Stalin’s Russia: Some Historical Analogies
Once again I am grateful to John Rudge for locating this unknown text by Cliff and for providing a valuable critical introduction.
John Rudge Issued Version 27th July 2018
[amended 18th September 2018]
In Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Birchall, 2011) there is a very extensive “Bibliography of Cliff’s Works”. In the section dedicated to “Articles and Manuscripts” Ian Birchall has listed an unpublished work he has titled “An Idea Transformed into its Opposite”. His brief description of it states “5pp., no date. Parallel between history of Christianity and transformation of Marxism into Stalinism”.
I was sufficiently intrigued to want to study this unknown piece by Cliff. This short note reports on what I have found and gives a transcript of the document. The original document is held in Tony Cliff’s archive in the Warwick University Modern Records Centre at MSS.459/2/17 where it is marked as “incomplete”.
First-off I can say that the “An Idea Transformed into its Opposite” document I have had photocopied:
Is 14 typescript pages long (not every one of the pages is typed over the full-page)
Appears to be complete (barring a part of one footnote)
The typescript pages appear behind a separate handwritten sheet that has the words “Chapter XIV. Some Historical Analogies” written on it.
Secondly, I should record the following:
The original document has been typed on a manual typewriter. There are a number of Cliff’s handwritten changes notated on the typescript
My attached transcript (Appendix 1) of the document has included Cliff’s handwritten changes (although his diminutive script is not always easy to decipher)
As, if published, the document would undoubtedly have been edited I have undertaken this task. In so doing I have merely corrected minor typos, provided more information on literature refences and improved the layout. I have, in no way, altered the context or meaning of anything written by Tony Cliff (NB: this work was authored using his real name of Ygael Gluckstein). To clarify the purpose of the document in its stand-alone format I propose the title “Stalin’s Russia: Some Historical Analogies”
- “Stalin’s Russia: Some Historical Analogies” is undated but it is possible to narrow down the likely “window” in which it was written. At the earliest date end the text refers to an USSR Public Prosecutor’s Office statement of 8th July 1947. As regards the latest date then this whole piece is concerned with “Stalin’s Russia” and Stalin died on 5th March 1953. This is not foolproof of course. Cliff certainly wrote about Stalin’s Russia after the death of Stalin. Ian Birchall (pers.comms.) has suggested:
“Cliff may have written this as an additional chapter for the publication of his 1948 RCP state capitalism document in book form, which happened in 1955. Perhaps he decided against including it, who knows for what reason. Or possibly he was persuaded to omit it by Mike Kidron, who was the publisher of the book Stalinist Russia: A Marxist Analysis. We will never know.”
- There is, however, evidence that assists with the likely date range (and just possibly the original “home”) of the piece. A section of text from the “parallel between history of Christianity and transformation of Marxism into Stalinism” analogy appears on pages 312-313 of Cliff’s (Gluckstein’s) 1952 book Stalin’s Satellites in Europe.
What can we say about the document?
As a starter I should issue a “health warning” of sorts. The article is deposited as a stand-alone item in Cliff’s archive. It has a clear beginning, a clear end and relates a specific political story. It does, however, seem to be a part of a much bigger whole. As page 1 of my photocopied document says “Chapter XIV: Some Historical Analogies” it was presumably originally written (or at least conceived) as a chapter of a longer work. It is therefore fair to accept, that whatever one thinks of the arguments in this particular piece; good, bad or indifferent, it may not have been intended to “stand on its own two feet”.
In the article, Cliff (Gluckstein) presents us with two analogies to portray the awfulness of Stalin’s Russia.
On the one hand, there is ”the transformation that occurred when primitive Christianity became the Medieval Church” or as Ian Birchall describes that part of the text “the parallel between the history of Christianity and the transformation of Marxism into Stalinism”. On the other hand, there is the “analogy of Russia with the conditions of British capitalism in its early rise”.
I will make a few comments on each analogy and then some general comments.
Drawing out similarities between communism in general and the early Church is an analogy almost as old as communism itself. One of the most thoroughgoing works in this area is Karl Kautsky’s 1908 book Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins. We know that Cliff was extremely familiar with this particular work. In his archive at Warwick MRC there is a 17-page document (MSS.459/2/15) consisting entirely of quotations Cliff has extracted from the “The Beginnings of Christianity” section of Kautsky’s book. The edition Cliff was using was the first English translation published in 1925. This authorised translation was done from the thirteenth German edition and published in London by George Allen and Unwin and in New York by International Publishers.
Norah Carlin (pers. comms.) has this to say on Kautsky’s work in this arena:
“I had forgotten Kautsky’s position on the medieval church, which is not well known nowadays, and most British Marxists don’t want to know about it because they were educated to blame the Church for everything bad about the Middle Ages. There is a lot to be said for Kautsky here.”
We know that Cliff had a long-held interest in, and knowledge of, the Bible. He recounts in Chapter 1 of his autobiography, how, when in prison in Palestine in 1939 the one book that was available in abundance was the Bible. He goes on to tell of some of the considerable bible research he undertook and how all of this work:
“helped me to grasp the Marxist method of analysis, not as dogma but a weapon of research” (Cliff, 2000).
Cliff has displayed some novelty by using the standard religious analogy to help elucidate what:
“transformed militant and liberating Communism into totalitarian and oppressive Stalinism”.
