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#AllThatsLeftPod: Stalinism, Anti-Communism, and the Fate of the Soviet Union — An Interview with Doug Greene

In this episode, we interview author and historian Douglas Greene about his new book “Stalinism and the Dialectics of Saturn: Anticommunism, Marxism, and the Fate of the Soviet Union.”

Left Voice

August 14, 2023
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Does socialism inevitably lead to Stalinism? Are socialist revolutions doomed to fail? As Douglas Greene points out in his new book Stalinism and the Dialectics of Saturn: Anticommunism, Marxism, and the Fate of the Soviet Union, answering these questions “is not an antiquarian concern or mere academic exercise, but it will determine whether human emancipation remains possible.”

The idea that Stalinism was the dark, unavoidable fate of the Russian Revolution casts a shadow over socialism and its history. Anti-communists embrace this view because they see Stalinism as an evil and totalitarian force, springing seemingly out of nowhere. From the Right, anti-communists like Winston Churchill and Alexander Solzhenitsyn — and Adolf Hitler on the very Far Right — saw communism as a dangerous virus, and tied it to subversive Jews.

However, anti-communism doesn’t just come from the Right. Some on the Left, too, cast Stalinism as the inevitable result of communist revolution. Writer George Orwell, for example, viewed Stalinism and communism as totalitarian and stemming from an evil lust for power. Like their anticommunist counterparts on the Right, these more progressive sectors viewed Stalinism as pure evil, coming out of the blue, without an attempt to understand the material forces that led to Stalin’s rise.

On the other hand, supporters of Stalin and the Soviet Union, particularly from the world’s Communist parties, argued that Stalinism was a historical necessity and the only way for the working class to reach the glorious end goal of communism. According to this reasoning, whatever compromises the Soviet Union made, they were a necessary price to pay as part of the iron laws of history. Whoever opposed Stalinism was opposed to the working class — and to history itself.

Whether Stalinism is portrayed as a savior or as the antichrist, both anticommunists and Stalin’s supporters fundamentally agree that there was no alternative to Stalinism. And if there’s no alternative, then every attempt at liberation will inevitably lead to a repressive dictatorship and terror, and that would mean there’s no emancipatory potential in socialist revolution.

You might be interested in: Michael Harrington and the Origins of DSA: An Interview with Doug Greene

But as Greene argues, the Russian Revolution was not doomed to fail, and socialism does not necessarily lead to Stalinism. Both the anti-communist and the pro-Stalinist perspectives take an ahistorical approach without a material analysis of Stalin’s counterrevolution.  

Stalinism was a result of concrete material conditions in the Soviet Union. Although the Bolsheviks won the civil war in 1921, the war had decimated the working class and the workers’ councils (soviets), and left the economy in ruins. Additionally, the Soviet Union was very isolated since revolutions had been defeated elsewhere. It was in the context of this political void — as well as economic devastation and scarcity — that the Soviet bureaucracy, centered around Stalin, managed to solidify its rule. 

This historical materialist approach, which was adopted by Leon Trotsky, doesn’t view Stalinism in a framework of good or evil, or damnation or salvation. Rather, it shows us that Stalinism wasn’t pre-ordained or written in the stars, nor was it the fulfillment of Bolshevism. Material circumstances and processes of class struggle gave rise to Stalinism and its terrors, as well as to the betrayal of workers and international revolution. 

On this episode, we interview Greene, an independent Marxist historian, about his new book. He explains what characterized Stalinism, as well as the approaches to Stalinism which incorrectly frame it as an inevitability. He contrasts this with the historical materialist perspective, drawing on Trotsky’s analyses.

Finally, we discuss why this debate is so important today. As Greene writes, “The Stalinist outcome in Russia was not a fated outcome as if preordained by some god of history. Stalinism can only be claimed as inevitable by ignoring the communist roads not taken.” Understanding Stalinism isn’t just about understanding the past — it’s about envisioning the future.

Greene is also the author of A Failure of Vision: Michael Harrington and the Limits of Democratic Socialism and Communist Insurgent: Blanqui’s Politics of Revolution and he has a forthcoming book on Karl Kautsky and neo-Kautskyism entitled The Renegade’s Revenge.

Stalinism and the Dialectics of Saturn: Anticommunism, Marxism, and the Fate of the Soviet Unionis available here.

You can read more of Doug’s work here and follow him on Twitter

Listen to the episode on Spotify on Apple Podcasts.

Support this podcast on Patreon.

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