Tony Cliff

The Nature of Stalinist Russia

Chapter 10
The class struggle in Russia



1. It is wrong to speak of a Stalinist epoch

The rise of the bureaucracy to become a ruling class expresses the fact that the historical mission of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which is to establish capitalism in Russia, is already exhausted on an international plane, but not yet exhausted on a national plane. At the same time, the bureaucracy, by relying on planning – an element of the “invading socialist society” – which it nevertheless applies to its capitalist mission of the accumulation of capital, in a few decades oversteps the traditional historical course which the bourgeoisie of the West took about 200 years to accomplish. Relying on elements of the future society to fortify relations of the past, the bureaucracy undermines these relations of the past themselves very quickly, and in so doing prepares a new, glorious edition of the proletarian revolution on a much stronger material base than in 1917.

The fact that in its youth as a ruling class the bureaucracy has the totalitarian characteristics of decaying, ageing capitalism proves that it was born as an historical anomaly with no future. This is corroborated by the fact that the bureaucracy is compelled to carry on a vast propaganda campaign against bureaucratism, to pose as the defender of the workers against the bureaucracy. This shows that the bureaucracy has a guilty conscience, but more especially that it is a usurper lacking historical legitimacy.

Capitalist state ownership raises the ire of the masses. From the beginning of the bureaucracy’s constitution as a class, therefore, the sword of Damocles hangs ominously above its head. Whereas the capitalist of the 16th to 19th centuries could visualise a glorious future with himself as the representative of humanity as a whole, the Stalinist bureaucracy today fulfilling the historical function of this capitalist cannot but feel that its roots are in a temporary and passing concatenation of national and international circumstances. Hence the totalitarianism.

The terror of the bureaucracy against the bureaucrats themselves indicates the anomalous position of this hybrid. In traditional capitalism the competition between the capitalists ensures that each will be as efficient as possible. In socialist economy the social consciousness, the care for the interests of society, the harmonious relations between people, is the basis of efficiency (which is higher quantitatively and different qualitatively from that prevailing in capitalist economy). The Stalinist bureaucracy is a result and a cause of the lack of harmoniousness between people, of class and personal antagonisms, of the unlimited egotism prevailing. Therefore on the one hand the motive at the basis of planned socialist economy – the control of producers in the interests of the producers themselves – does not exist in Russia and cannot ensure the efficiency of production; on the other hand the direct connection between the efficiency of the individual enterprise and the income of its directors that exists under individual capitalism also does not exist. The only means of ensuring efficiency remaining to the bureaucratic state is a terror directed against the individual bureaucrats.

The terror has an additional function besides this. As Ciliga writes:

This original method of calming the anger of the people [the terrorist purges] reminded me of Marco Polo’s report of the Mongol Emperor who reigned in Pekin at that time. It was customary once every ten or fifteen years to deliver over to the crowd the minister most abhorred by it, which allowed the emperor quietly to oppress his people for the next ten or fifteen years. What I saw in Russia was to bring this Mongol Emperor repeatedly to my mind. [1]

As a much deeper abyss exists between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the masses than ever existed in history between rulers and ruled, it is of the utmost importance to the bureaucracy that scapegoats be found.

Although the bureaucracy was born with all the marks of age of a declining class, it would be too great a simplification to say that every step forward of the productive forces, every addition to the working class, will directly and immediately undermine the position of the bureaucracy. No, reality is much more complicated than that.



2. The initial direct influence of industrialisation and “collectivisation” on the relation of forces between the proletariat and the bureaucracy

In the First Five-Year Plan the number of workers in Russia increased very rapidly. While in 1928 the number of people occupied in manufacturing industries and the extraction of minerals was 3 million, in 1932 it reached 8 million, an increase of 160 percent. The overwhelming majority of the working class were thus raw elements ust come from the villages, not yet educated and organised by the process of social production.

At the same time the quick industrial development, with the acute shortage of technicians, skilled workers, officials, etc., opened the gates of the bureaucracy to many workers of long standing. And of course the more experienced and intelligent the worker, the more possibility he had of rising in the hierarchy.

These two factors of the dilution of the working class by raw elements and the exodus of militant elements from it were in the different historical circumstances in the US a grave impediment to the rise of an independent workers’ movement some decades ago. But in Russia the difficulties on the path of the workers’ movement during the Five-Year Plans are much greater than American difficulties, not only because of the terrible pressure of the secret police, because of the weariness of the masses after many years of superhuman effort, because of the ideological disorientation which appears both as a result and cause of the weakness of the Russian workers’ movement at that time, but also for another reason. This is the creation by the bureaucracy of a layer of elite among the oppressed. This is one of the most efficient weapons the oppressor can wield in its oppression of the masses.