However, his point:
“that argument by analogy cannot serve as a proof of, but only as a support to hypothesis reached by different methods”
is very well made. Regrettably, I cannot give Cliff himself any credit for this insight – it is taken from Kautsky who wrote:
“…an argument by analogy does not constitute evidence in itself alone, but it may very well give support to a hypothesis that has been formed in another way”. (Kautsky, 1925 p. 327).
Cliff was clearly impressed with this argument as the quotation was one that he recorded in his 17-page document.
I think Cliff’s description that:
“bureaucratic state capitalism is not at a higher material or cultural level than the other capitalist “lords”.
is a powerful statement of the core of what was to become International Socialist politics. It is an early marker of how IS policies would not pander to either the CPGB or orthodox Trotskyism in its belief that the working class needed to be the centre of everything – without compromise.
Neil Davidson (pers. comms.), author of the monumental book, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Davidson, 2012) thinks the first section of Cliff’s work:
“is slightly unfocused. The key comparison between Christianity and Stalinism is surely that the ruling classes in feudal Europe and Stalinist Russia both quoted their respective ‘scriptures’ to the mass of the population while acting in ways which were quite contrary to what these documents actually said. This is a useful point to make since we still see attempts to claim that one of the reasons why China is still socialist is because ‘Marxism’ is taught in its schools and universities…”.
Martin Empson, author of the terrific new book “Kill all the Gentlemen”. Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Empson, 2018), also has some issues with Cliff’s first analogy and says (pers. comms.):
“Cliff does discuss the medieval Church well, though his characterisation of it as “progressive” pulled me up. I imagine Cliff is using the word in its historic role, the sense that the Church was able to protect intellectual knowledge as part of helping develop the economic base of English society. It certainly wasn’t progressive in how it related to the mass of the population – indeed I hoped to show in “Kill All the Gentlemen” that one of the things that provoked resistance in the period was the sheer oppressiveness of demands from the Church (tithes, obligatory labour etc., etc.). While many lower-level clergy were involved in (say) the peasant’s rebellion (and the German Peasant War), the rebels often targeted the Church, its buildings and its higher-ups as part of that rebellion. Following from this I thought Cliff was a little unfair to say the Church was always able to defeat “rebels who claimed to speak in the name of primitive Christianity”. They might have done so, but some of them – e.g. John Ball – were enormously successful and the Church’s ability to prevent them happening again was very limited.”
Martin discusses the medieval Church in his book and the chapter on “The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381” is especially relevant to the discussions here:
“The Church was one of the most powerful forces in medieval society. Its ideologies pervaded all parts of life and its doctrine explained the confusing world which might bring a bumper harvest one year, but famine or plague in the next…..The Church also justified the social status quo, a world where the population was divided into three groups: “those who work, those who fight and those that pray”…..Everyone was expected to pay towards the upkeep of the Church. Peasants paid tithes to the Church amounting to 10% of their income either in cash or in the form of grain, animals or other goods…..In the years before the Peasants’ Revolt, anger at the Church was everywhere. Discontent was growing at corruption and greed and often fueled revolts led by figures who contrasted the early Christian church with the wealthy, landowning church of their own time.”
In addition to his direct comments, I am also very grateful to Neil Davidson for directing me to an article by Peter Binns and Duncan Hallas that I had long forgotten about. It is a marvelous piece produced in response to a Communist Party pamphlet written by David Purdy as a critique of IS politics. It is a long and multi-faceted article and within it they tackle the Christian Church historical analogy in two different places. Firstly, they write:
“According to Purdy the Russian bureaucrats cannot be a ruling class because they lack legal title to the means of production. He quotes Isaac Deutscher: “The bureaucracy ‘cannot save, invest and accumulate wealth in the durable and expansive form of industrial stock or large financial assets. They cannot bequeath wealth to their descendants; they cannot, that is, perpetuate themselves as a class’.”
Actually there is a lot of evidence that Russian bureaucrats can and do pass on a lot of their wealth and power to their children, but let us assume for the moment that this is not so. Would this prove that the bureaucracy was not a ruling class? Consider an analogous example: in feudal times huge tracts of landed property were owned by the Church.
The relationship of the serfs on the Church’s land to the Church authorities was exactly the same as that of neighbouring serfs to their feudal baron. But the bishops and the cardinals could not (legally) bequeath their wealth to relatives or otherwise dispose of it. Their ownership of it was collective. Yet their rights to control the land and serfs, and their decisions about how and where to consume the surplus produced, existed in precisely the same way as for the feudal baron.
If Purdy were right then class divisions would exist on the feudal land belonging to the baron but not on feudal land belonging to the Church. A revolt by the serfs on the lord’s estates would be a revolt against a ruling class, but as soon as it spread to the serfs on the Church-owned lands it would cease to be a class revolt!”
Secondly, they write:
“Tell us comrade Purdy, haven’t you heard of Christianity? Don’t you know that it developed as the religion of the urban poor in the great cities of the Roman slave empire? Don’t you know that it was saturated with hatred of the rich and total rejection of “the powers and principalities of this world”? And is it possible that you are unaware of “the embrace” which the slave empire eventually “extended” to Christianity, turning it into an instrument of slave-owners and despots?
At any rate, Purdy can hardly fail to know that Christianity survived the collapse of the slave empire and became in time the official and only tolerated ideology of the rulers of feudal Europe, with a quite different mode of production, and that it even managed to survive the passing of feudalism and become, in some of its forms, a major capitalist ideology.
But the content of Christianity was transformed many times to suit the requirements of different classes? Of course. And the dissenters who resisted the changes in the name of old belief or new revelation were most murderously persecuted.
