A Serge/Sontag footnote, or an excuse for defending the anti-Stalinist tradition

Victor Serge Susan Sontag

Three years ago, in a post on Victor Serge, I linked to a blogpost  by Nick at Churls Gone Wild which attacked Susan Sontag. I called Nick’s post “petty, mean-spirited, Stalinoid”. Those are quite extreme and intemperate and probably unfair words, for which I should apologise, prompted by a comment last month from the author of the post. However, I kind of think I wasn’t totally wrong. I am not a big fan of Sontag, but I have often been struck by the attacks on her from a particular leftist tradition, attacks which echo those made from the same tradition on other anti-Stalinist leftists, such as Serge, Arendt, Orwell, Shachtman and the New York intellectuals or, later, figures such as Walzer and Hitchens. I wouldn’t call these attacks Stalinist, exactly, but I don’t think Stalinoid is too wrong a word. Here’s why. 

Nick starts off with the criticism that is petty: of Sontag’s syntax. True, the two sentences he quotes aren’t the clearest. Then he moves into the Stalinoid territory.

Nick describes Sontag’s anti-Stalinism as “rank anti-communism”. I think the terms “communism”/”Communism”, which Sontag uses, can be unhelpful, because of the confusion between Communism with a big C and communism with a small c. Sontag specifically uses the big C:

Communism is fascism – successful fascism, if you will. What we have called fascism is rather the form of tyranny that can be overthrown – that has largely failed. I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies – especially when their populations are moved to revolt – but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Big-C Communism is the politics of Communist Parties and the states they ran. Small-c communism (the communism in the phrases “anarchist communism”, “left communism”, “full communism” or what Marx called “upper-stage communism”) is a stateless workless society that few people would see as having much in common with the brutal dictatorships established by the Communist Parties.

Significantly, Lenin’s party was not officially named the Communist Party until 1918 and, although Serge joined it when he moved to Russia in 1919, he became critical of its positions very quickly, and certainly by 1921, i.e. while Lenin was still in the driving seat.

Although Sontag’s contention that Communism (by which I’d take her to mean Stalinism) was “fascism” is silly, she is right to see them (as Arendt and Orwell did) as twin forms of totalitarianism. If “anti-communist” means harshly anti-Stalinist, Sontag was right to be anti-communist.

Serge’s perception that the seeds of totalitarianism were present in Lenin’s Jacobin socialism was already forming in 1921, conditioned by his political education within the libertarian movement. It was something he shared with anarchist communists such as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Peter Kropotkin. It is true, as Nick notes, that the experience “of imprisonment, exile, beatings, the murder of friends and comrades” sharpened this perception.

It is also true that Sontag did not go through the school of the gulag to learn this, as she learnt it from an earlier generation of anti-Stalinists. Serge’s generation, the Kronstadt generation, passed their understanding on to the New York intellectuals of the interwar years. Here’s Daniel Bell, describing how his anarchist relatives took him to see Rudolf Rocker,

the venerable Anarchist leader, an imposing and portly man with a large square head and imposing brush of gray hair, who then lived in [Mohegan] Colony. Rocker said simply that the Bolsheviks–I was struck at the time, and recall almost a half-century later, that he never called them Communists but Bolsheviks–had seized power in the name of the people, using Anarchist slogans such as land to the people; that the Soviets, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, were spontaneous movements which proved the truth of the Anarchist judgments, but that the Bolsheviks had taken over and destroyed the Soviets. In parting, he gave me a number of Anarchist pamphlets, by Malatesta, by Kropotkin (on the Paris Commune), and in particular two pamphlets by Alexander Berkman, The Russian Tragedy and The Kronstadt Rebellion, pamphlets in English but “set up and printed for Der Syndikalist,” Berlin 1922–pamphlets that I have before me as I write (one inscribed in a large round hand, “with fraternal greetings, A.B.. “)–and he suggested that I read Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth, the diary of his years in Russia, 1920-1922…

Every radical generation, it is said, has its Kronstadt. For some it was the Moscow Trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for still others Hungary (The [Rajik] Trial or 1956), Czechoslovakia (the defenestration of Masaryk in 1948 or the Prague Spring of 1968), the Gulag, Cambodia, Poland (and there will be more to come). My Kronstadt was Kronstadt.

Hitchens wrote of how Sontag, because of figures like Bell, showed “a satirical familiarity with the argot and idiom of what Isaac Deutscher once termed the Trotskisant element in New York discourse”. Sontag’s New York was full of survivors of these Kronstadts.

