That Stalinist style

Writer Julie Burchill photographed at the Sussex Arts Centre in Brighton, UK, 9th February 1999. (Photo by Andrew Hasson/Photoshot/Getty Images)
Julie Burchill

Yesterday we caught up with British columnist Julie Burchill, who on September 5 told readers of the New Statesman about her youthful enthusiasm for Josef Stalin.

“I don’t kiss, I’m a Stalinist,” I’d often say. “But you’ve just had sex with me!” “Yes, it would have been bourgeois not to.”

And: “I don’t smoke dope – I’m a Stalinist.” “But you’ve just snorted half a gram of speed!” “Yes, I’m a Stakhanovite, too, and it makes me work harder.” I had answers for everything, all of them mad.

Josef Stalin

During her early years in London, recalled Burchill, she hung out with punks who played at anarchism; Stalinism, for her, proved to be a good way to one-up them. They were all into radical individualism; she reacted by saying things like, “People aren’t really that interesting, there’s not much to be said for individuals.” Stalinism gave her an instant look, a style: she wore Soviet badges and ribbons and caps and “used to admire myself in them,” fancying herself “a sexy teenage communist.” But, she added, “I spat blood whenever I saw a fellow punk sporting a swastika. Why? What was the difference? My side had killed 20 million.”

Burchill admits that her Stalin crush lasted “well into my thirties,” and calls this “a sign of my terminal emotional immaturity.” It finally ended not because she had “a big, blinding moment of revelation, repentance and redemption” but because “I am a chillingly pragmatic person, I fear, and in the end Stalin simply outlived his usefulness.” To be sure, now and then she “backslide[s]”:

burchillbkLast month, I woke up in bed with a small, silver bust of Lenin on the pillow next to me, purchased on a drunken romp the day before. I hated myself for a bit, but it could have been worse. Gagged and blindfolded with Zionist wristbands, he looks lovely on the mantelpiece. And at least he’s not Stalin – though, to be honest, the shop where I bought him didn’t have a Stalin bust. If it had, could I have resisted? I hope I’ll never find out.

What to make of all this? It’s not quite a mea culpa. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly. Burchill admits to being “chillingly pragmatic” and afflicted with “terminal emotional immaturity,” but she shows no sign of being ashamed of these attributes. She doesn’t really seem to be ashamed of anything: she’s cheerfully amoral, chronically solipsistic. It’s tempting to dismiss her column as the thousandth (or ten thousandth?) effort by a narcissistic hack to stun the multitudes yet again and thus remain in the limelight for another day or two.

burchill5But Burchill isn’t unique. She certainly wasn’t the first or last vain, puerile young person to decide that it’s cool to applaud totalitarism. If her story has any value, perhaps it’s as a reminder that not all useful stooges are mature individuals who’ve either coldly, consciously, and calculatingly sold their souls to the devil or whose serious, well-intentioned philosophical reflections have led them disastrously astray. No, some useful stooges are nothing more than children – or terminally childish adults – who have embraced a deadly ideology for the most superficial of reasons: to turn a few heads, to give their friends a bit of a shock, and to impress their Stalinist daddies.

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