The forms of belief survived (with some modification) repeated changes of substance. And why did the chiefs of the barbarian conquerors of the Roman Empire accept Christianity? Because it was useful to them, because it gave “legitimacy” to their rule. Their “sincerity” or otherwise (a matter that concerns Purdy greatly with respect to the rulers of the USSR) is neither here nor there.
So it is with “Marxism-Leninism” in the USSR. It is an ossified dogma, a substitute religion, a state church (complete with persecution of “heretics”), which gives “legitimacy” to the rule of a substitute bourgeoisie – the bureaucracy. The forms remain (with some modification). The content has been completely transformed.” (Binns and Hallas, 1976).
Turning to the 1760 – 1830 Industrial Revolution analogy it is of some interest the extent to which Cliff has relied upon the works of J.L. & B. Hammond.
John Lawrence Le Breton Hammond (1872 – 1949) and Barbara Hammond (1873 -1961) were indeed, as Cliff wrote:
“the well-known authorities on the social conditions at this period”.
What they were not was Marxists. They were steeped in the Liberalism of their age but nonetheless their writing – particularly the trilogy The Village Labourer (1911), The Town Labourer (1917) and The Skilled Labourer (1919) – were popular classics of their type. The other book of theirs that Cliff references, The Bleak Age (1947) was first published in 1934. That book is an abridged version of their 1930 work The Age of the Chartists 1832 – 1854: A Study of Discontent.
Cliff proved to be a good picker of sources from outside the Marxist left. In his classic account of artisan and working-class society in its formative years, E.P. Thompson had this to say about the Hammonds:
“It is true that the Hammonds showed themselves too willing to moralize history, and to arrange their materials too much in terms of “outraged emotion”. There are many points at which their work has be faulted or qualified in the light of subsequent research, and we intend to propose others. But a defence of the Hammonds need not only be rested upon the fact that their volumes on the labourers with their copious quotation and wide reference, will long remain among the most important source-books for the period. We can also say that they displayed throughout their narrative an understanding of the political context within which the Industrial Revolution took place.” (Thompson, 1963).
As it happens, the Hammond’s work is still relevant and being used to good effect today. SWP member Martin Empson has followed in Cliff’s footsteps and quoted extensively from the Labourer trilogy in his new book on class struggle and change in the English countryside (Empson, 2018). Martin’s selection of quotes from the Hammonds serve to add weight and depth to the story he covers in the two chapters, “Enclosure and the English Countryside Transformed” and “The Rise of the Rural Proletariat”.
Martin (pers. comms.) says of the Hammonds:
“While reading the Hammond’s books I was struck by their sympathy for the masses and the clarity with which they understood the processes taking place. The problem was that their Fabian politics meant they rejected the path of Revolution, and thus found themselves stuck with a system they both knew was wrong.”
In a quite different vein, and on another side of the debate, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published in London in 1944. In 1945 a condensed version was published under the direction of Max Eastman by Readers Digest in the US and it sold in enormous numbers. It is a book nowadays much beloved by market libertarians. At publication it was influential across a surprisingly broad spectrum of opinion:
“In my opinion it is a grand book…. Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement……”
“…..I come finally to what is really my only serious criticism of the book. You admit here and there that it is a question of knowing where to draw the line. You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere [between free-enterprise and planning], and that the logical extreme is not possible. But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it. In a sense this is shirking the practical issue…..” (John Maynard Keynes, 1944)
“Professor Hayek’s thesis is that Socialism inevitably leads to despotism, and that in Germany the Nazis were able to succeed because the Socialists had already done most of their work for them, especially the intellectual work of weakening the desire for liberty. By bringing the whole of life under the control of the State, Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stick at nothing in order to retain it……”
“…….in the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.” (George, Orwell, 1944).
In this Industrial Revolution period analogy, Cliff again takes no prisoners from among the Stalinist fellow-travellers:
“In comparing this period with the period through which Russia is passing today, we find that there is not much to choose between the brutality of the one and the brutality of the other. Nor is there much to choose between both of these and the conditions of the toilers today in China, India and Africa; indeed the overwhelming majority of all humanity spend their lives in such conditions.”
What is more, time proved Cliff to be correct when it comes to his key contention that there will be no liberalization of Stalin’s regime. Cliff’s final point:
“To totalitarian state capitalism the path of gradual democratisation is closed”.
proved to be true.
Some things may have changed after Stalin’s demise, but the essential nature of the regime did not. The working class had no role and no power during Stalin’s time and no role and no power afterwards.
Neil Davidson (pers. comms.) looks on this part of Cliff’s work much more positively:
“The second section….. draws extremely important parallels between primitive accumulation in England (and Scotland!) and in Stalinist Russia – the only thing that is perhaps missing here is the much greater speed with which the process took place in the latter, which obviously increased the horror. Cliff was obviously right to say that democratic reform was impossible in Russia, but perhaps underestimated the kind of social relaxation which took place once initial accumulation had taken place, although this was more marked in Eastern Europe than Russia itself.”
Ian Birchall (pers. comms.) makes this perceptive comment:
“I read the Cliff document with great interest…….it is a fascinating example of Cliff when he was still in a period of intellectual exploration”.
Overall, we should ask ourselves, does the piece “work” and are the analogies successful in helping to elucidate Cliff’s basic points?
