A Communist Review of Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds

Not too long ago, calling yourself a socialist could earn you strange looks or contemptuous laughter and being a communist might elicit genuine shock or outright hatred. After all, how could anyone support those “authoritarian ideologies” when the Soviet Union clearly failed?

After the collapse of the USSR, the bourgeois claimed that the “free world” had triumphed once and for all over “totalitarian” systems like fascism or Stalinism. Nothing is perfect, they’d argue, but liberal democracy was undeniably the most just form of society ever created—and there was no alternative.

It was in this context that Michael Parenti wrote Blackshirts and Reds, in 1997, in an effort to combat this pervasive anti-communism and set the record straight. As he put it:

This book invites those immersed in the prevailing orthodoxy of “democratic capitalism” to entertain iconoclastic views, to question the shibboleths of free-market mythology and the persistence of both right and left anti-communism, and to consider anew, with a receptive but not uncritical mind, the historic efforts of the much maligned Reds and other revolutionaries.

Blackshirts and Reds, perhaps Parenti’s most popular book, is a 160-page crash course on the true basis of fascism, the achievements of the planned economies of the 20th century, and the horrendous results of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe, among other topics.

The rising tide of interest in socialism and communism in recent years has generated renewed interest in Parenti’s writings, especially among young people who consider themselves communists and supporters of Lenin. However, while Parenti brings forward some valuable observations and insights, his method also contains significant limitations.

The nature of fascism

The first part of Blackshirts and Reds takes aim at the liberal propaganda which lumps communism and fascism together, and asserts that fascism is antithetical to capitalism. Parenti correctly points out that the vast majority of literature on fascism makes no mention of its class nature, and obfuscates the anti-worker, pro-big business policies of such regimes.

Parenti’s book is a crash course on the horrendous results of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe. /  Image: brightpathvideo, Wikimedia Commons

In Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, for instance, the fascists were seen by the capitalist class as a kind of battering ram to physically destroy the worker’s movement:

To impose a full measure of austerity upon workers and peasants, the ruling economic interests would have to abolish the democratic rights that helped the masses defend their modest living standards. The solution was to smash their unions, political organizations, and civil liberties. Industrialists and big landowners wanted someone at the helm who could break the power of organized workers and farm laborers and impose a stern order on the masses.

After Hitler and Mussolini came to power, unions and strikes were outlawed, wages were cut severely, and work hours were increased. Vicious repression awaited anyone who dared complain about their work conditions. Both regimes also privatized many state owned industries to the benefit of their big business patrons.

Parenti mentions that in both countries, workers had won a number of concessions, and the capitalists felt the need to strip these away to “maintain profit levels.” While this is technically true, he does not detail how exactly these concessions had been won. They were, in fact, the product of revolutionary movements that threatened the rule of the capitalists altogether.

In Italy, factory occupations in 1920 involved hundreds of thousands of workers, which could have been expanded to the whole country with a revolutionary leadership. And in Germany, the working class had shown its potential to transform society on multiple occasions in the period 1918–1933. In other words, the bourgeoisie saw fascism as not merely a means of imposing austerity, but of securing their system’s very existence.

This is not a small detail. Rather, it is an integral component to understanding the real nature of fascism. Leon Trotsky, who worked out the Marxist analysis of fascism, explained that fascism can only come to power once the working class is completely exhausted and defeated after years of revolutionary struggle:

In all the countries where fascism became victorious, we had, before the growth of fascism and its victory, a wave of radicalism of the masses—of the workers and the poorer peasants and farmers, and of the petty bourgeois class. In Italy, after the war and before 1922, we had a revolutionary wave of tremendous dimensions; the state was paralyzed, the police did not exist, the trade unions could do anything they wanted—but there was no party capable of taking the power. As a reaction came fascism.

