The Stalinist School of Internal Debate

It’s been a long time since the Communist Party has been a strong force within the American labor movement, so it seems worthwhile to review a few things that have been largely forgotten. As the influence of Stalin grew within the international movement (the Third International, or Comintern) beginning in 1924, the changes, though gradual, were profound: the interest of the working class began, more and more, to be subordinate to the interests of Stalin and the bureaucratic clique of which he stood at the head.

The prestige of the Communist Party came from its role in 1917 in leading the Russian working class to power, a tremendous inspiration to workers in, literally, every country in the world. Working against that tradition, while simultaneously attempting to keep the loyalty of millions upon millions of workers who were inspired by the party of Lenin, produced some remarkable pathologies.

The Left Opposition (later the Fourth International) worked to expose this contradiction, and to show where the activities and program and methods of the Stalinists worked against the interests of the working class. Over time, the best, the most intellectually honest members (I say with pride that this includes my father) were won over to the Left Opposition.

The arguments of the Trotskyists were necessarily reflected within the Communist Party itself, requiring that the arguments be answered.  These “answers” took the form of rote recitals (which changed quite drastically as the interests of the Kremlin changed: Trotskyism was officially denounced as “ultra-left” which changed to “fascist” literally overnight, then went through other changes). These rote recitals were followed by a system of suppressing dissent within the party.  In the Soviet Union itself, this suppression took the form of midnight visits from the Cheka followed by exile, prison, or murder.  Lacking state power, the other sections of the Comintern had to find other methods of keep party members in line, of using their commitment to equality, to the rights of the working class, to prevent any examination of how best to carry out those goals.

That is the origin of the Stalin School of Party debate, and, though the Communist Party in the US is, at this moment, isolated and largely ineffective, and though no longer directed specifically against Trotskyism, the method of “debate” of international Stalinism, still lingers.  That makes it worth a moment to review. It was present in the CP press, and in large conferences, but most often found expression in the meeting of local Party branches. It worked like this:

1) Someone is accused of the grievous crime of Trotskyism or being soft on Trotskyism, or perhaps saying something that indicates that there is something worse than Trotskyism or bringing up a point that sounds too much like one of the points Trotskyists bring up.

2) The accused is then permitted to speak and apologize for this crime.

3) Those in charge (usually whoever is the leader of that Party branch) then decide if this apology is acceptable, that is, if the individual is sufficiently contrite, and has apologized enough, and put his apology in the proper form.  There were various pieces of that, including praise for Stalin, denunciation of one’s self,  often going further than the original accusations in speaking of one’s own depravity, followed by the promise to do better.  If this apology and ritual self-humiliation is accepted, the accused receives some level of forgiveness, though, of course, he can never be fully trusted again.

4) If the apology is deemed insufficient, everyone present must dutifully attack the offender, speaking from a position of deep moral outrage. Any defense made by the accused is cause for still further, deeper, and more profound attacks, because your unwillingness to recognize the “Trotskyite” influence in yourself means you are deliberately attempting to “sabotage the Party” with these influences. Should anyone be so rash as to defend the accused, or attempt to soften the attacks on the accused, go to step 1 with this person as the accused.

5) Eventually, the accused is either sufficiently humiliated, or makes a sufficiently abject apology, to be forgiven, at least provisionally; or else, if not, is expelled from the Party and shunned by all loyal Party members, after which the remaining Party members congratulate themselves on a job well done.  Those who have doubts about what just happened keep these doubts to themselves, either because they still believe in the ultimate goal and accept that such methods are “necessary,” or simply out of fear of immense social pressure to conform.

Some discussion of this method can be found in the work of James P. Cannon, one of the founders of American Trotskyism (a quick google search of Cannon’s work didn’t bring up anything on line, but I’ve read about it in his work).

This method, to be clear, was neither invented by nor is it confined to the Stalinists: they simply brought it to new heights of formality and rigor.  But any movement defined by political bankruptcy on the one hand, and the sacrificing of the search for truth at the altar of social acceptance on the other, is likely to find itself using these methods, until what remains are quasi-political automatons repeating formulas and attempting to outdo each other in their protestations of loyalty to the Accepted Ideology. It is a good thing to be aware of.

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52 thoughts on “The Stalinist School of Internal Debate”

  1. The Left Opposition within the Soviet Union were subjected to murder and exile. Outside, after they were expelled and formed their own organization, they were able to have free and open iscussions. The blog post talks about the types of debates that continued within the Communist Parties after the expulsion of the Oppositionists.

    Was that clear enough?

  2. That sounds awfully similar to the infamous ‘struggle sessions’ that became common place during the Cultural Revolution in China. I’m not surprised that, myself having come across armchair Stalinists online, they operate in much the same way when it comes to questioning their Marxist-Leninist dogma.