There are certainly criticisms that can be made, not the least of which is one that represents a common thread, particularly in Cliff’s earlier work. He had a consistent tendency of letting quotations do the work for him. Reviews of Cliff’s 1952 book Stalin’s Satellites in Europe tell us:
“It [the book] contains a wealth of useful although not quite integrated and not always evaluated material” (Stephen D. Kertesz quoted in Rudge, 2018). Or
“He claims that his book is mainly based upon official sources. That may well be. But it is unfortunate that it often seems to consist of a string of quotations from other people’s books. On one page this goes so far that we are given a quotation from S. Perlman and are then told that what he said is proved to be no exaggeration because S. L. Sharp has said the same thing at greater length. This is about the destruction of capitalism in Europe by the Nazis and is probably true, but the one statement does not prove the other. Mr. Gluckstein, by the way, seems to be most conscientious in naming his sources, but his references, being inserted in his text, overload it, and are then inconveniently concealed” (Elizabeth Wiskemann quoted in Rudge, 2018).
This present work is another classic example of one where “we get multiple illustrative extracts where there really should be more argumentation” (Neil Davidson, pers. comms.).
Of course, Cliff (following Kautsky) is clear on the limitations of analogy as a form of argument. Be that as it may, I found this document readable, interesting, informative – and yes, I think, ultimately successful. Even if Peter Binns and Duncan Hallas might have done it better!
Binns, P. & D. Hallas. 1976. The Soviet Union – State Capitalist or Socialist? International Socialism Journal Number 91 (September 1976): 16-27.
Birchall, I. 2011. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. Bookmarks Publications, London, 664pp.
Cliff, T. 2000. A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary. Bookmarks Publications Ltd., London, 247pp.
Davidson, N. 2012. How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket Books, Chicago, 812pp.
Empson, M. 2018. “Kill all the Gentlemen”. Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside. Bookmarks Publications, London, 314pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1911. The Village Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 418pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1917. The Town Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 342 pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1919. The Skilled Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 403 pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1947. The Bleak Age. Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 256pp.
Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom: A Classic Warning Against the Dangers to Freedom Inherent in Social Planning. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 266pp.
Kautsky, K. 1925. Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins. George Allen and Unwin, London and International Publishers, New York, 480pp.
Keynes, J.M. 1944. Letter to Hayek, June 28, 1944. Reprinted in: John Maynard Keynes, Activities 1940–1946. Shaping the Post-War World: Employment and Commodities, Ed. Donald Moggridge, Vol. 27 (1980) of The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes.
Orwell, G. 1944. Review of F.A. Hayek The Road to Serfdom and K. Zilliacus The Mirror of the Past, Observer newspaper 9th April 1944.
Rudge, J. 2018. Reviewing Tony Cliff’s First Book. Available online:
Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. Victor Gollancz, London, 848pp.
My sincere thanks are due to Neil Davidson, Martin Empson, Norah Carlin and Ian Birchall. Their knowledge and insight has been invaluable in putting this piece of research together.
Chapter XIV. Some Historical Analogies
An Idea Transformed into its Opposite
One of the most puzzling characteristics of Stalin’s regime is that, although it is so oppressive, many of its founders were idealists who wished for real freedom and equality. It is state-capitalist, while the Bolsheviks aimed at establishing Communism. The main theme of the present work is to analyse how the social and economic conditions of backward Russia led to the introduction into the external forms of Communism of a content diametrically opposed to the ideas of the introducers. To strengthen the argument let us look at another example of the transformation of an idea, the transformation that occurred when primitive Christianity became the Medieval Church.
The analogy is not exact and should not be pushed too far, but it illustrates how the content of a movement can be changed by being developed in a social milieu different from that in which it was born.
In his life, Jesus made a very small direct impression. As far as we know, no contemporary writer refers to him, and Christianity is mentioned for the first time by a non-Christian more than a century after the traditional birth of Jesus (Pliny in A.D. 112). Although the tempo of events is much quicker today, Marx and his doctrines did not win much attention outside the relatively small group of his followers either until after his death. In both cases fame came first from events in countries far away from the places where they lived.
Christianity came originally from the East to the West, Marxism was brought from the West to the East. Christianity, with its deep humanism, and feeling for the poor and downtrodden, uttered harsh words against the rich, in the tradition of the prophets of social pathos (Amos, Hosea and the Second Isaiah):
“Ye cannot serve God and Mammon”, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”.
The class hatred to the rich is most clearly expressed in the story of Lazarus in St. Luke’s Gospel (XVI, 19 ff.), and in spite of all the touching up of the old texts, the communist spirit has left its imprint in the New Testament. Christianity began, as Toynbee puts it, as “a rival civilization of the proletariat” (Toynbee, 1921).
After many centuries, during which Christianity became an influential and official religion, its organisation became the richest institution in the world, concentrating in its hands at least one-third of all the land of Europe, and enjoying in each country far greater wealth than the king or nobles. The simple shepherds, fishermen and artisans of Judaea who praised the “fool” (?)(a) gave place to a hierarchy which spoke Latin and so kept themselves above the simple folk. Marxism which originated in the West as an ideology of the working class became transformed and ossified in Russia into the ideology and doctrine of a rich, powerful and state capitalist bureaucracy.
