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The anti-Stalinist left is an umbrella term for various kinds of left-wing political movements that opposed Joseph Stalin, Stalinism and the actual system of governance Stalin implemented as leader of the Soviet Union between 1927-1953. This term also refers to the high ranking political figures and governmental programs that opposed Joseph Stalin and his form of communism, like Leon Trotsky and other left wing traditional Marxists.
In recent years, it may also refer to left and centre-left wing opposition to dictatorships, cults of personality, totalitarianism and police states, all being features commonly attributed to regimes that took inspiration from Stalinism such as the regimes of Kim Il-sung, Enver Hoxha and others, including in the former Eastern Bloc. Some of the notable movements with the anti-Stalinist left have been Trotskyism, anarchism and libertarian socialism, left communism and libertarian Marxism, the Right Opposition within the Communist movement, and democratic socialism and social democracy.
These left-wing political movements can be characterized by different eras of critiques of Stalin and Bolshevism. These eras of critiques include the Revolutionary era, the Bolshevik era, the Popular Front era, the Post World War II era, the New Party era, and finally, the Post-Stalin era.
A large majority of the political left was initially enthusiastic about the Bolshevik Revolution in the revolutionary era. In the beginning, the Bolsheviks and their policies received much support because the movement was originally painted by Lenin and other leaders in a libertarian light. However, as more politically repressive methods were used, the Bolsheviks steadily lost support from many anarchists and revolutionaries. Prominent anarchist communists and libertarian Marxists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Rosa Luxemburg, and later, Emma Goldman were among the first left-wing critics of Bolshevism.
Rosa Luxemburg was heavily critical of the methods that Bolsheviks used to seize power in the October Revolution claiming that it was "not a movement of the people but of the bourgeoisie." Primarily, Luxemburg's critiques were based on the manner in which the Bolsheviks suppressed anarchist movements. In one of her essays published titled, "The Nationalities Question in the Russian Revolution", she explains:
"To be sure, in all these cases, it was really not the "people" who engaged in these reactionary policies, but only the bourgeois and petit bourgeois classes, who - in sharpest opposition to their own proletarian masses - perverted the "national right of self-determination" into an instrument of their counter-revolutionary class policies."
Because of her early criticisms toward the Bolsheviks, her legacy was vilified by Stalin once he rose to power. According to Trotsky, Stalin was "often lying about her and vilifying her" in the eyes of the public.
The relations between the anarchists and the Bolsheviks worsened in Soviet Russia due to the suppression of movements like the Kronstadt rebellion and the Makhnovist movement. The Kronstadt rebellion (March 1921) was a key moment during which many libertarian and democratic leftists broke with the Bolsheviks, laying the foundations for the anti-Stalinst left. The American anti-Stalinist socialist Daniel Bell later said:
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 Raik 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.
Like Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman was primarily critical of Lenin's style of leadership, but her focus eventually transferred over to Stalin and his policies as he rose to power. In her essay titled "There Is No Communism in Russia", Goldman details how Stalin "abused the power of his position" and formed a dictatorship. In this text she states:
"In other words, by the Central Committee and Politbureau of the Party, both of them controlled absolutely by one man, Stalin. To call such a dictatorship, this personal autocracy more powerful and absolute than any Czar's, by the name of Communism seems to me the acme of imbecility."
Emma Goldman asserted that there was "not not the least sign in Soviet Russia even of authoritarian, State Communism." Emma Goldman remained critical of Stalin and the Bolshevik's style of governance up until her death in 1940.
Overall, the left communists and anarchists were critical of the statist, repressive, and totalitarian nature of Marxism-Leninism which eventually carried over to Stalinism and Stalin's policy in general.
Leon Trotsky was one of the main critics of Stalin during the years after Lenin's death. When the Bolshevik party took power in 1917, Leon Trotsky was closely associated with Lenin and those in the Bolshevik movement. Once Vladimir Lenin passed away in 1924, the relation between Trotsky and prominent Bolsheviks like Joseph Stalin soured quickly because of fundamental disagreements on policy. Unlike anarchists and left communists, Trotskyists also claim to be Leninists.
At first, Stalin allied with the right wing of the Bolshevik movement, including Nikolai Bukharin to combat Trotsky and his supporters on the left. Stalin and his "centre" faction were allied with Bukharin and the Right Opposition from late 1924, with Bukharin elaborating Stalin's theory of Socialism in One Country. Together, they expelled Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and the United Opposition from the Communist Party in December 1927.
However, once Trotsky was out of the way and the Left Opposition had been outlawed, Stalin soon became alarmed at the danger posed to the Soviet state by the rising power of the capitalistic Kulaks and NEPmen, who had become emboldened by the Left Opposition's illegalization. Sensing this danger, Stalin then turned on his Right Opposition allies. Bukharin and the Right Opposition were, in their turn, sidelined and removed from important positions within the Communist Party and the Soviet government from 1928-1930, with Stalin ditching the NEP and beginning the first Five-year plan. The Comintern entered its "Third Period", in which it took up ultra-left positions, such as denouncing social democratic and democratic socialist rivals as "social fascist".