When Napoleon said that even the heaviest cannons could not stand up against empty stomachs, he was not entirely correct. Empty stomachs under certain circumstances lead not to revolt but to submission. Such was the case in the first years of the industrialisation by the Stalinist bureaucracy. As Victor Serge said:

A vast misery will spring from its [the bureaucracy’s] policy, but in this misery the tiniest material benefits become precious. It will now suffice to offer a worker a plate of soup the least bit nourishing and a shelter the least bit habitable in the winter for him to attach himself to the privileged amid the general destitution ... In that way a stratum of subordinate bureaucrats will be formed in the enterprises, in the party cells, and in the villages where the collectivisation is to result in a new differentiation between leaders and led. Mound the former will gravitate a clientele eager to serve. The misery will consolidate those who conjured it up. [2]



The pressure of the totalitarian police machine

One cannot overestimate the difficulties which the police machine makes for the independent organisation of the workers in Russia. The working class is atomised and any attempt at building up any independent organisation whatsoever or at giving expression to the desires of the masses is brutally suppressed. The workers are compelled to belong to organisations led and controlled by the state and teeming with its spies. The combination of propaganda and terror designed to ensure the bureaucracy’s monopoly of propaganda puts no limit to the lies it spreads, to the terror against the soul of the masses. The state’s organisation even of the leisure time of the masses, driving them to mass demonstrations and public meetings, compelling them to debase themselves and sing the praises of their oppressors – all these weapons of the bureaucracy make the molecular process of the organisation and education of the workers very difficult. There is every indication that even the experienced, cultured German proletariat would have needed many years, perhaps some decades, till it couls have succeeded in smashing the oppressive Nazi machine with its own strength. It is significant that even in the hours of Nazi Germany’s greatest military defeat no mass revolts of workers broke out on the home front. (In connection with this, one must not overlook the important effect Ilya Ehrenburg’s chauvinistic propaganda had in helping the Nazis to cement the cracks in the wall of German “national unity”.) The raw Russian proletariat, the overwhelming majority of whom have but a few years ago come from the villages, of whom less, probably, than 10 per cent knew the conditions under Tsarism when trade unions were legal, when the different workers’ parties had a legal press, will find the utmost difficulty in learning the ABC of organisation and socialist ideology under the rule of Stalin.



4. The military victories of Russia

An additional factor which strengthened the rule of the bureaucracy was its military victories. They were the result of various factors. Firstly, the absolute suppression of the masses allows Stalin to devote a larger portion of the national income than the countries of the West to war aims. He could, for instance, achieve the “miracle of the evacuation of Russian industry” by transferring millions of workers to the east, housing them in holes in the ground. Secondly, police oppression ensures quiet on the home front, another ‘advantage’ Russia has over the democratic capitalist countries. The same two factors caused the absolute supremacy of Germany over France and Britain, which was put an end to only by the co-operation of the American industrial machine (producing four times as much as Germany) and the Russian. While the Russian military victories were to a large extent the result of the “quiet” on the home front, of the depression and despair of the toiling masses, they in their turn become an important factor in the stabilisation of the Russian regime. To make an analogy, one cannot underestimate Nazi Germany’s victories in the Saar, Austria, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Poland and France as a factor in influencing the psychology of the German masses.



The bureaucracy creates its gravedigger

The initial result of the industrialisation and ‘collectivisation’ in Russia was to strengthen the position of the bureaucracy. After a few years an opposite process began: now every step forward of the productive forces undermines the position of the bureaucracy.

In the First Five-Year Plan the number of workers employed in manufacture and mining rose from 3 million to 8 million, a rise of 160 per cent. In the Second Five-Year Plan it rose only from 8 million to only 10.1 million, a rise of 25 per cent. The Third Five-Year Plan planned an increase to 11.9 million in 1942, a rise of 16.7 per cent. Thus, despite the liquidation of many of the workers in the ‘purges’, the number of veteran workers with many years of participation in the process of production behind them is steadily growing.

