The Russian Question And American Socialism

Julius Jacobson

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Julius Jacobson is the co-editor of New Politics.

IT IS 90 YEARS SINCE WERNER SOMBART POSED THE QUESTION "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" Since then, socialists and sociologists have studied and debated the problem. Was it the lack of a feudal tradition, the myth and reality of upward mobility that was a barrier to class and social solidarity, the polyglot character of a heavily immigrant working class, the unique dynamism and wealth of American capitalism or, as Sombart put it, did socialism founder on the shoals of "roast beef and apple pie"?

      One problem with Sombart's suggestion, as with much of his data, is that it was factually misleading. For example, he exaggerated the economic advantages of American workers over their German counterparts which he offered as a major reason why millions of workers rallied behind the red flag in Germany and failed to follow suit in the U.S. Unlike what is implied in listing higher American wages as a factor in keeping socialism in check, the improving living standards of German workers up to the beginning of the Great War was accompanied by a geometric increase in the strength of German social democracy. Actually, the major impetus for German social democratic growth was the swelling popular reaction against Bismarck's violation of democratic rights, above all, restrictions on suffrage rights which the American male citizenry had already achieved.

      The Sombart thesis, for all its vulnerability, was provocative. Interest in the question remained long after the book was published in 1906 and grew in prominence with the work of Selig Perlman (along with John R. Commons and Phillip Taft, the encyclopedic deans of the Wisconsin labor school) who placed a cap on socialism's prospects that Sombart did not. Perlman argued that the singular development of American capitalism, making it possible to find redress via the ballot, and the heavy concentration of immigrants in the working class leading to social and cultural diversification would effectively prevent the working class from rising above the level of "job consciousness."

THE DEBATE CONTINUED TO SIMMER AMONG HISTORIANS and in theoretically oriented circles in the labor movement. But the question was brought to a boil again with the appearance in 1951 of Daniel Bell's Marxian Socialism in the United States. His monograph was actually written in 1949 but first appeared in print two years later in a volume that was part of the Princeton University series, Socialism in American Life. A second edition appeared in 1967, and once again in 1996 with a new afterword by the author and, appropriately enough, a tribute by Bell, who had moved from a tepid sympathizer of liberal politics to a neoconservative ideologue, "to Irving and Bea Kristol, respice, adspice, prospice."

      With enviable literary flair and impressive scholarship, Bell selectively recounts the history of American socialism. Although he recognizes its moments of organizational strength and occasional limited political successes, there is a disproportionate and distorting emphasis on the failures, the theoretical shortcomings and eccentricities of American socialism that tends to run to caricature. Bell tips his hat politely to Sombart but is clearly disapproving of the German academic socialist (in later life attracted to Nazism). In Bell's judgment Sombart asks the wrong question. The real question is not, as Sombart put it in his title, Why Is There No Socialism in America?, but why there cannot be a socialist movement in America. Sombart, after all, was only investigating and analyzing the past failure of American socialism to establish itself as a force comparable to burgeoning socialist movements in Europe. But as a formal Marxist, Sombart believed that as capitalism and the working class matured, the objective circumstances which handicapped American socialism in the past would be dissipated. Thus, in the last italicized lines in his book, he underlined his belief "that in the next generation Socialism in America will very probably experience the greatest expansion of its appeal."

      Bell would have none of that. American socialism has no past, and could not sink deep permanent roots as a viable mass movement because it has no future. It is simply in contradiction to the unique circumstances and realities of America's political and social development. In the World According to Bell:

American society at the middle of the twentieth century was evolving in a far different direction from that predicted by Marxist sociology. There were not in America an "Army," "Church," "Large Landowners," "Bureaucracy," "Bourgeoisie," "Petty Bourgeoisie," and "Proletariat" -- the staple ingredients of European social politics ...

Even without benefit of years of sociological training but with reasonable powers of observation and a modest knowledge of American history, one should clearly see that the past and present realities of American life are at fundamental odds with the breathtaking invention of a classless society. Bell notwithstanding, there is an all too visible and powerful bourgeoisie (with or without the initial cap), as there is an identifiable exploited proletariat (even when framed in quotes and a cap P). There is a widening and deepening gap between rich and poor, there are greed, corruption, and imperialist impulses surfacing so regularly as to give the impression (at least to the untutored) that they are endemic to the existing social order. Whatever happened to all the robber barons? Though this was argued in 1949, Bell's afterword written last year suggests that this euphoric view of American society needs no amendation even though from then until now we have had all the naked bourgeois depredations of the Reagan counterrevolution and the process of ripping apart the social safety net, which continues under the Clinton Administration.

      This fanciful image of a classless America is essential to his argument that American socialism is inherently alien to American life. If the United States has no Army, no Church and no Bureaucracy, as in Europe, and if, above all, there are no social counterparts to Europe's Small Bourgeoisie, Big Bourgeoisie or Proletariat then, obviously, in the absence of contending classes, there can be no class struggle. And without classes and class struggle to complicate social arrangements there is no need for ideologies which correspond to the interests of (non-existent) irreconcilable classes. Thus socialism as the ideology of a (non-existent) Proletariat and the entire socialist project that directs its main fire at a (non-existent) Bourgeoisie is wholly irrelevant to the exceptional American experience.

      Bell dismisses class struggle but does not deny that there are conflicts, often quite severe and disruptive of the social equilibrium. But they are conflicts within or between special interest groups, labor, farmers, minorities, the military, sectional interests, etc. These differences and grievances can be negotiated, ameliorated or resolved through the normal channels provided by the American political system and its traditions. And then, of course, there is the polling booth where aggrieved parties can vote for candidates who best represent their interests. Indeed, Bell sounds the alarm that "if a democratic society is to survive ... then some new sense of civic obligation must arise that will be strong enough to command the allegiance of all groups and provide a principle of equity in the distribution of the rewards and privileges of society." All of which might make one wonder what world Daniel Bell inhabits.

THOSE WHO INSIST ON THE RELEVANCE OF SOCIALIST IDEOLOGY are eschewed by Bell for taking on the characteristics of religious zealots; they become "millenarian," "chiliastic," "eschatological." (Ironically, in recent years, neoconservative Bell has associated himself more directly and literally with millenarianism, urging a turn to religion to restore our faith in traditional American virtues and to combat the forces of evil and spiritual degradation that are upon us.)

      For Bell "the socialist movement, by its very statement of goal and in its rejection of the capitalist order [how can capitalism have an "order" if there is no "Bourgeoisie" or "Proletariat"?] could not relate itself to the specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-and-take political world." (my emphasis) Bell proceeds to borrow a famous phrase from Luther: Socialism "was trapped by the unhappy problem of `living in but not of this world'."

