From One Party to Stalinism



Preface to the recently released book by Angela Mendes de Almeida

I met Angela Mendes de Almeida during her years of exile in Paris, in the early 1970s: half a century ago! At the time, she was in the military together with her partner Luiz Eduardo Merlino (alias “Nicolau”) in the Communist Worker Party – POC-Combate, an ephemeral Brazilian section of the Fourth International. As is known, Merlino was assassinated by the dictatorship – tortured under orders from the infamous Coronel Brilhante Ustra – in 1971, which led, in fact, to the disappearance of the POC in Brazil.

We spent several years together in the ranks of the Fourth International, but in the mid-1970s it ended up pulling away due to substantial disagreements. During her political journey from the 1970s until today, Angela defended quite different orientations, but always having as a compass a high moral requirement and fidelity to the memory of her partner, “Nicolau”.

It was during the second half of the 1970s that she wrote a doctoral thesis on the history of the Communist International, presented in 1981 at the University of Paris VIII – Vincennes/Saint-Denis: a critical analysis of the orientation of the communist movement, in the so-called “third period” (1929-1934), with main emphasis on the Stalinist doctrine of “social-fascism”.

I had the opportunity to participate in the panel of this thesis, a beautiful work of historical-political reflection, which obtained the highest distinction, unanimously by the examiners. As she explains in the preface, one of the main inspirations of the thesis was the memoirs of the former German communist Richard Krebs, Sans Patrie ni Frontières, published under the pseudonym “Jan Valtin” – in fact one of the bedside books of the French militants of the Fourth International.

Due to circumstances at the time, the thesis ended up not being published, but in recent years, already in Brazil, Angela decided to resume the work, seeking to cover the whole of the history of the communist movement and developing in a more substantial way the role of Stalinism and its crimes. .

This book is, therefore, a kind of critical history of this movement, which has no equivalent in the Brazilian bibliography. Angela Mendes de Almeida documents, with precision and ample documentation, the different moments of this history that crosses the “Century of Extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm). Her critical point of view has nothing in common with reactionary anti-communism: it is that of a historian who is in the field of the radical left and who refers to Rosa Luxemburg (in the first chapters) and to Léon Trotsky (for the 1920s and 1930s ). The interest of the book is not only historiographical: it is a work that is relevant to political debates in contemporary Brazil.

At a time when individuals and political groups, sometimes out of simple ignorance or naivety, attempt a strange “rehabilitation” of Joseph Stalin and his politics, the book documents, in rich detail, crimes of Stalinism, from the 1920s until his death. of the dictator. Assassinations of left-wing critics by Stalinist police (GPU, later NKVD), both in the USSR and in other countries, are analyzed, with the victims' biography. Among them, a Brazilian, the dissident communist (accused of “Trotskyism”) Alberto Besouchet, during the Civil War in Spain. Thinking about a socialist project for the future of Brazil requires breaking free from this tragic and disastrous legacy.

Another strength of the book, in my opinion, is the issue of fascism and how to fight it. It is not necessary to insist on the relevance of the theme for Brazil today. Some German or Italian communist leaders would manifest a true understanding of the nature of fascism in the 1920s. According to Angela Mendes de Almeida, Clara Zetkin, for example, made a memorable intervention in 1923, revealing an extreme sensitivity, on Italian fascism and the mortal danger he posed to the labor movement. But shortly afterwards, with the beginning of the Stalinist period (1924), discourses appeared suggesting that social democracy “assumes a more or less fascist character”. During the so-called “third period” of the Communist International (1929-1934), the Stalinist doctrine that designated social democracy, defined as “social-fascism”, as the main enemy of the communists, prevailed. On the other hand, social-democratic leaders considered, around 1930, that there was no Nazi danger, the only threat was the communist danger.

Dissident voices, such as that of Léon Trotsky, who preached the united front of workers' parties and movements against Nazism, were marginalized by the dominant bureaucratic apparatus. In pre-Nazi Germany, only the SAP (Partido Socialista Operário), a small organization composed of a left-wing split of the social democratic party and dissident communists (including Paul Frölich, biographer of Rosa Luxemburg), founded in 1931, obstinately defended a workers' united front orientation.