In Germany, the same. We had a revolutionary situation in 1918; the bourgeois class did not even ask to participate in the power. The social democrats paralyzed the revolution. Then the workers tried again in 1922–23–24. This was the time of the bankruptcy of the Communist Party—all of which we have gone into before. Then in 1929–30–31, the German workers began again a new revolutionary wave. There was a tremendous power in the Communists and in the trade unions, but then came the famous policy (on the part of the Stalinist movement) of social fascism, a policy invented to paralyze the working class. Only after these three tremendous waves did fascism become a big movement. There are no exceptions to this rule—fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.

It seems Parenti is unaware of this, because he argues instead that: “In fact, the revolutionary Left was never strong enough to take state power in either Italy or Germany.” It is a serious mistake to look at the turbulent period that preceded the rise of fascism to and suggest that the working class was not in a position to take power. The German Revolution of 1918 saw workers’ councils take power in several cities, for example. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, for their part, saw what they thought would be the beginning of the successful German socialist revolution—and by extension, the world revolution.

Lenin, writing to Sverdlov and Trotsky in the fall of 1918, made his opinion clear:

The international revolution has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days … We are all ready to die to help the German workers advance the revolution which has begun in Germany.

The reason this revolution failed to consolidate was because the reformist workers’ leaders, the Social Democrats, made every effort to suffocate revolutionary initiative and push the movement into safe channels, while the forces of revolutionary Marxism were insufficiently organized and caught unprepared. In fact, it was precisely the failure of both Socialists and Communists to provide leadership in the crucial moments in 1918–1933 that eventually gave fascism the initiative to counterattack and win.

Unfortunately, the need for a revolutionary leadership seems to be a closed book for Parenti, and this is his major weakness. Instead, he simply blames the Social Democrats for Hitler’s victory:

True to form, the Social Democrat leaders refused the Communist party’s proposal to form an eleventh-hour coalition against Nazism. As in many other countries past and present, so in Germany, the Social Democrats would sooner ally themselves with the reactionary Right than make common cause with the Reds.

This leaves out a key detail as to why this coalition failed to materialize. In actual fact, since 1929, the German Communist Party (KPD) had been pursuing an insane sectarian policy based on the false idea of a “final crisis of capitalism,” or “Third Period.” Pushed by the Communist International, which had by then degenerated into Stalinist bureaucratism, this theory argued that the main enemy was not the fascists, but rather the Social Democrats, who were referred to as “social fascists”—never mind that millions of workers supported that party!

For several years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power, the KPD had been constantly harping about the “social fascists” as the primary enemy of the working class. On some shameful occasions, the Communists actually assisted the fascists, as in 1931, when the fascists, nationalists, and Communists collaborated to organize a referendum to overthrow the SPD-Center Party government in Prussia.

The refusal of the KPD to form a coalition with the so called “social fascists” allowed true fascism to remain unchecked. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

This insane sectarian line was the official policy across the Communist International at the time. As just one example, in 1929, Ernst Thälmann, leader of the KPD, penned a pamphlet titled “What is Social Fascism?” In it, he argued that workers must concentrate on “the struggle against fascism in its present most dangerous form, i.e., its Social Democratic form.”

Parenti’s angst over the Social Democrats’ rejection of the Communists’ “eleventh-hour coalition” is, therefore, one-sided and misleading in the extreme. Indeed, panicking at the very last minute, the KPD did make a complete reversal and propose such a coalition. But they waited until March of 1933—after Hitler had already been appointed Chancellor. By then, a total Nazi victory was all but guaranteed, and it was a case of far too little, far too late.

In saying this, we must point out that to constructively criticize the policy of the German Communist Party—or any communist organization for that matter—is not to fall into “left anticommunism.” Rather, we are following in the tradition of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, who always stressed the need for razor-sharp theoretical precision. If we are serious about transforming society, we must treat the past experiences of the working class, both the successes and defeats, soberly and objectively.

