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The new Stalinism?

Far left tactics are shifting in a more centralised, disruptive direction

Artillery Row

On August 20th 1968, the utopian dreams of Western Europe’s activist student-left died as the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, their own ally, for attempting to democratise socialism and give it “a human face”. 

On April 17th 2024, their dreams died again; rather than being crushed and mangled as Soviet tanks imposed themselves upon the cobblestones of Prague, this time it was quiet and without note, killed out of the movement’s own cynicism and frustration. 

The original death was not as a result of the vindictive Stalinist erasure of Polish sovereignty, its general thuggery, or perverse appointment of a sadistic rapist to one of its most senior public offices, but in principle born of egocentrism.

Those of the radical left had until then believed the Soviet Union to be the “City on the Hill”, the practical means by which liberation can be achieved and all the ills of the world can be extinguished. They would thus collaborate with them accordingly. 

Instead, what they saw was a new Babylon. They did not see themselves in the austere Soviet officials, in their monochrome and pressed uniforms, they were non-conformists with floppy hair, and it was exactly the same people they, advocating for the same values as them, which were the targets of repression.

This realisation was immediate and inescapable, cynicism towards ‘the union’ had been growing previously, however now the supporters of it and its methods were met with outright derision. They were called not ‘comrades’, but ‘tankies’. To forever associate those who asserted a leftist hierarchy with the inevitability of violence and repression.

It is from this, where many of our associations of the impracticalities and ineffectiveness of modern leftist political activism were born. By this, I do not mean the highly successfully “progressive” path of Clinton and Blair — who replaced their Stratocasters for suits, and have successfully co-opted the very institutions they once railed against; instead, I mean the activist hard-left, who are more in direct continuity with the Classical Marxist tradition, in their attempts to openly combat and overthrow, rather than infiltrate, institutions.

And for them, their repudiation of any kind of hierarchy or deferential spirit, has been an utter disaster: while student movements in the East inspired fear, in the west they galvanised only bemused mockery and contempt.

From the Democratic Socialists of America’s conferences spending nearly as much time discussing the rules of the conference itself, than socialism; the insistence on making all decisions by vote, regardless of experience or competence; and the inevitable ever-more granular party splits that ensued. 

Yet, if one looks carefully at the recent anti-Israeli student occupations — occurring from Columbia to Canberra and Cambridge — it is clear to those with a knowledge of the history of leftist politics that this pluralistic and bottom-up approach to protest has passed. In its place, is a resurgence of Stalinist tactics, those being: to formally document allyship and transgressions, to centrally coordinate, and to install hierarchies.

Attendees are now told that their attendance is conditional on adhering to the strategies of the organisers. Protests are no longer a free association of people who want to voice their support for a general cause, but may diverge greatly on the substance, instead they’re now subservient to a prescribed perspective. 

When someone attempts to speak to the protesters about the cause, they will be met only with a demand to speak with the organisers — varying between those with a gruff, hostile manner, and those who murmur with a fearful, stuttering diction. 

This is certainly to their practical advantage. It would be embarrassing to the movement if the incoherent comments of uninformed and inarticulate attendees were clipped and spread around the internet. Suella Braverman, when attempting this in Cambridge, was met with silence. She was given no ammunition, so when faced in the GB News studio with a prepared representative, there was little to distract from the fact she was dealing with a well-articulated and narrow message.

However, having enforced spokesmen, with their rehearsed lines and phrases — privy only to a discerning selection of media — while providing the movement with a tight control over its image and discourse, feels antithetical to its egalitarian objectives. As it does not feel very free or equal to be restricted in such a manner: what starts as advice, becomes taboo, and then social law. 

Many of these spokespeople claim to have received training, which may explain the fact such a drastic change in approach could happen as widely as it was sudden. What is clear however, is that radical groups are increasingly undergoing a process of centralisation, as they receive support from organisations like the Tides Foundation. 

This of course, is not to imply a direct parallel with the central control that the Soviet Comintern wielded, and it would be ridiculous to do so (there are more of them and their grip is far weaker). However, it does present a major advancement in the left’s capacity for discipline and coordination. 

An organisation having even just the mobile numbers of a couple of campus organisers, allows them to share advice and effective approaches, and with time — if they become reliant on their funding — allows for coercion and diktat.

Given the history of the radical left, it is alarming to again see such activities

Similarly, this shift towards a concern for the logistical and administrative, is evident even in the approach to cancel culture. Databases are now circulating among groups, with extensive lists of people sorted into tiers of their deservedness for hostility or friendliness. 

Given the history of the radical left, it is alarming to again see such activities. It is conducting politics, not as a matter of the issues and the naïve hope that handing out a couple more leaflets may change the world, but in subduing people to the apparatus of fear.

For what else would keeping detailed records of every infraction be in service of? It subordinates them to the will of the group, as any good-faith disagreement won’t soon be forgotten by the fallible minds of men, but endure, like a regrettable tattoo, in a soulless ledger. 

Keeping account of the sayings of people’s wives and husbands is practical. It incentivises spouses to keep one another in check for fear of being marred with the same brush. It is a good political strategy — but the makings of a hellish political environment. It is a pragmatic exhalation of results above idealistic procedure, which can only be explained by a movement which has grown tired of its failures. 

The opponents of the left rarely appreciate that there is this long-standing division between these traditions. Even in Lenin’s day, his party split between Bolsheviks who wanted to centralise authority and Mensheviks who didn’t.

Unfortunately though, historically the idealists lose in their clashes against unscrupulous pragmatists. In Spain, all that was left of the democratic euphoria which Orwell so aptly described in Homage to Catalonia, was blood stains and patches of upturned soil; and in Russia, all that survived were a scant few illicit manuscripts of Trotsky’s grumbling prose.

The Occupy Wallstreet Movement of 2011, may have been the last hurrah for Anarchist and Trotskyite influences within the radical insurgent left. Perhaps, it is just a momentary swing, and like a pendulum it will go back. For instance, the protesters in Cambridge expressed to me a hesitance to fully adopt the approach more firmly accepted in the US. This is unlikely though, as if the main barrier to effectiveness are moral objections, then the sudden allure of success will be strong, and the historical lessons: distant and forgotten.  

If the merits of the values learnt in the aftermath of the summer of 1968, have indeed been lost, we will not hear more stuttering from protesters unsure as to whether they should break protocol. Not because a humanistic atmosphere has been restored, but because — as history shows — it will have been entirely sacrificed as a Faustian bargain. From this a more capable and dominant radicalism will emerge, it will exist as more than only being cheap fodder for ridicule, and it will be one from which those outside the left will be unable to ignore.

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