Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hidden histories of Stalinism, fascism and the fight against them

Here's four quite disparate pieces which all tell some aspects of the hidden history of twentieth century's "dark noon".

1. They say that to prove one has a mind, one must change it. Tawfiq Chahboune shows that to be true of one of the most sublime minds of the mid-twentieth century. In which incarnation was he correct? (Follow the interesting comments post.)

2. Helen Szamuely, one of the EU Referendum bloggers, has a fascinating article about Stalinist apparatchik turned victim of Stalinism, Willi Muenzenberg.

3. Snowball has an extremely interesting piece on the same period. The opening question is Was Churchill an 'anti-fascist freedom fighter' or an imperialist gangster? But the bit I found interesting starts half-way through with the material from Raymond Challinor.

4. On a lighter, if still grim, note, Snowball also gives some wonderful anti-Stalinist jokes collected in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...
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ModernityBlog said...

Bob,

come on, please

Snowball is a poor excuse for a historian, no references, no contact with prevailing historiography, little cogent argument, no counter argument,etc

it is a piece of low level SWP tripe

bob said...

Not wanting to defend the SWP... Snowball's source is Raymond Challinor, in Critique, a magazine that I admire.

I don't think the blog post is intended as a serious historical journal article, just a passing on of an interesting titbit from Challinor.

I don't think the post in any ways answers the question of whether Churchill was an anti-fascist freedom fighter or imperialist gangster: the correct answer, of course, is BOTH, as given brilliantly by Christopher Hitchens in an essay reprinted in _Love, Politics and War_.

If you want an example of several shades of lunacy left of Snowball, check out the comment left at his blog by the initable Southpawpunch, who repeats the Stalinist canard of Orwell as a McCarthyite "tout".

By the way, I'm not sure I give complete credence to Helen Szamuely as a historian either. Her piece descends at times to anti-communist hysteria. But her article is fascinating.

Grow light ideas said...

I wonder what the world would be like if stalin didn't exist. do you think hitler would have risen?

http://www.fuzzlight.com

bob said...

Grow light ideas: I don't get your point. Yes, I think Hitler would have risen without Stalin's existence, and indeed might not have been defeated without the Soviet contribution. Although the idiotic ultra-leftist Third Period of the Stalinist Comintern certainly helped Hitler come to power in Germany.

I'm not into counterfactual history, to be honest.

Snowball said...

Bob - cheers for the link.

You note that Christopher Hitchens once argued 'brilliantly' that Churchill was BOTH an anti-fascist freedom fighter and an imperialist gangster.

However, given the fact that he currently thinks that the imperialist gangster George W Bush is a freedom fighter - is it not possible that Hitchens might have also been mistaken about Churchill?

bob said...

Opening words of recent Hitchens article: "How do I dislike President George Bush? Let me count the ways."

Maybe George Bush is also BOTH an imperialist gangster and anti-fascist freedom fighter too...

Snowball said...

'Maybe George Bush is also BOTH an imperialist gangster and anti-fascist freedom fighter too...'

You really should go into stand up comedy...

Southpawpunch said...

It's no canard (lie), Stalinist or otherwise, that Orwell was a state tout -

http://www.wsws.org/news/1998/sep1998/orw-s09.shtml

is a Trot source on the story. I even recall SW acknowledging the story whilst, strangely, supporting Orwell. (and 'initable'?)

But smearing someone by falsely claiming they are telling a 'Stalinist canard' is an action worthy of one of Uncle Joe's finest.

The New Centrist said...

Bob writes:

"...who repeats the Stalinist canard of Orwell as a McCarthyite "tout".

SPP:

"Orwell was a state tout."

There is a difference, you know. Given the choice between liberal capitalism and totalitarianism (whether Soviet of Fascist), Orwell made the right decision, as did Paul Avrich.

bob said...

