From Steel to Velvet: The Stalinist Style in the 21st Century
Everybody knows the boat is sinking,
Everybody knows the captain lied.
Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”
Stalinism survived Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. It survived Khrushchev’s denunciation of the personality cult of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, and the disintegration of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1991.
Stalinism has been resilient, highly adaptable and irrepressible. It has assumed a more subtle and insinuating form suitable for the twenty-first century; it is still with us. The fundamentals, however, remain unchanged from its inception: the relentless dishonesty, the abuse of those who dissent from or oppose the understood orthodoxy, the reflexive resort to coercion, the moralistic repudiation of a caricaturized old order presented in a narrative of the demonized oppressor and the virtuous oppressed.
Stalinism was unleashed in its initial coercive form with the hardness and unyieldingness of steel. “Stalin” (сталь) is the Russian word for “steel”. Repression and coercion were overtly and overwhelmingly physical and material. People in mass by the tens of millions were shot, starved, deported, enslaved and imprisoned.
In contemplating the history of Communism in the twentieth century, one often begins by contemplating the most elemental conditions of human existence – food. Thirty-eight years after Castro took power in 1997, the Cuban people lived on a ration of five pounds of rice and one pound of beans per month; four ounces of meat twice a year; four ounces of soybean paste per week; and four eggs per month. [Alvaro Vargas Llosa, The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand,July112005 The New Republic ] The Communist “new man” promised by Fidel and Che was, if nothing else, a lean and hungry man.
Food was turned into a weapon by the rulers against the ruled. Lenin, Stalin and Mao deliberately took grain away from the peasants who need it to eat and sold it on foreign markets to capitalize their economies. With a Communist revolutionary takeover of power, agriculture was almost always the first application point of massive, concerted coercion. The new bosses came at the farmer-peasants and forced them into collectivized farms. They expropriated the food that they produced. Masses of individuals with deep social communal roots were moved against their will and the products of their labor taken from them – human beings reduced to soulless material. No legal protection, no human consideration for their plight, no regard for them as human beings. Their lives had to be completely rearranged to match the blue prints of the new social designers who suddenly found themselves in charge.
Hunger was a major tool of the mid-twentieth century Stalinists. Both Stalin and Mao deliberately used massive famines to kill millions of their own people in order to bring their resisting peasants to heel and to completely reorder the countryside in conformity with their five year “plans” that were in reality utopian fantasies masking disaster. Unlike the holocaust of the Jews, the direct attribution of responsibility to Stalin for the deliberate starvation of the peasant Ukraine was not immediately forthcoming. “The basic facts of mass hunger and death, although sometimes reported in the European and American press, never took on the clarity of an undisputed event. Almost no one claimed that Stalin meant to starve Ukrainians to death; even Adolf Hitler preferred to blame the Marxist system.” [Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, New York, Basic Books, 2010, 56]
Food, as it turns out, wonderfully served the coercive and reductive nature of Communism. First, those deprived of it become weak, thus rendering them compliant and incapable of resistance. Further deprivation transforms that weakness and dependency into something much worse. The descent into mass starvation strips away everything human. People do things that are inconceivable. They eat things no normal or sane person could eat. They lose their connections with each other.
The style and approach, but not the fundamentals, of twenty-first century Stalinism has changed. No longer is the coercion and repression overt and physical. Steel has given way to velvet. The use of terror and physical force are high cost, wasteful and more difficult to control, excuse or cover up permanently. Twenty-first century Stalinists are no less intellectually self-regarding and loathing of the status quo, but are more educated, sophisticated and polished than their progenitors. They employ more refined instruments of propaganda and less brutal and overt measures to intimidate, subdue or remove the resisters, to tarnish the skeptics, to target opponents with abuse, and to perpetuate their distortions and lies. Today’s Stalinists don’t need or want to kill off the opposition: they are content to disparage, plunder, and rule over them.
