Review: “Removing the Stalin Stain – Marxism and the working class in the 21st Century”

by Davey Heller, 25th September 2021

William Briggs has set himself an ambitious task with his book “Removing the Stalin Stain – Marxism and the working class in the 21st Century”. It is an attempt to explain why socialism has not yet overthrown capitalism, despite it lurching from crisis to crisis including World War, ecocide, growing social inequality and economic crashes. Brigg’s is a Melbourne based Marxists academic working out of Deakin University. He has written several books and has a long history as a Marxist journalist and activist.

Briggs proposes that it’s not the resilience of capitalism but rather the ongoing crisis in the Marxist movement itself that has allowed capitalism to stagger on like a zombie. He argues the present crisis of Marxism is an echo of the crisis that emerged in the USSR in the years after the first successful workers revolution with the development of Stalinism. Stalinism turned Marxism on its head by rejecting internationalism and replacing it with the poison of nationalism in the form of “socialism in one country”.

The stain of Stalinism has had a twofold effect. Firstly, it’s excesses and undermining of an internationalist socialist movement besmirched the name of socialism. This led to its secondary effect as many theorists from the 1930’s onwards in rejecting Stalinism, tried to “fix” socialism. In the process they only created an ideological muddle of a “thousand Marxisms” which increasingly rejected the core tenets of classical Marxism. This further undermined the working class’s ability to organise in its own interests. Briggs makes the case that we must throw off the collective muck of the last hundred years in the form of the “stain of Stalin” and once again build a movement built on internationalism and with a central focus on organising the working class into a revolutionary movement.

Briggs summarises his major position in his introduction when he writes:

Those who seek a better world, free from exploitation, from inequality and from capitalism, have long lived in the shadow of Stalinism. Marxism, as the antithesis of capitalism, has been weakened, its theory distorted by Stalinism and then further disabled who have tried to ‘rescue” Marxism.  Each ‘rescue mission’ has weakened the theory and removed it from any real sense of practice. The practitioners of Marxism – the “activist” Marxists – have in turn suffered from a theory that has, in reality, disarmed them. The result has seen the world slide further and further into morass. Stalinism, and its intensely anti-Marxist theories and practices, played and still play a significant role and one which assists capitalism to remain unchallenged.

One of the elements of Brigg’s arguments that was new to me, was the linking of the emergence of Stalinism with the debates that had exploded in the Marxism movement in the years prior to the First World War. This was the “reform versus revolution” debate that fought most prominently within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxembourg. The revisionist school of Bernstein promoted that socialism could be achieved without revolution through parliamentary methods and within the confines of nation state. This revisionism blossomed into the full-scale betrayal of the Second International in 1914 when nearly every socialist party in Europe backed their own bourgeoisie (with the exception of the Russian and Serbian parties). Brigg’s analysis highlighted to me that there was in fact only ten years between this betrayal and the betrayal of 1924 with Stalin’s embrace of “Socialism in one country”. Brigg’s repeatedly highlights that the debates of reform versus revolution and national solutions versus internationalism have never been settled and remain at the heart of the crisis in Marxism today.

Photo of Max Horkheimer front left and Theodore Adorno front right from 1964. Two leading theoriticians of the Frankfurt School

Much of Brigg’s book is dedicated to describing how the various opponents of Stalinism who “revised” Marxism only to move further away from Marxism. Briggs terms this process “A Theory Betrayed”.   Beginning with Western Marxism between the wars, led by Gramsci, Lukacs and Korsch, a school of thought began which began to separate Marxism from both dialectical materialism and the working class itself.  Western Marxism in the form of the Frankfurt School and Critical theory all worked to move Marxism away from such central precepts as the working class had revolutionary potential and that “superstructure of society, political and institutional, rests upon an economic base and it is this economic base that is primary”. This pessimism towards the working class was further developed in the New Left who looked instead to student radicalism, social movements and anti-colonial struggles as the drivers of revolutionary change. Post-modernism and identity politics further undermined the centrality of class. As Brigg’s said, there is nothing wrong with the development of new theories, but it is when they claim to be Marxist that they became a real blockage to revolution.  The skill and power of Briggs analysis is to show connections between all of these “revisionist’ schools and how they were in essence driven as a response to the stain of Stalin and how they led to the “thousand Marxisms” – a splintering of the Marxist movement that we see today.

S11 “Anti-globalisation” protest in Melbourne, 2000. 20,000 people blockaded the World Economic Forum as part of the wave of similar protests from 1999-2000 around the world.

Briggs is also centrally focussed on the greatest contradiction within capitalism, that it relies on the nation state to function but is also a global system of production. He explains that whilst the globalisation of production has increased social inequality and destroyed manufacturing in the imperialist countries. Any nationalist based fightback against these processes, whether it be national based social movements, trade unions, “anti-globalisation”, social democracy or economic nationalism are all essentially part of the same nationalist trap laid by Stalinism. Instead, these ills must be fought by seeking to overcome this contradiction by overthrowing capitalism on a global scale.

Finally, Briggs, after laying out the traps that Marxists have fallen into over the last century, must of course attempt to lay out a solution. How can the crisis of Marxism be resolved? Briggs insists there is no option for the working class but to organise itself politically in an international based party. The negative associations that many developed with the concept of a party being equated with Stalinist authoritarianism must be overcome. There is simply no alternative.

