Anti Stalinism is Colonalism in Denial
Anti-Stalinism denigrates the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin for building “socialism in one country” while professing the correctness of Leon Trotsky’s line of “permanent revolution” which calls for “world revolution”. The reason “world revolution” was the dominant theme in the lead up to the first world war was because this was a time when the world map was dominated by European empires.
The assumption therefore was that if Europe went socialist the whole world would go socialist because the world was essentially under European control (excluding Latin America which gained its independence from Spain and Portugal beginning in the early 19th century ). To blame the failure of the European revolution after WW1 on the leadership of the only country to successfully have a working class revolution is a poor substitute for knowing why history happened the way it did.
When the revolution failed in Germany (the home of Marxism) Soviet foreign policy was presented with a dilemma, either keep pushing for revolution in Europe and attract armed hostility or make peace with Germany in the hopes that it would end the war, which is what the Bolsheviks effectively promised their exhausted, tired, and war-weary supporters.
The Russian revolutionary vanguard had to yield to the rallying cry that that they had raised in the first place, “land, peace, and bread”, which is impossible without establishing normal state relations with the very governments Lenin had spent decades denouncing as imperialists while calling on European workers to overthrow them.
Why didn’t history happen the way European socialists had predicted? The answer is because their predictions ignored all the evidence suggesting that the conflict between colonised and coloniser nations was stronger than the conflict between the exploiters and the exploited within the coloniser nations.
Why would the European working class “go socialist” if that meant their respective national governments would lose direct military control over the vast resources of the third-world? What would the European working class get from the promise of socialism after giving up their colonies?
For European workers, the prospect of “international socialism” came at a cost. Rather than having “nothing to lose but your chains” for them it was “nothing to lose but your colonies which subsidise your wages”.
How do they know their pay packets will grow if the factories they work in can no longer get their raw materials as cheaply as before because newly liberated nations are demanding higher prices, so they can feed their starving people? Ultimately the very development of European capitalism was premised on the seizure of raw materials from colonised nations especially in the tropics which are known for their far superior agrarian productivity.
That such dilemmas shaped European socialist thought especially in the lead-up to the first-world war is made clear by the record of the Second “International” which was dominated by European socialist and labour parties, and in which the only colonised nation being represented was India (hence the cynical quotation marks).
The SI always favoured the prospect of “world revolution” via Europe but when the chance came to unite the European working class against the first world war, these European socialists, by supporting their respective governments, did the exact opposite, contributing to the bloodiest war history had witnessed until then. Why? The answer can be traced back to the reality that a lot of them wanted socialism and colonialism, that is, a fairer distribution of stolen wealth.
At the 1907 Stuttgart congress a motion was put forward asking the congress not to “reject in principle every colonial policy” on the grounds that colonialism “could be a force for civilization” – the motion was defeated but the vote was close with 108 in favour, and 127 against. Given that nations were allocated a number of votes based on their population size, the Russian delegation led by Lenin, by using their 20 votes to oppose the motion, sided with the colonised world, thereby setting a political precedent for future Russian governments voting along the same lines geopolitically.
Commenting on the motion, Lenin noted that those who defended colonialism were citizens of colonising regimes, that is, “nations where even the proletariat has been somewhat infected with the lust of conquest”, not simply to chastise them, but to argue that “as a result of the extensive colonial policy, the European proletarian partly finds himself in a position when it is not his labour, but the labour of the practically enslaved natives in the colonies, that maintains the whole of society”.
The pro-colonial side of the debate envisioned a “socialism” that would be built on the stolen wealth of the colonised world. One of the delegates, German Socialist Party Eduard David was honest enough to state, “Europe needs colonies…it does not have enough of them”, and in response to Karl Kautsky’s suggestion that “backward peoples” be offered economic assistance, Henri Van Kol of the Dutch Socialist Workers’ Party said, “suppose we bring a machine to the savages of central Africa…What will they do with it? Perhaps they will start up a war dance around it… Perhaps they will kill us or even eat us…”, and while saying these things, his supporters jeered. Given this historical context, it is not surprising that Germany would produce Nazism after being stripped of all their colonies after the first world war, especially given that a precedent already existed of Germans calling themselves “socialist” while justifying colonial domination.