Twentieth-century Stalinist regimes ascended to power through the disruptions created by war, civil war and military conquest, which in part helps to explain their affinity for physical brutality and the explicitly violent character of the regimes that they imposed and maintained. WWI, not the collapse of capitalism, created the opening for the Bolsheviks – always the opportunists -- in Russia and made it possible for Lenin and his party to stage their successful coup. The German high command deserves some of the credit since they arranged the transport for Lenin back to Russia and the financing for his efforts to overthrow the Provincial government in St Petersburg. The Bolsheviks extended WWI into a protracted civil war that they eventually won. WWII enabled Stalin, using the Red Army, to force the people and countries of Eastern Europe to submit to Communist domination. Civil war in China enabled Mao to take power. China, like Russia, was not a mature capitalist society. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took power in war torn Cambodia. Much of the resistance to Batista prior to Castro’s ascent came from the Cuban professional and middle classes. Few if any of the Communist revolutions that succeeded unfolded in a way that looked remotely like what Marx had predicted.
Twenty-first century Stalinists, however, have acquired their power much differently. Through soft wars and subversion, they have waged cultural, political and legal assaults on social institutions – political parties, unions, the universities, the courts, churches, and the arts and entertainment communities, particularly within the organs of popular culture. The West near the end of the twentieth century had handily defeated Communism both economically and militarily. However, Western society has been vanquished culturally by a massive infusion of soft and insidious Leftist ideology with its essentially Marxist view of social struggle and the primacy of exploitation cloaked by “false consciousness.” The original Marxist template of the oppressed and oppressor classes as represented by the Proletariat and Capitalist was expanded in the latter half of the twentieth century to create useful variations of the original conflicting duo but with the same essential dynamic and theoretical underpinning.
Stalinism’s moralizing narrative, as indicated above, derives its appeal always by identifying and caricaturizing an oppositional class that is not only an obstacle to progress and the ultimate, historically ordained triumph of an oppressed class, but whose overall collective character is so thoroughly benighted and atavistic as to make its members humanly and morally unredeemable. Stalinists do not consider opposition to be legitimate or principled. They view those in opposition as a hostile force with no legitimate standing, and so they do not tolerate opposition; they respond with defamation and abuse. They destroy it when they are able.
This oppositional class, however, is not actually made up of real people; it is an abstraction, an elaborate construct of a morally benighted set of practices (exploitation, domination, degradation hidden behind false-legitimizing rationales) that defines a “privileged” group or class. This favored, privileged class is destined historically to give way to the oppressed class, which is also an abstraction. The narrative actually operates with two highly abstracted, mutually dependent morally-polar entities that find themselves engaged in a power struggle. The final outcome results in a moral transformation. A new society emerges completely unlike the old one. The inequalities, pathologies and abuses of the old order will have died with the oppressor class.
The Stalinist moralizing narrative and skillfully wielded thus constituted confers an enormous power to inspire and mobilize both individuals and groups. The highly charged narrative is used to connect real people, actual contestants for the many social goods and benefits of modern society to the theoretically-posed abstractions with stark morally contrasting properties. This connecting process is Stalinism in practice in its twenty-first century form. The specific roles, characteristics, and actions of the contestants are suitably adjusted so that the essential moral-immoral qualities are always in place and the moralizing direction of the narrative unfolds as predicted no matter what the actual circumstances are. Stalinism offers a flexible moral template into which any contemporary set of grievances can be inserted, tweaked and suitably generalized to reveal an oppressive, exploitive social configuration that has been structured, obscured and perpetuated by a “privileged” group.
The 1960s became the decisive period of unprecedented cultural conflict in the West and specifically in the U.S. This conflict came to be shaped by several major events – the Cold war, the Vietnam conflict and the tortured history and plight of Black America – all of which enabled the Left to craft a narrative that redefined American institutions and American cultural practices as instruments of domination and oppression and American history as a severe indictment of the society itself. Collective guilt was turned into a powerful political “weapon of the disadvantaged.” “See the suffering and devastation your people have laid upon my people.” This newly recognized oppression-caused “devastation” would then become the moral premise for a “non-negotiable” set of new power relationships involving a scripted self-criticism of the oppressor class and compensation for past wrong doings. First came the coerced admission of collective guilt then followed the collective atonement. The basic Stalinist template – Oppressor-Oppressed, with its powerful and compelling moral challenge – was in place and came to be widely employed.
