Reflections from the past year
The following roughly details the past year of my political journey organizing as a Stalinist, and how I became subsequently disillusioned and ultimately broke away from it. Along with the things that I have learned and still find to be of value, albeit better and more refined as views. For example, “The Woman Question” came to be an area of special interest to me when I was still a Stalinist, and it continues to be now, even after having renounced the tendency and then moved on to more left communist positions.
I was first drawn to Stalinism through internet meme culture. This was where I was first exposed to apologia for the Soviet Union, as well as other so called “actually existing socialist” states.
An internet Stalinist acquaintance helped teach me about Cuba’s apparent achievements in terms of literacy and healthcare. Admittedly, I quickly made the mistake of selective reading — only engaging with material which tended to reaffirm, rather than unsettle, my pre-existing worldview. Stalinist online spaces, I have found, actively encourage this “echo chamber” effect. Nevertheless, my readings around this time helped me understand that women’s liberation is only obtainable through the emancipation of the working class. As Clara Zetkin astutely noted:
The proletarian woman gained employment because she wanted to create a sunnier life for her children, but instead became almost entirely separated from them. She became an equal of the man as a worker; the machine rendered muscular force superfluous and everywhere women’s work showed the same results in production as men’s. And since women constitute a cheap labor force and above all a submissive one that only in the rarest of cases dares to kick against the thorns of capitalist exploitation, the capitalists multiply the possibilities of women’s work in industry.
— “Only in Conjunction with Proletarian
Women will Socialism be Victorious”
Later, in January 2018, A friend helped me get in contact with the local “communist” party which claimed to follow the ideology of “Marxism-Leninism.” Upon starting to organize, I almost immediately felt disillusioned. “We know we will never see a revolution,” they stated at the first meeting, “so we just do what we can.” My sense of disillusionment only grew as the months went by and I started to properly understand that our organizing revolved around what policies we may be able to push through parliament and learning about formerly-existing “socialist states.”
The holes in the tendency were evident for quite a while, and it required a high threshold for cognitive dissonance to hold all of the positions at the same time. Nonetheless, I continued to defend what we did, hoping everything would eventually make sense. For example, this was the line we fed people about Syria: “Bashar Al-Assad isn’t great, granted, but if he were overthrown by US-funded rebels it would be much worse.” Somehow I believed we were still holding communist positions, by siding with the bourgeois faction which was seen by us as being the lesser evil.
Information found on the Stalin Society’s website, which by their own admission “was formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact, refuting capitalist, revisionist, opportunist, and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him,” led me to believe abortion was only recriminalized in the USSR because women’s delegates deemed it to be unsafe. Or rather that these laws merely targeted those providing the procedure and not the women having them.1 I think I knew deep down based on other information I had read,2 that the need to replenish the population after the famines, a declining birth rate, and the threat of war on the horizon would have been much more of the driving force behind this decision. But I decided to stick with this narrative, which reassured me at the time: “The communists established thousands of crèches and women’s clinics, along with having equal education and employment opportunities, as well as welfare payments for all those who needed them” — this was the constant reassurance in my mind for some months following. Of course they cared about women’s liberation.
March 8th was International Women’s Day, which the “communist” party hosted at its party branch headquarters, an old workers club that had been converted into a bar and makeshift shrine to Fidel Castro, who had just died. They brought in a Venezuelan guest speaker, who told us that Telesur is the only news source we can really trust. “While Maduro is no Chavez,” she told us, “the man is trying.” Apparently the fact that working mothers in Venezuela today can take twenty-six weeks of maternity leave makes up for the lack of birth control (and that the illegality of abortions has been killing women).3 I was led to believe that supporting Maduro was the right thing to do, since I believed Venezuela’s social programs had been most beneficial to the poor. Meanwhile, their economic woes4 have forced numerous women to prostitute themselves for just a dollar an hour,5 in many cases abandoning their children because they cannot afford to keep them.6 Unfortunately some of these facts did not come to light until many months later, so I continued to make the mistake of defending the party position on Venezuela. This mistake consisted in support for the regime, on the idea it was reforming its way toward socialism.