  3. Robey: I might be assuming as common knowledge too many things that aren’t common knowledge. So let me try it this way: Stalin came to power in 1924. Trotsky (and most of the Left Opposition) were expelled from the Russian Communist Party around 1927, and exiled in 1928. But there were Communist Parties around the world, as part of the Third International, also called the Comintern, an international party with sections in different countries. The sections took their orders from the Politburo, that is, a committee of the leadership located in the Soviet Union. Or, in brief, they took their orders from the Kremlin; by 1930 there was no trace of party democracy left within the Comintern.

    The method of debate to which I refer is that which took place in those countries where the Stalinists, not having State Power, could not use official force. Countries such as the United States. Such methods started (I believe) around 1929, and were still in force at least for the next 30 years.

    Does that help?

  4. That process of debate you describe calls to mind the present. Similar techniques are employed against anyone who dares to question the sacred cow of identity politics!

  5. “That process of debate you describe calls to mind the present. Similar techniques are employed against anyone who dares to question the sacred cow of identity politics!” -Kragar

    Agree. I think some older terms – say, zampolit and stukach – would fit quite well in this arena. It is disconcerting… to put it mildly.

  6. Good point, David Karger!! (And I’d actually really like Steven Brust, among others, to answer it!)

    UBI? Communists fighting robots?? H G Wells-style socialism?

  7. Robots replacing workers: That’s the situation today, and it’s a disaster in the making, under capitalism. Robots replacing workers is supposed to be awesome for the world, and if the workers owned the means of production, it *would* be awesome.

    As long as people have to sell their labor to someone else, the threat of not needing any labor at all is always held over workers’ heads.

  8. Yes: if workers owned the means of production – it would be awesome! ☺️

    But – how anyway can a capitalism based on consumerism do away with those workers/earners?? Have any of the neoliberals really THOUGHT about that??

  9. It seems to me that robots replacing workers is exactly the goal we ought to strive for. Thus labor (in the narrow sense of “toil”) would be reduced almost to nothing, and, with the fruits of production shared equally, it would permit humanity to devote itself to exploration, art, science, with each individual free to pursue his or her own passion—and we could work on reversing climate change.

    Of course, this requires common ownership of the means of production. in other words, expropriation of those who currently own them and use them for private profit rather than common good. That process is both difficult and absolutely necessary.

  10. skzb: “Of course, this requires common ownership of the means of production. in other words, expropriation of those who currently own them and use them for private profit rather than common good. That process is both difficult and absolutely necessary.”

    Capitalists like robots because they decrease the costs of production. However, as robots displace human workers an inflection point will occur as the result of the workers’ decreased ability to purchase products. At that point, the pressure to either provide a universal income or to have the means of production owned by the people will grow at such a pace that change will become inevitable.

  11. kukuforguns: Agreed. Unfortunately, inevitable doesn’t mean painless. At a certain point in pregnancy, birth becomes inevitable; that doesn’t mean painless, or that lack of preparation and care can’t lead to disaster.

  12. I had not intended to imply inevitable means painless. Quite the contrary. The “pain” will range from an ever increasing percentage of the population that is underemployed before change is peacefully implemented to bloody revolution. We’re already in the beginning stages of this pain. Good times. [/sarcasm]

  13. kukuforguns:Yes, as we’ve mentioned here, Capitalism has been a useful tool to reach a certain level of economic ability. While there may be disagreement on the exact point where it reaches the level of negative returns, issues such as automated replacement of manual labor seem to not be ammenable to approaches that are available in systems based upon capitalistic methodologies and have some semblance of reasonable ethics.

    Picking the right transition point can be seen as an excersize in minimizing the overall “pain” of the system.

  14. skzb – Yes – that would be nice! ☺️ But it’s the GETTING there!!!

    (This is Liz K by the way. This changes my registration details every time I sign into WordPress!!)

  15. kukuforguns – An INFLECTION point: so THAT’S what it’s called!! ☺️

    Interesting to see you think a “universal income” – starting with Basic Income – may well be inevitable? As a precursor to common ownership??

  16. oneoflokis:
    I assume your surprise at my comments is based on a perception that I’m hostile to socialism.

    However, my limited understanding of socialism is that it was not developed to address the problems that will be/are being caused by automated labor replacing human labor. My understanding is that socialism was developed to address the perceived inequity of capitalists stealing the value of labor from the workers.