The Cold War thus produced two distinct and very different outcomes. As the two major combatants moved toward the end of the 20th century, the U.S. had extended significantly its military and technological superiority over the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy and its pervasive political corruption had rendered it increasingly inefficient and uncompetitive in relation to the West. The aging Bolsheviks leaders could not reform their system without giving it up completely. They were bogged down in a feckless war in Afghanistan and pushed to edge by President Reagan with SDI. The USSR could not both continue its decades-long manic pace of armament building and its high investment with modern weaponry and provide its citizens with a standard of living that did not resemble a hard-scrabble, third world grind that would completely demoralize and alienate its workers. In its capacity as a military colossus, a modern economic engine with a productive citizenry, and a world power, one might say, the Soviet Union had abysmally failed. The Soviets were the clear losers of the Cold war. They knew it.
However, viewed as a cultural battle, a struggle of ideas, aspirations and visions, the U.S. lost the Cold war. Culture trumped economics and arms. The irony could not be more acute. In Communist countries no one any longer took Communism seriously. Why should they have? How could they have? In the West Marx came alive. Virtually all of the West’s institutions over the last fifty years have marched dramatically leftward. The two bedrock bourgeois institutions of marriage and religion (the “opiate of the masses”), both despised by Marx as cornerstone elements of bourgeois fraud, have gone into a major decline since mid-century, the latter now openly scorned and ridiculed by the secularist elites who dominate the universities, the media, and the entertainment industry, the former now virtually abandoned by the lower middle-classes who benefit most from its stabilizing, normalizing effects. Engels’s comment on marriage over a century ago captures the cynicism and disdain of Communism for the institution and sounds very much like the commentary of Western feminism a century later. “Matrimony differs from prostitution in that the first is transacted through purchase, the latter through rent.” [Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Pasionaria y los Enanitos, 45]
The Vietnam War was a central causal force in this profound ideological mass migration. At its inception the incursion into Vietnam was articulated to the American people by President Kennedy as an anti-Communist enterprise, justified as an attempt to prevent Communist insurgencies from taking control of the entirety of South East Asia. Very quickly the picture of the war, including the attributes of the major players, was turned completely upside down by America’s own internal critics as well as those abroad in the lands of its supposed allies. The malefactors in this altered picture became the Americans, who were launching a war of imperial aggression fought with conscripts extracted from its underclass – poor and minorities, pitted against an exploited third world people. The veil of anti-Communism was torn away and American action was shown to be in essence about imperialism and racism: the white imperialists were conscripting their own oppressed black young Americans to carry out their intention to plunder and colonize Asian people whom they viewed as racially inferior, culturally insignificant and physically expendable. American foreign policy particularly in its Vietnam manifestation became an external (international) reflection of its fundamentally racist internal (domestic) character and its chauvinist history.