      Daniel Bell, as already acknowledged, is an erudite scholar and most felicitous literary stylist. Thus, some of his crucial formulations, even when extraordinary for their banality and/or lack of historical verisimilitude and/or incoherence, have seduced sections of his wide audience into accepting them as repositories of sociological wisdom. The notion that socialism "by its very statement of goal" and "rejection of the capitalist order" is "living in but not of this world" is a more notorious example of a would-be pithy phrase that combines all three vices: banality, historical inaccuracy and incoherence. In one sense, I suppose, there is an element of truth in the formulation, but an element that also makes it a bit of a hoax. That is, an American socialist who lives and functions in the U.S. whether engaging in acts of social protest on this or that issue, or involved in a labor struggle, or participating in the electoral process, or protesting the war in Vietnam is, by definition, not of a capitalist America or of an imperialist America or of an America which pursues economic and social policies which violate democratic and socialist values. And if the general public, as is unfortunately often the case, manifests its approval of retrograde governmental social policies, that only makes it all the more incumbent on an American socialist to maintain his or her opposition to prevailing sentiments even if that provides evidence for a neoconservative sociologist that socialism is "millenarian" and "chiliastic."

      If to be of America requires that one be aware of the social, political and economic realities of American culture, its history, social relations and relations of production, of the nature of what Bell admits is a "capitalist order," of what constitutes the best interests of working people, women, minorities and gays and to participate in elections (in which more than half the electorate chooses not to vote), then I would insist that socialists are far more "of" America than all those in and out of the academy who genuflect before an exalted America that exists only in the liberal and neoconservative imagination.

ONE OF THE MORE NOXIOUS FEATURES IN THIS FORMULA is that it inherently trivializes or denies the historical contributions that socialists have made to reform in this country. Bell distorts history as he appropriates the contributions made by socialist "millenarians" and donates them to more moderate reformers dedicated to working within the system. For example, Bell writes:

The American labor movement, to complete the logic of the metaphor, learned to live in and of the world and in so doing managed to transform some of the values of the society -- most notably in winning the acceptance of collective rights and group action as legitimate norms, as against the older traditions of individualism.

But Bell surely knows that the struggle for a law establishing the 8-hour day had to overcome the resistance of the AFL under Gompers' leadership, just as Gompers and his successor, William Green, and the AFL leadership as a whole, which so impresses Bell as the source of transforming some of the values of the society, were opposed to federally established minimum wage laws and similar forms of government intervention which were precisely in the reactionary spirit of "the older traditions of individualism." This is not to deny that there were ultimatist and impossibilist strains in American socialism that resisted fighting for reforms. Yet, what Bell passes over too lightly is that important reforms for working people and for the populace as a whole might never have occurred -- or might have been delayed for generations -- had it not been for the courage and sacrifice of early socialists and similar "chiliasts" and "millenarians." I cannot think of a single major reform relating to conditions of labor in this country in the 19th and early 20th centuries that was not initiated by and/or involved the active participation of precisely the "millenarians" and "chiliasts" who Bell would have us believe were removed from the give-and-take of American political life. Was this not true for the struggle against child labor, for the 8-hour day? These and similar reforms did not even threaten the social order of capitalism but that did not stop the (non-existent) "Bourgeoisie" from marshalling much of the forces at its disposal including state and federal (non-existent) "Bureaucracies and even, when hard-pressed, troops of a (non-existent) "Army" to resist the demand for more humane working conditions by a (non-existent) "Proletariat."

      Similarly the struggle for industrial unionism could never have succeeded as it did had it not been for the sacrifices of thousands of militants whose commitment to industrial unionism was fired by a no less passionate commitment to basic social transformation. Eugene V. Debs, a revolutionary class struggle socialist, was hardly any less a part of the struggle "to transform some of the values of the society" than Samuel Gompers with his "pure and simple unionism" and his fanatical hatred of socialism.

IN THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BELL, American socialism only hastened its demise as an organizing political force by its readiness to sacrifice position and popularity for the sake of principle, that is, taking principled stands which, in Bell's words, meant moving socialism to "a frame of reference completely outside the structure of American life." Bell immediately offers a major example of an eschatologically driven impulse to self-destruct: the Socialist Party's opposition to World War I, even after America's declaration of war in 1917. He writes:

By opposing World War 1 (I am not passing judgment but analyzing consequences [!]) the Socialist Party cut itself off from the labor movement and created a widespread distrust of itself among the American people.

      Bell's parenthetic denial of passing judgment is, to put it most kindly, disingenuous. Of course, he is passing judgment. In this writer's judgment the courageous anti-war position adopted by the Socialist Party at its St. Louis convention in 1917, which exposed the imperialist nature of the war, proved that the American Socialist Party was far more attuned to "the realities of the world" and of America than the propaganda agencies of the Wilson Administration or the hysterical ravings of Samuel Gompers or the chauvinism of Bell's ideological ancestors, one-time radicals and progressives who turned coat and garnished their support of imperialism with more subtle apologias.

      If we take Bell at his word, that he is really not passing judgment, that implies that the opposition of the Socialist Party to the war might have been theoretically and morally sound. In which case, if logic still prevails, Bell is saying that even if the war was politically indefensible, violated one's deepest concerns for democracy, and would have added tens of thousands of Americans to the millions who had already perished, socialism revealed other-worldly millenarianism when it refused to abandon opposition to such a war to avoid "creat[ing] a widespread distrust of itself among the American people." By this crude application of "consequences" as the determinant of correct policy, socialists in the American South should not have raised their voices against deeply rooted popular racial prejudices and Jim Crow laws since that, too, would have meant antagonizing the vast majority of its Southern constituency.

      The courageous and principled anti-war position of the Socialist Party was a political and moral high point in the history of American socialism. And the irony is that, despite Bell, neither its anti-war position nor the support most Party members gave to the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution had dire organizational consequences. Instead of widening popular distrust, opposition to the war seemed to have generated greater support for the Party. Its membership and influence actually grew, and not only among foreign-born workers attracted to the Party's pro-Soviet stand. The membership reached 120,000 by 1919 and in municipal elections the SP polled one-fifth of the vote in New York City, more than one-third of the vote in Chicago and Toledo, and came within a few percentage points of winning a majority of the Cleveland vote.

      Yet, a few years later, the American socialist movement was indeed in shambles. But this decline cannot be attributed, as Bell insists, to the "chiliastic" nature of American socialism. The factional struggles within the Socialist Party and the defection of its left wing in the fall of 1919 were, of course, factors in its decline. But the major reason for the collapse was repression. 1919-1921 was one of the darkest periods in American history. It was also a period of enormous working class militancy, an unprecedented number of strikes involving huge numbers of workers in basic industries. All the organs and institutions of "the capitalist order" were brought into play to crush labor insurgency. More than that, the threat posed by the Bolshevik government and the possibility of successful socialist revolutions in Europe were correctly recognized as serious threats to the stability of American capitalism. In addition, socialists and communists played an active role in the strike wave that prompted a level of violent repression that the socialist movement, weakened by the splits in its ranks, could not withstand.