Lenin concluded: “the British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. In certain countries this provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism”. Here ‘colonial chauvinism’ fits the definition of racism offered earlier, namely that it’s how citizens of empire are socialised to think about other nations in accordance with their geopolitical strategy.
What should be honestly conceded to the Anti-Stalinist camp is that their views do indeed have a connection to early European socialist thinking, which despite its brilliant insights, was ultimately limited by the subjectivity of the European working class.
From the perspective of the European worker, the enormous profits amassed by their native bourgeoisie appeared subjectively as wealth that was solely extracted from their labour, however this ignored the question of why the raw materials they as workers were adding value to were so cheap to begin with? Because European working-class subjectivity never had an interest in pursuing that question, early European socialist thinking portrayed the development of capitalism as emerging out of feudalism, that is, out of Europe’s internal class struggles, and then expanded through armed conquest to create outlets, first for goods, then for capital.
This Eurocentric subjectivity can be observed in the Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, which presents capitalism as spreading evenly from the imperial centres of Europe to the nations they colonised, claiming that “the bourgeoisie [the European capitalist class]…compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production…to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst…to become bourgeois themselves…it creates a world after its own image”.
These early assumptions help explain the analysis of British colonialism in India arrived at by Karl Marx in 1853 when he was a journalist for the New York Tribune. According to Marx the unintended consequence of the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan” was that by destroying the old social order they were creating the necessary conditions for capitalism to develop. British policy according to Marx “dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities [in India] by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia”.
This is where Marx was wrong. To misunderstand the relationship between the most powerful capitalist empire of his day (Britain) and its most profitable colony (India) is essentially to misunderstand imperialism, especially given the sheer size of the Indian population and the magnitude of its role in the economic rise of late European colonialism.
In Britain the destruction of the old social order, specifically the enclosure acts that deprived peasants of access to common land thereby forcing them to have nothing to sell but their own labour, created the conditions for capitalism by creating the working class.
Marx believed that a similar process of creative destruction was underway in India, however such a belief rested upon an assumption that must necessarily be false for imperialism to conceptually exist, namely the assumption that the fruits of India’s labouring classes would be reinvested in India.
British colonial officials knew this was false not long after they won their first battle on Indian soil at the Battle of Plassey (1757) giving them control of Bengal, one of the richest commercial regions on earth. In 1787, Sir John Shore, a colonial official who would later climb to the top as Governor General, stated in a report, “the company are merchants as well as sovereigns of the country…in the former capacity they engross its trade, whilst in the latter they appropriate the revenues”. It was “free trade” in the truest sense of the word because the British acquired physical goods from India without paying for them thus making them “free”.
That British colonialism was draining India to fuel its capitalist development is a theory that predates Marxism, indeed respected Indian Marxist historian Irfan Habib suggests in his essay ‘Marx’s Perception of India’ that Marx got the idea of the ‘drain’ from Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the towering intellectuals of India’s anticolonial movement.
Although Lenin and Naoroji were on the same side geopolitically, they analysed the economics of empire differently. Lenin conceptualised European empires ‘exporting capital’ to their colonies, and while this certainly happened, it was not the fundamental mechanism by which European colonial empires enriched themselves. Lenin writes, “the export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported”. Why in that case did it not “accelerate the development of capitalism” in India as it did in the Anglo settler-colonies?
Here Naoroji demonstrated that a distinction had to be drawn between two types of British ‘colonies’, India on the one hand was being looted by not being paid for its exports (which were far higher than imports), whereas by contrast, settler-colonial regimes like the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were recipients of capital investment, and imported far more than they exported.
The answer is because when the Anglo settler-colonies received loans from Britain (i.e. export of finance capital) they were allowed to keep their export revenues with which they paid off their loans, whereas India was robbed of its export revenues to begin with meaning that paying back British loans could only be possible with drastic genocidal cuts to domestic consumption. Or as Naoroji pointed out, “…India’s own wealth is carried out of it, and then that wealth is brought back to it in the shape of loans, and for these loans she must find so much more for interest”.
Naoroji wasn’t the first Indian economist to expose the economics of imperialism. In 1841 before Marx published any of his economic works an earlier Indian nationalist writer Bhaskar Tarkhadkar, addressing the British wrote, “nothing has drained India so much of its wealth as by your trade” which highlights the key point here, imperialism is fundamentally about establishing favourable trade relations for the empire and its settler-colonial offshoots, at the expense of the ‘lootable’ colonies.