Southpawpunch, sorry for calling you "initable"; I meant "inimitable". For readers not wanting to delve too deeply, this is the context of Southpawpunch's use of the word "tout" in Snowball's comment thread: "why any left is concerned by what a tout like Orwell - who fingered authors as 'communists' to the British government, after the war - thought, is beyond me".

I'm not going to spend time here arguing about why Orwell matters; I've done that elsewhere on this blog, and, to be honest, someone who dismisses his entire body of work on the basis of his "tout" moment is not ever going to agree with me.

What is a "tout"? A tout gets paid for their services; indeed, they do what they do for money. A tout, in this context, is a snitch, a stoolie, selling out comrades for a mess of potage.

Orwell may have fingered people to the state as Stalinists (see below), and he may have been wrong to do this, but he did not do it for money; he did it out of principled anti-Stalinism, because at that stage (as New Centrist says) he say British imperialism as the lesser evil.

What did he actually do though? The WSWS article you point us to, Southpawpunch, is very good at summing up what he did and the context of this, so I won't go into detail. ( should also note that I was familiar with the story already, and it didn't alter my high opinion of Orwell.)

In short, Orwell gave 35 names of public figures who were fellow travellers of Stalinism to the Information Research Department, a government department that was involved in countering Stalinist propoganda.

The IRD was undoubtedly a Cold War outfit and it had a clandestine existence. But it was not an espionage outfit. Orwell was not outing secret Communists to MI5. He was compiling a list of people who were widely known to be pro-Soviet, a list of the ones he thought posed a particular danger because of their ability to disseminate pro-Soviet propoganda, and suggesting to the people responsible for countering such propoganda that these names were worth taking seriously. That, in my mind, is hardly a serious crime.

Moving on to my slur on your good name: "But smearing someone by falsely claiming they are telling a 'Stalinist canard' is an action worthy of one of Uncle Joe's finest." In my view, the inflation of Orwell's actions into the idea that he was a "state tout" is a canard, a deliberately false story put about for the purpose of discrediting him. To defend the people he fingered is to defend Stalinist and pro-Stalinist figures who had, between them, immense cultural clout in Cold War Britain, which they used for pro-Stalinist purposes. Why, then, put about the idea that Orwell was a stool pigeon, if not to further such a pro-Stalinist agenda?

Southpawpunch said...

I’ll be brief as web access is very expensive from hospital but you appear to be simply arguing I’m wrong because he didn’t do it for money (as a ‘tout’) but simply did it or, what, a ‘principle’ (?). You accept that he named names.

The meaning of ‘tout’ is how it is used everyday. There are many touts who for example informed on Trots in the Labour Party to MI5, criminal associates who give info to the cops, etc. and only some do it for money - others do it for favours, payment in kind and for reasons of self importance, patriotism etc. A tout may have nothing in common with whom they inform about other than, for example, working for the trade union that the target is a member of.

It’s pretty semantic to say the IRD were clandestine rather than spies. They were tools of imperialism against the Soviet Union and those of that political ilk. Those like Orwell were touts and supported their government in for example denying work to CPGB writers. Even a liberal could see this.

But more, as a Trotskyist, I would have defended the Soviet Union against British imperialism and so am pleased that Soviet foreign work was able to have fellow travellers (and much more, e.g. the heroic work of Melita Norwood) whilst also recognising their politics as acting as anti-socialist and acting as the gravedigger of the revolution.
outhpawpunch

bob said...

Thanks for taking the time to reply, Southpawpunch. I accept that Orwell named names, but not in the sense that you mean. The people whose names he named were activists labouring away in radical organisations who he was outing to the authorities. They were public figures who used their public role to promote a cause Orwell (righty) found deeply repellant and dangerous.

As for the status of the IRD - whether they were spies - this is an academic assessment, from left-wing scholar Hugh Wilford: "The Labour ministers who launched the Department in 1948 had not originally intended that it merely engage in negative, anti-Communist propaganda. They had charged it with the additional task of projecting Britain positively as a democratic socialist power capable of creating a Western European bloc independent not only of Soviet Russia but also of capitalist America—as, in short, a ‘Third Force’."ref:pdf

Ultimately, you are right to say IRD was a tool of British imperialism, and I believe Orwell was wrong to co-operate with them.