THE MOST FALLIBLE SECTION OF BELL'S BRIEF AGAINST SOCIALISM, is his interpretation of the American Communist movement. It is also of the most interest because of its contemporaneity, and bears most directly on my broader discussion of the "Russian Question."

      In his 1967 introduction, Bell sums it up:

The Communist Party, within the metaphor, lived neither in the world nor of it, but sought to encapsulate itself in a world of its own. It thus faced a peculiar problem of cohesion. Other, earlier alien movements, such as the (sic) utopianism or anarchism, had also rejected existing society completely. But the utopians retreated to an Icarian wilderness which was spatially apart from the world, while the anarchists psychologically suspended time while waiting for the magical "deed" that would instantly transform the world. The Communists, living in the society while seeking to promote a revolutionary movement, sought to maintain their zeal by establishing a psychological distance from the society (by nurturing a wholesale distrust of all institutions as "bourgeois" institutions) and by instilling a combat posture in their adherence. But it was that very distance, and the sense of strangeness it created, which allowed individuals to magnify the fear of Communists and make them such ready targets of hostility during the Korean War and the McCarthyite excesses in American life.

      There is not a single phrase in this pompous pseudo-political/psychoanalytical bombast that is accurate or even makes much sense. The Communist Party did not nurture a wholesale distrust of all institutions as bourgeois institutions. How Stalinists responded to bourgeois institutions depended on the political season as determined in Moscow. In the heydays of American Stalinism, the Popular Front era of 1935-1939 and from June 1941 until the end of the war, the Communist Party outdid the bourgeoisie in its feigned solicitude for all bourgeois institutions. Here, is just another crude example of Bell's determination to metamorphose Stalinism into a militant Marxian socialist movement for the clear purpose of discrediting socialism. And he surely knows that it is preposterous to refer to this Stalinist party as one that "sought to encapsulate itself in a world of its own." That is something the Kremlin would never have allowed and an effort that the American Communist Party would never have made.

      But there is method to this nonsense. Bell knows that the American Communist Party was completely dominated by the Soviet Union, that it did not and could not seek "a world of its own." Just as he knows that the American Communist Party had nothing to do with American Marxism. But by treating American Communism as if it had been an independent, legitimate wing of American socialism and by including it as one of the larger parties of American Marxism, he makes it that much easier for himself to tar the entire socialist movement and the socialist project with the terrible brush of Stalinism. And how easy it is to demonstrate the remoteness of socialism from American life if Stalinism is equated with its Marxist antithesis. (Note, also, how Bell suggests that Communists brought "hostility" and "McCarthyite excesses" on themselves.)

      In Bell's study there is nothing approaching a serious analysis of the nature of Stalinism or the Stalinist party. In this, there is an interesting parallel with the work of many left historians of American Communism who also treat the party as if it had been an authentic wing of American Marxian socialism. But while they do it for the purpose of portraying the party in a favorable light, Bell does it for the purpose of debasing American socialism.

ONE HISTORICAL REALITY NO LESS RESPONSIBLE than any objective obstacle inhibiting the growth of a mass socialist movement and condemning revolutionary socialism to a sectarian existence for the last 70 years has been the negative impact of a unique, reactionary social phenomenon -- Stalinism.

      The immediate antecedents of the early Communist movement was the left wing of the Socialist Party which, in 1917-1919, coalesced around several tendencies with different histories and cultural backgrounds. The Socialists at the time had reached an impressive book membership of about 125,000. When this left wing -- a majority of the Party -- split away it dealt a shattering blow to the Socialist Party from which it never recovered. This was altogether different from the effects of schisms in European socialism. There, the socialist tradition was a long one with deep roots in the native culture and history and, as in Germany, national social-democratic organizations dominated burgeoning trade union movements. In Europe, then, even where Communist tendencies represented substantial portions of official socialism, the Socialist parties remained mass organizations after the splits.

      But if the impact of the separation affected socialism differently in the Old and New Worlds, it was also true that the impact on the respective emerging Communist movements was not identical. In Europe, the Communist parties commanded the loyalty of significant numbers of the proletariat and intelligentsia. On the other hand, in the U.S., the left wing which claimed about 70,000 supporters rapidly dwindled to an embattled fraction of that number. The largely immigrant membership organized in separate language federations, discord between and within newborn Communist parties (there were actually three to begin with), growing conservatism in the country at large, a succession of bitter defeats for organized labor and, perhaps most responsible, government repression (the notorious Red Scare of 1919-1920) all served to reduce the Communist movement in a few years to just a shadow of its peak strength. (Part of that shadow even preferred the subterranean shade of an underground existence when there was no call for it.)

      Weak and wracked by factionalism, with a disproportionately large immigrant membership emotionally tied to events in Europe, with the Party as a whole increasingly alienated in a hostile, anti-socialist wasteland and lacking a mass base, the American Communist movement was ripe early on for Stalinization. Its servility to Moscow and the Comintern was probably unmatched by any European affiliate of the Third International. For example, in 1921-22, Paul Levi, the leader of the German Communist Party took issue with the Comintern on fundamental questions of revolutionary strategy. That could never have happened with a humble Charles Ruthenberg or a William Z. Foster who once boasted that in the event he found himself in disagreement with the Comintern, the solution was simple: he would change his mind. Even later in the 20s some prominent leaders of German Communism were challenging Comintern dogma at a time when any faction and all leaders of the tightly leashed Stalinized American party were devouring with relish whatever was tossed to them by their Moscow trainers.

      Thus, the early 20s were lean years for American Stalinists and American Socialists. The tragic paradox is that in the short run it was the Stalinist character of American Communism which provided it with advantages over socialists of all tendencies that could never be overcome in the 20s, 30s and 40s. That was the Soviet factor. The respect for the "Soviet experiment" in the liberal and progressive world was considerable. Even socialists who fought bitterly against Communists in the garment unions or on street corners spoke more softly, even sentimentally, about the USSR. Here, then, the CP attachment to the Kremlin proved to be a decisive advantage. While the anti-Stalinist socialist left could win all the political and theoretical debates, it was the CP that won the overwhelming majority of workers moving in a radical direction. We had truth on our side, the CP had the Soviet Union. Our superior theoretical position, even our better trade union approach could not overcome the prestige of joining a party identified with that powerful one-sixth of the world where the proletariat presumably governed.

      With the Soviet Union at its side and without scruples and principles to interfere with its operations, the CP recruited thousands of workers, many blacks among them. And as the Party grew it was able to provide a social and cultural life for its working-class recruits.