    At some point, automated labor will create an infinite (read approaching infinite) pool of labor and therefore infinite production and also therefore eliminate the value of labor. Capitalists will no longer be stealing the value of the workers’ labor because capitalists will no longer need the value of workers’ labor. Capitalists could sell products for a price approaching zero and could still make enormous profits … except for the little problem that workers won’t have the resources to buy anything. Neither workers nor capitalists want this situation.

    A universal income is one way to address a world in which the value of labor is zero. However, it is necessarily a temporary solution. In a world with perfect robot labor, the distinction between capitalist and worker will evaporate. The whole concept of capitalism is based on the premise that capital is limited. If labor is infinite, then the premise of limited capital fails. Once everyone has sufficient capital to obtain the means of production, what’s the difference between everyone being a capitalist and common ownership of the means of production?

    What comes next also is interesting. If the value of labor is zero, and production approaches infinity, what happens to consumption? How do we satisfy infinite consumption? Dyson spheres? Ringworlds?

  17. Steve Halter: Thank you. I have now read the cited article as well as Marx’s Fragment on Machines. I am not sure what you mean (actually, no clue) by the phrase an out of context problem.

    While my comments above have many similarities to Marx’s Fragment, one of the differences is my comment that the distinction between worker and capitalist will evaporate as the cost of labor decreases to the point where the worker can obtain the means of production. I’m not saying this observation is inconsistent with Marx’s Fragment, rather it’s not how he characterized the issue.

  18. “The distinction between worker and capitalist” is generally expressed in Marxist literature as the dissolution of class society. Means the same thing; if everyone is working class, no one is working class. If everyone owns the means of production, everyone is (in a certain sense) a capitalist, and so there is no meaning to such class distinctions.

  19. skzb focuses on “common ownership of the means of production.” I expect that the robot revolution will achieve this and material goods will be available to anyone who needs them. But, inequality will persist. As one example, our current celebrity culture in which people acquire tremendous power and wealth simply by virtue of being famous will persist and even grow. Similarly, the social networks that give people so much power and opportunity because they have the right friends will persist. I have no idea whether communism is focused entirely on physical production, and would consider this fine, or whether it is aimed at equality generally, in which case communal means of production is not sufficient.

  20. kukuforguns:The phrase — an out of context or outside context problem origininated in the novel Excession by Iain M. Banks. Basically, it refers to a problem that is outside the scope/context of a culture/society and may not be considered until it actually occurs–often with unrecoverable results. In Banks’ words:

    “The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.”

    In this case, while we are obviously aware of the automation problem as it pertains to the economic process known as capitalism, I am using it to refer to a problem that capitalism can not really deal with unless it falls apart into chaos or becomes something completely different in order to deal with it. Those are the typical answers to an actual outside context problem.

    One particular aspect of automation is that it can be beneficial to everyone. As the means of production become producible by the masses, it is no longer necessary for the accumulation of capital in and of itself to be a precondition to advancing the economic means of society.

  21. Death takes all in the end… I am reminded again that I’ll never have the pleasure of reading a new Iain Banks.

  22. An interesting discussion here (flowing from a completely different topic in the Café’s owner text…), I tend to be very skeptical of those theories that posit that at some point production will cost nothing, I think a great point that Marx made was that the investment needed for each new technological improvement kept growing, and that in fact is the reason why the capitalists need to screw the workers more and more, because only the part of capital that pays human labor generates profits and it keeps shrinking while the next big tech to implement will need so much more cash just to get it rolling.

    Now I’m not claiming to be an expert marxist, but if I did get something horribly wrong I’d realy like to know it from the fine people here.

  23. That seems accurate. The “cost” of production, ie value, is, in the last analysis, measured in labor. History has shown ever-increasing productivity of labor, increasing exponentially in the last century. I think the cost of production will continue to decrease, and approach (though never reach) zero, but the effect is much the same. We can already easily produce enough that with minimum expenditure of human labor there is no reason for anyone to be without good food, good housing, health care, &c. The problem inherent to the capitalist mode of production is that the greater increase there is in productivity of labor, the more problems there are in distribution of human wants.

  24. Dear Capitalist,
    In the face of changing societal needs we find your services no longer necessary. Please accept this healthcare, housing and food as a parting token. If we find ourselves in need of exploitation in the future, we will be certain to contact you.

  25. Question for the hive mind. I recall reading a novel at least 15 years ago that involved a future Earth in which matter conversion technology existed, which eliminated the need for manufacturing. Access to the technology was regulated and the converters supposedly could not create nuclear weapons. The protagonist eventually obtains a matter converter and uses it to create a nuclear weapon. The protagonist was living on a basic income. I had thought the author was Joe Haldeman.

  26. The cost of goods will never fall to 0 or even approach it since we will eventually run short of raw materials, of land to exploit for foods, etc. But if only capitalists have the money, there is no way for them to sell. The ultimate failure of supply side “economics”. Or, a rising tide floats all yachts–and swamps everyone else.

