Wednesday, February 28, 2024

EP Thompson's break with Stalinism

E. P. Thompson was one of the great social historians of the twentieth century (link, link). He was also a committed socialist from youth to the end of his life. His 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class”, and it was one of the formative works of "history from below". Thompson was a member of the British Communist Party (CPGB) until 1956, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev"s "secret speech" revealing some of Stalin's crimes. Thompson remained a staunch advocate of English socialism throughout his life. But as a Communist, he showed an unwelcome degree of intellectual and political independence, and he broke with the CPGB very publicly in 1956 with a manifesto criticizing the party leadership, “Winter wheat in Omsk” (Thompson 1956) and “Socialist humanism” (Thompson 1957). Christos Efstathiou describes Thompson (along with John Saville and Lawrence Daly) in these terms:

What united these three men, and, at the same time distinguished them from other Communist dissidents, was that they did not hesitate to fight the Party’s policies. (Efstathiou 2016: 29)

Consider Thompson’s break with Stalinism in “Socialist humanism” (1957; link). The essay is decisive in rejecting Stalin’s “ideology” and his bureaucratic dogmatism and domination of the whole of society. Thompson writes eloquently about the need within socialism for open debate and discussion. But the essay does not give primary emphasis to the crimes of the Stalinist state: the Holodomor, the purges, the Show Trials, the Gulag, or the pervasive totalitarianism created by the Soviet state. Thompson does refer to “monsters of iniquity like Beria and Rakosi” and mentions their crimes – “destroying their own comrades, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, deporting whole nations”. And he gives a short summary of the show trial of the Bulgarian Communist leader Traicho Kostov. (The narrative is worthy of Koestler in Darkness at Noon.) Here is how Thompson writes about travesties like the trial of Kostov (and, presumably, the better known trials of Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders):

We feel these actions to be wrong, because our moral judgements do not depend upon abstractions or remote historical contingencies, but arise from concrete responses to the particular actions, relations, and attitudes of human beings. No amount of speculation upon intention or outcome can mitigate the horror of the scene. Those moral values which the people have created in their history, which the writers have encompassed in their poems and plays, come into judgement on the proceedings. As we watch the counsel for the defence spin out his hypocrisies, the gorge rises, and those archetypes of treachery, in literature and popular myth, from Judas to Iago, pass before our eyes. The fourteenth century ballad singer would have known this thing was wrong. The student of Shakespeare knows it is wrong. The Bulgarian peasant, who recalls that Kostov and Chervenkov had eaten together the bread and salt of comradeship, knows it is wrong. Only the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist” thinks it was – a mistake. (119)

Elsewhere in the text Thompson refers to "British socialists who see men who claim ‘Marxism’ as their guide, banner, and ‘science’ perpetrating vile crimes against their own comrades and gigantic injustices against many thousands of their fellow men". By "British socialists" he means primarily the group of former communist intellectuals who left the British communist party in 1956 and contributed to efforts to create a new Left labor movement in Britain through the New Reasoner and various new organizations. And here he is explicit in mentioning the "crimes and gigantic injustices" committed by the Stalinist state. 

But these points about Stalin's crimes are incidental, not focal to Thompson’s critique of Stalinism. Thompson’s actions and words in 1956 reflect a revolt against “dogmatism” and the effort of the Party to control thought and debate. But his critique does not extend to a thorough-going indictment of the crimes committed by the Stalinist state. The murders and injustices to which Thompson refers here seem to encompass the terror and show trials of the 1930s, though Thompson is not explicit. But I do not find anywhere in his writings an explicit recognition of the atrocities of collectivization and the Holodomor in 1932-33. Reference to the Gulag appears in later writings (for example, in a passage quoted below from "The Poverty of Theory"). But, once again, Thompson does not provide a sustained and thorough critique of these crimes against individuals and groups by the Soviet state. Rather, the central focus of his critique of Stalinism in "Socialist Humanism" is the dogmatism and ideological purity demanded by the Stalinist state.   