Even after watching the documentary Cuba and the Cameraman one evening at home, the misguided belief that Cuba was somehow socialist remained. Any difficulties the country had could be blamed on “economic warfare” by the United States, or the unfortunate collapse of the Soviet Union. One argument often made in defense of this position went as follows: “How are they not doing better than all of the other countries in Latin America?” Followed by: “They have universal healthcare and education. Not to mention their parliament recently came to be comprised of more women than men, and many of them Afro-Cuban women at that. Marx wrote that social progress could be measured by the position of the female sex, after all.”
Little was it known to me at the time, but Cuban women were being pimped out by their partners and family members, seen as “the cheap meat of the revolution.” Due to this situation, suicide is quite a common occurrence in Cuba. The persistence of prostitution in Latin American countries which claimed to be “building socialism” is mentioned here once again because it was my understanding that such a practice would not exist under socialism:
Prostitution is above all a social phenomenon. It is closely connected to the needy position of women, and her economic dependence on men in marriage and the family. The roots of prostitution are economic. Women are on the one hand forced into an economically vulnerable position, while on the other they have been conditioned for centuries to expect material favors from men solely in return for sexual favors — whether given inside or outside the bond of marriage. Here lies the root of the problem, the reason for prostitution.
— Alexandra Kollontai, “Prostitution
and Ways of Fighting It”
One of the study classes organized by the party dealt with the Sino-Soviet split. The party I was working with took the Soviet side. We learned that it not only caused the party here to schism, but even broke up marriages. At the time, I eve saw this as vaguely admirable, in the sense that individuals stayed true to their political beliefs. Now my opinion on the matter has shifted a lot. Today I retrospectively regard as a result of having confused the personal and the political. Stalinists often exhibit this flaw, at least in my experience, where they allow politics to consume their entire personality, failing to treat such divisions as impersonal.
It began to dawn on me at a strike for early childhood educators that the party was dying off. More and more, it resembled a small collective that simply enjoyed reminiscing about the glory days of the USSR and GDR. Later, when the US, UK, and France bombed Syria in April, I attended an antiwar protest. The day after that, I helped handing out leaflets with pro-Assad propaganda alongside an “anti-imperialist” group, separate from the party but which had been in attendance of the rally the day before at the mall. Despite its Marxist pretensions, I soon discovered that this “communist” party had also wholeheartedly thrown its support behind the Syrian government, rather than the workers. Something similar held true in the case of Assad’s allies, particularly Russia and Iran. The demands made by this “communist” party after the bombing strongly reflected its endorsement of Russian foreign policy.
Up to this point I found myself extremely hostile to other tendencies and unwilling to discuss Marxism with them, outside of a few friends who I bonded with after learning we all shared the same stance on the “woman question.” Suddenly, at the beginning of May, my earlier hostility started to change. After seeing a hyperbolic, but nevertheless intriguing comment in a Facebook group left by a friend of a friend, who was known to me as a member of the communist left, I decided to ask what they had meant by it.
“I can’t be bothered reading the subthread on that post, but do you actually think antifascism shouldn’t be organized around by communists? Is this one of those ‘support nothing’ situations?” I asked.
“No, left communists don’t have ‘support nothing’ situations,” my friend replied. “Antifascist organizing is a reactionary defense of liberal democracy, which is simply the dictatorship of capital with its mask on (versus with its mask off).”
Several texts were then recommended for me to read:
Fascism itself was established with full cooperation of the liberal-democratic state because both always perform, and will always fulfill, a parallel function in defense of bourgeois society. Violence might merely be sporadic for the ruling class. It may still be found, at least physically, in the willingness of the majority of the working class to put up with it. But it must in any case guarantee the continuity of this support as long as possible.
— Onorato Damen, “Bourgeois Violence
and Proletarian Defense”
Though I had never organized around antifascism in the past anyway, texts such as this convinced me of the redundancy of doing so. Whereas before I had reflexively considered myself to be antifascist, there was now a shift to simply consider myself opposed to fascism. I came to believe it was instead best for communists to organize around class politics, something I only thought I had been doing in previous months.