However, whilst there are no shortage of “anti-capitalist” and groups calling themselves Marxist, can they unite in such a formation? Briggs argues that such a “unity ticket” approach is bound to fail as there is simply not enough agreement on the central tenets of Marxism. These central tenets of Marxism that must be reclaimed and form the basis of any such future Marxist party are summarised by Briggs in his conclusion: “These included the idea of the base/superstructure description of how capitalism and the state is arranged, with primacy being given to the economic structures that inform social and political responses. I stressed the importance of class and the antagonistic nature of a class based society, and of the singular importance of the working class in combatting capitalist rule. Marxism call to internationalism and against any form of nationalist response was also identified as a core element of Marxist theory’

Briggs in this book sets himself the task of laying out the ideological underpinnings of the current crisis within Marxism and clarifying the task of renewing the ideas that must drive the practice of revolutionaries. In this he is successful. However, whilst it may be more than any one author can offer, I would have liked to have seen Briggs include at least some reference to the practical element of how the creation of a new party might be tackled. Like so many other socialists of course this is the key task that preoccupies me and I am always looking for answers.

Meeting of the Second Congress of the Third International (Comintern) in 1920.

There was one significant omission from the book. Briggs does not include any descriptions of the states considered by many Marxists to remain deformed workers states such as China, Cuba and Vietnam. This is not from a lack of interest in the topic. William has written many articles on the rise of China and his next book, to be released in November, is entitled “China, the USA and capitalism’s last crusade”. A perusal of the book’s synopsis reveals Briggs believes that “Despite the portrayal of China as being ‘socialist’ it functions as a capitalist economy, in the globalised capitalist world”. Whilst the debate on the class character of the remaining states that claim to be socialist is clearly settled for Briggs, it is still very much a life issue for many Marxists. A minority of Trotskyists, including myself, still adhere to the deformed workers states definition. In addition there are many young people attracted to socialism who are unfortunately increasingly under the influence of Stalinism and to them China very much fits the category of “socialism in one country”. Whilst of course Briggs spells out why “socialism in one country” is an inherently anti-Marxist concept, it would have been better in my opinion if he had dealt with China explicitly from his perspective.  

 As William Briggs emphasizes, revolutionary Marxism must be a fusion of theory and practice. There are many valuable theoretical insights in this book which Marxists can use to inform the urgent task of rebuilding an international Marxist party that can finally lead the working class to victory over capitalism on a global scale. It is a book I would recommend to all socialists engaged in this mighty task.

The paperback of “Removing the Stain of Stalin” is widely available from online bookstores in paperbook and ebook versions, published by Zero Books.

More information on William Briggs from John Hunt Publishing

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

2 thoughts on “Review: “Removing the Stalin Stain – Marxism and the working class in the 21st Century”

  1. I remember you from a few years ago, when I was a supporter of the SEP and an avid reader of the WSWS, where I would see your comments, I have since parted ways with them and now consider it a cult. I am currently a member of the Workers League-Netherlands, (Trotskyist), I joined them a year and a half ago, primarily because they are anti-lockdown and know covid is a cover for totalitarianism by capitalism, not a disease. We are small in numbers but are steadily building a revolutionary party, with the aim, not of reformism but the complete overthrow of capitalism. Thank you for posting this review of this important book, I shall read it and discuss it with fellow members. To a united working class party, based solidly in Marxist revolutionary principles.

  2. Thank you so much for your review of William Briggs book, it’s so encouraging to hear you lament the Balkanization of international Marxism! Just when I’m feeling depressed about the current cabal in DC that’s hell bent on turning the US into Amerika, you lifted my spirits! Thank you for reminding me that as in the USSR and China, Cuba and everywhere Marxism has gained control the first people they line up against the wall are their fellow comrades who differ slightly in their interpretation of Marxism. Thus making your dreams of a one world Marxist Utopia impossible!

    What you and your ilk fail to understand about Capitalism is its core precept, that is FREEDOM. Sun Tsu advises us to “know your enemy” you do not. You believe Capitalism is a cabal of rich, fat, white men conniving to enslave the “proletariat” the “plebes” this is your misconception. We might actually agree that there are a few at the top pulling the strings but they are not Capitalists and they’re not practicing Capitalism. They’re Mercantilists practicing Mercantilism. They could not exist in a Capitalist system where they would lose their political protections.

    Capitalism is::

    A voluntary transaction between two or more people.

    That’s it! It’s that simple, wrap your mind around that and you’ll realize the allure Capitalism offers. FREEDOM to voluntarily “trade” with someone. People around the world want to be free!!! That’s the allure of Capitalism. Notice I don’t use the political terms of buyer and seller. These terms were created by Mercantilists to facilitate their partners in government to seize part of the value of the transaction thus making the transaction Mercantilist. Once you use coercion to insert a third party into the equation it is no longer Capitalism…that my friend is Mercantilism. Mercantilists have successfully marketed their “product” as Capitalism and have even fooled you Marxists into believing it’s Capitalism. Mercantilists throw out the bone of Freedom of Capitalism but that’s not what you get.

    You can not fight the allure of Freedom my friend. You can merely attract thieves with dead souls to a movement that offers them a piece of the pie they haven’t earned for nothing. That and you offer a clear conscience when your stooges kill and steal what doesn’t belong to them.

    So forget your illusions of grandeur and take heart in the fact there will always be a good supply of thieves to fill your ranks but never enough to take over the world, lol

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