It is clear, from the original writings, although now blurred that Christianity itself began as a Jewish messianic national liberation movement. The emphasis laid on the fact that Joseph, Mary’s husband, is of the stock of King David, can be explained only by the Jewish tradition that the national messiah must be of David’s family. In all the great crises of Jewish history up to modern times, a leader or a number of leaders have appeared, all claiming to be of David’s family. Jesus lived at such a crisis, during the last century of the existence of Judaea. His words, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5,6) and “it is not proper to take the children’s bread and cast it to the little dogs” (Mark 7:27; Matthew 15:26) are clear enough to show that Jesus confined his mission to the Jews. The number of Jesus’ apostle-disciples, which is the same number as the tribes of Israel, bears witness to the same fact. When Christianity came to rule, it was not as a national rebellious organisation, but as a cosmopolitan religion, as the bond of all Europe. The crucified Jewish rebel against Rome became a symbol of Roman hatred of the Jews. The rebellious spirit was transformed into a message to the peasants and artisans that obedience was the first commandment: “Render unto Caesar….” Marxism, which was a synthesis of English political economy, German philosophy and French socialism, internationalist to the core, has become a weapon of Great Russian Imperialism. From a call to rebellion it has become a commandment to obey the leader.
An examination of the causes of this fundamental transformation of Christianity teaches certain important lessons about the forces and the future of the Stalinist regime.
When Saul became Romanized into Paul, and when he cries “Lo “(b), the original ideas were inevitably influenced by the new social environment of the Roman Empire of declining slave society, the transformation of slaves into coloni, the substitution of serfdom for slavery. The level of the productive forces at that time made communism in any form purely utopian, and the monopoly of a minority over wealth and leisure inevitable. However different was this Medieval Church from the original Christian Congregation, it did play a great and progressive role. It was the organisation possessing the greatest wealth and concentration of free and learned people in society, and for many centuries the citadel of culture. The monasteries were par excellence centres of agriculture and artisanship. The Church stimulated commerce and kept the permanent warfare between the feudal lords within bounds. She was the great and only institution of charity. She alone maintained schools and acted as a “publishing house”. And she alone was able to organise the Christian peoples against the threat of Arab expansion. From the 4th century onwards, the Catholic Church, freed of Jewish messianic Communism, accorded perfectly with the material and cultural level of the period. Therefore, even when social conflicts produced rebels who claimed to speak in the name of primitive Christianity, they remained small sects and were easily defeated by the mighty Church. As long as the Church fulfilled a necessary role in society which could be fulfilled by no alternative institution, she was so self-confident that she could afford to be (in comparison with other feudal lords) a generous and kind master. The Jews did not fare too badly under the Church at this time. Even the few heretics were treated reasonably well. In the words of the article in Encyclopaedia Britannica on the Inquisition:
“During the first three centuries of the Church there is no trace of any official persecution and the earlier Fathers….rejected the idea of it.”
In the next few centuries assemblies of heretics were prohibited, but there are hardly any cases of execution. From the 10th to the 12th centuries a growing number of heretics in France, Italy, the Empire and England were burned or strangled. In the 13th century for the first time the Inquisition became a regular institution.
The disintegration of feudalism under the impact of rising commerce made the conditions of the serfs truly appalling. The greed of the lords, including the Church hierarchy, became unlimited and the portion of the Church’s income devoted to charity dwindled. The rising towns produced a new class which was much better fitted than the monasteries to foster handicraft and culture. The rising state power, allied with the towns against the feudal nobility, superseded the Church as keeper of the peace and defender of Europe from the threat from the East (now the Turks). Even the landowners who recognised in the Church the most important of all the feudal institutions and their most powerful defender, began, with the rise of commerce and the new appetites which it unleashed, to grudge the Church its wealth. The development of commerce first of all made the Church far richer than she had ever been, but at the same time raised more and more quarrels between her and the peasants, merchants, landlords and kings. Abundant wealth combined with weakness to produce an unbounded fanaticism. The peasant’s sufferings at this period led to revolts which were generally suppressed, and to despair. This despair led the peasants to follow the Church’s lead against heretics, and to participate in witch hunting and witch burning.
When Marxism was put into practice in Russia, the material conditions were such that into its external forms it was not the content of communism that was filled, but predatory state capitalism. Of the original Marxism only the form has survived. But here the analogy with the Catholic Church ends. Bureaucratic state capitalism is not at a higher material or cultural level than the other capitalist “lords”. It cannot afford to be more generous to the toilers than other capitalists because it has come into being in a period in which, on a world scale, the exploitation of man by man is no longer a necessary evil accepted by society as a whole. Hence bureaucratic state capitalism – Stalinism – comes into existence as a richer and richer institution but one more and more isolated from the people and hated and it therefore cannot afford to be patient towards heretics, but resorts to a highly organised Inquisition accompanied by witch hunting and witch burning.
Thus while the Church, contradicting the spirit of primitive Christianity, was for a whole period a necessary and progressive link in world history, Stalinism, which contradicts the social content of original Marxism, is an oppressive, historically superfluous and bastard system.
It must be emphasised, that argument by analogy cannot serve as a proof of, but only as a support to hypothesis reached by different methods. The analogy of the medieval Church serves to support our explanation of the social circumstances which transformed militant and liberating Communism into totalitarian and oppressive Stalinism.
The Social Horrors Accompanying the Industrial Revolution
We have characterised Stalinism as the embodiment par excellence of a regime of exploitation for the sake of accumulation. A corroboration of the correctness of this characterization may be found in a comparison of the horrors of exploitation and oppression in Stalin’s empire with the conditions of the masses at the time of the rise of capitalism in England in the past, or in the backward colonial countries today. This analogy of Russia with the conditions of British capitalism in its early rise serves not only to emphasise the common between them, but also to prevent from accepting rashly Hayek’s formulation in his “Road to Serfdom”: Stalin’s regime is not in the image of the new, Socialist society, but in the image of the old, capitalism in the period of the Industrial Revolution! (1).