This first part of the book focuses on the debates in the German communist movement, one of the most important in Europe, which are described in detail and precisely. In the beginning, among its leaders were figures of great political stature, several of them, like Heinrich Brandler or Paul Levi, close to Rosa Luxemburgo. A curious detail: Brandler, excluded from the KPD, will found the KPO (German Opposition Communist Party), whose publication was called Arbeiterpolitik (Worker's Policy). A militant of this current, which continued to exist in the post-war period, came to Brazil – Erich Sachs – and became one of the founders, in the 1960s, of the organization “Política Operária” (POLOP) in Brazil. POC-Combate, of which Angela was one of the directors in the 1970s, had its origins in POLOP.

As the party became Stalinized, it was mediocre figures who took the lead, applying the disastrous line of the “third period”. The result, as is well known, was the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, without resistance on the part of the communists. It is from this event that Leon Trotsky comes to the conclusion that the Third International, under Stalin's direction, can no longer be reformed and that a new International (the Fourth) becomes necessary.

With the exception of one or two details, I do not disagree with the book's analysis of the tragedy of German communism and the negative role played by the doctrine of “social-fascism”. But I cannot help acknowledging that I have some disagreements with my friend Angela. The main one refers to the idea already suggested by the title of the book, of a simple continuity between the Bolshevik single party and Stalinism.

I think, like Angela, that Rosa Luxemburg was right to criticize the “centralist” conception of Lenin's Party since 1904 and the undemocratic policies of the Bolsheviks in 1918. The same goes for the anarchists' criticism of the Bolshevik repression in Kronstadt. Undoubtedly Bolshevik authoritarianism created favorable conditions for the rise of Stalinism. But I take issue with the assertion, in the book's introduction, that the Bolsheviks' one-party principle is the "trunk from which sprung" the repressive policies of Stalinism.

To begin with, I do not believe that Bolshevism was based on the "one-party principle". The first revolutionary government, that of the “People's Commissariat”, after October 1917, was composed not only of Bolsheviks, but also of Left Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Independents. Lenin was in favor of a one-party government, but he was in the minority. The alliance was broken by the Left SRs after the Brest-Litovsk Accords (1918), which they considered a betrayal: they wanted to continue a “revolutionary war” against Germany.

Had they waited a few months, they would have seen Germany's defeat in the war, sending the Brest-Litovsk agreements to the dustbin of history. However, indignant, they launched several attacks, assassinating the Bolshevik leader Uritsky and injuring Lenin. The Bolsheviks responded with brutal repression. This tragic split created the conditions for the Bolshevik monopoly on power.

But fundamentally, I think there is a substantial difference between Bolshevik authoritarianism and Stalinist totalitarianism. Rosa Luxemburg sympathized with the Bolsheviks, but sharply criticized what she considered “the mistakes” of Lenin and Trotsky. Would she speak of Stalin's “mistakes”? The great anarchist Emma Goldmann collaborated with the Bolsheviks until the Kronstadt tragedy. I don't think she would do the same with Stalin and Bieria. To secure his power, Stalin ended up exterminating, in the 1930s, all of the leaders of the October Revolution who were still alive. Between Bolshevism and Stalinism there is a river of blood...

The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote, in 1919, in a letter to a friend, the following comment on the Russian Revolution: the Bolsheviks are sincere revolutionaries, but their methods must be rejected; they will have the result that power will be monopolized by a bunch of parasites, who will end up exterminating them; and that will be the end of the Revolution. It seems to me a pretty accurate prediction of what happened.

In a passage of the book, Angela writes, regarding the USSR in the 1920s: “this configuration changed radically after Lenin's death”. This judgment seems to me to be correct: the process of Stalinization after Lenin's death is a radical change in relation to the previous period.

The book also addresses some of the damage caused by Stalinism in Brazil in the 1930s. Some of the reported facts, with accurate documentation, are quite sinister. But in my opinion it is important to distinguish between militants, often people worthy of respect, who dedicated their lives to the cause of workers – just think of figures like Carlos Marighella, Joaquim Câmara Ferreira, Mário Alves, Apolônio de Carvalho – and Stalinism as wicked political system. This naturally applies to other countries as well: we cannot help admiring a character like Missak Manouchian, the Armenian communist who led the armed resistance to Nazism in Paris, shot in 1943.

To conclude: this book is a fine contribution to reflection, here in Brazil, on ways to fight fascism and to create the conditions for a new socialism, libertarian and democratic.

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of The Morning Star: Surrealism and Marxism (Boitempo).


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


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