At the end of Parenti’s chapter, the reader is left thinking that fascism was inevitable as soon as the capitalist class felt it was necessary to fund such forces, and that the Communist Party could not have fundamentally altered the end result. But this is both disarming and completely incorrect. The failure of the socialist revolution in Italy and Germany was not inevitable. The same applies to Spain. The working class had the power to rebuff the menace of fascism and throw out capitalism altogether. But accomplishing this task required a bold revolutionary Marxist leadership that could have won the confidence of the masses, a perspective that is sadly missing in Blackshirts and Reds.

The nature of Stalinism

In later chapters, Parenti takes up the task of defending the achievements of the different “Communist” states against the attacks from both capitalist apologists and “left anticommunists.” We wholeheartedly agree that it is necessary to defend these gains. This was particularly true in the reactionary period after the fall of the USSR, when there was no shortage of pundits hailing the death of Marxism. On this point, Parenti certainly took a bold and principled stand, especially in the context of the American political climate of the 1990s.

Parenti correctly points out that in the span of 40 years, the Soviet Union went from an agrarian, semi-feudal economy, to pioneering space travel. In a few decades, it developed industry, science, and technology, and eliminated illiteracy. All this despite bitter isolation and Nazi invasion! Citizens of the “Communist bloc” were guaranteed housing, medical assistance, employment, and education. The planned economy achieved successes that were and remain unprecedented in history.

He also explains that the much lauded restoration of capitalism in the 1990s was very different in reality from the way it was presented by the bourgeois media. The new government figures in Eastern Europe were far from democratic reformers. Yeltsin, for instance, had to ban opposition parties, take control of broadcast media, scrap the constitution, and use military force to attack parliament—all in the name of “democratic reform.” Among the people of the Eastern Bloc, there was never a clear majority in favor of a capitalist market economy. A 1989 survey in Czechoslovakia found that 47% wanted their economy to remain state controlled, while 43% wanted a mixed economy, and only 3% said they favored capitalism.

It is also to Parenti’s credit that he does not fetishize or glamorize the very real problems that faced the Soviet economy, especially in its twilight years. Indeed, a whole chapter is dedicated to the problems experienced by “Communist” countries. The lack of workers’ democracy and rigid top-down planning of the economy rewarded ineptitude and stagnation, as successful firms would simply receive higher quotas. Products were often of poor quality and in short supply, prompting long lines and black markets. People often faced the absurdity of having money, but nothing much to buy with it.

But to simply defend the gains of the planned economy and acknowledge the problems is not enough—it is necessary, above all, to explain why these states collapsed and slid back to capitalism. However, after explaining the positive and negative features of the planned economy, Parenti is unable to meaningfully explain the ultimate cause of the economic sclerosis and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. He does mention at one point that “while these internal problems were seriously exacerbated by the destruction and military threat imposed by the Western capitalist powers, there were a number of difficulties that seemed to inhere in the system itself.” But nowhere is an attempt made to seriously analyze this “system.”

Marxists start by identifying the contradicting forces that push and pull on society. Just because the USSR expropriated the capitalists and proclaimed socialism within its own territory does not mean such contradictions and antagonisms were abolished worldwide. The state bureaucracy of the USSR, while not representing a new exploiting class, was still able to lift itself above the workers and become a privileged stratum within the workers’ state. Parenti himself says that “as in all countries, bureaucracy tended to become a self-feeding animal.” If we are to understand what happened, we must ask: why was this?

Marx and Engels explained that a socialist society requires material abundance, which can be achieved by developing the productive forces in society. If everyone’s needs can be easily met, then there is no need to control or fight over who gets what. In the absence of this economic prerequisite for socialism, bureaucracy and inequality inevitably emerge. In Trotsky’s words: “When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order.”

After the revolution, Soviet Russia was not materially abundant, but rather, seriously impoverished, isolated, and devastated by civil war. The failure of the German Revolution made things even worse. On the basis of extreme scarcity instead of superabundance, there was a need to rely on functionaries and managers simply to keep things “in line.”

