There’s a letter that I read sometimes, one of the few papers my grandfather managed to keep on his long journey as a refugee to Australia. If you can read Polish and understand the code used to evade censors the message is simple.
Your family are gone. You can never return home.
And he didn’t. One day my grandfather left home to study, and, some time later, his family were gone, some shot, others disappeared to Sibera where they’d inevitably perish.
His experience wasn’t particularly unique. Though nobody really knows how many people died under Stalin, the figures are staggering. The lowest estimates are around 20 million, the largest up to 60. Even on the lowest that’s 1830 deaths for every day Stalin was in power. A million deaths may be easy to write off as statistics—but, most of them, meant someone like my grandfather never had a family or a home to return to.
Of course, it takes very little effort to mourn the tragedies of generations gone by. The debates of the “New” and “Old” Left are banal and useless to the experience of so many. But in the relief of escaping the philosophical stagnation of internal crisis many in the left have forgotten just how badly our favoured system can work out.
Perhaps my complaint is unclear; I’ll spell it out. For all our (rightly justified) concerns about systemic failings, about microaggressions and oppression, about colonisation and economic servitude we forget that so many of those features existed in the failed socialist project. That’s not even the root of what I struggle with: as generations of my fellow leftists have pointed out, a few failed experiments doesn’t destroy a theory.
What really riles me is the contempt and disregard shown by so many for the pain suffered under socialist regimes. I simply don’t understand how people active in social movements, who understand the pains that can be suffered by digging up old wounds and carrying on soiled narratives can turn around and post photos of Stalin on their Facebook feed. Or how every argument they have ends with the refrain “ah, but the libs will be the first against the wall”.
I have quite seriously seen complaints (some my own, some by others) about that playful fetishisation met with the (quite serious) retort, “Ah, but you’re forgetting the class consciousness of the revolution, what it set out to do”.
You’ll be pleased to know my gripe isn’t Eurocentric. Early this year ARMED, the “intersectional, anti-racist media collective” published “Ask Comrade F – ARMED’s very own advice column with our in-house Marxist-Leninist-Maoist expert…” The advice, which opened with a quote from Mao suggested (in great humour I’m sure) that an advice-seeker “Set about at once to purge these reactionary tendencies from your partner”, among other things. The post was met with rightful disdain and, admittedly followed by an apology—but exemplifies the strange lack of self-reflection so endemic among people otherwise so keen to do the right thing.
This mindlessness isn’t restricted to the campus left. Near the end of every intervarsity debating tournament my much loved USU Debating society chants “Trotsky’s Lament” (better known outside debating as “Red Fly the Banners O”)—strangely, the debating society uses the tasteful Stalinist version of the chant.
None of these things, a fetishisation of Stalin or socialist/Maoist language, ill thought out song choices, really particularly phase me. An off-colour joke here or there doesn’t make you bad or necessarily a hypocrite.
Honestly, I just expect a little better. Political movements should be self aware, and acknowledge the faults in their past. I don’t take the lazy fetishisation as some kind of endorsement of Stalin’s reign, but I think it’s a little endemic of a left wing failure to grapple with the realities of our preferred society. That said, this paper isn’t really a political treatise, all I really set out to say was that sometimes words hurt, and we shouldn’t forget the past.
If you want a more assertive conclusion, I’ll borrow from Lezek Kołakowski’s 1974 letter to E.P Thompson “My Correct View on Everything”.
“This is a banal but important point which I hope is clear to you. I simply refuse to join people who show how their hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any, big or minor (and rightly condemnable) injustice in the US and suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society.”