Tony Cliff

Russia: A Marxist analysis

Chapter X:
Stalin’s inheritance: a society in crisis



Reforms from above to forestall revolution from below

Without pushing the analogy too far, one can find a fair degree of similarity between the period covering the death of Tsar Nikolai I and the rise of the Tsar “Liberator” Alexander II. and the period covering the death of Stalin and the rise of the “Reformer” Khrushchev. In the policies of both “heirs to the throne” pride of place was taken by the imperative need to remove obstacles to economic advance.

In 1855 Tsar Alexander II succeeded to the throne of Russia on the death of his father, Nikolai I. One of his first pronouncements was a declaration of his intention to abolish serfdom, which in 1861 he duly carried out.

Two main factors impelled the tsar along this path.

First, serfdom had become a serious impediment to the development of the economy, and the big landowners, especially those in the South, whose crops were beginning to enter the field of international trade and bring in handsome profits, had become mare and more convinced that serf labour was inefficient and inferior to that of wage-workers.

That this actually was so became apparent after emancipation had been in force some years. At the end of the forties, a few years before emancipation, the average annual yield of four principal crops (wheat, rye, barley and oats) was some 430 million cwts; after it, in the seventies, it was 630 million cwts. The great Marxist historian M.N. Pokrovsky stated that without doubt “free labour did prove far more productive than forced labour”. [1]

The second main cause for the emancipation was a steady rise in the number of outbreaks of localised but violent peasant revolts.

There were 400 in the ten years 1845-55 and 400 more in the five years 1855-60. Fearful of the outcome, the tsar, at a meeting of Moscow nobility, uttered his startling and famous phrase: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until the serfs begin to liberate themselves from below.”

However, the emancipation of the serfs was carried out half-heartedly, and it did not turn them into really free wage-workers. but in fact left the peasants with less land and a heavier economic burden to bear.

Launcelot Owen has calculated that up to 1906 the peasants paid as compensation a sum three times the original value of the lands allotted to them. In other words, for every rouble paid for the land, they paid two for their freedom. [2]

The emancipation of the serfs was predestined to be a fraud because it was effected with the consent of the serf-owner in the serf-owner’s way.

Following the abolition of serfdom Alexander implemented some other peripheral but very important reforms:

On January 1, 1864 he granted local government to the provinces and districts of European Russia.

On November 20, 1864 he reformed the judicial institutions: trial by jury was introduced for all criminal cases and court proceedings were made public. (And there is no doubt that freedom of expression in the court-room and the publicity given to trials helped greatly in the formation of democratic anti-tsarist public opinion.) April 6, 1865 saw the partial abolition of preventive censorship. (One of the results of this was the legal publication in Russian a few years later of Marx’s Capital.)

That all these democratic reforms were very restricted was soon made quite clear. Thus, for instance, while the press was freed from preventive censorship, it was not allowed to publish accounts of any meetings of societies and clubs without special from the Provincial Governors; the permission Ministry of the Interior was empowered to inform editors of papers what subjects were “unsuitable” and were of “State significance”.

Local government (the zemstvo) too, when it came to cold reality, differed profoundly from its mythical image.

While the 1864 statute entrusted the zemstvo institutions with a considerable area of activity, it also curbed their authority by vesting the provincial governors with what amounted to a veto power over the decisions of zemstvo officials

During the first two decades of the existence of the zemstvos. the central government was concerned primarily with thecnactment of measures limiting the work of zemstvo institutions. On November 21, 1866, the government imposed drastic limitations on the right of zemstvo assemblies to tax commercial and industrial enterprises. On May 4, 1867, an official act ruled that it was illegal for zemstvos of different provinces to maintain any kind of formal relations among themselves. On June 13, 1867, the government granted more power to chairmen of zemstvo administrations (usually persons favoured, by provincial governors) at the expense of zemstvo assemblies. At the same time it was decided that all zemstvo publications were to be subject to censorship by proyincial authorities. [3]

The reforms, limited though they proved to be. were received with great enthusiasm even by democratic enemies of Tsarism. They believed that a new epoch was beginning in Russian history. Dobrolubov, the revolutionary critic, keenly remembered the radiance of those first days of Alexander’s reign: “What rapture did it not cause to the people? Our literature took on a new lease of life in spite of all the thunders and the hardships of war ...” Even the revolutionary Chernishevsky succumbed to the happy contagion when he wrote that “... our readers will be happy and feel most grateful to the Sovereign (for the measures) ... all done to develop education and to raise our hopes ... measures which so indelibly mark this year of 1855 ...”