The copious dishonesty and arrogance of the leadership – President Johnson’s manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin events and Robert McNamara’s hubristic overreach – also served eventually to discredit the effort. The rapidly diminishing credibility of the Government’s case for American involvement in Southeast Asia and the first television-covered war where Americans could sit in their homes and watch their sons, brothers and husbands killing and being killed not only provoked widespread revulsion with it and its leadership but created a deep and permanent erosion of confidence in American institutions and a withering cynicism applied to its traditional ideals. Americans then finally grimly watched the forced and desperate evacuation of their troops on television after Congress voted to stop the funding and let the country that Americans had fought for and bled for over a decade to save fall to the Reds. Also abandoned by the Americans at the same time were the people of Cambodia who to their lasting sorrow fell under the care and supervision of Brother Number One, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In just four years Pol Pot and his followers managed to kill twenty percent of their fellow Cambodians, targeting and butchering in particular people with education, property and skills. Cambodia’s beautiful Buddhist temples were destroyed, and, of course, the priests. Demographically, it was the most brutal of the twentieth century Communist revolutions. [FN Robert Service, Camaradas, 566] Pol Pot’s vision of Communist utopia for Cambodia was as a primitive, city-less agrarian commune. As Robert Service notes: “Not even Mao eliminated his city dwellers. Pol Pot was unique in the Marxist tradition of treating the urban life not as a requisite for Communist progress, but as an iniquity that had to be eliminated.” [Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, 2007, 564]
The Communists had prevailed in Southeast Asia, not because of their military superiority but because they mastered the message and the West was choking on its imperialist guilt. The Americans like the French before them left in sorrow and frustration with a sense of shame and defeat. Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers had perished on Asian soil; and for what? Veterans returning from Vietnam were accosted and spit on by protestors from America’s elite universities. “Fascist,” “Nazi,” “perpetrator of Genocide” were labels some Americans attached to other Americans. President Nixon had earlier invoked the final and most cynical of Vietnam era euphemisms – “Peace with honor.” Riots in the major U.S cities, widespread demonstrations on university campuses, political assassinations, Watergate and the culminating humiliating military retreat from Vietnam helped made U.S. institutions particularly vulnerable to a Marxist interpretation of reality in which domination and exploitation is the core reality.
Vietnam opened a Pandora’s Box out of which emerged the continuing denouement of American domination, starting with the war itself – the capitalist-imperialist superpower, America, subjugating an exploited and colonized people of color. Bill Ayers, President Obama’s colleague from his days on the Board of the Annenberg Challenge, in his memoir Fugitive Days, expressed it this way: “We had always been insistent in our anti-Americanism, our opposition to a national story stained with conquest and slavery and attempted genocide…. What kind of a system is it that allows the U.S. to seize the destinies of the Vietnamese people?” [Quoted from Dinesh D’Sousa, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, Regnery, 2010, 135] One might pause here and ask: who exactly is the “we” Ayers refers to? Clearly, he is speaking on behalf of a cognitive elite, the new Leninists who discovered the true exploitative character of American society. Indeed, they had been insistent in their anti-Americanism and had taken it from the streets into the schools.
Ayers, radical and lawless in his youth, remained unchanged and unrepentant over the decades. His book, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, published in 1974, he dedicated to the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, among others. He was permitted, encouraged even, to take his Marxist grievances and indictments from the streets into an American university classroom and was rewarded with esteem and approbation of the elites and the ultimate academic prize – lifetime job security in the form of tenure. Here was a man who spent his life navigating and exploiting a system he vehemently professed to abhor never suffering consequences for his “principled” opposition. The America he loathed shielded him from criminal responsibility, gave him a coveted sinecure and provided his life of comfort. In his view, America like Hitler’s Germany, was a nation engaged in genocide. America’s sins he continues to this day to argue justified his own criminal actions and his lawless acts were those of a hero. America’s crimes were the outcome of its intrinsic racist character; his were morally justified acts of civil disobedience. American society was corrupt. Ayers was by his own estimation immaculate, one of the cognitively gifted few who recognized his country’s profound malignancy and deemed himself exempt from the reach of its obligations and laws. It is worth noting that in spite of his vehemently-expressed moral revulsion with his own society, the legal system he so despised protected him from punishment. As stated above, he was embraced in the U.S. regions of academe, prospering, and retiring from a university in the country he loathed as a full professor.
The racism that was increasingly asserted, as we see with Ayers, as the force underlying the Vietnam conflict also was used to underscore America’s history of slavery and the aftermath of racial segregation following the Civil War. Racism as white privilege was exposed and came to be understood to be at the core of American social reality. Racism was the definition of the American experience linked both to its economic system, capitalism, and its dominant religious tradition of Christianity.