      There is a second and contradictory reason why Stalinism inhibited socialist and radical growth. Even in the 30s only a minority of workers were receptive to radical ideas. They were a smaller minority in the 40s, insignificant in the 50s and, except for black workers, virtually non-existent from then to now. The American working class today is politically conservative, anti-radical and anti-socialist. To think otherwise is delusionary. But this conservatism is not innate and is not the result of the proletarian table laden with roast beef and apple pie. Its consciousness and values are largely shaped by experience, perceptions of what is in its best interests and what is most hurtful. And, just as during the 30s the Communists could use the Soviet factor to its advantage in rivalry with socialists to make modest inroads in some working class constituencies, so the traditional conservative and right-wing forces could effectively use the Soviet factor to turn workers against radicalism, against socialism. The right not only accepted but promoted the Communist fabrication that the Soviet Union was a Marxist state, a model of socialism. But the Soviet Union the right described was not a country of happy workers and singing peasants but a land of terror and gulags, where all basic democratic rights were denied and, not least of all, where workers were forbidden to organize authentic trade unions with the right to strike. This was a far more accurate and convincing account than the lies and myths to be found in the Stalinist and Stalinoid press. It paid handsome political dividends to the right among the populace at large and the working class, in particular, which was convinced that the idea of socialism was the reality of totalitarianism, a particularly egregious distortion that Daniel Bell accepts as gospel truth.

      Where, for Bell, Stalinism is a condition of Marxian socialism, it was actually a force that was neither in Marxism nor of it but alien to Marxism and a major cause for the debacle of socialism in America.

STALINISM WAS ALSO THE ACHILLES HEAL OF THE NEW LEFT. Had it not been so indifferent to theory in general and to the anti-Stalinist left's concern with the centrality of democracy to socialism, it might have avoided such self-destructive impulses as offering totalitarian Maoist China as a model of participatory democracy. Perhaps had the New Left made it unambiguous that its disgust with the stifling bureaucratic nature of capitalist domination and its repugnance over America's dirty war in Vietnam reflected a deep and universal commitment to democracy, it might have evolved into a more permanent, effective movement of radical transformation. Not having done so, the New Left was left vulnerable to the arrows of reactionary archers.

      Christopher Lasch, writing at the time in his book, The Agony of the American Left, noted that: "The blinding prestige of the Russian and later the Chinese revolution tended to conceal not only the monstrous character of Stalinism but its total irrelevance to the attempt to build socialism in the West." And in relating it to the New Left wrote:

Socialism in the West oscillates between capitulation and a mindless revolutionary militancy based on irrelevant models. The New Left in America, in spite of its ostensible repudiation of Stalinism and other ideologies of the 1930's is no exception to this generalization. It is true that the New Left has articulated values, derived for the most part from an indigenous tradition of radical populism that might become the basis of a new socialism addressing itself to the needs of the twentieth century, not to those associated with the early stages of capital accumulation. In espousing decentralization, local control, and a generally antibureaucratic outlook, and by insisting that these values are at the heart of radicalism, the New Left has shown American socialists the road they must follow. Until American socialism identifies itself with these values, it will have nothing to offer either to black people or to all those others whose suffering derives not merely from the private ownership of the means of production but from the dehumanizing effects of bureaucratic control.

      The history of the New Left, however, shows what can happen when the values of local control and "participatory democracy" are not embodied in a coherent program and strategy for change, a theoretical understanding of postindustrial society and an alternative culture and vision.

TODAY'S LEFT, AT LEAST LEFT HISTORIANS AND THE POST-MARXIST academic left, with few exceptions, have no appetite for probing the Russian Question. A number of left historians are deeply involved in researching the history of American Communism but rarely touch upon the Russian Question, and when they do, it is invariably in some abbreviated form with disastrous results. As I wrote in considerable detail in an earlier article, they will often admit that the Communist Party was submissive to the Soviet Union which they concede to have been authoritarian and under the aegis of a dictator who committed many crimes. But the connection between the submissive Party and the dominant state is rarely more than a passing reference which earns another footnote. One inhibition, perhaps, stems from some hidden sense that to examine the nature of the Soviet Union in depth, to discuss Stalin's crimes as the crimes of Stalinism and to explain the scope and impact of the Party's subservience to the Kremlin would not be congenial to their misplaced effort to invent a Communist Party that was a legitimate and positive force within the labor and progressive movements. Also, exposing the totalitarian nature of the USSR and its tight grip on its American affiliate would reveal the limits and pitfalls of their predilection for inappropriately using the methods of social history for studying the role and influence of Communist Party cadres as E.P. Thompson did, properly and on a grand scale, for the English working class. Unlike the English working class which could and did make its own history and culture, the rank and file of the American Communist Party, no matter what some old-timer might tell a well-disposed interviewer, could no more shape the history, politics, and culture of the Party than a popular vote in the Soviet Union could have sent Stalin into retirement.

      But whatever the reason for the aversion of these left historians, the academic left appears even more averse to placing the Russian Question or any of its component elements on its theoretical agenda. Even Stanley Aronowitz who is more familiar than most with the literature on the subject has written a substantial volume with many interesting insights, though at times ambivalent even contradictory, on The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism that is mainly flawed by his failure to adequately discuss the Russian question. Early in his account he promises:

What follows is historical, but not a history in the conventional sense. For instance, I leave the Great Debate about the Communist Party's tradition and the lesser discussion of the legacy of American socialism to a separate volume. Instead, after this introductory essay, my story begins with the death rattle of the American Communist movement and the birth of the New Left. I try to make sense of the era of American radicalism following the demise of the Old Left ...

      How anyone can "make sense of the era of American radicalism following the demise of the Old Left" without discussing some of the major concerns of what he calls the "Old Left" is difficult to understand. How can a historical study avoid any serious discussion of relevant aspects of the Russian Question as if they had no place in an analysis of the death of American Communism and the birth of the New Left?

      "Many intellectuals were obsessed with the Russian Question," Aronowitz announces, obviously determined to avoid the trap of what he calls, a few pages later, "the Old Left's" "preoccupation with the Russian Question and its unadorned statism," two of the "cardinal features of the Old Left."

      I am not certain what Aronowitz has in mind about the Old Left's "preoccupation" with "unadorned statism." As part of the Old Left, I remember an unadorned commitment to a stateless society as a cardinal principle. But let that pass. Of more interest here is the alleged preoccupation of the Old Left with the Russian Question. By Old Left, Aronowitz is referring primarily to the Communist Party which he believes, as does Bell, to be its legitimate and strongest segment. But if Aronowitz understood the Russian Question he would be well aware that the Russian Question was never on the Communist Party's agenda because the Party could never brook any question about Russia. What preoccupied the Party was insuring against any violation of this interdiction.

      Most puzzling is that at the very end of his book, Aronowitz writes that "the condition for the emergence of a revitalized radicalism is a searching and fearless examination of the left's current malaise as well as its authoritarian political legacy." With this, I heartily agree, but would it not have been better to have said it in the first pages of his book and then to have followed through with his "fearless examination"?

ALSO WORTH NOTING: IF ARONOWITZ HAD BEEN a little more preoccupied with those debates which only took place in the anti-Communist left he might have avoided the following far-fetched statement in an essay on radical democracy that appeared in Socialist Review:

Since the demise of the Popular Fronts and the precipitous decline of the Communist Party in the 1950s there has been no sustained socialist left with a popular following in the country.