One of the last attempts of the Rightists to resist Stalin was the Ryutin Affair in 1932, where a manifesto against the soviet policy of collectivization and Stalin was circulated. It openly called for "The Liquidation of the dictatorship of Stalin and his clique". Later, some rightists joined a secret bloc with Leon Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev in order to oppose Stalin. Historian Pierre Broué stated that it dissolved in early 1933.
Aside from forming different organizations, the disagreements between Trotsky and Stalin can be categorized into two main issues: the pace of industrialization and revolutionary tactics. One of the key policy differences could be traced to the pace of industrialization. Trotsky believed that there was a need for super-industrialization while Stalin believed in a rapid surge and collectivization, as written in his 5-year plan. Trotsky believed an accelerated global surge to be the answer to institute communism globally. Trotsky was critical of Stalin's methods because he believed that the slower pace of collectivization and industrialization to be ineffective in the long run.
Another disagreement between Stalin and Trotsky lies in their methods of revolution. Along with super-industrialization, Trotsky disagreed with Stalin's thesis of Socialism in One Country. Trotsky was against this because he believed that the institution of revolution in one state or country would not be as effective as a global revolution. He also criticized how the Socialism in One Country thesis went against broke the internationalist traditions of Marxism. Trotskyists believed that a permanent global revolution was the most effective method to ensure the system of communism was enacted worldwide.
In the 1930s, the critics of Stalin inside and outside the Soviet Union were under heavy attack by the party. The Great Purge occurred from 1936-1938 as a result of growing internal tensions between the critics of Stalin but eventually turned into an all-out cleansing of "anti-Soviet elements". A majority of those targeted were peasants and minorities, but common targets in this movement were political opponents and anarchists. Anarchists and political opponents in this period were immensely critical of the implications of drastic repressive political techniques that Stalin used. Once a critic knowingly spoke out against the Soviet government, they were to be executed or sent to Gulag prison camps extrajudicially. It is estimated that during the Great Purge casualties ranged from 600,000 to over 1 million people.
The various oppositional groups loosely aligned with Bukharin within the Comintern were forced to form their own organisations when they were, in their turn, purged from the national sections of the Comintern. On the right, in Europe, the most important and substantial of these new organisations was the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) in Germany, led by Heinrich Brandler. In the United States, Jay Lovestone, Bertram Wolfe and their supporters founded the Communist Party (Opposition) and published the newspaper Workers Age. In Canada, the Marxian Educational League was formed as part of Lovestone's CP(O), and it became affiliated with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. However, by the end of 1939, both the Toronto and Montreal groups of this organization had ceased to function. In a few places, Communist groups affiliated with the ICO achieved more success than the Comintern-affiliated organizations. For example, in Sweden, the Socialist Party of Karl Kilbom, affiliated with the ICO, received 5.7% of the vote in the 1932 elections to the Riksdag, outpolling the Comintern section which received 3.9%.
On the left, the dissidents formed the International Left Opposition in 1930. It was meant to be an opposition group within the Comintern, but members of the Comintern were immediately expelled as soon as they joined (or were suspected of joining) the ILO. The ILO therefore concluded that opposing Stalinism from within the communist organizations controlled by Stalin's supporters had become impossible, so new organizations had to be formed. In 1933, the ILO was renamed the International Communist League (ICL), which formed the basis of the Fourth International, founded in Paris in 1938.
In Spain, the ICO-affiliated Bloque Obrero y Campesino (BOC), led by Joaquin Maurin, was for a time larger and more important than the official Spanish Communist Party. Later, the BOC merged with Andrés Nin's Izquierda Comunista in 1935 to form the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) which was to be a major party backing the Second Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Maurin became general secretary of the POUM but was arrested early in the Civil War. As a result, Nin, a former Trotskyist, became the POUM's new leader.
Concurrently, fascism was rising across Europe. The Communist leadership turned to Popular front policy during the 1930s, in which Communists worked with liberal and even conservative allies to defend against a presumed Fascist assault. One of the more notable conflicts can be seen in the Spanish Civil War. While the whole left fought alongside the Republican faction, within it there were sharp conflicts between the Communists, on the one hand, and anarchists, Trotskyists and the POUM on the other. Support for the latter became a key issue for the anti-Stalinist left internationally, as exemplified by the ILP Contingent in the International Brigades, George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia, the periodical Spain and the World, and various pamphlets by Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker and others.
In other countries too, non-Communist left parties competed with Stalinism as the same time as they fought the right. The Three Arrows symbol was adopted by the German Social Democrats to signify this multi-pronged conflict.