It was semi-clandestine, but it was not part of the security apparatus. It was a propoganda outfit. Over time, it did develop closer links with the security services, although Orwell was unlikely to know about this. Orwell's contact with the IRD was minimal, and summed up by thus: "Orwell was visited by his friend, IRD worker Celia Kirwin, while he lay ill in a sanatorium in Gloucestershire.
They discussed, inter alia, possible contacts for IRD amongst Orwell's acquaintances. Subsequently he wrote to Kirwin offering to provide a list of names of Communist-sympathizing individuals whom the Department should not approach. She eagerly accepted this offer." His list, in his words, was of journalists, scholars and actors who "in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow-travellers or inclined that way and should not be trusted as [anti-communist] propagandists". Listing them, naming their names, therefore, in no way constitutes shopping them. So, yes, he was helping to deny them work, but he was helping to deny them work as secret pro-government propogandists! Hardly McCarthyite style blacklisting.

Our more fundamental difference is over whether the correct line would have been supporting Soviet totalitarianism or British imperialism. In my view, the correct position is the "Third Camp" position of refusing to choose, refusing to support either. If I was forced to choose, however, I would have followed Orwell in seeing Stalinism as the greater evil. The fate of dissident intellectuals under each regime is a good indicator of why: the British state gave denied them patr-time work as secret pro-government propogandists, while the Soviet state dissappeared them into the gulags or executed them after show trials...

As for Melita Norwood as a hero. Well, she is someone who really ought to have been blacklisted, as she did more than just promote promote Stalinist ideology amongst the chattering classes; she helped the Soviet Union develop its nuclear capability, its capacity for mass destruction, i.e. its capacity to slaughter Western civilians on an unprecendented scale.

Southpawpunch said...

And thank-you for your considered reply.

I think (and I think you may agree) that it matters not so much the exact status of the IRD (Lobster magazine is a good source of info on them, for those interested) or what is classified as a ‘tout’. We agree on what Orwell did.

People can make up their own minds whether a socialist could justify acting as he did.

Yes, we disagree on Soviet totalitarian or British imperialism. I follow the orthodox Trotskyist line of defending the Soviet Union (rather than say the SWP’s line – Neither Washington or Moscow) for reasons I outline more fully here http://southpawpunch.blogspot.com/2007/10/socialism-and-stalinism-competition.html

I wouldn’t wish it to be thought for a moment that my condemnation of Soviet totalitarianism is any less than Bob’s. Trotskyists after all wanted a revolution, a political revolution to otherthrow the caste that rules that country.

But we also acknowledged some of the progressive nature of that system and its allies - supporting North Vietnam in the Vietnam War, North Korea in the Korean War, Cuban support in southern Africa against the RSA regime etc.

And communists don’t suffer from the national chauvinist blindness that negates the crimes of their own country’s rulers, especially if they are foreigners, as Bob does – the dead Egyptians defending the Suez canal, the Malay villagers decapitated for reasons of terror, Greek communists crushed - all slaughtered by ‘democratic’ Britain. How many killed by imperialism in Iraq?

I would say that the Western democracies have also been guilty of political totalitarian crimes at home as well as abroad e.g. the massacre of possibly hundreds of Algerians in Paris by the police in 1961 whilst demonstrating against the curfew imposed after FLN activity in Paris - or the Charonne massacre the following year, also in Paris, that saw communists killed by the police.

I make no comparison between the number of victims of the bloody Soviet regime and those from the West - clearly it was better to be British rather than Bulgarian, I couldn’t have written this comment from Sofia - but I also condemn both.

