Video: Boots Riley, Andrew Kliman, and Rick Wolff Debate Morality of Stalinism and Western Capitalism

by MHI
Filmmaker Boots Riley, Marxist-Humanist thinker and economist Andrew Kliman, and Richard D. (“Rick”) Wolff, co-founder of Rethinking Marxism, recently participated in a panel called “A Discussion on Leftism, Morality, and Community Growth.” The event took place on April 23, on George Mason University’s Fairfax (Virginia) campus. It was sponsored by the campus Students for a Democratic Society, along with other groups.

Kliman vigorously condemned the crimes of Stalinism and “leftist” support and apologetics for them, saying that they have besmirched the cause of genuine socialism, setting it back decades–if not permanently. Riley said that “mistakes” had been made, but he refrained from condemning Stalinist regimes. Wolff also refrained from even the slightest condemnation of them, attacked Kliman personally, and alleged that leftist opponents of Stalinism had done the most harm to the cause of socialism (presumably more than Pol Pot’s killing fields, the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, etc., etc.). A fourth speaker, graduate student Bennett Shoop, also put forward a pro-Stalinist line.

The video was recorded live before a Stalinist audience. The full video, including discussion from the floor, is below.

We welcome comments on the video below this article. Also, in the coming weeks and months, With Sober Senses will have further coverage of the resurgence of Stalinism, so please continue to look for it.



GMU panel screenshot




  1. “Wolff… alleged that leftist opponents of Stalinism had done the most harm to the cause of socialism”

    It wasn’t Dunayevskaya who carried out the great purge, it wasn’t Fromm who set up the Gulags, it wasn’t EP Thompson who oversaw the Soviet invasion of Poland, etc etc etc. I’m genuinely not sure how anyone could say something like this in good faith. This isn’t even just wrong, it’s bordering on non-sensical.

  2. A good defence of what socialism could be from Kliman if only the other contributors to the debate could get away from the outmoded form of philosophy and organisation that is vanguardism. I think that a tragedy post 1917 is that what was forced on the Russian working class, making a revolution in disastrous circumstances following the cataclysm that was the 1914-18 World War which then devloped a form of political organisation that was not appropriate for developed capitalist societies. I think Gorter letter to Lenin is a good early critique of vanguardism. To make socialism a reality we need to drop vanguardism and recognise the place of workers councils that can accept contesting philosophies and can accept a continual dialogue between those involved to ensure that the free development of each is dependent on the free development of all.

  3. You baited these naive young people for an hour and then had no idea how to deal with their views. Stop blaming them. Rethink how you deal with a young untested movement that is, of course, filling a huge intellectual vacuum with all sorts of nonsense.

  4. The last comment baffles me. I agree that the audience was part of a young, untested movement that has a huge intellectual vacuum, but I don’t understand how Diamond can say Kliman “baited” them and didn’t know how to deal with their views. The video shows otherwise. Kliman answered the questions put to him by the moderators, and didn’t even know the audience contained tankies until they asked questions later. Certainly, he differentiated Marx’s ideas from those of the Soviet Union, but I don’t consider that “baiting” but telling the truth.

    The panelist who did a huge disservice to the youth, IMO, was Rick Wolff, who failed to object to their equating Stalinism with leftism even though he knows better, and who insulted Kliman disgustingly.

    For my discussion of the tankie phenomenon, listen to “Both Times as Tragedy,” my talk at Left Forum last year ( or my interview on episode 9 of Radio Free Humanity.

    • The question of state capitalism was not on the agenda. It is absurd to think that it should be at a forum of young people brand new to radicalism. Now if Boots or some one else had made that the basis of their presentation I get it, but Andrew was the one who seemed to think and said several times that there was a pro-stalinist line being laid out by the panelists. I heard no such thing. He repeats it and finally gets his wish, essentially provoking the reaction he wanted. To now try to trump this into a big thing about Tankies on the left makes no sense. This is not the UK. There is, of course, a serious problem of affiliation with stalinist regimes on the left. But the vast majority of young new activists are simply filling a conceptual vacuum with what they are picking up in various places (like from ANSWER etc.). There are better ways to deal with this and it starts with understanding that it is NOT Tankie-ism.

      • Let’s assume, only for the sake of argument, that you’re right, and Andrew Kliman started talking about issues that were not previously set on the agenda (even if I personally suspect Anne is correct). Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow from that that he BAITED anyone, just as it doesn’t follow that because I told you something that is factually false (I believe water boils at 190 degrees), I’m actively LYING to you. Baiting and lying imply a level of intent beyond ignorance and confusion.