      It is an intellectual and political offense to use the good or bad fortunes of the American Stalinist party as the measure of the success or failure of American socialism. The successes that the Communist Party had during the Popular Front period and its reverses in the 1950s were not the ups and downs of American socialism but of the Communist movement affiliated and totally subordinated to the anti-socialist, Russian-dominated Comintern. That Stalinism paraded under the banner of socialism no more established it as a legitimate wing of an authentic left than a bloodied axe creates a common bond between the executioner and his headless victim. That the executioner and his victim could be members of the same party only adds to the absurdity and pathos.

      For the sake of argument, forget the false note struck in using the waning influence of Stalinism as a yardstick to measure the declining fortunes of the socialist left. What was there about the politics of the Stalinist-created Popular Front which Aronowitz finds so attractive? They were politics determined, not by Earl Browder, but by the Communist International and designed to serve its totalitarian interests. And the politics were the crassest expression of class collaboration, acting as a brake on the developing class militancy of American workers.

      In his book, Aronowitz writes:

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism, the crisis produced by the calamitous decline of the Old Left in the 1950s and the disappearance of the New Left two decades later was superseded by a death rattle. On the one hand, marxism, while it asks important questions about class and the state and offers valuable, even indispensable categories for understanding the ideology and practices of economic life, can no longer be a master discourse of emancipation. On the other hand, socialism as the ideology of the determined supercession of capitalism has been fatally weakened by the record of the countries of "actually existing" socialism.

      From a socialist perspective "calamitous" is a strange adjective to describe the precipitous drop in Communist strength and influence. It is "calamitous" only if you find that the American Communist Party was, on balance, a positive progressive force. And that political posture is far more calamitous than the Stalinist party's loss of membership and influence. Of course, it was deplorable that part of this decline was due to the McCarthyite witchhunt that had its counterpart in the unconscionable persecution of Communist trade unionists by the labor bureaucracy. But that is not the calamity Aronowitz has in mind. It is the demise itself that he finds disturbing.

      What he has to say about the collapse of the Communist world as proof of the bankruptcy or, as he calls it, "the death rattle" of Marxism and socialism is not new. It has been said over and over by Russian experts who do it a bit more convincingly. In the past, Aronowitz, I am certain, would have repudiated these critics with the obvious retort that what collapsed in the Communist world was not Marxism but a unique form of anti-socialism, exposing the fraud of trying to use the death rattle of Stalinism as evidence that Marxism is no longer a"master discourse of emancipation."

      Aronowitz has things topsy-turvy. It was the rise of Stalinism to power not its collapse that signified the profound crisis of Marxism. Tracing the origins of the crisis to the post-World War II period is nearly 30 years too late. The crisis of revolutionary socialism revealed itself dramatically and tragically in the crucial years following the Bolshevik-led revolution of 1917 when the European proletariat proved incapable of taking power in the advanced countries of Europe. That not only permitted the reconsolidation of bourgeois reaction on the continent but created the preconditions for the victory of a Stalinist counterrevolution. Out of the ashes of the revolution a new class was created, a historical aberration because it had no roots in the previous class society. The Czarist bourgeoisie was to a significant degree physically liquidated and existed as no more than a memory, or in Western salons and emigré reunions in Paris. The Russian proletariat suffered similar losses on the battlefield in the civil war, it was exhausted and demoralized, and without the support of a victorious Western proletariat it could not possibly fulfill its historic mission as the human agency of socialist revolution. The aberrant bureaucratic collectivism -- the Stalinist state -- arose out of the defeat of both contending classes. It could only establish its supremacy through the application of historically unprecedented violence. It was compelled to physically uproot and destroy all the residual institutions even faintly reminiscent of authentic working-class institutions just as it was compelled to liquidate all those associated with Russia's socialist past.

      Since all ruling classes, even aberrant and monstrous ones, seek an ideology to justify their rule the Soviet totalitarian ruling class developed an ideology which adopted much of the language of socialism and Marxism as it sought a popular international base in the working class and among exploited people in the colonial world. For all its surface appearance of dynamism the bureaucratic collectivist state was riddled with internal contradictions that it could not resolve.

      The above is not even a bare bones account of the nature and origins of the Stalinist state. But it is enough to indicate why I believe that Aronowitz's contention that the implosion of the Communist state signaled the death rattle of socialism and Marxism is utterly false. How can the death of an anti-socialist, anti-Marxist social system which enslaved the working class, destroyed all the institutions and living reminders of the Russian Revolution signal the death rattle of Marxism and socialism? I would draw an opposite conclusion from the implosion of the Communist empire. I am fully aware of the chaos and corruption in the wake of that collapse, nevertheless, the disintegration of the anti-socialist one party system creates possibilities for a rebirth of democratic and socialist movements that were precluded during the existence of the old regimes.

      Aronowitz is aware of these objections. "It won't do," he insists, "to say, as many have done that socialism in its historical forms was never tried, that given advanced industrial societies, socialism would demonstrate its capacity to solve most of the problems generated by capitalism. It won't do because historical experience cannot be elided or relegated to the realm of the exotic or the tragic."

      To say the least, this is a bit hard to follow. If socialism in its historical forms was never tried, does that mean that socialism in its non-historical forms was tried? What does non-historical socialism look like? Was the Soviet Union an example of non-historical socialism? As for the inability of historical experience to be elided or relegated to the realm of the exotic or the tragic, I will reserve comment until such time that I can figure out what that means. In the meantime I will insist on the obvious: the collapse of an anti-socialist society does not signal the collapse of socialism.

DESPITE THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE COMMUNIST SYSTEM, the annual production of books on the Russian Question appears to have increased several fold. Not a metaphorical page in Russian history from the earliest struggles within Russian social democracy to the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the current crisis in the East has escaped the scrutiny of journalists, historians, and old-time Russian experts. Some of the most challenging and influential of these writers are also ideologues who, far more often than not, use their research and marshall their arguments for related dual purposes: first, to demonize Marxism and socialism (and, of course, Leninism) as evil dogmas, the ideological precursors of all the perfidies of Stalinist totalitarianism and, second, to demonstrate that the Communist past and the crushing defeat of the Communist world in the Cold War validates their faith in capitalism and its mythicized market economy as the most reliable guarantor of keeping the peace, expanding global freedom, promoting economic well-being and, as the indispensable socio-economic heart of a healthy civil society. That privatization in Russia is marked by chaos and corruption is admitted. But somehow or other, according to those Russian scholars who are dedicated enemies of socialism, privatization is not the problem. The crisis for them remains the legacy of the hyphenated evils of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.

      That so many Russian scholars effectively use their expertise to trash socialism and to extol capitalism still does not snap the academic left out of its lethargy vis-a-vis the Russian Question. One might assume that what there is of an ideological left in this country, situated primarily in the universities, would react appropriately to the Russian crisis. At the very least, an academic left has the moral, political and intellectual obligation to do what it presumably does best; in this case, to study, write about and debate the Russian debacle, which would, of course, require it to place the crisis in a historical context and to draw theoretical and practical political lessons from their studies guided by internationalist commitment to the struggle for fundamental democratic, social transformation.

