paradox that pits stalinist realism against capitalist realism.

Order

Capitalist realism is organised around the fiction of free choice, and makes it seem like you can consume what you like so long as you have the ability to pay for it – you need money to survive, and for that you need to sell your labour power. Therefore, Western capitalism is ready to incorporate different gender and sexual lifestyles, to ‘pink-wash’ exploitation to make it seem freer. There is for sure plenty of homophobia and transphobia under capitalism – suspicion and hatred of lives that are different, that do not fit – but the ideological watchwords of neoliberal capitalism are freedom, flexibility and choice.

These watchwords are fictions, and they obscure the lives of trans people, just as they do of lesbian and gay people, even at the same time as they pretend to ‘include’ them and make them more visible as market-niche consumers. This is part of the structure of capitalist realism; it seems as if everything is free and open, and as if anyone who complains has a personal problem, a grudge; neoliberalism strips away state support while increasing police powers, and it puts the onus on the individual to struggle to define themselves against a hostile world and hostile laws.

What stalinist realism offers is certainty, law and order. In place of the apparent anarchy of the market-place in the West, in the capitalist heartlands of imperialism, where people are made to fend for themselves and their families, the supposedly ‘post-socialist’ states, with Russia and China as the core examples, offer security and control. With security, being told who you are, including whether you are really a man or a woman, comes control, where the state will pathologise you if you step out of line, if you step out of your assigned sexuality or gender.

Stalinist realism thrives on order, and it promises – at the level of its direct political intervention in the lives of LGBTQI+ people and at the level of fantasy for everyone anxious about who they are and what they should do – an ordered world. The watchwords of stalinist realism are boundaries, borders and an ordered world. This order divides the world into ‘camps’, spheres of influence, and it divides populations into men and women who should healthily and happily fit themselves into the bodies described by the Stalinist realist ‘scientists’.

Stalinist realism is a political practice and fantasy of order – things in their place, people in their national territories governed by strong states, and bodies that have the right kind of desires for other kinds of bodies – and so it is, among other things, a form of organisation, and organisation of our desire to change this world. Actually, it is a form of organisation that blocks change.

Identity

We desire to change the world. We know things are wrong, and that this capitalist world is not all there is. It came into being at a particular historical point, has not lasted that long, and it can be replaced. There is an alternative. But that desire is continually thwarted and distorted, and we have been betrayed time and again. It is understandable that, with the disappearance of the so-called ‘socialist bloc’ – the Soviet Union as a monolithic closed other world and China as an ideologically-rigid Maoist version of Stalinism – capitalist realism takes hold. Then it really does seem as if there is no alternative.

It is in that context that the fantasy that there must be something beyond capitalism becomes so alluring – and it is good that there is always that hope – but it is tragic that it becomes attached to actually-existing powerful apparatuses, whether of nation states or the organisations that promote them and tell us that things are really better there. We know that things are not better there.

The Internet gives us bewildering, competing images of the world and contradictory information about what is happening across the globe, but it also gives us quicker, more immediate access to the struggles of the exploited and oppressed inside Russia and China. And so, the desire for change runs up against reality, and it is in the grip of stalinist realism that reality itself gives way to fantasy, to the desperate fantastic hope that things must be different, must change, that someone else has done it, and can do it for us.

Fantasy

Stalinist realism rests on peculiar and toxic ideological mutations of our all-too human hope and fantasy that another world is possible, and it anchors that fantasy onto capitalist states and state agendas that are a malignant mirror-image of global capitalism, not at all the alternatives they pretend to be. It fixes our desire for change on things – leaders, states, parties, symbols – that seem to be eternal, ordered, never-changing, and that is one of the attractions in a capitalist world characterised by mind-spinning change, uncertainty and precarious anxiety about what will come next.

Identity is one of the underlying motifs of stalinist realism, the sense that things can be fixed in place, and that we ourselves can be secure in knowing where and what we are. Some nationalist and transphobe versions of this concern with borders and boundaries pretends to tell us about what is common to all humankind while betraying that promise. Instead of bringing us together, each respecting what is different about the others, making that diversity of experience and politics our strength, we are separated into our different identities. We are separated from each other, but it is not the ‘identity’ of the oppressed that is the problem.