Engels explained that in every society where art, science and government are the exclusive preserve of a privileged minority, then that minority will always use and abuse its positions in its own interests. The creeping bureaucracy had a material interest in preserving the perks and privileges it had attained, and had no interest in allowing workers’ democracy, which would undercut their position. Over the course of the 1920s, the bureaucracy found its representatives in Stalin and his clique. The expulsion of Trotsky’s Left Opposition at home and internationally, and the Great Purge Trials were ultimately expressions of the bureaucracy’s need to liquidate all opposition to its rule.

The emerging Soviet bureaucracy found it’s representative in Stalin. / Image: Public Domain

In his 1936 book The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky predicted that if the working class was unable to overthrow the bureaucracy through a political revolution, a layer of the bureaucracy would eventually aim to restore capitalist property relations and convert themselves into capitalists. After all, what good are privileges if they can’t be bought and sold and passed down to your children? As the USSR fell deeper and deeper into crisis in the 1980s, a pro-capitalist wing crystallized in the bureaucracy. This was the driving force behind the capitalist restoration described in Blackshirts and Reds.

“Pure socialism” vs. “siege socialism”

Instead of a materialist explanation of the emergence of bureaucracy, Parenti instead argues that so-called “siege socialism” was necessary in order to survive imperialist onslaught, and that the Soviet Union simply couldn’t afford the “pure socialism” envisioned by various Lefts:

But a real socialism, it is argued, would be controlled by the workers themselves through direct participation instead of being run by Leninists, Stalinists, Castroites, or other ill-willed, power-hungry, bureaucratic cabals of evil men who betray revolutions. Unfortunately, this “pure socialism” view is ahistorical and non-falsifiable; it cannot be tested against the actualities of history. It compares an ideal against an imperfect reality, and the reality comes off a poor second. It imagines what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society and defend it from invasion and internal sabotage.

We would agree that the building of socialism is tempered by material reality, including the threat of counterrevolution. Revolutions past and present demonstrate that the great Marxists were right: the working class must smash the bourgeois state and set up its own in order to defeat the class enemy.

However, works like State and Revolution contain much more than that! Socialism is ultimately about the working class running society for itself. The workers’ state thrown up by a revolution is really a semi-state. Without the need for a “special coercive force” to enforce property relations, the state will become obsolete and wither away. But of course, the various “Communist” countries in history did not see the state wither away; if anything the state became even more enlarged and entrenched in society. So what gives?

As discussed previously, the autocratic regimes seen in “Communist” states arose from material poverty and the weakness of the working class. During the course of the 20th century, capitalism was overthrown in various countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America—but not in the advanced capitalist world, where the working class was preponderant and absolutely capable of running society for itself.

This was not because Western workers were “bourgeoisified,” as many claimed. In fact, Europe saw multiple revolutionary upheavals, for example: France 1968, Italy 1969, Greece and Portugal 1974. These revolutions were defeated because the working-class parties, both reformist and Stalinist, pumped the brakes on all these movements, moving might and main to push them into “safe” channels. This lag of revolutions in the West meant that guerilla fighters and army officers in the so-called “Third World” took matters into their own hands, using the by-then-ossified Soviet Union as a ready-made model. These revolutions, though absolutely progressive, started where the Russian Revolution ended, resulting in a series of deformed and unstable workers’ states.

Although workers’ states have every right to arm and defend themselves against capitalist counterrevolution, the true means for securing socialism is not premised on a strong state or military. It is above all a political task and requires breaking the power of world capitalism through international proletarian revolution. Only this, combined with an economy of superabundance, can guarantee that the state will wither away and eventually disappear altogether.

Limitations of method

Parenti has obviously read Marx and Lenin. His remarks in Blackshirts and Reds on capitalism and its ties to fascism, the accomplishments of the Soviet bloc and the consequences of its collapse, and the problems of postmodernism and identity politics, are all quite good. But on some extremely important questions, he falls short.

