Book Review from the February 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Stalinist Legacy, edited by Tariq Ali, Penguin, £4.95
My heart sank on seeing over five hundred closely-printed pages on such a well-worn topic as Stalinism. Having persevered to the end of all twenty chapters, I can only say that my misgivings were well-founded: the view that the horrors of recent Russian history have been essentially due to the shortcomings of one man is developed here at great length and in a depressingly turgid style.
Things start badly, with Tariq Ali's introduction claiming that the book provides "a Marxist critique of Stalinism", when in fact it adopts a purely Trotskyist perspective. Ali's dismissal of the Marxist thesis that Russia is state capitalist is utterly dishonest. He claims that virtually everyone who sought to categorise Russia as neither socialist nor post-capitalist (as state capitalism or bureaucratic collectivism) "ultimately ended up as an apologist for capitalism". The fact that this is true of people like James Burnham apparently gives Ali an excuse to ignore the only consistent analysis of Russia as state capitalist—that put forward by the Socialist Party for the last sixty-five years.
One of the chapters is an essay by Trotsky in which he also attempts to counter the view that Russia is state capitalist. Again, the argument is mere sleight of hand: since the Russian system us supposedly progressive, and the kind of capitalist state'ism found in Fascist Italy and Germany is reactionary, therefore Russia cannot be state capitalist. This blithely ignores the existence there of wage labour, commodity production and class struggle.
Perhaps the worst contribution is Marcel Liebman's "Was Lenin a Stalinist?" This aims to justify the Bolsheviks' dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, in which they formed a minority. Liebman sees all electoral procedures as paralysing social progress: "The revolutionary is a bad voter, and the voter a poor revolutionary". This just reflects Leninists' belief in their own ability to lead and manipulate ordinary working people.
The book is not completely worthless. It contains in full Khrushchev's Secret Speech to the 1956 Russian Party Congress, the one which launched "de-Stalinisation", and there are interesting selections on Albania and Czechoslovakia. There is even a bit of light relief: leading left-wing economist Ernest Mandel proclaims, presumably in all seriousness, that "it is difficult to define closely what socialism is"! Don't worry, we'll be sending him a copy of the Socialist Standard.