And on Norwood. There is only one state that has “used its capacity to slaughter (‘Western’ – surely ‘any’) civilians on an unprecedented scale” by nuclear weapons.

I am pleased that Soviet foreign work allowed some comparability of arms between the different powers and I would guess that those living in Hanoi or Pyongyang now may agree with me that the actions of those brave spies stopped the USA nuking these places to win those wars.rkh

bob said...

OK, let's assume we agree on what Orwell did (although I'm not sure we do!) I agree that Orwell was wrong to do what he did (but not that wrong, not wrong in a way that undermines his stature for me).

On the issue of Soviet totalitarianism v British imperialism, then. My main problem with orthodox Trotskyism (on this and on so many issues) is the taking of a formula as set out by the Old Man, and then applying it in an abstract universal way to all and any situation. This methodology is utterly un-dialectical and therefore utterly un-Marxist. As CLR James argued so well in Notes on the Dialectic, as reality changes so must categories of thought change. Thus "imperialism" should not be used as a timeless, abstract category, and not should "Stalinism" be reduced to a single homogeneous entity.

Reality changes: North Vietnam in the Vietnam War was fighting a war of national liberation against an imperialist force that was backing authoritarian anti-Communist forces; Cuba in southern Africa was providing help to popular forces combating a terribly oppressive regime; the Korean War was a struggle between rival would-be dictators each backed by massive military powers (the South backed by democratic states, the North by totalitarian ones) and North Korea has turned out to be a regime far more oppressive than apartheid South Africa. In other words, "supporting the gains of October" cannot be equally applied in all cases as if they are the same.

Yes, British imperialism has been brutal and I am not a supporter of it. I am not blind to the non-white people it slaughtered (see my post on Rowan Williams this week). The point I was making about domestic dissidents is about how you weigh up whether a state is totalitarian, authoritarian or democratic (a language you will no doubt dismiss as Cold War ideology). Thus France's massacres of Algerian protestors in Paris were crimes, but not "totalitarian crimes" (whereas its policy in Algeria was totalitarian. Totalitarian has a specific meaning and it is not wise to apply it to all and any incidence of repression.

Finally, on Norwood et al: I do not accept the mutually assured deterrence (MAD) theory of the two Cold War camps: nuclear weapons were wrong in any hands, and giving them to Russia to save Pyongyang from getting nuked is not a progressive political stance. (The Soviet Union being armed did not stop America from using weapons of mass destruction during the Vietnam war, which seems to me to undermine your faith in MAD. So, no, Norwood was a hero; she was a no less a "tout" selling out her fellow humans (and, in her case, it was whole populations not a few bourgeois intellectuals that were put at risk).

Southpawpunch said...

The world remains in the age of capitalism. I don’t agree in necessarily repeating yesterday’s formula anymore than Trotsky’s views from the 30s.

But I also have no problem using the Archimedes principles millennia after it was devised. The laws of physics remain the same and Trotsky’s view on this remains correct.

You appear to agree with me in siding with “totalitarian” North Vietnam and Cuba, if not North Vietnam against the “democracies”.

But you wrong on Korea. I think the USA may have nuked North Korean in the Korean War if the USSR hadn’t had nukes (You can just imagine them saying - What you have to understand is that like Japan, the death of 100,000s in Pyongyang has to be compared with the deaths of millions - allied soldiers and North Korean soldiers and civilians that would have been necessary if we had had to conquer the whole peninsula to win the war)

And the stuff you quote from “The ABC of anti-imperialism” (in your latest post) is rubbish, as you say. Imperialism is not about “big countries” v “small countries”.

More to the point Marxists never hold their fire in criticising, for example, the gross homophobia of the Iranian regime, BUT we also would fully support that country if attacked by the USA (for example) despite the rule of the reactionary mullahs - indeed "unconditional but not uncritical support".

I remember Laura Bush and others in a PR stunt called something like “Women against the Taliban” at the start of the invasion of Afghanistan pointing out, correctly, the grim situation for women in that country.