        You have to demonstrate ill will or deception to Kliman; that he, for the sake of argument, asked questions out of turn, at most demonstrates ignorance or confusion. Also, given that Boots and others brought up state capitalism and stalinism BEFORE Andrew asked his questions, it’s probably impossible to prove genuine ill will or deception to Kliman, so maybe, apologize and stop?

  5. Steve Diamond’s new comment is just as dicey as his first. He apparently thinks Kliman brought out the pro-Stalinist sentiment in the room, which I heard, at least subtle forms, from the start. And if Diamond doesn’t think it is prevalent among the youth, he need only see what is going on on YouTube, which is where the young and innocent get their initial ideas about socialism.

    But my more important criticism of his comment is Diamond’s saying, “The question of state capitalism was not on the agenda. It is absurd to think that it should be at a forum of young people brand new to radicalism.”

    Nothing could be more wrong. The young people were discussing socialist revolution, and there is no way to assist them in that discussion without distinguishing between socialism and state-capitalism. Taking the USSR and China as socialism is the albatross around the necks of every radical movement. Until we have a reckoning with the perversions of Marxism that turned 20th century revolutionary societies into their opposites, there will be no hope for the 21st century.

  6. For the record, in re “The question of state capitalism was not on the agenda” and “a pro-stalinist line [was not] being laid out by the [other] panelists”:

    Boots Riley early on raised the issue of Stalinism–talking about how he gets called a Stalinist, but he doesn’t really care, etc. Later, he blamed the defects in the USSR on the revisionists that took over after Stalin’s death! And Wolff talked about “socialist societies” that supposedly do or did exist, and contrasted them, by implication, to “capitalism.” He denounced only the latter.

    It’s all in the video above.

    Furthermore, we were asked questions that referred to “socialism”–“morality of socialism,” etc. As Anne Jaclard points out, I couldn’t address such questions without drawing the needed distinction between state-capitalism and libertarian socialism. In particular, I had to make that distinction in order to state my view on the morality question: Stalinist regimes were indeed immoral, but this doesn’t implicate socialism, because those regimes were state-capitalist, not socialist.

    I “confess” to having wanted to distinguish my views from those of Riley and Wolff–after all, the remit I received from the organizers referred to the proposed event as “a town hall at our school featuring four speakers of various leftist ideologies to acknowledge the diversity within leftism, …” (emphasis omitted). How in god’s name that counts as “bait[ing] these naive young people for an hour,” I don’t know. Riley was 48 years old, and Wolff was 77! And, again for the record, I didn’t learn until the event itself, and its aftermath, how pro-Stalinist the youth in that SDS chapter and the audience were.

    As for having “had no idea how to deal with their views,” I don’t see what’s wrong with how I dealt with it: sharply distinguishing between oppressive, anti-human regimes and those struggling for freedom, calling it a class divide, and saying that the question is “which side are you on?”

    I “confess” that this isn’t an approach that people attracted to Stalinism (like the “non-Tankie” youth panelist in the Orwellian-named Party of Socialism and Liberation) will find appealing. I’m much more concerned, however, to appeal to people, young and older, who find their ideology abhorrent, and to work together with the latter to prevent the “non-Tankies” from gaining influence and the power to put genuine leftists in slave-labor camps here in the US. So I don’t dismiss the “non-Tankies” as naïve and confused (on ageist or other grounds). I take them extremely seriously and operate on the assumption that they genuinely subscribe to the politics they espouse.

  7. I don’t think we need to fear them taking over and forcing people into slave-labor camps. Actually, even suggesting that as a possibility gives them undue credit IMHO.

    The workers have access to too much information to follow one of those parties in big numbers again, and the sort of leaders who can believe in Stalinism are almost universally uninformed and incompetent. Outside of their little echo chambers they can only be objects of mockery and ridicule.

    Their faith in the failed “leader” of a past age expresses their own lack of confidence, and inability to lead anything beyond petty self-destructive cults and short-lived reformist initiatives in the Democratic orbit.

    Kudos for trying to talk some sense into them though.

  8. Thanks, Blumk.

    I sure hope you’re right that we don’t need to fear the tankies and their enablers taking over and forcing people into slave-labor camps. But as a victim of Trump’s election in 2016, my gut feeling is that stranger things have happened.

    Because of that, and because the fact that such people are widely accepted as part of “the left” is such an albatross, I want to keep fighting against them.

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