The rise of capitalism took hundreds of years, in England starting even before the beginning of Tudor rule. In order not to enlarge upon the subject unduly, the social conditions during only one stage of the rise will be dealt with, that of the Industrial Revolution, from about 1760 to about 1830. Except where otherwise stated, the passages cited on the subject are from the books of J.L. and B. Hammond, the well-known authorities on the social conditions at this period.
The period witnessed the second and biggest wave of land enclosures which expropriated the peasantry. The description of one such undertaking will give an idea of the cruelty and barbarism under which the agricultural population – the majority of the population at the time – suffered. The case is that of the enclosure out by the Duchess of Sutherland. Marx describes it thus:
“This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, on entering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to 15,000 inhabitants, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore – 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clan-land she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung on the sea-shore, tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.” (“Capital”, Vol. 1, pp. 801-2).
This case was typical, and Marx does not exaggerate when he says that:
“the history of this (the expropriation of the peasantry by the enclosures – YG)(c)…..is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire”. (Ibid. p. 786).
The Hammonds say of the agricultural labouring population that:
“no class in the world has so beaten and crouching a history.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
In Russia the expropriation of the peasantry was brought about by the “collectivisation”, which deprived 25 million peasants of nearly all their property; each one was left with a Lilliputian plot of land, one cow, a few pigs, etc. The result of this process is that a major portion of the whole agricultural product falls into the hands of the state and the large majority of the agriculturists are compelled to work for the state for seated wages.
The economic conditions of the agricultural population in England during the period of flowering capitalism were terrible:
“The labourer was worse fed and worse housed than the prisoner, and he would not have been able to keep body and soul together if he had not found in poaching or in thieving or in smuggling the means of eking out his doles and wages.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
Nothing shows up more clearly the gulf between rulers and ruled, between rich and poor, than the struggle around poaching. The hungry labourer tried to poach the game bred in the woods as targets for the rich at their hunting parties. In 1770 the first Game Act was passed inflicting imprisonment of not less than 3 months or more than 6 months on anyone who killed game of any kind, for a subsequent offence 6 to 12 months imprisonment.
“This was light punishment compared with the measures that were to follow.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
In 1816 the punishment became transportation for 7 years. The conditions of the transportation were so unbearable that many of the prisoners used to die on the boat; if they survived they suffered conditions no better than that of slavery for the duration of their punishment, and at the end of their service in most cases they could not return to Britain as the Government did not pay their fares.
Another scourge from which the poor suffered was the Workhouses. The following passages give some idea of the horrors of these places, significantly nicknamed Bastilles:
“A lawyer, writing in 1852, said that he had visited many prisons and lunatic asylums, not only in England, but in France and Germany. “A single English workhouse”, he went on to say, “contains more that justly calls for condemnation in the principle on which it is established than is found in the very worst prisons or public lunatic asylums that I have seen. The workhouse as now organised is a reproach and disgrace peculiar to England: nothing corresponding to it is to be found throughout the whole continent of Europe.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1947).
“ One of the forms of task work imposed in certain workhouses was the crushing of bones, and the master of the Andover Workhouse was accused of starving the paupers so that they fought among themselves for the gristle and marrow to be found in the half-putrid bones given to them for this purpose.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1947).
To add to the suffering of the people in the workhouses, husbands and wives, parents and children, were kept rigorously apart. It was only in 1847 that Parliament bethought itself to pass an Act forbidding the separation of married couples – and then only if they were over sixty.
When comparing the workhouses with the slave camps in Russia, it must be borne in mind that however small the percentage of the population in the former as against the latter, nevertheless the fear was ever-present:
“every workman saw himself exposed to the danger of imprisonment in the Bastille.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1947).
The laws of migration of the time, called the Settlement Laws, prevented the migration of the poor from one parish to another to the same extent as the passport system in the USSR prevents free movement.
The cruelty of the rich towards the poor was most pronounced in the severity of the punishment meted out for thieving. Some examples will give an idea of this inhumanity:
“The view of the ruling classes was well illustrated in the case of a child of ten who was sentenced to death in 1800 for secreting notes at the Chelmsford Post Office….The sentence was commuted, and the boy was sent to Grenada for fourteen years, apparently by a private arrangement with a member of the Grand Jury who had estates here. The transportation of children was, of course, a common occurrence. The list of prisoners sent up from London and Middlesex in 1817 included two boys aged ten and thirteen under sentence of death, and the list from the Chester Assizes the next year includes a sentence of death on a boy of fourteen for stealing a silver watch and two bank notes. Two boys aged ten and twelve were sentenced to transportation for seven years, at the Manchester Quarter Sessions in 1813, for stealing linen from a warehouse. A boy of fourteen was hung at Newport in 1814 for stealing. A woman whose husband had been transported for felony committed the same felony in the hope of joining him in exile, but the judge thought it necessary to make an example and hanged her instead.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
“The Governor of the House of Correction in Coldbath Fields, giving evidence before the Committee on Secondary Punishments in 1831, said that he had under his charge a boy of ten years old who had been in prison eight times. Capper, the Superintendent of the Convict Establishment, told the same Committee that some of the boy convicts were so young that they could scarcely put on their clothes, and that they had to be dressed….two boys, John and Charles Clough, aged 12 and 10 years, were tried and found guilty of stealing some Irish linen out of Joseph Thorley’s warehouse during the dinner hour. The Chairman sentenced them to seven years’ transportation. On its being pronounced, the Mother of those unfortunate boys came to the Bar to her children, and with them was in great agony, imploring mercy of the Bench. With difficulty the children were removed.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
In justification of these cruelties the rulers claimed that:
“nothing but the terror of human suffering can avail to prevent crime.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
There is a close comparison between these instances and similar ones in Stalin’s Russia. On July 8th, 1947, the USSR Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement giving a list of ten sentences passed by various District People’s Courts for stealing, in accordance with the Decree (of June 4th, 1947) for the protection of State, Collective and Private Property. The publication of the list had an educational purpose, to demonstrate how the new decree should be implemented. For stealing fish for a second time, a worker in a fish-canning factory was sentenced to 15 years penal servitude in a labour camp. Two peasants who had stolen oats from a collective farm were condemned to 8 years penal servitude. For having stolen 10 kgs. of bread from a bakery, a driver received 7 years penal servitude, and so forth.