A couple of weeks later I learned that many people who respected my dedication to the cause of proletarian women were appalled by my support for Assad and the Syrian government. It is not uncommon for Stalinists to simply discard the opinions of those who do not appear to hold any solid positions, whose politics more or less revolve begin and end with anti-Stalinism. Sometimes the urge to refute anti-Stalinists pushes apologists for Stalin to entrench themselves still further, defending absurd their positions. This was definitely something that happened in my case. One respected friend appeared to agree with those opposing my views on the war, but refrained from attacking me in the same way as all the others. So, I messaged them privately to find out where they stood on the issue.
“What even is it that left communists support when it comes to Syria?” I asked.
“Revolutionary defeatism,” they replied, “which was Lenin’s stance on interimperialist wars. Not supporting any side. And if possible turning imperialist conflict into a class war in all of the belligerent countries.” It is quite common for Stalinists to just tell people to read Lenin, without having first done so themselves. Or, in the cases where they have, much like Stalin, they tend to cherry-pick or distort his words. So instead of just telling people to read Lenin, as I had done for months, this prompted me to finally read Lenin myself: “To repudiate the defeat slogan means allowing revolutionary ardor to degenerate into sheer hypocrisy or an empty phrase.” (Vladimir Lenin, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War” ).
Despite having been opposed to war from an early age, and having learned new information about what to support, the warped definition of imperialism Stalinists operate on (which I had adopted as my own) had me continuing to support Assad and the Ba’ath Party as a lesser evil in the war.
By this stage, my disillusionment with Stalin and the USSR had truly set in. Further research demonstrated that Soviet women had been completely thrown under the bus. The claim that abortion was banned for safety reasons was the weakest excuse, to my mind, as backyard abortions are much more unsafe. Granting women reproductive rights only to rip them away on the grounds that this would be “good for the economy” is the worst sort of cynicism. Such policies treat women as mere incubators by which to reach demographic quotas. Even upon the relegalization of abortion, the USSR was far from the bastion of women’s liberation and reproductive freedom that I had wanted to believe it had been.7
Around the start of June I found myself messaging the same member of the communist left who had previously given me information regarding fascism and antifascism. This time I inquired about a few things they kept subtly hinting at.
“What do you mean when you say that my party is a party of the bourgeoisie?” I asked.
“It’s affiliated with state organs and supports capitalist states, for me affiliation is not simply ideological, but also functional,” they replied.
Upon further discussion, I came to understand that the party president also being a trade union president, is what was meant by functional affiliation with state organs.
Unions bring to bear all those deformative forces of capitalist society that eat away at men. There’s about as much chance of pushing unions in a revolutionary direction as there is of “changing” capitalist society in general; unions use men for their own ends. Men will never be able to make unions serve a revolutionary goal, and so must destroy them.
— Grandizo Munis, “Unions
“But what alternative is there, if there is no party?” I continued. “Or if, as you say, no proletarian party presently exists?”
“The point of organizational work today is to build the future party,” was the answer. “Right now, I don’t think there is any way around that.”
About a week after this, I asked, “Why do you keep calling the Cuban revolution a coup and saying that they are capitalist when its rulers claim to be a dictatorship of the proletariat?”
“Because it was a small group of insurgents overthrowing the government and replacing it with themselves. You cannot have a revolution without the self-organization of the working class. A dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible without such organs of workers’ power. I do not think socialism is reducible to a policy decision. A comrade of mine just wrote this critique of Cuba’s economy8 and I think that it would help if you just read State and Revolution.”
So I did:
And the dictatorship of the proletariat, the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, and not democracy for the moneybags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage slavery, their resistance must be crushed by force; it is clear that there is no freedom and no democracy where there is suppression and where there is violence.
— Vladimir Lenin,
State and Revolution
Once I read passages such as this, along with the article on Cuba, I realized that I hadn’t really understood what the dictatorship of the proletariat entailed. Every argument that I had made about Cuba being a dictatorship of the proletariat or “socialist” turned out to be about how democratic it supposedly is (“all citizens over the age of sixteen are allowed to vote in Cuba!”) or with it being a welfare state of sorts (“look at how great its healthcare system is!”).
