In a discussion on the MLG list in March 2008 Barbara Foley wrote:
If we on the left want to see a revived movement for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the construction of egalitarian societies that will allow human beings to be human, then we need to have as clear an understanding as possible of both the achievements and failures of previous attempts at revolutionary social transformation. Many great things happened in the USSR and China as these societies attempted to build socialism; there were also many tragedies and reversals.
Barbara has hit the nail on the head. We are never going to figure out how to build that just, egalitarian society based upon collectivity and cooperation what has traditionally been called "communist" until we have learned the lessons, positive as well as negative, from the rich history and experiences of those who have preceded us.
First among these our predecessors are the brave, intelligent, and visionary people of the Soviet Union during the time of Lenin and Stalin (I put Khrushchev in a different category altogether). They, and especially Joseph Stalin, have been slandered, traduced, demonized by the class enemy, the capitalists and their researchers.
This is appropriate. Its logical that the capitalists, and those who support exploitation, should hate Lenin, Stalin and the communists of their time.
However, the experts of the class enemy have shown far more class consciousness than we have! They have not only been promoting lies that benefit them and discourage us -- that is to be expected. But they have persuaded us to believe these lies! and that is OUR faults.
I've spent most of the past decade studying the documents from the former Soviet archives that have been published since the end of the USSR in 1991. They shed a completely new light on the history of the USSR during the Stalin period.
I could sum up the main lesson by quoting the title of a song by Weird Al Yankovich: "Everything You Know Is Wrong."
The history of the USSR during these years must be redone again from the beginning. Here's a list of just a few of the cardinal events in this history that are either largely or completely distorted in anticommunist historiography (including the anticommunist historiography in Russia itself):
I could make a much longer list.
In short, nothing we have been told; nothing in the famous "canonical" antisoviet and anti-Stalin books that are routinely cited, is trustworthy.
It is easy to feel indignant at such wholesale lying. But perhaps we should not be surprised that anticommunist researchers, funded by capitalist institutions, should falsify the history of the Soviet Union and the communist movement generally. What should we expect them to do?
Instead, we should look to our own shortcomings. Its past time that we on the Left showed as much class consciousness as the capitalist "scholars". We have to see through their falsehoods.
Its essential that we sweep aside the mountains of lies about the history of the USSR and the international communist movement of the 20th century and learn what really did happen, so we can assess both its weaknesses and strengths, and learn to do better.
Until we undertake that task seriously our efforts towards building that better society of justice and equality cannot possibly succeed. All of our criticism and theorizing will be built on a foundation of lies. Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek, Badiou, and many others -- all "believed" Khrushchev's lies about Soviet history and Stalin, and theorized accordingly.
Theres an attempt to likewise demonize Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. For some reason it has not been as successful not yet, anyway.
Theres also an attempt to recuperate the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party, and Mao more generally. Some really interesting work has been done on this! Our own Dan Vukovich, formerly of Santa Clara and now teaching in Hong Kong, is contributing to this effort. We need a similar effort with regard to Soviet history of the Stalin period (as well as before and afterwards).
The anticommunist attempt largely successful, so far to demonize Stalin and the USSR during his time, is part of a larger reactionary, even fascist, project: to likewise condemn as evil all revolutionary attempts to achieve a non-exploitative society of equality and justice.
We simply must resist it with everything weve got. But we can only do that by patient historical work. Theoretical work has to be grounded on the historical reality on what really happened, not on falsehoods.
The main failing among those who are recuperating the Chinese communist experience is, once again, one-sidedness. In response to the totalizing negativity of anticommunist falsifiers they are tempted to embrace an equally totalizing positive attitude about the Cultural Revolution. Yet the Cultural Revolution failed, and China had turned decisively towards capitalism before Mao died.
A similar historical movement is going on within Russia now one to recuperate Stalin and the glory years of the USSR, when the eyes of much of mankind were on the successes, evident and apparent, of collectivization, industrialization, and socialism in the USSR. But this movement is also fatally one-sided, a bourgeois reaction against the reactionary demonization of the USSR and Stalin.
The "criticisms" of communist history that pass as truths today not just in bourgeois textbooks and culture but on the Left as well, are worse than useless -- they are a smokescreen of lies. Their purpose is to obscure what really happened and so to prevent us from learning the real lessons of the successes and ultimate failures of our communist predecessors.
The attempts to recuperate the Chinese and the Soviet revolutions what we might call, as the Chinese called it, "the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat" share some serious flaws:
Therefore they run the danger of falling into nationalist, rather than Marxist or communist, patterns.
Our task is to learn the lessons, positive and negative, from the Soviet and Chinese experience, so we and those who come after us, can do it better next time.
To do that we need to know what really happened. My presentation today is intended as a small part of that essential work.