When the English workers decided to seek a solution to their troubles, not in poaching or stealing, but in a collective movement of protest, the law was not more clement. To quote one example, in 1830 in several counties of Southern England the agricultural labourers protested against their low wages, in a number of places destroying machinery and burning down storehouses; they also destroyed two workhouses and demanded sums of money from the rich. In all the riots one man was killed, and that a rioter. On the other side no one was killed or seriously wounded. The following quotations give some idea of the inhumanity of the trials following the riots:
“George Steel, aged eighteen, was sentenced to transportation for life for obtaining a shilling, when he was in liquor, from Jane Neale: William Sutton, another boy of eighteen, was found guilty of taking 4d. in a drunken frolic: Sutton, who was a carter boy receiving 1s. 6d. a week and his food, was given an excellent character by his master, who declared that he had never had a better servant. The jury recommended him to mercy, and the judges responded by sentencing him to death and banishing him for life. George Clerk, aged twenty, and E.C. Nutbean, aged eighteen, paid the same price for 3d. down and the promise of beer at the Greyhound. Such cases were not exceptional, as anyone who turns to the reports of the trials will see.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
All in all:
“For these riots, apart from the cases of arson, for which six men or boys were hung, aristocratic justice exacted three lives, and the transportation of four hundred and fifty-seven men and boys, in addition to the imprisonment of about four hundred at home.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1911).
In their anxiety to suppress all opposition, the Government put Richard Carlile and William Cobbett on trial for praising the agricultural labourers for what they have done. To Carlile’s six or seven years of imprisonment another two were added. Cobbett by his oratory transformed himself from accused to accuser and was acquitted.
Nothing, however, can compare in vileness with the cruelty meted out to the children of the poor. Pitt proposed that children should be sent to work when they were five. In practice, even younger children, sometimes babies of three, were employed in the mills and mines.
“…during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution the employment of children on a vast scale became the most important social feature of English life” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
“….under the early factory system the employment of masses of children was the foundation of industry.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
“Cobbett described how women took their children to the mill through the snow; the child was crying, but the mother too was crying.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
“Fathers beat their own children to save them from a worse beating by someone else; overseers and spinners beat children, sometimes no doubt from sheer brutality, but often because they had to get so much work out of them or go.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
“The working day varied; for men it was often twelve hours, for women and children it was longer. At the Felling Pit at the beginning of the nineteenth century boys’ hours were from eighteen to twenty. There was thus little daylight for father or children out of the mine. The race lived underground like the refugees in Les Misérables, who lived in the sewers of Paris. One miner described how he used to put his child in its cradle in the seam where he worked, to keep the rats off his dinner. Children who were going to work in the mines were often brought to the pit on their fathers’ backs.” (Hammond & Hammond, 1917).
In the textile mills:
“The fourteen or fifteen hours’ confinement for six days a week were the “regular hours”: in busy times hours were elastic and sometimes stretched to a length that seems almost incredible. Work from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. was not unknown; in Mr. Varley’s mill, all through the summer, they worked from 3.30 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. At the mill, aptly called “Hell Bay”, for two months at a time, they not only worked regularly from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., but for two nights each week worked all through the night as well. The more humane employers contented themselves when busy with a spell of sixteen hours (5 a.m. to 9 p.m.)”. (Hammond & Hammond, 1917)
In comparing this period with the period through which Russia is passing today, we find that there is not much to choose between the brutality of the one and the brutality of the other. Nor is there much to choose between both of these and the conditions of the toilers today in China, India and Africa; indeed the overwhelming majority of all humanity spend their lives in such conditions.
No Liberalisation of Stalin’s Regime
After the first period of the “Primitive Accumulation of Capital” of the Industrial Revolution in England, when the toilers suffered cruelly, there was a big improvement in their conditions. The suffrage was extended, trade unions were granted increasing powers, child labour was prohibited, and so on. Will the “Primitive Accumulation of Capital” in Russia similarly prove to be a passing phase, giving way to Stalinist Liberalism? The dawning of Liberalism in Russia has often been hailed by apologists of the regime or naïve fellow travellers. One such occasion was the introduction of the 1936 Constitution, when Stalin promised that a number of candidates would be allowed at the elections – a promise very quickly forgotten. Instead there was the most appalling blood bath, far worse than the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. An understanding of the nature of Stalinism puts an end of any such hopes by explaining why the regime must inevitably become harsher not milder. This will become clear if we point out not what is common to the Industrial Revolution in Stalin’s Russia and in 18th and 19th century England, but what are the differences between them.