Josip Broz Tito became one of the most prominent leftist critics of Stalin after World War II. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the policies that were established was originally closely modeled on that of the Soviet Union. In the eyes of many, "Yugoslavia followed perfectly down the path of Soviet Marxism". At the start, Tito was even considered "Stalin's most faithful pupil". However, as the Yugoslavian Communist Party grew in size and power, it became a secondary communist powerhouse in Europe. This eventually caused Tito to try to operate independently, which created tensions with Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1948, the two leaders split apart because of Yugoslavian independent foreign policy and ideological differences.
Tito and his followers began a political effort to develop a new brand of Socialism that would be both Marxist-Leninist in nature yet anti-Stalinist in practice. The result was the Yugoslav system of socialist workers' self-management. This led to the philosophy of organizing of every production-related activity in society into "self-managed units". This came to be known as Titoism. Tito was critical of Stalin because he believed Stalin became "un-Marxian". In the pamphlet titled "On New Roads to Socialism" one of Tito's high ranking Aides states:
"The indictment is long indeed: unequal relations with and exploitation of the other socialist countries, un-Marxian treatment of the role of the leader, inequality in pay greater than in bourgeois democracies, ideological promotion of Great Russian nationalism and subordination of other peoples, a policy of division of spheres of influence with the capitalist world, monopolization of the interpretation of Marxism, the abandonment of all democratic forms..."
Tito disagreed on the primary characteristics that defined Stalin's policy and style of leadership. Tito wanted to form his own version of "pure" socialism without many of the "un-Marxian" traits of Stalinism.
Other foreign leftist critics also came about during this time in Europe and America. Some of these critics include George Orwell, H. N. Brailsford, Fenner Brockway, the Young People's Socialist League, and later Michael Harrington, and the Independent Labour Party in Britain. There were also several anti-Stalinist socialists in France, including writers such as Simone Weil and Albert Camus as well as the group around Marceau Pivert.
In America, the New York Intellectuals around the journals New Leader, Partisan Review, and Dissent were among other critics. In general, these figures criticized Soviet Communism as a form of "totalitarianism which in some ways mirrored fascism." A key text for this movement was The God That Failed, edited by British socialist Richard Crossman in 1949, featuring contributions by Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender and Richard Wright, about their journeys to anti-Stalinism.
Following the death of Joseph Stalin, many prominent leaders of Stalin's cabinet sought to seize power. As a result, a Soviet Triumvirate was formed between Lavrenty Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. The primary goal of the new leadership was to ensure stability in the country while leadership positions within the government were sorted out. Some of the new policy implemented that was antithetical of Stalinism included policy that was free from terror, that decentralized power, and collectivized leadership. After this long power struggle within the Soviet government, Nikita Khrushchev came into power. Once in power, Khrushchev was quick to denounce Stalin and his methods of governance. In a secret speech delivered to the 20th party congress in 1956, Khrushchev was critical of the "cult of personality of Stalin" and his selfishness as a leader:
"Comrades, the cult of the individual acquired such monstrous size chiefly because Stalin himself, using all conceivable methods, supported the glorification of his own person. This is supported by numerous facts."
Khrushchev also revealed to the congress the truth behind Stalin's methods of repression. In addition, he explained that Stalin had rounded up "thousands of people and sent them into a huge system of political work camps" called gulags. The truths revealed in this speech came to the surprise of many, but this fell into the plan of Khrushchev. This speech tainted Stalin's name which resulted in a significant loss of faith in his policy from government officials and citizens.
During this Cold War era, the American non-communist left (NCL) grew, covertly funded by the United States Department of State and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to counter the appeal of Soviet communism. The NCL was critical of the continuation of Stalinist Communism because of its ability to easily connect to new audiences and the many "risks behind the ideology" like famine and repression. Members of the NCL were often former communists that became fervent opponents toward the communist movement. This strategy directly inspired the creation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), as well as international journals like Der Monat and Encounter; it also influenced existing publications such as the Partisan Review.
In the early 1990s, many new anti-Stalinist left movements emerged in the former Soviet bloc as a result of failed elections and Boris Yeltsin's Palace Coup. When this seizure of power occurred, more than thirty electoral blocs set out to contest the election. Some of these anti-Stalinist groups included, the Party of Russian Unity & Accord, Russia's Choice, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Civic Union for Stability, Justice & Progress, Constructive Ecological Movement, Russian Democratic Reform Movement, Dignity and Mercy, Women of Russia, and the Democratic Party of Russia. Even though these movements were not successful in contesting the election, they displayed how there was still a strong support of anti-Stalinism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These movements were all critical of Stalinist policy and some even called it an "unmitigated disaster for socialists"  Since the establishment of these groups, there has been a decrease in the prevalence of communist groups in Russia.