Jacobin Excuses Stalinism…

Being “anti-communist” feels like being nostalgic for a time I never knew. For all of the problems that I have with the economic and social ambitions of the modern left they bear little resemblance to those of Mr Marx. Loud denunciations of Stalin, Mao and so forth also feel a tad too easy for conservatives; allowing us to be righteous without confronting the problems that face is in the present day.

Still, sometimes we must recapture a bit of the Cold War spirit. Leftists rarely indulge in outright apologetics for Stalin and Mao but sometimes their attitude towards communist evil is so slimy and slippery that one has to pin them on the tip of a nail. Take an obituary of the Marxist historian Dominico Losurdo in Jacobin. Mr Losurdo had some interesting ideas but he was also a craven apologist for Stalin. Watson Ladd – a leftist – writes that in Losurdo’s view:

Stalin…is the Soviet Ghandi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.

How one can align this supposed anti-colonialism with Stalin’s brutal oppression of Eastern Europeans, Kazakhs, Chechens and so on is beyond me.

Still, I would have no problem with a claim that someone had valuable and obscene ideas. What I dislike are disingenuous attempts to excuse the latter. For David Broder, a contributing editor for Jacobin:

Losurdo sought to recast our view of the twentieth century by centering it on colonialism. The Nazi war for “living space in the East” was a colonial war of aggression against the USSR…

It was a war of aggression against Poles, Czechs, Estonians and others too but Dr Broder doesn’t mention them, perhaps because Stalin’s swallowing of them after World War Two makes Losurdo’s thesis so ridiculous.

Why do we hear so much more of the Katyn Massacre or Holodomor than the slaughter of the Mau Mau or the Bengal Famine? In Losurdo’s view, to compare Stalin to Hitler was like placing Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian slave rebellion, on the same moral footing as the French slaveholders, simply because both sides had “authoritarian” leaderships.

This was, without doubt, a provocative reframing.

It is not “provocative”. It is absurd and obscene. First, in what universe are we often told of the Holodomor and Katyn? As Samuel Fawcett pointed out on Twitter, if you asked the average Englishman or American if they had heard of the Holodomor they would be liable to think it was a reference to a Game of Thrones character. Second, for all might one might say about Louverture he defended his own people. Stalin massacred his people and countless foreigners who had never done so much as pose a threat to him.

Losurdo was untroubled by treading on toes but was sometimes tinged with contrarianism.

Treading on bones, more like. And I’m sure David Irving is “tinged with contranianism” as well.

While he recognized the exorbitant, paranoid aspects of Stalin’s leadership, his efforts to relativize it were often governed by a polemical zeal unjustified by the evidence marshaled. This made his reframing of Stalinism more “interesting” than necessarily persuasive.

“Exorbitant” is an interesting adjective for a mass murderer. “Interesting” is also an interesting adjective for a man who excuses the mass murderer. I know history is not a child’s morality tale with “good guys” and “bad guys” but come on. This is a man who killed thousands after laughable show trials. This is a man who worked people to death in camps. This is a man who massacred Poland’s officer class in order that its people could not resist him. This is a man who deported millions of people and allowed millions more to starve. If history has monsters, he is one of them.

Now, I do not think that modern leftists have a keen desire to establish gulags and exterminate the kulaks. Having said that, I do think this miserable sliminess betrays a keen desire to rationalise left-wing atrocities in a manner that we be abhorred if conservatives did the same for Hitler or even Franco and Mussolini. I also think that it displays the scale of a delusional ideology when an insistence on analysing “material conditions” depends on minimising or ignoring historical facts.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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7 Responses to Jacobin Excuses Stalinism…

  1. Simon says:

    Soviet apologetics becoming socially acceptable again is something I genuinely didn’t see coming, I wager that even in far-left circles it was career suicide in most of the First World after the USSR collapsed. (except in the UK where even Eric Hobsbawm still enjoyed tenure) I wonder if it has to do with Trump’s borrowing his campaign talking point wholesale from the militia movement and defending it in office as POTUS. I saw a lot of leftists react to that with “if the right has to embrace their extremists to win we need to do the same with ours” sentiment, after all. I wonder if Corbyn’s current level of popularity would be possible if Corbynism didn’t have the potential to look like a left-wing counterpoint to Trumpism?

    Liked by 1 person

    • bsixsmith says:

      Good to hear from you, Simon! Hope you’re doing well.

      I think there are various factors, many of them similar to those which elevated Trump. One is the elitist nature of the ruling parties (the Democrats and Labour) who became technocratic and managerialist and alienated what might otherwise have been supporters. One is the short-sighted watering down of definitions of extremism (“I’m a communist for supporting universal healthcare? Okay, I’m a communist.) Another is that Internet status games often involve people taking ever more radical positions to distinguish themselves from the crowd and seem cool.

      Like

      • Simon says:

        Also the 2008 stock market crash and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests discrediting the post-Cold War liberal world order that for almost twenty years had been widely seen in most of the first world as either the culmination of historical progress or the default state of modern civilization. Wasn’t it the British Marxist Mark Fisher who had as his main thesis that the liberal world order basically stands or falls with the “end of history” Whig narrative?

        I still think that if the liberal world order cracks it will in North America and Western Europe be the left-wing populists not right-wing ones who’ll inherit things in the long run, because they seem to have their shit together more. Very different story in Asia and Eastern Europe, though. Maybe we’ll end up with an inverted version of the Cold War with a leftist West and a conservative East?

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  2. Frank Tisdale says:

    Good piece.

    The recent re-embrace/apologia for stalin/mao by modern champagne-socialist types is indeed gross and mock-worthy.

    That said: i think the whole ‘communist/fascist’ dichotomy – as a proxy for “extreme left/right” – is given far too much play in contemporary political talk, and isn’t even accurate, imo.

    iow, i don’t think the WWII battle of ideologies was really an “extreme right vs. extreme left”. I think it was actually a power-struggle between equally vicious, equally nationalist ‘quasi-leftist totalitarians’.

    I just don’t think “stalin and hitler” function well (or at all) as proxies for ultimate versions of left/right political ‘ideas’ taken to extremes; and i think the shared totalitarianism of both makes them far closer siblings, compared to the pluralistic, heterodox, ‘liberal west’ which ended up beating both of them, both in the war, and in the world of ideas.

    If there is any dichotomy, imo, it is between poles of political-orthodoxy, and liberal pluralism;

    the latter of which is willing to tolerate the presence of a vast range of views, and ebb and flow with them within a framework of constitutionally-protected rights; while the former, whether left or right, abandons any interest in discourse, and seeks only advantage and dominance.

    Like

    • bsixsmith says:

      Thank you! I agree that there are compelling similarities between competing totalitarianisms but I think there are also compelling differences. Stalin’s politics were sometimes racialised but unlike Hitler’s they weren’t centred on race for example. Nor was his ideology centred on imperialism.

      Like

  3. David Broder says:

    Actually it’s Dr Broder not Mr

    Like

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