One of the longstanding political lines rolled out in the peace and anti-racist movements by supporters of the various ‘communist’ parties loyal to Moscow, for example, was that racism as such is divisive, and that there are no ‘real’ racial differences between human beings. Racism was here countered by the well-meaning slogan ‘one race the human race’. That line reflected the material interests of the Stalinist bureaucracies in their attempts to govern many different populations, whether in the Soviet Union or in China, and while local folk communities were patronised it was only to better rule them, to make them good citizens, loyal to the centrally-organised state apparatus.

There is truth in the claim that there is one human race, but this truth has to be built, fought for, and it can only be fought for effectively, and with respect accorded to those who have suffered from racism, if we do take seriously how capitalism, and Stalinism, profited from division, from segregation.

The fantasy here, and it is not only a reactionary fantasy – it is an understandable response and challenge to racism – is that we are all the same, that there is something universal in our collective struggle as we work together to overthrow capitalism and build a better world, build socialism. The danger – and here the fantasy is not so progressive – is that as people are rendered the same, the ‘otherness’ of the different lives of human beings is wiped away, and we end up with a fiction. The fiction is that the people of a community or a nation or a world are ‘homogeneous’, all the same and with obvious common interests.

Walls

Then the desire for the working class to be the universal class is turned into a fetish, something we become attached to, and make a short circuit to arrive at it; we make an ideological short circuit that along the way leads us to trivialise or ignore what structural power differences among human beings under capitalism do to our different experiences of exploitation and oppression, of what it is to be a human being. Then, and this is where a peculiar and dangerous twist on the fantasy that we must all be the same has disastrous political effects, even the claim that there is racism is seen as ‘divisive’.

This is where the peculiar stalinist realist obsession with the supposed threat of ‘identity’ comes into play. This takes different forms, including in some places the fantasy that the working class is a kind of ‘red wall’ disturbed and disrupted by the enemy of ‘identity politics’. That fantasy of the working class as a ‘red wall’ is a fantasy that there is an already united non-racist homogeneous working class just waiting for the correct leadership by the right party, and that this working class has been somehow hurt and ‘left behind’ by the identity-politics promoted by anti-racist and LGBTQI+ movements.

In other words, instead of racism and sexism and other forms of oppression being seen as divisive forces, enabling the ruling class to divide and rule us, the attempts to name and call out racism and so on, are themselves treated as threats, as forms of division. The ‘unity’ of the working class is then used against the oppressed, and even sometimes used to defend the ‘unity’ of a colonial power against nations asserting their rights.

We need to face the fact that the lives of people under global capitalism are contradictory, diverse, complicated, and that we carry into our revolutionary organisations all of the toxic stuff – racism, sexism, assumptions about ability and disability – that capitalism brings into the world and makes use of and reinforces. Claims to identity empower the oppressed, and enable them to argue for their rights inside and outside of left organisations; they are not a threat.

We need to face the challenge inside our revolutionary organisations as well as in the outside world – in communities, trades unions and political parties – of taking seriously structural racism and sexism. We cannot assume that we are homogeneous, all the same. We are different, and with that difference there is potentially greater combined power for change.

Organisation

At the heart of revolutionary Marxism as a theory and anti-capitalist resistance as a practice is a radical conception of organisation, of how we organise ourselves and how we might organise the world. That radical conception of organisation was effectively present in the flowering of alternative ways of living during the revolutions and liberation struggles that formed the Soviet Union, the Chinese state and independent nations that were formed as they broke from colonial control.

That radical conception of organisation has been transformed and refined by the encounter of revolutionary Marxists with feminists, anti-racist and de-colonial activists as well as with radical disability activists who showed us how capitalism relies on certain limited forms of ‘normality’ and able-bodied selves, the kinds of selves that capitalism can buy labour power from and sell its goods to.

The tragedy of the revolutions betrayed is that, among other things, structured top-down organisation becomes a fetish, and in place of authentic revolutionary democracy we have centralised command and control. In that way, one of the key aspects of stalinist realism is embedded in left organisations, and the world is organised around leaders and followers, a supposedly fully conscious ‘vanguard’. The ordinary members and fellow-travellers are then treated as a kind of part-time chorus, kept in the dark most of the time, and keeping themselves in the dark so they don’t have to think about what is being done in the ‘camps’ they have been supporting and endorsing.