  27. Steve Halter: Thank you so much for looking through Haldeman’s novels … which I’d already done. I tried (unsuccessfully) to indicate I’d done it with the phrase “I had thought the author was Joe” Again, thank you and I apologize that I failed to establish that I’d already looked through his novels.

    The book was probably released between 1998 and 2004. Beer was consumed during the novel. I said matter converter, but I’m not sure it was a matter converter. It could have been a 3-D printer. The point was that the machine could create anything it was asked to produce (so long as the product was not bigger than the machine itself). The machine was room size or smaller. The universal basic income was rather meager, and people living off the UBI could only infrequently consume luxuries like beer.

    I’ve tried Google and Bing, with no success … so don’t go through the effort to do that. I was hoping someone here had read the same book and would remember it from the scarce details I recall.

  28. Just read a nice article about the “General Strike” in Seattle, 100 years ago this week. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to suggest that the capitalists have been working, day and night ever since, to keep it from happening again.

  29. Yep. But they’ve failed a few times. And, I believe, will again. This time, we have to see it through to the end.

  30. 10 air traffic controllers calling in sick ended the government shutdown. Imagine if it were 1000.

  31. I remember hearing about it at the time. I missed the part about PATCO endorsing Reagan during the 1980 election campaign. Woopsie daisy! If any additional hints are needed as to the cluelessness of the PATCO leadership during that era, I doubt it will be difficult to scare them up.

  32. “But – how anyway can a capitalism based on consumerism do away with those workers/earners??”

    When it took 10 peasants to produce the surplus food to feed one person at the king’s court, then 10 peasants were inevitably going to be working the land.

    When it took 100,000 assembly line workers to produce automobiles for 200,000,000 consumers, those assembly line workers were going to exist and had to be fed, clothed, housed, etc.

    So we wind up with a work force of 80 million people who must produce for themselves and their families, and the surplus production goes to the owners. You have to take care of the workers or there’s no surplus.

    But if the workers aren’t needed? Then the first priority is an automated military and automated private police.

    When the aristocrats faced a peasant revolt, they didn’t want to slaughter the peasants. If they had to kill 10% to subdue the rest, that was OK. If they had to kill them all that was a tragedy, because then they needed to bring in surplus peasants from outside to replace the dead ones, and food production would be down locally.

    Later, when coal miners went on strike, the mine owners didn’t want to kill the miners. They intended to kill just enough of the most agressive miners to bring the others back to work.

    When people on the dole protestt, who needs them? Drone strikes are just fine against insurgents, though not against citizens in good standing. And it’s the authorities who get to say whether a protest is done by insurgents. If they kill 15 innocents for each insurgent, that’s acceptable collateral damage.

    The obvious approach is to say that the population is too high for the ecology to support (which is probably true) and that consumption is consuming too much of the ecology (which is definitely true) and that the human population needs to go down significantly (which is almost certainly true). So put useless people on the dole and limit their birthrate enough to shrink their numbers a whole lot in a few generations, and if they don’t want to accept it then kill them.

    We would need great big automated factories etc to produce dole goods. It might take 200 automated factories to produce 2 pairs of blue jeans a year for every American. We would want small automated factories to produce luxury goods. Automation is expensive — it has high fixed cost and very low variable cost. You still pay the high setup cost even when you don’t need much product, but the quality is much higher than for things that human beings get their hands on. Also the rich might prefer hand-made stuff for some things. All of this is no problem for capitalism. If giant automated factories are not cost-effective, then giant automated factories can be phased out. Except of course for the ones that produce the automated defenses.

    Capitalism doesn’t have to be based on mass consumerism by mass workers. It has been, because we had mass workers who consumed. It doesn’t have to work that way.

    It might not survive, but that’s mostly a technical question. Unless the people who make those decisions have moral qualms, and then it could be a moral decision also.

  33. skzb : my point to which you replied on Feb 4th, was one that also apears a bit in the commenter just above me : the cost of the setup keeps growing with technology, all Marx said is that the part of human labor in the final cost of a product will fall, but the full “cost” (the raw materials, the infrastructures to make them exist) are forever growing, even if they grow at the pace of, say, a square root function while the productivity rises in a straightforward manner, technical progress can’t by itself make everything cheap enough for everyone, because only the biggest capitalists will own the whole setup that make production at very low price possible (outside of revolution), It’s a point I wanted to make because I keep finding people in the transhumanism movement who seem to think that 3D printing, AI etc will all magically turn the world into a communist experience without having to do the bloody part of a political revolution. That would be nice. but too nice to be true.

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