However, the anti-Stalinist tradition represented by Serge, Rocker and Bell was always smaller than the Stalinist tradition, and especially when the fellow travellers of the latter are factored in. Most non-aligned leftists in New York were not part of the anti-Stalinist “New York intellectual” milieu, and accepted many of the orthodoxies promoted by the Party. This was true in Bell’s 1930s, the heyday of New York big-C Communist activity. And it was true again in Sontag’s 1960s, when the dominant New Left celebrated various Third World variants of Stalinism, such as Ho’s Vietnam, Castro’s Cuba and Mao’s China. (As Nick notes, Sontag was not immune to that fashion, having admired Castro – a fashion of which Hitchens, trained in Britain by the then rigourously anti-Stalinist International Socialists, cured himself of quickly, as he amusingly describes in Hitch-22.) I think this New Left revival of Stalinism can properly be called “Stalinoid”.

In the 1980s, as Solidarnosc rose (supported by Sontag and Hitchens) and in the 1990s as the Stalinist machinery fell, many “progressives” saw this as a cause for lament, which is a sign of Stalinoid hegemony among them. The heritage of the Stalinoid left, and its influence among “progressive” fellow travellers, became clearer still during the war in Yugoslavia. As Sontag said,

Sarajevo is the Spanish Civil War of our time, but the difference in response is amazing. In 1937, people like Ernest Hemingway and Andre Malraux and George Orwell and Simone Weil rushed to Spain, although it was incredibly dangerous. Simone Weil got terrible burns and George Orwell got shot, but they didn’t see the danger as a reason not to go. They went as an act of solidarity, and from that act grew some of the finest literature of their time.”

Here, Sontag shows on the one hand her hubris (is she comparing herself to Hemingway and co?) and her political illiteracy and on the other hand her sound moral compass. Why political illiteracy? Because Spain of course was a three-sided struggle. Serge and Orwell (and Rocker and Goldman) were not on the same side as Malraux, who was a fellow traveller of the Communists. True, both were anti-fascists, Republicans, but the Communists were also engaged in counter-revolution against the Spanish revolution. In other words, Sontag (like the Communists’ fellow travellers in the 1930s) saw Spain as simple, when it was in fact complicated, as was Yugoslavia. (Nick uses “Third-campism” as a swearword; I’d see it as grasping the fact that politics is complicated not Manichean and that the working class should not align itself with Stalinist geopolitics.)

By the 1990s the alleged “anti-imperialism” (i.e. anti-Westernism) of the Serb leadership was enough for the Stalinoid tradition to see it as the good guy, and Sontag and Hitchens were rare in seeing through this. This is where Nick’s post becomes mean-spirited, as he describes Sontag and Hitchens as cynical careerists who committed the sin of earning money from their writing. In fact, opposing Serb genocide didn’t get you sent to the gulag in New York, nor did it cause “penury and isolation”, but it was a lonely cause on the left, and it got people ex-communicated, as would later support, however cautious, for intervention against the Taliban and Ba’athism.*

Indeed, plenty of people whose geopolitics are essentially Stalinoid have managed to attain the career advancement, lucrative Verso publishing contracts and Manhattan real estate that Nick scorns Sontag and Hitchens for achieving: Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek are not living in penury and isolation, nor are Arundhati Roy, Judith Butler, Patrick Cockburn or Tariq Ali. I have no problem with these kinds of careerist radicals making a decent living; I have a problem with the fact that they do not challenge the Stalinist tradition that ground Serge down.


*On Hitchens’ “Luxemburgist” anti-Stalinism and his later ex-communication from the left, read Alexander Linklater:

it makes some sort of left-sectarian sense, as Thomas Cushman says, that “at the hands of his former comrades, Hitchens has been subjected not just to criticism, but to actual disparagement. He has been denounced and excommunicated, purged from the orbit of the left, and subjected to a plethora of what the sociologist Harold Garfinkel referred to as “degradation ceremonies.” The main accusation is that he has become a rank ideologist of imperialism and a fanatical “cheerleader” for the Bush administration and American expansionism. Thus he is a “turncoat,” a defector, a traitor. And since being a turncoat seems to be indicative of a far wider moral decline, Hitchens is accused, variously, of being a racist; an alcoholic; a snob; dishonest; venal; overweight; unkempt; psychopathic; and a closeted homosexual. Hitchens has thus been, to paraphrase Garfinkel, “ritually separated” from the left; his former identity defamed as a sham. Marc Cooper is perhaps right: “Leaving the left can be a bit like trying to quit the mafia. You can’t get out without getting assassinated.”

Further reading: The Forward’s obit for Daniel Bell.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for the clarification and a useful, well-written post. We obviously come from different political backgrounds and our intellectual tastes are at odds, but I can agree with much here, as indeed you’ve made the effort to point out.

  2. For a Marxist critique of Walzer, Hitchens and Cooper, among others, see this 2002 piece by the late Julius Jacobson:


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