Alexander Herzen, living in exile in London, is reported to have wept with joy on hearing the news. His paper, Kolokol, carried an article beginning: “You have conquered. Galilean ... Alexander II’s name belongs to History. It would not matter if his reign were to end tomorrow – he has started the work of liberation. and the generations to come will not forget it ... But such an abrupt end must not be yet ... Let a finished diadem rest upon his head ... Let the wolves howl as loudly as they will. .What can landowners do when supreme authority and freedom are against them – together with the educated minority and the entire nation – the will of the Tsar and public opinion? [4]

However, Chernishevsky and Herzen suffered a rude awakening, especially when in 1861 the terms of emancipation of the serfs were made known. Then a number of radicals started issuing illegal, anti-tsarist leaflets. Thus one of them entitled To Young Russia (May 1862) called for an “ immediate revolution, a bloody and merciless revolution, which must radically change everything all the foundations of society without exception”. It ended with the words: “Long live the social and democratic Republic of Russia!” [5]

Three years later, on April 4, 1866, the first revolutionary attempt on the life of the Tsar was made, by the Russian student Karakozov. He failed and was executed, but his was the first act in a revolutionary drama that ended with the overthrow of tsarism, half a century later. Thus under autocracy reforms from above necessarily tend to waken revolution from below.

One cannot cross the abyss separating autocracy from democracy in a number of small steps. (Of course the autocracy darn not want to make that crossing.) Any concession from the top, instead of averting the revolution from below, kindles the flame of liberty and in the final analysis armed autocracy has to face the armed insurgent people.

Actually, the emancipation of the serfs was intended, as Alexander II put it, to carry out a reform from above to forestall a revolution from below. To some extent it did enjoy a real, though temporary and equivocal success. Short of satisfying the peasants’ needs, it nevertheless went far enough to put an end to the long series of peasant revolts preceding it.

The granting of reforms that left the regime basically intact saved despotism for the time being. It made doubly sure, however, that the Revolution, when it came, would be profound and far-reaching.



Stalin’s inheritance: a general crisis of the regime

Stalin’s method of approach to each new failure or difficulty was to increase pressure and terrorism. But this rigid method became not only more and more inhuman but also more and more inefficient. Each new crack of the whip increased the stubborn, even if mute, resistance of the people.

Where serfdom under Tsar Nikolai hampered the productive forces in agriculture, rigid Stalinist oppression became a brake on all modern agricultural and industrial progress.

Marx showed that the final cause of all social revolutions lies in the conflict between the forces of production and the prevailing relations of production. As he put it: “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” [6]

The crisis in Russia has not been limited to the economic base, but has engulfed the cultural, ideological and political superstructure too. It has affected not only the internal situation in Russia but also the relations between Russia and the East European satellites, and the international communist movement.

This chapter will briefly outline the main facets of the general crisis of Russian state capitalism. Subsequent chapters will elaborate these.



A. Crisis in Agriculture [A]

The legacy Stalin left in the countryside is an agriculture bogged down in a slough of stagnation that has lasted over a quarter of a century. Grain output in 1949-53 was only 12.8 per cent. larger than in 1910-14, while at the same time the population increased by some 30 per cent. Productivity of labour in Soviet agriculture has not reached even a fifth of that in the United States. Consequently while nearly half the Soviet population is engaged in agriculture, in the USA only 9 per cent are, they produce more per head of population (and provide surpluses for export while Russia is compelled to import grain).

This stagnation became a threat to the regime for a number of reasons. First, after the hidden unemployment in the countryside was largely eliminated, it became impossible to syphon off labour to industry on the former scale without raising labour productivity iii agriculture. Secondly, it also became impossible beyond a certain point to syphon off capital resources from agriculture to aid the growth of industry.

Stalin’s method of “primitive capital accumulation”, from being an accelerator, became a brake, which slowed down the entire economy.

Khrushchev’s reforms have been a desperate attempt to break the agricultural bottleneck. But the “thaw” in this field, as in many others, merely exposes the accumulation of fetters years under the ice-pack of secrecy and depression have gathered. The old ways don’t work any more. But no effective new ways can be found by the Kremlin bureaucrats.



B. Crisis in industry [B]

The great industrial advance under Stalin was accomplished by drawing upon a number of reserves that seemed at the time to be limitless. The first was the large surplus of manpower in the countryside. However, the industrial advance itself, accompanied as at was by agricultural stagnation practically dried this up. Secondly, the early Soviet industrialisation was able, in Gerschenkron’s words, “to reap the advantages of backwardness”, that is, it could leap from primitive to very advanced, imported methods of production. After Soviet industry caught up with Western economies, this advantage disappeared.