Centralisation

In place of a genuine democratic collectivisation of experience – the bringing together of diverse perspectives and struggles – stalinist realism relies on the direct centralisation of politics. This is also the case in the so-called ‘democratic centralist’ organisations that claim to have broken from Stalinism and who should know better. In this way, stalinist realism replicates itself in the many little sects run by little tin-pot leaders.

Members and followers are expected to give their lives to the group, and anxiety is induced in them; they become anxious that their political worlds will disintegrate if the group collapses and the prospect of political change will be destroyed. This is where fantasy in stalinist realism once again plays a crucial role alongside pragmatic political manoeuvring. At the same time as members of parties are expected to ‘hold the line’ in public, not be open about the internal debates, they begin to live that divided and secretive experience inside themselves. They forget what they really think, and their own doubts are pushed aside, ‘repressed’.

Then, instead of delegates who are accountable and can be quickly and easily recalled, replaced if necessary, organisations and movements are composed of ‘representatives’ who are expected to fall into line with the demands of the leadership bodies. This is the world of the party or campaign congress where resolutions are fait accompli and, finally, when simply asked if ‘anyone is against’, we see who is against, who will be suspected of creating divisions or ‘factional’ disputes.

This mode of operation is replicated also in many supposedly ‘non-Stalinist’ or ‘anti-Stalinist’ groups that specialise in their own control-freak political operations. In the process, and as a key part of the stalinist realist worldview, members are inducted into a paranoiac way of dealing with ‘outsiders’ who, if they cannot be recruited, are treated as suspect, even sometimes with accusations made that anyone who disagrees must in be either a direct police agent or perhaps, in an insidiously irrefutable claim, an ‘unwitting’ police agent.

In some contexts, trades unions are treated as relay points, ‘fronts’ for the political organisation instead of the autonomous self-organised expression of working class consciousness and resistance. That may either take the form of a direct obvious connection between a trade union and a political party, or as an indirect more covert smearing of political opponents and control of the apparatus, with those who raise political differences accused of introducing political divisions. One of the hallmarks of stalinist realism is the closing of political debate around a set agenda and the accusation levelled against anyone who disagrees that they are creating a diversion or distraction, perhaps at the behest of outside forces.

Fronts

Stalinist realism is organisationally structured around parties and leaders who know what’s what – in the old days it was Joseph Stalin himself or Chairman Mao who ruled the roost – and by a range of different organisations and movements that are gently ‘guided’, sometimes directly controlled by those in the know and at the centre of things.

Stalinist realist fronts usually work in a way that is closely connected with national and sometimes ‘red-brown’ nationalist agendas. That is, a favourite kind of stalinist realist front is a ‘popular’ alliance of close and distant individuals and groups – those that can be directly trusted and organised and those who are willing to follow along – around a limited range of issues, with other political differences and debates pushed into the background. Those who raise questions about stitch-ups in choice of representatives or political lines are then marginalised or slandered as ‘splitters’.

A special case of this kind of popular front is in the liberation movements in the so-called ‘developing world’ where the Stalinist states were historically able to trade their industrial and military power with ‘liberation’ movements and then emerging nation states. Here again, a command and control bureaucratic model of leadership is enforced, with local leaders who resist risking being sidelined or even murdered.

Today under the fullest spread of stalinist realism among left groups, locally and globally, it is the technical expertise and commercial and financial power of the Chinese and Russian states – through the ‘belt and road’ initiative or control of gas-supply lines – that underpins this colonial control. Now stalinist realism becomes part of the ideological apparatus of imperialism in the networks that promise to provide an alternative to ‘Western’ civilisation – seen as the bad camp – but which still lock dependent nations and political leaderships into real and symbolic debt traps. This is where the malignant mirror-world of stalinist realism locks us all the more tightly into global capitalism. It is often said by the right that there is no alternative but this. Stalinist realism repeats the mantra of capitalist realism, that there is no alternative. But there is.


This is the first half of a book published by Resistance Books, Stalinist Realism and Open Communism: Malignant Mirror or Free Association.


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

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