But Marxists support the Taliban against the imperialists, acid throwers on women for showing their faces notwithstanding. The Taliban are to be condemned for their reactionary actions but the current main enemy isn’t those forces forcing women not to work, it’s those murdering and maiming many with bombs dropped from the B52s, and who Laura Bush and co are just propaganda vehicles for.

That’s the Marxist policy and I put forward Karl himself in support. As I wrote about the First Indian War of Independence (The ‘Indian Mutiny’) of 1857 - http://southpawpunch.blogspot.com/search?q=mutiny

“And what about the position of women if the rebels had won? Under British rule evangelical Christians at least called for them to be educated. Under rebel (and British) control, not only were women denied an education; no-one went to school except for a minuscule minority. Widows were forbidden from remarrying, some were even pushed or jumped onto the funeral pyre of their dead husbands…

Surely just for this superstitious baloney alone, those like Karl Marx - the inventor of scientific socialism - wouldn’t have countenanced any support for the natives… Surely he would have acclaimed the Redcoats for their bringing of the Age of Reason to the backward Indian masses as part of the glorious sweep of history…

Of course not, Lefts supported the revolt. They were enthused by it despite every wildly exaggerated (and a few true) reports of the foul treatment of captured European soldiers, women and children…

Marx and Engels wrote a lot on the War, as correspondents of a New York paper but where they restricted themselves to factual reports of the course of the campaign… and were clear in their support of the rebel natives.

bob said...

1. We are still in the age of capitalism, but capitalism changes. Imperialism changes. The imperialism of Lenin's time is not the same as the imperialism of today, and the anti-imperialism of Trotsky's time is not the same as today's. Applying yesterday's formulas without recogfiguring them for changed reality leads orthodox Trotskyism up some dangerous alleyways.

2. Trotsky defended the Soviet Union because he (wrongly, to my mind) saw it as a form of workers' state, albeit "deformed". The claim that North Korea is a workers' state of any kind is even more tenuous. Iran and other theocracies don't even make such a pretence, yet sections of the left think of them as anti-imperialist.

3. The cruelty of the North Korean regime, the utter lack of maneouvre there for any sort of emancipatory forces. To support such a regime on the basis of some counterfactual ("what if?") version of history (i.e. that the US may have bombed them is utterly wrong.

4. Your analogy with the The First War of Indian Independence doesn't work for me. Your sentence "Under rebel (and British) control, not only were women denied an education; no-one went to school except for a minuscule minority" clearly indicates that Indian women had restricted rights under both rebel and British rule, i.e. the level of gender equality promoted by British imperialism was effectively negligible, so "feminist" pro-Redcoat arguments would have been pretty empty. The rebels were better than the British in more or less every sense, and not just in the sense that they were anti-British. With the Taliban and Iranian regime, the only good thing one can say of them is that they are anti-American; that is not by any means enough grounds to give any support, let alone unconditional.

5. I have come to believe, very strongly, that it is possible to be right about something for the wrong reasons. Thus, to go back to the original topic of this post, Churchill was right about fascism, even if his motivations were wrong. And, this, Laura Bush was right about the Taliban.

You right: "But Marxists support the Taliban against the imperialists, acid throwers on women for showing their faces notwithstanding. The Taliban are to be condemned for their reactionary actions but the current main enemy isn’t those forces forcing women not to work, it’s those murdering and maiming many with bombs dropped from the B52s, and who Laura Bush and co are just propaganda vehicles for." To support acid-throwers against B52s because they are not the "main" enemy is utterly un-Marxist. The only war real Marxists recognise as truly just is the class war. The Taliban are "anti-imperialist", but they are not fighting for human liberation in any sense whatsoever, so supporting them is completely out of the question for real Marxists.

bob said...

Apologies for my poor spelling. I meant "you write" not "you right". There is nothing right about the passage I quote, except perhaps that it is objectively right-wing.

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Bathmate