From One Party to Stalinism

Wassily Kandinsky, White Sound, 1908.


Reading note on the recently released book by Angela Mendes de Almeida

“Each crisis engenders not only a new future, but a new past” (Chris Marker, The air background is red).

In this nightmare in which the wheel of history has turned a few decades back, we witness the return of fascism and the Revival of its siamese brother, Stalinism. On social networks he swarms the defense of Russia, North Korea, China as supposedly socialist countries. And the same happens with the former USSR: the gulags and violence against political opponents are justified – seen as a lesser evil in the construction of the “socialist homeland” against North American imperialism –, proven proof that the idea of ​​continuous improvement of the Humanity is nothing but an illusion.

It is true that the desire for a return to a mythical communist golden age that never existed, on the part of a portion of left-wing youth who call themselves revolutionary, stems from despair in the face of capitalist barbarism, accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and also the disenchantment with the lukewarmness of the reformist left and its capitalism management policies. At the same time, there are serious attempts by young militants from Marxist-Leninist organizations to update Lenin's policy, reinterpreting the ideas of the revolutionary vanguard and democratic centralism, which, as we know, has always been more centralist than democratic. This book, by showing the impasses to which communist authoritarianism led, is essential for all of them.

Who seeks to refound communism - after all, in good time the commons returned to the vocabulary of the left – it needs to revisit the tradition it is heir to and do an honest reckoning with the communist experience in the XNUMXth century. It is no coincidence that Leonardo Padura's novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, by punctuating the lack of freedom, the censorship of those who think differently, the manipulation of an entire generation that lived in fear of reprisals, was so successful among us. The experience of the Cuban generation to which Padura belongs had its during in France, where intellectuals suffered from deliberate blindness to Stalin's crimes, and it wasn't until the 1970s, with the publication of Gulag Archipelago, recognized that the denunciations of the dissidents were not the work of US imperialism. In Brazil, the same thing, where only small Trotskyist and socialist circles were not conniving with Stalinism and questioning what was happening in the USSR.

The strength of this book lies precisely in the momentum moral that animates the author, summed up perfectly in the epigraph of the book, taken from a letter by the communist militant Pietro Tresso: “It is impossible to bear in silence what hurts the deepest feelings of men. We cannot admit as just the acts that we feel and know to be unfair; we cannot say that what is true is false and what is false is true, on the pretext that this serves one or another present force.”

Angela refuses to remain silent about the lies, abuses, murders of Trotskyists and Stalinists, victims of a gear that they themselves helped to create. When it seemed that everything had already been said on the subject, the author surprises us with this meticulous historical research, enriched with access to documentation after the end of the Soviet Union, literary works, memoirs, etc. giving the collected materials a very personal imprint that holds the reader from beginning to end.

To account for the autophagic experience of Stalinism, she traces in filigree episodes such as the “suicidal idiocy” (Hobsbawm) of the communist tactic of “social-fascism”; the differences between united front and popular front; the shameful role of the communists in the Spanish civil war; the Moscow processes; the pact between Hitler and Stalin, among many others. Like Padura in his historical-political thriller, Angela also reconstructs the history of the defeat of communism in the XNUMXth century, for which he himself is largely responsible.

The author's long history of militancy since the military dictatorship, first in Trotskyist organizations, then in the field of human rights in defense of the poor, black people and residents of the peripheries, makes this a work committed to answering the questions that she herself asked in the its process of political maturation. But, after all, what is the “thesis” of this controversially titled book? In search of the origins of Stalinist authoritarianism, which never hesitated to resort to the most sordid expedients to eliminate its supposed or real opponents, Angela returns to the divergence between Bolsheviks and Luxembourgers regarding the conception of a political party: on the one hand, centralized and hierarchical organization of professional revolutionaries, separated from the mass of workers, whose function it is to lead them; on the other hand, a mass democratic party, whose life depends on the blood flow between the base and the leadership.

Angela reconstructs the tumultuous trajectory of these organizations, and also of German social democracy, to conclude that Bolshevism, by “adopting the principle of a single party [...] functioned as a certain trunk” from which the repressive policies of Stalinism emerged. Uniting this structural thread and the advent of fascism, Nazism and the Second World War, we end up in the exacerbation of latent authoritarian tendencies in Bolshevism.

In short, despite the river of blood that separates them – this is the “thesis” that Angela presents – it is not possible to deny the continuity between Bolshevik and Stalinist authoritarianism. It is a controversial idea, which Michael Löwy, author of the Preface – available at According to him, the hardening of the Bolsheviks would have been the “fault” of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who, disagreeing with the Brest-Litovsk agreement, initiated the terrorist attacks. The Bolsheviks' response was the one-party system (July 1918) and the Red Terror (September 1918).

Here it is worth remembering Rosa Luxemburg. She, who knew the Bolsheviks well, rejected the Red Terror at the very beginning of the Russian Revolution. Opposing the methods of Feliks Djerzinski (a militant of the social democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, the same party as Rosa), and the first to head the Cheka, she writes: “I am afraid (…) that Jósef [Djerzinski] will persist [in believing] that by tracking down 'conspiracies' and energetically assassinating 'conspirators', economic and political holes can be plugged. Radek's Idea, p. eg, of 'slaughtering the bourgeoisie', or just a threat to that effect, is the greatest idiocy; serves only to compromise socialism, nothing more”. (September 30, 1918)

For this very reason, it does not seem appropriate to me to resort solely to circumstantial or historical causes to explain the origins of Bolshevik authoritarianism, leaving aside the idea of ​​a vanguard party. Although Lenin “softened” the authoritarian conception that appears in What to do?  it was she who ended up taking root in Russian communism. This does not mean that history does not play a role, and Angela Mendes de Almeida's book shows very well how historical circumstances have strengthened existing authoritarian tendencies.

Let us remember another revolutionary who also questioned the concept of a Leninist party, Mario Pedrosa. According to him, a party of professional revolutionaries like the Bolshevik, based on the principle of centralization, would never become a mass party. The example was the German Communist Party. This oscillated between a greater or lesser militancy, but it never became the German workers' party, as was the SPD. The centralized and militarized party, designed by Lenin as an instrument of assault on power for the specific case of Russia, ended up becoming the model to be imitated by the CPs around the world. And it also became a model for fascist parties. In short, the Leninist vanguard party was the perfect instrument for Stalin's dictatorial purposes. I find it difficult to disagree with this diagnosis.

In short, Angela Mendes de Almeida's book, in reconstructing the tragic history of communism in the XNUMXth century, is a libel in favor of the democratic socialist creed of Rosa Luxemburgo who, already at the dawn of the Russian Revolution, feared that the suppression of democratic freedoms , pluralism of ideas and organizations would lead to the death of the revolution.

*Isabel Loureiro is a retired professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unesp and the author, among other books, of The German Revolution: 1918-1923 (Unesp).


Angela Mendes de Almeida. From One Party to Stalinism. São Paulo, Alameda, 2021, 516 pages.

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