      This study should be no chore for an academic left, many of whom are intent on "rethinking" Marxism. After all, we are talking about Russia whose history has more to tell us about the theory and "praxis" of Marxism than the experience of all other countries combined.

      But there is a curious twist in all this: while barely visible in the intellectual rearguard of the debate on the Russian Question, academic Marxists, post-Marxists and rethinking Marxists are in the avant garde of a wider intellectual effort to deconstruct Marxism and the Enlightenment. In sometimes labyrinthine syntax, the universal values of the Enlightenment are interpreted as little more than a facade for white male chauvinism and Western imperialism. And both Enlightenment universalism and Marxism's alleged "essentialist" predilections for spinning "grand narratives" are found guilty of lending credence to conservative (and liberal) assaults today on multiculturalism and identity politics. I do not agree with these interpretations of the Enlightenment or Marxism's supposed "totalism" but I am more concerned here with the anomaly of academic leftists' heavy critical concentration on the sins of the Enlightenment and Marx's essentialism while they all but ignore the ongoing debate about the most significant historical event of this century, at least, the Russian Revolution led by a Marxist party which paid tribute to the universal values of the Enlightenment, and was wedded to the "essentialist," "grand narratives" of Marxism.

      Logically, the link between Enlightenment values and the Marxist character of the Bolshevik-led revolution would mandate the academic left's intense concern with all aspects of the Russian Question. Just as clearly, logic has once more failed to prevail. Lamentably, the bindings of an impressive number of books by post-Marxists (and other left historians) are still bursting under the strain of the many blank pages on the Russian Question even though it is pivotal to their theoretical concerns. Apparently, given post-Marxist priorities, a lecture or a book which competently reviews the mores, customs and class structures of Russian society during the reign of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great would be rewarded with louder applause and greater book sales than an even more competent lecture or book on the mores, customs and class structure of Russian society during the reign of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.

IT IS INSTRUCTIVE TO TAKE NOTE OF A FOUR-DAY CONFERENCE held in December 1996 organized by the journal, Rethinking Marxism. There were more than 175 panels and approximately 750 panelists contributing papers supposedly addressed to the conference theme, "Politics and Languages [it was never made clear how many] of Contemporary Marxism."

      No doubt the many panels on post-modernism or the theories of Derrida, Foucault, Gramsci and, above all, Althusser provided valuable insights on the conference theme. But in a conference on the politics and languages of contemporary Marxism wasn't there room for just one panel devoted to the background and aftermath of history's only socialist revolution led by a mass-based Marxist party? Weren't there events to be discussed, lessons to be learned, problems to be debated relating to the October revolution that touched weightily on the politics and languages of contemporary Marxism? What of Lenin's famous organizational conceptions, the tumultuous events of the revolution itself, the rise of Stalinism, Trotsky's theoretical contributions to Marxist thought and action? What was the class nature of Soviet society during the Stalinist era? There was Soviet domination of half of Europe, the crumbling of the infamous Wall. And what of the great implosion and its aftermath? Doesn't all this in part or whole have enough theoretical or topical relevance to the politics and languages of contemporary Marxism to merit even one panel? Consider, too, that one of the legitimate theoretical questions on which the academic left is focused is Marx's designation of the industrial proletariat as the human agency for socialist transformation. Why not then consider the role of the working class during the revolt in East Germany in 1953, the Hungarian socialist revolution in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, the Solidarnosc movement in Poland that peaked in the 80s? Not worth a panel? Apparently not in the view of the conference sponsors.

      Not to appear a sectarian scold, let us agree that in a conference on the politics and languages of contemporary Marxism with 175 plus panels it was appropriate for one panelist to explore the "Anti-Foundation Epistemology in the Maltese Falcon" and another to investigate "Murder in the Age of Technical Reproduction: Serial Killer Narratives as `Seminal' Texts," all this and more in a panel on "Detective Fiction from Crime to Serial Killing." Good. But why not, then, at least one panel on the non-fictional crimes of the greatest serial killers in all recorded history, Josef Stalin and his ideological and spiritual soulmate, Mao Tse Tung, whose bloodletting made Jack the Ripper look like a nurses's aide by comparison. And since these exemplars of methodical serial killing on a mammoth scale executed their bloody rituals in the name of human liberation, of socialism, of Marxism and, of all things, even of a Cultural Revolution -- no smalltime serial killer to my knowledge ever staked out so high a moral ground -- then surely the question of Stalinism and Maoism and their serial killings had as much claim to a panel in a conference advertised as dealing with relevant problems of Marxism as contemplating the metaphysical implications of the fictional and cinematic quest for the prized bird. Were Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor more connected to the politics and languages of contemporary Marxism than Lenin or Rosa Luxembourg?

      But, then, it might be too much to expect a panel on the implications for Marxism of Mao Tse Tung as a mass killer since the late Chairman is still looked upon with favor by many in the left although he was, arguably, an even greater butcher than Stalin.

      And remaining in a tolerant mode, I will agree that papers delivered on "The Notion of Spostemento in Althusser's Theory of Theatrical Praxis," and the "Charabanc Theater Company and Representation within the State and Political Economy of Northern Ireland" in a panel on Theatrical Politics were also subjects that touched upon the conference theme.

      I confess to my ignorance about Althusser's theory of theatrical praxis and admit that I am not as informed as I should be about the state and political economy of Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, I suspect that a panel on the non-theatrical praxis of the Moscow Show Trials for what it revealed of Stalinist terror and the state and political economy of the Soviet Union had more to offer the conference than Althusser's theory of theatrical praxis or an analysis of the Charabanc theater company in Northern Ireland. As did the Maoists' orchestrated Cultural Revolution spectaculars in which professors and scholars were costumed with duncecaps, wheeled into stadiums in donkey carts, put on display before madly jeering crowds and summarily executed -- a theatrical praxis that could have been reviewed or discussed to great advantage in a conference on Marxism. And Cuba's Maximum Leader, too, revealed his theatrical penchant for show trials of his critics, as well as his talent as a director of a form of public theater, as homosexuals were humiliatingly paraded through the streets of Havana en route to special camps. In truth, all of Communist society -- I can think of no exception offhand -- was pockmarked by a chain of allegorical theaters of the Grand Guignol.

      My quarrel with the conference sponsors is deeper than the question of priorities. In my view, to deny the Russian Question its proper place in a conference on contemporary Marxism is implicitly to deny the extent of the devastation Stalinism has inflicted on everything it has touched from social movements and working-class institutions to its disfigurement of the politics and language of Marxism.

EVEN MORE SERIOUS, WHAT THIS EVASION OF THE RUSSIAN QUESTION reflects is a denial of the centrality of democracy to socialism. The fact that Stalinism destroyed all democratic institutions in the Soviet Union is not of that much import since, in the view of many of those who sponsored the conference, the destruction of democracy did not mean a fundamental change in the nature of what they still believe to have been a form of socialism. For those readers who think that this might be a polemical exaggeration, I submit below just a sampling from a piece that appeared in Rethinking Marxism signed "The Editors."