While the majority of the English people lived in terrible physical and moral conditions, a tremendous wave of humanism and liberalism swept over the upper classes. This was manifested in a desire for individual liberty, opposition to aristocratic privileges, the belief in the individual’s right to rise in the social scale, a struggle to remove all limitations on free speech (Fox, Sheridan and Grey and a handful of Liberals fighting against the Treason and Sedition Bills at the height of the anti-Jacobin hysteria; Cobbett’s and Carlile’s papers with their tremendous popular appeal), unfettered criticism of dogmas (even those most precious to the capitalists themselves), a sharp attack on “enclosures”, the workhouses, etc. This liberalism has class limitations of a fundamental kind. The liberty it preached was based on actual inequality; since private property was taken for granted, the social position achieved by the individual was really a function of the property he possessed. Liberty based on inequality cannot be full liberty. For example if a race was held between different people all on foot, individual achievement would be related to individual effort, but in a “race” between them and people on horseback, the decisive factor would not be individual capacity. In selling his labour power, a worker soon discovers that neither his rate of wages nor the length of his working day can be influenced by his individual effort. Equality before the law does not abolish the limitations on equality and liberty which derive from capitalist institutions.
When the rising English bourgeoisie fought against aristocratic privilege and for freedom of economic enterprise, of the press and of association, they opened a breach in the wall of oligarchical government, even though the immediate result was the limitation of political freedom to the few hundred thousand members of the middle class. More and more reforms followed from which the awakening working class benefitted. The diffusion of the ownership of industrial, commercial and banking wealth among hundreds of thousands of different individuals was the foundation of bourgeois Liberalism, but because ownership was not shared by all members of society, nor vested in society collectively, this Liberalism remained bourgeois.
In Stalin’s Russia the condition of the people is in no way better than during the worst period of primitive accumulation of capital in England, and it will not improve fundamentally by gradual stages. It would be impossible for a Fox or a Cobbett to exist in Russia, because not only the ruled, but also the ruling class has no democratic rights. No gradual democratisation from above is possible, since there is only one employer – the owner-state – and such a process is not in its interests. Liberalisation would be too dangerous as it would unleash the antagonism of the people to the Government. There is no individual freedom for the ruling class in Stalin’s Russia because there does not exist the safeguard of such individual freedom for the rich, which was the basis of bourgeois Liberalism – private property. Nor is there the safeguard of even more complete individual freedom – which is the basis of Democratic Socialism – the people’s ownership of the state, and therefore the means of production. To totalitarian state capitalism the path of gradual democratisation is closed(d).
- There is, of course, no denying that Stalin’s regime or its horrors gives arms to the anti-Socialist fires the world over. “There in Russia is your Socialism! Socialism in practice not in theory! The atrociousness of the Russian regime proves conclusively that Socialism is a monstrosity and cannot but be a monstrosity! If you abhor the Stalinist iniquities, oppose Socialism.” At the same time it is worth noting two things: One, the concatenation of the anti-Socialist forces in raging against socialism and not for capitalism (as was the case in the 19th century) proves the moral and social weakness of their position. Secondly, the fact that the argument against socialism is far less today about the impossibility of a successful planned economy than about the totalitarian nature of political regime connected inevitability with such an economy, is paying indirectly homage to socialism as an economic system. The shift of the argument from the economic bankruptcy of planned economy to the political objection of planned economy is seen very clearly indeed in two of Hayek’s books.(e).
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1911. The Village Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 418pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1917. The Town Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 342 pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1919. The Skilled Labourer. Longman, Green & Co., London, 403 pp.
Hammond, J.L. & B. 1947. The Bleak Age. Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 256pp.
Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom: A Classic Warning Against the Dangers to Freedom Inherent in Social Planning. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 266pp.
Marx, K. 1932? Capital Volume 1 Chapter 27 (NB: In 1948 Cliff was using the 1932 edition of Capital that was published in New York).
Toynbee, A. 1921. From chapter titled History contributed by Toynbee to R.W. Livingstone, editor, The Legacy of Greece, Essays by Gilbert Murray, W. R. Inge, J. Burnet, Sir T. L. Heath, D’Arcy W. Thompson, Charles Singer, R. W. Livingstone, A. Toynbee, A. E. Zimmern, Percy Gardner, Sir Reginald Blomfield. OUP (Oxford at the Clarendon Press).
The question mark is positioned here in Cliff’s original text
The original text is blank here. Cliff was presumably going to look up the exact quote from the New Testament at a later date. The bible story of Saul’s conversion is well known, but I refrain from guessing which quote Cliff had in mind to insert
The author’s insert marked “YG” tells us that this piece was written under the name “Ygael Gluckstein”.
Cliff expanded or attempted to clarify this final point in a footnote to the text. Unfortunately the footnote is incomplete in the archive. The footnote starts as follows: “The absence of individual liberties, even for the upper class which enjoys comfort and leisure, explains why Stalin’s Russia condemns its”, but the remainder is missing.
Cliff only lists one of the two books by Hayek he has in mind i.e. “The Road to Serfdom”. It is worth noting that Hayek’s book “Individualism and Economic Order” was published in 1948. This book was a collection of essays written by Hayek in the 1930’s and 1940’s.