Thirdly, the Soviet economy could mobilise capital resources for industry by eating into the reservoir of housing and transport – both neglected during Stalin’s industrial revolution. This cannot go on beyond a certain point.

Fourthly, the capacity of the Soviet people to endure privations – under strict surveillance to be sure – helped Stalin’s industrialisation drive. One cannot go on starving the goose that lays the golden egg, however, or its production will be affected.

Vast resources were mobilised, and many of them wasted profusely. With their dwindling the fact has to be faced that resources must be bandied with more care in order to get more output per man-hour out of industry. Already towards the end of the Stalin era a structural shift had taken place in the economy, making the efficiency of productive effort more important than its mere volume.

The need for this was all the more keenly felt as the main international rival, the USA, was strides ahead in the sphere of productivity of labour. Thus at the end of 1957 the number of industrial workers in USSR was 12 per cent larger than in the USA, the number of engineers double; but the product – according to Soviet estimates – was only half as large.

With a more modern, advanced, complex economy, Stalin’s siege economy with its command methods, irrationality and waste, became a greater fetter on industrial advance.

To pose the problem was much easier for the post-Stalin leadership than to solve it. It twists and turns, in a hopeless effort to overcome the crisis in industry whose source is the very rule of the bureaucracy itself.



C. Failure of intra-Bloc economic integration [C]

Stalin’s policy of squeezing the last ounce out of the East European satellites led to economic, social and political impasse. Their economies practically ground to a halt as the result of the tight squeeze during Stalin’s last years. In addition, enormous wastage was caused by keeping each of these countries dependent on Moscow and preventing their economic (and political) integration with one another.

Khrushchev has had to make concessions to ease the strains in these countries, but the heritage of the past hamstrings his efforts. The parallel development of heavy industries in all the satellites, that is, the multiplication of identical economic structures, considerably narrows their ability to dovetail with one another. The lack of rational price mechanisms in the different countries of the bloc, prevents costs from adequately reflecting an international comparison of advantages, and thus hampers an intra-Bloc division of labour. The unreliability of sources of supplies, associated with bureaucratic mismanagement. spurs on each economic unit (which may be each country) to strive for self-sufficiency. The fact that Russia herself is capital-hungry makes for little intra-Bloc capital mobility, again an impediment to intra-Bloc integration. Lastly, international specialisation within the Bloc could not get very far without a supra-national planning authority. But this is strongly resisted by the satellites.

Khrushchev has tried again and again to break through the chains that impede advance towards an intra-Bloc division of labour and also to cut down wastage.

He has achieved very little success. State capitalism has shown itself as incapable of breaking the fetters of the national state on the development of the productive forces as traditional capitalism.



D. Crisis on the Labour Front [D]

Stalin’s regime, above all, became an impediment to the development of the most important productive force – the workers themselves.

Forced labour became self-defeating. In the West, after the workers were “broken” into the manufacturing system. coercion gave way to “freedom”. The worker became “free” in a dual sense: free of the means of productions and free to sell his labour power. This long transition from forced “wage” labour to “free” labour has been telescoped in dynamic Russian state capitalism into a generation. After Stalin’s death, first, many of the inmates of the forced labour camps were freed, and the lot of the rest was greatly improved. Secondly, the legal restrictions and penalties on wage earners were considerably lightened.

There are two main reasons for the relaxation of legal penalties. First, the more complicated production, the less effective is coercion. Coercion can prevent a worker from committing a misdemeanour, but it cannot make him do what he does not want. If the threat of penalty stops him from malingering or absenting himself, it cannot prevent him from pretending to be busy while not really working, or from damaging equipment, stealing supplies, etc. Secondly, the present Russian working class, modern and up-to-date, is less amenable to continuous rigorous discipline than the previous generation, and excessive pressure may well be self-defeating. The problem is no longer chiefly one of maintaining discipline, but rather of evoking the initiative of the worker and securing his willing co-operation in production.

Khrushchev therefore resorts to less stick and more carrot. Minimum wages have been raised, and the abysmally low pensions for the aged .and disabled have been increased; the working week has been shortened, maternity leave lengthened, the supply of consumer goods and housing improved to a significant extent.

But. a scarcity of resources bedevils his efforts. Owing to inter- national competition, both military and economic, the continuous decline of the rate of profit, bureaucratic bungling, the carrot has not been large enough to secure greater willingness on the part of workers to cooperate in production. The trouble is, the higher the standard of living, the higher the workers’ demands and expectations. And when they set the incentives offered against the background of the tremendous technological successes of the regime, their inadequacy is so patent as to induce complete indifference to effort.