. . . From our own beginnings in 1988, we have dedicated our pages to the reformulation of Marxism in order to critically evaluate and develop an alternative to the deterministic, orthodox Marxism that has reigned supreme in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. (my emphasis)

      Stalin's ghost would be overjoyed to see confirmation from such a learned source that, just as he had always said in his happier days, orthodox Marxism reigned supreme in the Soviet Union.

      The RM editors are critical of those who believe that Stalinist societies

are found to have abandoned socialism because of the absence of human rights or electoral politics or any number of other "goods" comprising the organic socialist whole.

Here, democracy is reduced to a sarcastically noted "good" which socialism can live with or without. The thought is soon embroidered:

      We do not think such studies should be a prelude for a return to an overarching concept of socialism that the Soviet Union and its bloc can be said to have betrayed. Without attempting to prejudge the analysis, we believe that some kinds of socialism and communism may have been capable of producing a rise in living standards and new forms of democratic participation and cultural expression. The same and other kinds of socialism and communism (including in the same countries!) may have created social misery and political oppression...

      So now, there are at least two kinds of socialism: one with democratic participation and the other which has created social misery and political oppression. And occasionally, and mysteriously for this reader, at least, both kinds can exist in the same country. Apparently, where socialism is concerned democracy is purely a matter of taste. The initial German Communist Party, for example, was known as the Spartakusbund reflecting its cadres' identification with the slaves. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and their comrades could never have organized a party that did not consider as mortal enemies all those who forces which "have created social misery and political oppression."

      But given some post-Marxists' definitions there could have been a German Marxist Party called the Caesarsbund to honor the Roman Generals who crucified 6,000 rebellious slaves on the road to Rome. Both Spartakusbund and Caesarsbund could have qualified for membership in some "non-essentialist" and "overdetermined" (post-Marxism's answer to Marxist "totalism") extended family of Marxian socialism; a family that spoke not only different dialects but separate languages ranging from the language of democracy to the tongue of political repression.

      This dismissal of democracy which also surfaces in the articles on the economic system in the USSR by RM's Russia experts, Richard Wolff, an editor, and Stephen Resnick (an advisor) is a repudiation of the basic Marxist conception of socialism from below. In one such article there is the wonderful news that:

Workers directly as well as party personnel and state officials struggle almost continuously over the power to determine the size and distribution of surplus labor ...

      How can anyone with even the faintest awareness of the realities of class oppression in the Soviet Union claim that workers "directly" and "continuously" carried on a "struggle" with the totalitarian Party/State and its government apparatus? Workers could be and, indeed, were shot if suspected of even dreaming of organizing a union to fight for a more equitable distribution of surplus labor.

      The same authors in a follow-up article write:

Arguments and movements for workers' self-management or workers' control have characterized Soviet state capitalism since its conception.

      Resnick and Wolff are not talking about arguments for workers' control in the editorial office of Rethinking Marxism but in the Soviet Union. And not in a secret meeting place of an underground group in Moscow, but of workers' control that characterized class relations in the Soviet Union "since its inception" which would include those terrible decades when even suspicion of an infraction of labor discipline could mean a sentence to a labor camp from which so many millions never returned.

      And what is one to make of this:

Since workers were not properties of any persons or institutions and since workers were free to sell their own labor, no assertion that Soviet exploitation took a slave form can be sustained.

      No comment.

ONE RATIONALE FOR ELIDING THE RUSSIAN QUESTION goes as follows: whatever meaning debating the Russian Question might have had in earlier decades began to crumble with the Berlin Wall. In the absence of a Communist camp in Europe and the near extinction of the Communist Party in the U.S. to debate the Russian Question is to engage in a quixotic battle to "settle old scores" with an enemy long dead.

      The premise is not open to dispute; the conclusion does not follow. That Communism collapsed obviously means that the Russian Question no longer has the political urgency of earlier decades. That requires the left to cast the Russian Question in a different light, not to cast it out.

      In any case, what is wrong with socialists today "settling old scores" with Stalinism? "Settling old scores" is consistent with sound pedagogical technique. Is it not the responsibility of the historian as a social scientist to examine, study and interpret the past to understand "the development of society" and cross swords when necessary with those who falsify or deny history?

      Consider the organizations, research centers, international seminars, monuments, emotional pilgrimages and the vast literature commemorating the victims, as well as the historical studies of every aspect of the Final Solution including combatting the vile network of Holocaust deniers. Does anyone on the left deride this emotionally draining expenditure of time and money as the sectarian preoccupation of old Jews and their progeny, an obsession with the past made politically irrelevant by the fact that Hitlerism was defeated in World War II and the last Holocaust victim was sent to the crematorium more than 50 years ago? Why, then, ridicule an ongoing concern with the even more complex Russian Question and not doubt the propriety and need for an ongoing study of the Holocaust? Actually -- and the reader will understand that this is not to question for a moment the immense importance of Holocaust studies -- the Russian Question has greater claim on the attention of the left than does the Holocaust, if for no other reason than that the horrendous crimes of Stalinism were committed in the name of socialism while the crimes of Hitlerism were committed in the name of anti-socialism. And while there are illusions and ambiguities in the progressive and left approach to the history and role of a more complex Communism which make debate mandatory, there are no comparable ambiguities in the left and progressive world about the Nazi abomination.

      If "settling old scores" with Stalinism is battling windmills, what is to be said about post-Marxists and rethinking Marxists who for years have been exhausting themselves in settling old scores with the Enlightenment (and not doing a good job of it), a much older score to settle than that of Communism which, only a decade back, was still a powerful rival of capitalism while the accounts to be settled with the Enlightenment movements take us back to the French philosophes of the early and mid-18th century in France, to their antecedents in England in the previous century and even to the Edict of Nantes at the end of the 16th century?

      The "settling old scores" rebuke is reminiscent of the myth which still reverberates about the self-inflicted wounds the left sustained in the era of "internecine warfare." According to the myth, the U.S. left included socialists, Trotskyists, anarchists, Lovestoneites (for a while), God knows how many even smaller sects and, of course, the larger Communist Party. The smaller groups were constantly battling one another. And that was bad. Most damaging was the intensity of the conflict between the anti-Stalinist left and the Communists who disagreed about everything and fought most fiercely about internal happenings in the distant Soviet Union and over Soviet foreign policy. This led to much foolish squabbling, creating divisiveness within the left, deflecting diverse tendencies from the primary responsibility of finding common ground for waging a joint struggle in the fight for progress and against reaction at home. In unity there is strength. Instead, the left was dragged down by "internecine warfare."