A new train of thought now replaced this old line of thinking: Workers do not have control of the means of production, nor a monopoly on the means of coercion. By definition, Cuba isn’t a dictatorship of the proletariat.” The heroic narrative of the Cuban revolution, shrouded in nationalist mythology, gradually fell away. It became obvious that what had actually occurred was simply a coup, or at best a bourgeois revolution that fell into the arms of the imperialist power opposed to the one Batista had been in bed with.
My former confidence in “actually-existing socialism” was shattered. Even further, the party I had belonged to for those months — along with other “Marxist-Leninist” groupings — proved far from communist. Such organizations I came to recognize as comprising the political apparatus of the left wing of capital. While not entirely certain of the positions I now held, it was clear none of them were in line with the party I had been organizing with or whatever the hyphenation “Marxism-Leninism” meant these days. By reading more extensively and engaging in conversations with comrades from the communist left, their position on not supporting bourgeois states and revolutionary defeatism made more and more sense. Now it appeared to me the only alternative to imperialist war.
For as long as there exist capitalist property owners who hold state power in their hands, wars will continue. The aim of these wars will be the same as the aim of the present war — namely, to secure better profits for one’s own industrialists and businessmen. Does such an aim deserve that blood be shed in its names? Are the workers acting wisely when for such a cause they kill fellow workers from another country, destroy towns and devastate peaceful villages? Have the workers come to “love” their exploiters, their own tyrant masters so much during the war that they are willing to die to defend their profits and interests?!
— Alexandra Kollontai, “Who
Needs the War?”
Once I realized Stalinism was not the product of revolution at all, but merely seventy years of counterrevolution, the thought of remaining in the party I had joined several months prior became untenable. Still, it took a couple weeks to work up the courage to leave the organization and publicly renounce the tendency. I had grown rather fond of those I’d organized with and was sad to be leaving them, although I was in disagreement with their politics. Then there was concern that many of those I knew, and in some cases had become close to, online would take this as a personal attack, unable to separate themselves from their political beliefs. The cliquish behavior that characterizes many Stalinists gave me pause. But I had made up my mind and saw no point in being dishonest with myself or anybody else just to spare myself the backlash.
After leaving the party and announcing my decision on social media, many tried to persuade me to reverse my decision. Renunciation of the tendency was taken by many as a personal denunciation, although I repeatedly insisted that that was not the case. People I believed to be some of my closest friends over the past year were suddenly labeling me a “labor Zionist” despite making it explicit that while I do not support Palestinian nationalism, I do not support Zionism either. Others made the accusation that the change in my politics was merely to impress men. I found it disappointing, albeit not entirely surprising, that as soon as you disagree with the politics of Stalinists, they decide to throw around misogynistic accusations and defame you.
While I still consider myself a Marxist, with women’s liberation through proletarian revolution and broader human emancipation remaining the core of my politics, it is quite evident looking back that my adoption of the “Marxist-Leninist” label was far too quick, and a mistake. The experience impressed on me just how little labels actually mean. What you do and what ideas you defend not only define you much better than any you claim for yourself, but are also vital when it comes to organizing for revolution.
1 Alfonso Casal. “On Women’s Rights and Abortion in the USSR.” Stalin Society. (April 8, 2015).
2 Lewis Siegelbaum. “The Abolition of Legal Abortion.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (Michigan State University).
3 Sofia Barbarani. “Illegal Abortion is Killing Horrifying Numbers of Women in Venezuela.” Telegraph. (October 25, 2016).
4 FD. “Venezuela: The Dead End of the Bolivarian Road to Socialism.” Leftcom. (June 2, 2017).
5 “Venezuela’s Economic Woes Forces Women Into Prostitution to Feed Children.” Sputnik News. (October 1, 2018).
6 “Two-Year-Old Boy Found Abandoned in Cardboard Box.” Yahoo News. (October 7, 2018).
7 AA Popov. “Family Planning and Induced Abortion in the USSR: Basic Health and Demographic Characteristics.” Studies in Family Planning. (Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ: November-December 1991).
8 Emanuel Santos. “Sugarcane Stalinism.” Intransigence. (№ 2: July 2018).