Ragnar Nurske, one of the founders of the Development Economics discipline, asked the question, “why is it, for example, that in the 1920s Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with already quite highly developed industries of their own and with a combined population of only 17.4 millions, imported twice as much manufactured goods as India with her 340 million people?” The answer, is that these settler-colonial regimes would not have been possible without British investment which would not have been possible without the conveyor belt of “free” unpaid for raw materials arriving in Britain from India that fuelled the industrial revolution thus generating the finance capital that expanded production when exported to settler regimes, but squeezed consumption when “exported” to India.
By 1881 Marx’s views had changed and he had essentially adopted ‘drain theory’. In a letter to Russian Narodnik economist Nikolai Danielson, Marx wrote, “what they take from them [Indians] without any equivalent… amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance!”
Within the space of 24 years Marx had gone from thinking that the British were creating capitalism in India via a destructive process, to acknowledging that there was a “bleeding process” synonymous with capital destruction, not accumulation which was structurally impossible under colonised conditions.
Colonialism guaranteed supplies of raw materials to north-western Europe from the colonised world that they did not have in sufficient quantities within their home borders, and without which European capitalism would not have been possible.
Elastic supplies of raw materials from what is now called the third world are the foundation upon which European colonialism rose to power. Indeed, according to Trotsky in 1931, “the world division of labour, the dependence of Soviet industry upon foreign technology, the dependence of the productive forces of the advanced countries of Europe upon Asiatic raw materials, etc., etc., make the construction of an independent socialist society in any single country in the world impossible” (emphasis added).
What Trotsky hints at without explicitly stating is that Europe can’t have socialism without the pattern of trade established by colonialism. This by admission is only true of the “advanced countries of Europe” (a reference to Germany, France, and Britain mainly) because they are the ones with a “dependence…upon Asiatic raw materials”, it does not apply to the countries where those “Asiatic” raw materials come from, or other similar resource rich parts of the world, where “socialism in one country” would therefore be entirely possible assuming they can acquire the requisite technology.
If history happened as it did for a reason, then in the 20th century, the conflict between capital and labour in colonising nations turned out to be weaker than the conflict between the colonisers and the colonised. As Lenin said when discussing the national question, “the masses vote with their feet” and in the case of WW1 Europe, the masses voted with their empires, while the masses across Asia and Africa voted to get the empire off their backs.
Russia, technologically the weakest of the colonial empires, bore closest resemblance to the colonised masses in terms of the shabby living standards of most of its people. For Trotsky “the dependence of Soviet industry upon foreign technology” made socialism in Russia impossible too, but the Soviet Union proved Trotsky wrong, not only by defeating the largest invasion in human history, but by becoming a technological superpower in its own right, one that pioneered space travel and satellite communications, the bedrock of the modern information age, and one that gave away a lot of its technology to the post-colonial world thereby breaking the technological hegemony won by European colonialism.
Anti-Stalinism is what became of Marxism after a century of ideological inbreeding within a Eurocentic echo-chamber without being rejuvenated and to a degree corrected by post-colonial criticism.
Despite Marx’s faulty analysis, he nonetheless supported the Indian Rebellion against British rule in 1857 thus establishing an important precedent for supporting anti-colonial movements within European socialist discourse.
Similarly, despite Lenin’s theoretical mistake, he nonetheless steered Soviet foreign policy firmly towards backing third-world national liberation, eventually leading to many decades of mutually beneficial trade and aid relations between the Soviet Union and post-colonial world, thus bettering the lives of the world majority, even if such betterment is undetectable to those Anti-Stalinists living in first-world countries that benefited from colonialism.
Anti-Stalinism is also a Eurocentric allergic reaction to the political traditions that dominate the Left in the third-world. Even if Anti-Stalinists disagree with “Stalinism” they should at least concede that on the scale of Marxist parties globally, their obsession with prosecuting this Anti-Stalinist crusade is irrelevant to the majority who call themselves communists globally.
When a word describing an ‘abstraction’ manifests itself into a ‘concrete’ reality, the meaning of the word negates itself partially for the simple reason that the imperfect reality can never live up to the imaginary ideal, which is why, just like the second coming of Christ, “real socialism” for Anti-Stalinists will never come.
I’ll get to Part 3 eventually.