      This might be beguiling to the naive but the truth is that there was no internecine warfare in the struggle between Communists and the anti-Stalinist left. "Internecine warfare" implies that whatever differences separate competing groups or tendencies there is nonetheless some fundamental, unifying political common denominator that allows for joint struggle on a variety of basic issues against a common enemy. That was not and could not be the case in the conflict between the forces of socialism and Stalinism. To be sure, the anti-Stalinist left did share the aspirations of rank and file members of Communist parties but these aspirations did not determine the social character and role of Communist parties umbilically attached to a reactionary totalitarian power.

      Neither was there "internecine warfare."The conflict between the socialist left and Communists never attained that lofty level. Warfare, at least in its conventional sense, calls forth images of fierce struggle between contending armies. Viewed thus, warfare is a most inappropriate metaphor to describe the conflict since all the ideological cannonading came from the camp of the anti-Stalinist left, as salvo after salvo of theoretical projectiles were fired into the Stalinist camp in the hope of breaching its defenses. The Communist camp never responded in kind. The social nature of Stalinism was such that it lacked the intellectual and moral capacity to engage in a serious exchange of views. Instead of argument there were venomous denunciations of "Trotskyite-fascist-mad-dogs," and "agents of Hitler" (less so during the Nazi-Soviet Pact). And to illustrate Stalinist funny books there was the popular cartoon of a thickly muscled proletarian in overalls locked in mortal combat with a hideous slimy serpent with the head of a very Jewish-looking Trotsky, venom dripping from his bare fangs. It was a sort of Stalinist agitprop corruption of the glorious sculpted Lacoon of antiquity.

      The whole notion of "internecine warfare" romanticizes and prettifies Stalinism and Stalinist parties. It assumes that they were what they most definitely were not: socialist and Marxist or in any meaningful sense of the phrase, a legitimate party of the left. It falsely assumes that the Party was possessed of an intellectual vitality in its political life, covering up the reality of a movement that stifled creativity and independent thought, bereft of the ability to debate with an external opposition on the left.

ONE OF THE DEEPER PROBLEMS IN THE ACADEMIC LEFT'S AVERSION to studying the Russian Question is the fear that dwelling on the crimes of Stalinism -- the gulags, the terror, the forced famine, anti-Semitism, national oppression, imperialism -- and placing them in a historical context leads to a political/psychological disorder popularly known as "obsessive anti-Communism."

      And the bacillus of "obsessive anti-Communism" can wildly multiply, reducing the afflicted to a state of political dementia well-known in the literature as "virulent anti-Communism" -- In the words of Stanley Aronowitz it was "anti-Communism that had infected the entire independent left." Those diagnosed as "virulent" are confined to a metaphorical ward which allows no distinction among its inmates, whether they are infected with the anti-Communism of a Joseph McCarthy or motivated by the uncompromising anti-Communism of a Marxian socialist. (Actually, knowing Aronowitz, I am not sure that he is aware of the implications of his dire diagnosis.)

      To correct the caricature of the paranoid sectarian anti-Stalinist left we need point out that the anti-Stalinist left of which I was a part was involved in American political and social struggles disproportionate to our paucity of numbers and resources. We were active in unions and movements of the unemployed during the Depression years. Debates in the 30s on the Russian Question did not deter Trotskyists from playing a prominent role in the critically important Minneapolis General Strike. We fought the Smith Act at a time when many liberals were shamefaced supporters, and Stalinists, enthusiastic promoters, of this prelude to the McCarthyism that we combatted no less militantly during the Cold War. At the end of the decade the ongoing polemics on the class character of the Soviet Union did not stand in the way of organizing the largest anti-Nazi demonstration this country has ever seen before or since. (A demonstration, incidentally, initially denounced by the Communist Party as a "Trotskyite-fascist maneuver" to advertise and promote the German-American Bund rally at New York's Madison Square Garden, the focus of the protest.) During the war we fought the good fight for workers' rights and against the segregated army. In the 50s we fought the persecution of Communists and were active in the civil rights struggles. During the Cold War we exposed the role of American imperialism. We were not, after all, placed on Truman's infamous subversive list because of our opposition to Soviet imperialism.

      No socialist should be intimidated by the accusation of virulent anti-Communism, as if to have really been opposed to McCarthyism one had to be politically supportive of its Communist victims. To expose without equivocation the unconscionable effort of Cold War philosopher Sidney Hook who put his intellectual skills in the service of those who claimed that members of the Communist Party forfeited the right to teach, did not mean that a socialist had to forfeit the right and obligation, also without equivocation, to expose the reactionary nature of the Communist Party. To expose a John F. Kennedy, a Lyndon Johnson or a Richard Nixon for their role in turning all of Indo-China into an imperialist killing field did not mean that socialists did not have the responsibility to expose the totalitarian nature of the North Vietnamese regime and take proper note of the fact that Ho Chi Minh's political curriculum vitae revealed his part in the assassination of left-wing opponents.

      The indiscriminate, reflexive reliance on such epithets as "virulent anti-Communism" is a form of anti-intellectualism and a substitute for reasoned argument.

WHEN THE SOVIET UNION WAS THE WORLD'S SECOND POWER capable of convincing millions beyond its borders that it was the protector of the oppressed and exploited and the guardian of the international Marxist keep, and its obedient American outlet was a significant force in labor and progressive movements, the anti-Stalinist left's concentration on the Russian Question was clearly warranted. While an appreciation of the Russian Question and its lessons were vital to building a revolutionary socialist movement, the anti-Stalinist left did not assume that a correct reading of the nature of Stalinist society would automatically divine an appropriate program, strategy and tactics, in precise detail, for combatting our main enemy, American capitalism and imperialism.

      If a socialist program could not have been developed solely around answers to the riddle of the Russian Question in those earlier times it is obviously even less the case today when the American Communist Party has shrivelled to an ineffectual sect, no longer in feudal servitude to the Kremlin only because the countries that emerged out of the imploded Soviet empire are now in the camp of "virulent anti-Communism." To acknowledge the obvious, that Stalinism is no longer the same organized obstacle to radical democratic causes is a far cry from suggesting that history has reduced the Russian Question to an academic exercise, irrelevant to the real world.

      But Stalinism continues to haunt the left. For the ignominious "historic mission" was to negate socialism in its own name, to divorce socialism from political freedom, to repudiate "fetishistic" attachments to democracy. While Stalinism did not fully accomplish this mission, neither did it entirely fail. When we are told by presumed advocates of socialism or radical democracy that their vision does not necessarily mean freedom, that it can tolerate repression, that insistence on democracy is evidence of Marx's philosophically flawed "essentialism" and when we are further told that a hideously exploited Soviet working class was exercising workers' control, and that Marxism in fact reigned supreme in the Soviet Union, that means we are contending with an at least incipient neo-Stalinist tendency that justifies our ongoing and deep concern with the Russian Question and its lessons. What is involved is nothing less than the question of self-definition, of fundamental concepts of right and wrong, of what kind of movement for emancipation must be built and, last but by no means least, what vision we have of an emancipated society.

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 23

Go back to New Politics home page