This is – quite simply – a revolt against the ideology, the false consciousness of the elite-into-bureaucracy, and a struggle to attain towards a true (“honest”) self-consciousness; as such it is expressed in the revolt against dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism which feeds it. Second, it is a revolt against inhumanity – the equivalent of dogmatism in human relationships and moral conduct – against administrative, bureaucratic and twisted attitudes towards human beings. In both sense it represents a return to man: from abstractions and scholastic formulations to real men: from deceptions and myths to honest history: and so the positive content of this revolt may be described as “socialist humanism.” It is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, the Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism. It is socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism, faith in the revolutionary potentialities not only of the Human Race or of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but of real men and women. (Thompson 1957: 108)

Thompson framed his critique of Stalinism somewhat more pointedly two decades later in his polemical essay against Althusser, “The Poverty of Theory” (1978) .

We are not only (please remember) just talking about some millions of people (and most of these the ‘wrong’ people) being killed or gulaged. We are talking about the deliberate manipulation of the law, the means of communication, the police and propaganda organs of a state, to blockade knowledge, to disseminate lies, to slander individuals; about institutional procedures which confiscated from the Soviet people all self-activating means (whether in democratic modes or in forms of workers’ control), which substituted the party for the working class, the party’s leaders (or leader) for the party, and the security organs for all; about the confiscation and centralisation of all intellectual and moral expression, into an ideological state orthodoxy — that is, not only the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of ‘individuals’: ... it is not only this, but within the confiscation of individual ‘rights’ to knowledge and expression, we have the ulterior confiscation of the processes of communication and knowledge-formation of a whole people, without which neither Soviet workers nor collective farmers can know what is true nor what each other thinks. ("The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors", Thompson 1978: 328-29) 

Here Thompson is more explicit in naming the crimes of the Stalinist state -- mass murder, the Gulag. But here too Thompson seems most concerned about the dogmatism and thought control of the Stalinist state, "the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of 'individuals'".

Stalinism, in its second sense, and considered as theory, was not one ‘error’, nor even two ‘errors’, which may be identified, ‘corrected’, and Theory thus reformed. Stalinism was not absent-minded about crimes: it bred crimes. In the same moment that Stalinism emitted ‘humanist’ rhetoric, it occluded the human faculties as part of its necessary mode of respiration. Its very breath stank (and still stinks) of inhumanity, because it has found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures (kulaks) and history as a process without a subject. It is not an admirable theory, flawed by errors; it is a heresy against reason, which proposed that all knowledge can be summated in a single Theory, of which it is the sole arbitor and guardian. It is not an imperfect ‘science', but an ideology suborning the good name of science in order to deny all independent rights and authenticity to the moral and imaginative faculties. It is not only a compendium of errors, it is a cornucopia out of which new errors ceaselessly flow (‘mistakes’, ‘incorrect lines’). Stalinism is a distinct, ideological mode of thought, a systematic theoretical organisation of ‘error’ for the reproduction of more ‘error.’ (331)

These passages seem to capture the heart of Thompson's conception of socialist humanism: that socialism must ensure that its institutions are designed for real, free human beings -- not for the abstract theoretical assumptions of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. And a genuine commitment to freedom of expression and thought is both a means and an end in this effort: freedom of expression and thought is necessary (as John Stuart Mill too argued) in order to allow the socialist order to progress; and free and equal human beings are the ultimate good of a socialist society.

Certainly Thompson was aware of Stalin's vast crimes by 1956. There was a great deal of information publicly available in the 1930s about the most important crimes of Stalin’s dictatorship, including the Holodomor, the Terror, the show trials, and the Gulag. Malcolm Muggeridge's reporting about the Ukraine devastation was widely available during 1933. And Welsh journalist Gareth Jones traveled through Ukraine and reported the facts of starvation as he observed them firsthand in articles in the Cardiff Western Mail and the London Evening Standard in 1933 as well as a published letter to the Manchester Guardian on May 8, 1933, corroborating Malcolm Muggeridge’s reporting on the famine in that newspaper. 

Thompson's independence of mind as a historian is unquestionable, and his willingness to follow his conscience in his relationship to communism was manifest in his actions and writings of 1956 and following years. He rejected the moral authority of the CPGB and the ultimate authority of the party line. But unlike other observers like Orwell, Koestler, or Muggeridge, Thompson seems not to have fully addressed the atrocious crimes of the Stalinist period. He did not squarely confront the atrocities represented by the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the pervasive and repressive use of the security apparatus (NKVD, KGB) to maintain totalitarian control over the citizens of the USSR. 

So we are left with a question: why did E.P. Thompson fail to clearly and unequivocally address the Holodomor, the Gulag, and the regime of terror established by Stalin's state?

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