There is no reason why American should not one day attempt against their blacks what the Germans, another white, Christian nation, attempted against the Jews…. Baldwin had glimpsed here a terrifying truth: just as pogroms were no accident in Jewish history, but the sign of an endemic disease, exacerbated and coming to head, so lynchings, hangings and bonfires are the final explosion of true sentiments of the white man with regard to the black man. [Albert Memmi, Dominated Man, Boston, Beacon Press, 1969, 23]
This grim portrait of race in America was written in 1969 by Albert Memmi a Tunisian-born French intellectual, read and admired by President Obama. The French intellectual class, post-WWII, it would seem, had ably risen to its self-appointed role as America’s most ferocious moral critics. The French illuminati possessed the best grasp of American iniquities and were relentless and unremitting in their elaborations of them, able to divine the “true sentiments of the white man.” Read forty years later one is struck by the rancorous libel and profound dishonesty of these words. This “terrifying truth” of an impending holocaust of American blacks was a crude Stalinoid invention, a smear intended to suggest that there was nothing redeemable in the American character, nothing that might help us understand why the gas chamber-showers had not yet been built and put into twenty-four-hour-a-day production. For Memmi the only moral difference between the Nazis and the American whites was that the former had actually carried out the mass killings. Racial hatred and murder was rooted deep in the core of the white Christian American soul.
Of course, the holocaust never occurred and never will. Predominately white America with all of its supposed affinity for and resemblance to the German SS had already been moving to dismantle Jim Crow and make atonement for the sins of its Fathers. White Americans marched and demonstrated in protest against racial segregation and Jim Crow. A white President, Harry Truman, had ordered the desegregation of the U.S. Army 21 years before this was written. A white President, Dwight Eisenhower, had sent Federal troops into the South to desegregate the schools 13 years before this was written. A white American Congress had passed Civil rights legislation under the leadership of a full blown Cracker President from the deep-south, Texas, five years before this was written. And, of course, one generation after this was written a predominately white America helped elect a black man to be their President, perhaps the “final explosion of true sentiments of the white man with regard to the black man.”
Yet this picture with its howling condemnation and slanderous accusations became, post-Vietnam, a motif favored by an influential portion of America’s intellectuals, now, a staunchly adversarial class, unified by a loathing of traditional America, its people, its religion, its customs. Susan Sontag’s comment: "Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history" became standard fare. In almost any American university professors could easily be found expounding, publishing and teaching variations off of this theme. This agonized, malignant view of American society became from the 1960s on the America that the American Left (like Ayers) believed in, the America that many in the professoriate presented and continue to present to their students. Bard College established the position of “Alger Hiss Professor of Social Science” in 1998 long after Hiss’s treason and his subsequent perjured testimony about it was established. The University of Colorado gave tenure to Ward Churchill, an Ethnic Studies professor, who in 2005 characterized the three thousand 9-11 victims as “little Eichmanns” deserving of their fate. The professoriate rushed to defend the “academic freedom” of this man whose entire career was a fraud.
The American picture of domination and exploitation was not, however, simply one of race. Traditional American history with a capital “H” was exposed (“unmasked”) as a phony piece of triumphalism, a lie that silenced the voices of many histories. So many other silenced narratives of domination had been being played out but the injured players never permitted their “voices”. Men had constructed “social reality” so as to keep women in permanent subordination. Indigenous peoples, gay people, animals, the earth – all were victims. All had been systematically violated and exploited. The Left had advanced far beyond the moral bi-polarity of Marx’s exploited-proletariat/capitalist world and now possessed an enormous repertoire of “systems of oppression” with which to maximize their leverage of guilt and to demand power to force confessions, apologies, self-flagellation and to redress the wrong done. With the discovery of each new exploitative relationship firmly embedded in the fabric of social reality, Marxism as a deep explanatory model was ubiquitous, always available to articulate and fuel the moral outrage and unmask the deep and systemic “privileging” that the norms of white western European culture had imposed on the rest of the world.
Each of these many “practices of domination” arose out of relationships founded on inequalities of power and a masking of that power differential with a false construction of reality that rationalized the many structures of inequality as normal or natural. These practices of domination were deeply imbedded in the traditional social institutions. These institutions could never be reformed. They had to be overturned. “Revolution” was the means to undo them, and revolution on a grand scale took place in America in the second half of the twentieth century.