Now that Donald Trump has been prevented from continuing in office, are we out of the woods of “Trumpism”? Or has the battle just begun? How should we relate to the Biden administration, in order to ensure that Trumpism will not raise its ugly head effectively again?
To answer such questions, we must realize that Trumpism is not simply a highly conservative reaction to our society’s current problems. The fact is that Trump has released the genie from the bottle, liberating the worst of what is America. It is not simply that he has based his political appeal explicitly on white supremacy, which the Republican Party has long championed in a veiled way (the “Southern strategy” of Richard Nixon). Trump has actively promoted misogyny; blatant, outright lying by the Leader; flouting of the rule of law, particularly of the Constitution; dismissal as “fake news” any established facts which contradict what one wants to be true; blanket antagonism towards the mass media, as “the enemy of the people”; total distrust of science and the scientific method; public demonstrations of armed, far-right-wing “patriots” in support of his policies; verbal and legal attacks on “The Other”, in this case immigrants of color and Moslems; expression of utter contempt for persons who oppose or disagree with him. Evidently at least 30% of Americans are hardcore, wholeheartedly supporting all these manifestations of “Trumpism”.
But how dangerous is this current infatuation with Trump? Are people not more rational, long-term, than this, able to reject much of Trumpism once the Leader is out of power and not setting the agenda? To get insight into such possibilities, we examine what transpired in the Soviet Union with the rise of Stalin.
I have just read Let History Judge by Roy Medvedev (1989, Revised and Expanded Edition, Columbia University Press). This book, translated from the Russian, is indeed a weighty tome: 903 pages, three full pounds! In it the author exhaustively analyzes what occurred in the Soviet Union under the domination of Stalin, commencing in the late 1920’s and extending to his death in 1953. In doing so he demonstrates the falsity of many interpretations of Stalin’s rule: that he continued the building of socialism initiated by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, that his actions were necessitated by the objective conditions facing the new revolutionary society, that he was a great war-time leader, that he was surrounded by countless intrigues against the socialist society which had to be destroyed by vigorously rooting out “the enemies of the people”, etc.
For Stalin was an incomparably brutal despot whose only interest was in safeguarding and expanding his own control of the Soviet state. He held “show trials” at which his political opponents were forced to plead guilty to imaginary conspiracies after being viciously tortured by his secret police and even threatened with retribution against their family members. In this way, by 1938, almost all of the “old Bolshevik” leaders of Lenin’s time were killed. He wiped out any communist leaders, at all levels, who might oppose him, even those who had served him loyally. He had huge populations, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, transported to slave labor camps in the harsh hinterland, where many of them died. He wiped out much of the technical and cultural intelligentsia which loyally served the Soviet state. In the years prior to Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941, he also utterly decimated most of the Army command apparatus (from almost all of the generals on down to the lowest levels), thus ensuring Germany’s initial battlefield success and the loss of millions of troops through encirclement. The list of Stalin’s criminal behavior in thwarting the development of socialism in the Soviet Union could go on and on.
Okay, Stalin was a horribly bad guy, one of the very worst in history, but what has that got to do with us and the struggle against Trumpism? For us what is of particular relevance is the effect which Stalin’s rule had on the people of the Soviet Union. First off, the Soviet Communist Party was hegemonic, brooking no opposition while claiming to be ruling as the instrument of working class. It was supposed to be internally democratic, but in reality it was totally top-down, with lower bodies simply implementing directives from above. Even cadres for whom it was obvious that they were being wrongly accused of imaginary crimes would sometimes just plead guilty in order not to impeach the prestige of the Party. (Many others, of course, were forced to plead guilty after enduring severe torture.) This was the quintessence of the one-party state!
At the village level, for example, the head functionary (a Party member, of course) would be given a quota of the number of well-off peasants who were enemies of the state and therefore had to be shipped off to the slave-labor camps, and the functionary readily complied even while realizing that these people had done nothing against the Soviet state. The head of a mining operation, for example, might be told of a vast conspiracy to sabotage output, and he would readily accuse his staff members (most of whom were thereupon shot or given ten-year sentences of hard labor, not long after which the head himself would be arrested and shot). Throughout the country people were making wild false accusations against each other, usually to protect themselves and often to rise economically by taking their places. But through all this carnage the great majority of people, having little information about what was going on except that provided by the Party and believing in the existence of these claimed conspiracies all around themselves, continued to support the government; Stalin was genuinely revered by most at the time of his death!
How could this have happened in a country which had gone through a revolution to transform society into one based on goals of equality and humanity? Well, thanks to Medvedev’s highly detailed analysis we know how Stalin was able to subvert the revolution to become his complete tool, how all opposition to his rule was systematically crushed, how an attendant bureaucracy naturally arose, etc. Nonetheless, the lesson to be learned is how frail humankind’s best instincts can be, how under certain conditions the worst of our character can rise to the fore and overwhelm all that is civilized. Of course this is what happened in Nazi Germany, and it is the fate that we are faced with, in Trumpism. So let us disregard all complacency and realize that a life-and-death struggle with Trumpism lies before us. This struggle will be all the more necessary as neo-liberal capitalism collapses and the 1% look to an authoritarian government to safeguard their riches.
This struggle against Trumpism must involve, first and foremost, taking part in progressive mass struggles to improve people’s lives, for that is how we build the movement for progressive social change. The electoral arena, which usually plays a secondary role in this process (except right now when getting rid of Trump himself is of critical concern), can also be of great use in effecting (limited) progressive reforms such as Medicare for All, and in fostering an overall progressive outlook on goals for the future. I have previously advocated not trying to build an independent progressive party to take on the Democrats (https://bcmsocialism.org/a-new-progessive-party/), but instead to use the two-party system by running unabashedly progressive candidates in Democratic Party primary elections. (After presumably losing the primary, our candidate should no longer be criticizing the successful Democrat, and may even support her/his campaign if she/he isn’t clearly reactionary.) The key is that we must always put forward, in mass struggles and in electoral work, unreservedly progressive politics rather than watering down our politics for the sake of an illusory unity. Especially, we must expose the Biden administration as having nothing to do with the creation of a humane society, and forthrightly call for the replacement of capitalism with socialism.