At the same time the gates of the bureaucracy draw together, decreasing the recruitment of the best elements among the workers into the bureaucracy. This can be shown by a few facts. It can be shown that from the middle of the 1930s the direct promotion of workers from the bench to administrative positions almost ceases. Higher education is then placed beyond the grasp of the workers. In1938 the total number of students in higher institutes was 533,000; of this number 181,000 were manual workers and the children of manual workers (33.9 percent), 115,000 were peasants and the children of peasants (21.6 percent) and 225,000 were salaried employees and specialists and the children thereof (42.2 percent). As the total number of the higher layer of the bureaucracy is about two and a half to three million, it is highly improbable that of the 225,000 salaried employees and specialists and the children thereof there were many from the ranks of the lower bureaucracy. An important step towards the closing of the gates of the bureaucracy was the decree of 2 and 12 October 1940, which fixed fees for education in secondary schools (8th, 9th and 10th grades of elementary schools) and technicums and colleges. Fees range from 150-200 roubles a year for secondary schools to 300-500 roubles a year for colleges. To indicate the largeness of this sum, we need but remember that in 1940 the average wage and salary (of everyone from charwoman to director) was 335 roubles a month. The great majority of the workers did not earn more than 150 roubles per month. Hence the fees for the 8th, 9th and 10th grades of elementary schools amounts to about a month’s wage of a worker, of the colleges and technicums two to three months. [3]

Bertrand D Wolfe justifiably wrote about this decree:

This decree does not ‘go back to the bourgeois world’ but to the last monarch of 19th century Russia, Alexander III, and his minister of education Delyanov, who issued the celebrated ukase which read, “The children of coachmen, servants, cooks, laundresses, small shopkeepers, and suchlike persons, should not be encouraged to rise above the sphere in which they were born.”

The crystallisation of the proletariat due to the dwindling stream of raw elements coming into it and the dwindling stream of experienced elements going out of it is a process of the greatest importance.

The historical task of the bureaucracy is to raise the productivity of labour. In doing this the bureaucracy enters into deep contradictions. In order to raise the productivity of labour above a certain point, the standard of living of the masses must rise, as workers who are undernourished, badly housed and uneducated, are not capable of good production. The bureaucracy approaches the problem of the standard of living of the masses much in the same way as a peasant approaches the feeding of his horses: “How much shall I give in order to get more work done?” But workers, besides having hands, have heads. The raising of the standard of living and culture of the masses, means to raise their self-confidence, increase their appetite, their impatience at the lack of democratic rights and personal security, and their impatience at the bureaucracy which preserves these burdens. On the other hand, not to raise the standard of living of the masses means to endanger the productivity of labour which is fatal for the bureaucracy in the present international relations, and also to drive the masses sooner or later to revolts of despair.

The bureaucracy increases the working class on the basis of the highest concentration history has known. And try as it may to bridge the abyss between concentrated wage labour and concentrated capital, try as it may to veil it under the slogan of ‘socialist property’, the bureaucracy is bringing into being a force which will sooner or later clash violently with it.

The fact that only a few years after the industrialisation and ‘collectivisation’, when the working class was yet young and relatively raw, Stalin was compelled to be entirely totalitarian and to make such mass frame-ups as have no precedent in history, indicates the quick tempo at which the class struggle in Russia develops.

In the countries of capitalist democracy, and to a large extent even in Tsarist Russia and the colonial countries, the class struggle of the proletariat initially takes the form of partial, ‘peaceful’, organised and ‘planned’ economic struggles. In Stalinist Russia, because of the brutal police oppression, such struggles are excluded. Here, as in the armies of the capitalist countries where the soldiers are continuously under the whip of martial law, the molecular process of crystallisation of mass opposition to the rulers does not receive clear direct external expression. Only when conditions have become unendurable and it becomes clear to the masses that a decisive victory is possible, are they able to join battle. For the Russian masses today to join battle is even more difficult than it was for soldiers in Tsarist Russia. The Tsarist soldiers rebelled only after they saw that the mass of people was in revolt. The barricades built by the workers gave the soldiers confidence in the people’s strength and inspired them to revolt against their officers. In Russia today there is no group of people which is not under closer surveillance than ever the Tsarist army was. Only, therefore, when the anger and resentment embedded in the hearts of the masses cumulates till it is ready to burst will the masses break out in revolt. (A proletarian revolution in the west can obviously accelerate this process to an incalculable extent). The class struggle in Stalinist Russia must inevitably express itself in gigantic spontaneous outbursts of millions. Till then it will seem on the surface that the volcano is extinct. Till then the omnipotent sway of the secret police will make it impossible for a revolutionary party to penetrate the masses or organise any systematic action whatsoever. The spontaneous revolution, in smashing the iron heel of the Stalinist bureaucracy, will open the field for the free activity of all the parties, tendencies and groups in the working class. It will be the first chapter in the victorious proletarian revolution. The final chapter can be written only by the masses – self-mobilised, conscious of socialist aims and the methods of their achievement, and led by a revolutionary Marxist party.




1. Ciliga, op. cit., p.97.

2. Serge, op. cit., p.166.

3. In Britain the 8th and 9th grades were compulsory and free even before the Labour government came to power. The Labour government added the 10th.


Last updated on 5.1.2004