Place du Capitole. 11 ou 12 juin 1968.
In many cases, Western workers class came close to seizing power but were eventually defeated due to the weakness of Stalinist leadership. / Image: André Cros, Wikimedia Commons

Parenti could be described as a “soft” Stalinist. He doesn’t believe that the worst excesses of Stalin’s reign were necessary, but he nevertheless defends the one-party states of the “Communist” world as inevitable byproducts of “siege socialism.” These regimes did make great economic advances, but they never achieved genuine socialism, and in the absence of a political revolution and decisive spread into the advanced capitalist countries, were doomed to fall back into capitalism. Ultimately, Parenti leaves us with a kind of “revolutionary reformism” whereby the best a revolution can hope for is to reduce income inequality and implement a few social programs—but never the total abolition of class society.

But the socialist revolution can achieve much more than that—provided it is worldwide in scope. The conscious overthrow of capitalism is an exceptionally complex task, but it is nonetheless entirely possible, as the Russian Revolution shows. To accomplish this requires a revolutionary leadership able to win the confidence of the masses, as the Bolsheviks did. But nowhere is this spelled out in Blackshirts and Reds. We are left with only the vague hope that an “informed and mobilized citizenry” might eventually turn things in a better direction. Actually, Parenti is rather contemptuous of the need for leadership:

The pure socialists regularly blame the Left itself for every defeat it suffers … So we hear that revolutionary struggles fail because their leaders wait too long or act too soon, are too timid or too impulsive, too stubborn or too easily swayed … Unfortunately, the critics seem unable to apply their own leadership genius to producing a successful revolutionary movement in their own country.

He also approvingly quotes Tony Febbo on a similar point:

It occurs to me that when people as smart, different, dedicated and heroic as Lenin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Ho Chi Minh and Robert Mugabe—and the millions of heroic people who followed and fought with them—all end up more or less in the same place, then something bigger is at work than who made what decision at what meeting … And to blame this or that theory or this or that leader is a simple-minded substitute for the kind of analysis that Marxists [should make]. (Guardian, 11/13/91)

Here Parenti is essentially denying the role of individuals in shaping history—and thereby putting forward an anti-Marxist position that bears unfortunate resemblance to the crude caricatures of Marxism one encounters in the media and universities. This method ultimately turns history into an automatic process.

The reality is that Lenin was not an automatic product of tsarist Russia, whom anyone could have replaced. His individual authority in the Bolshevik Party and his theoretical contributions to Marxism were necessary to prepare a party that was able to lead the working class to power in 1917. If history could not be shaped by parties and individuals, there would be no need for any kind of theoretical struggle or political organization. And there would be no need for Parenti’s contribution to the debate.

In reality, Lenin held a position very different from Parenti in this regard, and herein was his genius. Throughout his entire lifetime as a revolutionary, he constantly stressed the need to build a disciplined revolutionary party on the basis of correct theory, since the task of liberating humanity from the centralized power of capital requires the most scientific understanding of society. After leading the Russian working class to power, the Bolshevik Party set itself the task of building an international revolutionary party, the Communist International, which degenerated into Stalinism before it had a chance to successfully spread the socialist revolution.

Decades of class struggle, revolution, and counterrevolution have transpired since then. But as we study and apply the lessons of this history in our current era, we have every reason to be optimistic. While Stalinism entered into decline long ago, genuine Marxism survived, and history has produced both a new generation of communist militants, and a new epoch of world revolution.

Unlike in 1917, the working class now represents the great majority of the world’s population. The world has enough resources to provide a decent life for everyone. The objective conditions have never been more ripe for socialist revolution. It’s high time to build a communist organization, armed with the sharpest theory and the resolve to overcome all obstacles, as we struggle for the total victory of socialism in our lifetime.

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