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“Oppenheimer” Shows the Betrayals of Stalinism and the Dangers of Lesser Evilism

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a striking tale of a man who leaves the Left because of the betrayals of Stalinism. The film is also a warning about where lesser evilism in the face of the Far Right can lead us.

Sybil Davis

March 10, 2024
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Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer stares into the camera with a hat pulled over his eyes and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth

When I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer,  I was worried that it would be a hagiography  of the man who helped the United States commit two of the worst war crimes in human history. What I was shocked to see, however, was a deeply political story about how J. Robert Oppenheimer moved from being a “fellow traveler” of the Left to aiding and abetting the capitalist state’s war machine. Even more surprisingly, Nolan ended up situating this shift firmly within the context of the  larger degeneration of the Communist parties under Stalin’s leadership.

In the film, Oppenheimer is drawn to the Left as a young man and engages in a lot of political activism around the Spanish Civil War and an attempt to organize a scientist union at his university. This work puts him in the interwar milieu of the Communist Party (CP), and he attends various Party meetings and social gatherings. However, he never joins the Party because, in his words: “I’m committed to thinking freely about how to improve our world. Why limit yourself to one dogma?”

In this moment, the fundamental flaw in Oppenheimer’s political thinking is set up: he doesn’t have a coherent framework and writes off having one as adhering to “dogma,” as if Marxism is a religion with rules that must be followed in lockstep. In fact, a framework allows us to avoid coming to conclusions that are contradictory, fueled by personal biases, and subordinated to the dominant ways of thinking of our current moment. The goal of Marxism is to break through these other tensions and look at questions scientifically, with an understanding of how the economy, history, and society work. This frees us to “think freely about how to improve the world” but based on an understanding of how the world actually works in totality rather than just in bits and pieces. By rejecting this, Oppenheimer — and those like him — leave themselves stranded in the vast sea of capitalist society without a theoretical paddle. How can we truly engage in changing the world if we can’t first understand it? Nolan’s portrayal of Oppenheimer is of a man who used the scientific method to observe the physical world but clung to eclecticism in trying to understand human society.

This contradiction in his thinking is pointed out to Oppenheimer by CP member Jean Tatlock (played with gusto by Florence Pugh) who responds, saying, “You’re a physicist — do you pick and choose rules? Or do you use the discipline to channel your energies into progress?” Oppenheimer responds that he “likes some wiggle room” and asks Tatlock if she always “toe[s] the party line.” This, in addition to Oppenheimer’s concerns about dogma, is revealing when taken with the larger context of the CP under Stalin.

Stalin’s bureaucratic takeover of the Soviet Union and the Communist parties internationally is a particularly tragic part of history, as the bureaucracy rolled back many of the great gains of the Russian Revolution and also led to Stalinism — or “Marxist-Leninism,” as its adherents refer to it — being substituted for Marxism writ large. While Marxism isn’t a dogma — indeed, a key tenet of Marxism is that things are constantly in motion and need to constantly be analyzed within their own context — Stalinism certainly is. As Stalin increased his stranglehold over the Communist International (known as the Comintern), he subjected these parties to the same bureaucratic rule that he was unleashing in the Soviet Union. Decisions were not made collectively through discussion and debate amongst the different national CPs but, rather, handed down from the Kremlin, which would give the national parties their political “line,” to which members had to adhere or risk expulsion (or worse). 

One of the worst of these bureaucratically imposed lines was the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, in which Stalin formed a strategic alliance with Hitler. This was a total betrayal of the communist project that had been fighting fascism on the streets, just as it was a betrayal of the aspirations of the millions who looked to the Soviet Union as an alternative to the twin evils of capitalism and fascism. Rather than organizing workers internationally to fight the fascists — on the rise not just in Germany, Spain, and Italy, but also in the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries — Stalin had gotten into bed with them. 

Why would Stalin’s bureaucracy make such a counter-revolutionary decision? Because of his dogmatic allegiance to “socialism in one country.” This theory claimed that the biggest priority for socialists wasn’t expanding the revolution around the world — as put forward by Marx and Lenin and then defended by Trotsky — but, rather, the defense of the Soviet Union. This led to a series of betrayals of the world revolution, such as actively suppressing the revolutionary workers’ movement  in Spain in hopes of maintaining alliances with European bourgeois governments. 

Because of this, many — like Oppenheimer, at least as portrayed in the film — had deep doubts about whether communism offered a true alternative. Stalin’s failure to show a path forward in the fight against fascism left open a space for the bourgeois states to paint themselves as the defenders of “democracy” (that is, bourgeois pseudo-democracy) against the fascist threat. This helped said “democracies” regain their legitimacy, which had been damaged by World War I, the Great Depression, and the victory of the Russian Revolution. Stalin helped this re-legitimization, after Hitler eventually betrayed the pact, by joining with the Allies and, after the war, sitting down with them to create a “shared governance” scheme for the world — what is known as the “Yalta Order.”

Oppenheimer portrays the despair caused by Stalinism and shows how it led many into a “lesser-evilism” that involved siding with the “democratic” bourgeoisie against the Nazis. Rather than seeking to fight fascism with the power of the working class, as Trotsky was proposing in his exile from the Soviet Union, Oppenheimer and many others chose to join the imperialist war effort. In Oppenheimer’s case, this meant literally helping to create the worst weapon in history and giving it to the imperialists to use as they will — which they did with devastating effect for purely imperialistic reasons. As Oppenheimer touches on . We see how “lesser-evilism” leads him to create one of the greatest evils in the history of the world. At the end of the day, they still purged him for once being in the CP’s periphery. Like many others who were nominally on the Left, Oppenheimer was used when he provided value to U.S. imperialism but, once the war was over, was quickly disposed of in the Red Scare. The film shows that the lesser-evilism framework that Oppenheimer eventually adopts leads him to ally with imperialism to unleash an epoch defining war crime. His eclecticism led him into a political alliance with imperialism to give it its greatest weapon. 

Oppenheimer isn’t a revolutionary movie, and I don’t think Nolan is a closet leftist, but in trying to capture this time period, the movie does reveal some truths about Stalinism and the corrosive impact of lesser evilism. Oppenheimer didn’t want to follow a dogma — he wanted to think freely about how to improve the world — but in the end, the lack of an internally consistent way of understanding the world and thinking through problems led him to selling out all he once believed. Behind all of this, lurks the despair caused by Stalin’s betrayals — a despair that led so many to abandon the Left all together. 

With the Far Right on the rise today, Oppenheimer inadvertently tells us: We cannot put our faith in the bourgeoisie to defend democracy, and we can’t follow Stalinists who have betrayed us so many times in the past. Rather, we need to look at the work of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International for vital strategic lessons on how to fight against the right.  We must use the methods of the working class and build a united front. As one small example of this, we can look to the recent defeat of the omnibus bill in Argentina — proposed by ultra reactionary president Javier Milei. The bill, a sweeping attack on the rights of the working class, was defeated after militant mobilizations led by the Left. This should inspire us to take up the fight against the Far Right into our own hands. We can resist the despair of Oppenheimer and write a new chapter of history.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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