The frustrations born of the unsatisfied “revolution of rising expectations” are the greater for the congealing of social inequality, the decline of social mobility.

Increasing workers’ resistance in production reveals itself in many ways. The failure of Stakhanovism and other methods of “socialist emulation” is one. The authorities decree that the norm of production shall be such and such, and bonus will be earned only after this quota. The workers declare that the norm is too high and demonstrate the fact before the time and motion study men. Management must needs lower it, after which the workers promptly step up production and far surpass the norm – in engineering by as much as 60-80 per cent!

Workers’ pressure also nullifies attempts to induce rivalry by increasing differentials. This levelling process is partly produced by artificially upgrading workers into more skilled categories on a large scale.

Another clear expression of alienation, of the workers’ feeling that they are outsiders in the production process, is the fantastically high rate of labour turnover.

Last but not least is the high rate of theft in the factories (necessitating a vast army of guards and watchmen).

The economy has reached a stage that makes productivity per worker pivotal to progress. The attitude of the workers to their work is therefore of the deepest concern.

But the bureaucrats kill what they most need in the worker – his productive ability and creative skill – by turning him into a cog in the production machine. Rationalised and accentuated exploitation prevents a rise in the productivity of labour.

Not only will the working class more and more resist exploitation the more integrated it becomes, but it will also exhibit an increasing contempt for its exploiters and oppressors. Respect has been lost for the bureaucracy as technical administrators. No ruling class can continue long to maintain itself in the face of popular contempt.



E. Self-defeat of terror: rationality and relaxation of terror [E]

Stalin’s method of “solving any problem was to increase pressure and terrorism. However, the growth of economy and society under Stalin himself, made this method more and more anachronistic and self-defeating.

First, arbitrariness and excesses of the terror became an impediment to economic rationality, for which regularity, security, predictability as regards the hierarchical relations in the economy are essential.

Secondly, beyond a certain point, terror may lead not to increasing effort on the part of actual or potential victims, but on the contrary, to the paralysis of all faculties except that of simulation, to avoiding any decision that could lead to trouble, to passing the buck.

Thirdly, increasing welfare measures come into sharper and sharper conflict with arbitrary terror.

Finally, the ruling class for its own sake needs relaxation. its members want to live to enjoy their privileges. One of the paradoxes of Stalin’s regime was that even the socially privileged bureaucrats were not at one with it. Too often the secret police, besides arresting workers and peasants laid its hand on them.

However the last decade has shown that the relaxation of terror by the post-Stalin leadership is full of contradictions. There are limits to the rationalisation of economic relations under bureaucratic state capitalism, and with it to the relaxation of terror.



F. Crisis in nationality policies [F]

The national oppression of the non-Russian people of the USSR reached its climax towards the end of the Stalin era. A number of factors dictated a retreat.

First, the policy of repression was incompatible with the greater self assurance of the non-Russian peoples following their economic and cultural advance. Secondly, a prerequisite for carrying out Stalin s harsh nationalities policy was the pervasiveness of police terror. The relaxation of terror necessitated a change in policy.

However Khrushchev’s relaxed national policies are full of contradictions. The administrative control of the Republics from Moscow continues. So does the Russification, and so does the fight against “Titoism” or “national deviations” in the Republics.



G. Crisis in the relationship between Moscow and the international communist movement [G]

For about a quarter of a century Stalinist Russia kept the world communist movement united and under its control. Every zigzag in Russian foreign policy was meekly followed by the Communist Parties. This was the result of a number of historical and social circumstances. First, the Communist Parties rose in the wake of the Russian October revolution. Secondly, as Russian imperialism expanded, the communist leaders quite clearly looked Upon their parties in immediate terms as pressure groups on the Western powers in Moscow’s interests, and potentially as the embryos of an apparatus of power after territorial occupation by the Soviet army. Thirdly, after a series of defeats of their own working classes – especially after Hitler’s rise – when misery, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness were widespread the need for identification with a God and a Paradise became urgent, and Stalinism became the “opiate of the people”. Fourthly – and closely connected with the last factor – the leaders of the Communist Parties conceived of their parties as primarily dependent for domestic progress on the prestige and power of the USSR, and therefore regarded their identification with her as their main asset.

However, these circumstances changed radically towards the end of the Stalin era. Cracks appeared in the world communist movement, first, in the successful rebellion of Tito; secondly, and of much greater significance, in the rise to power – entirely with his own troops – of Mao Tse-tung.

The story of Khrushchev’s efforts and dismal failure to adapt the world communist movement to the changed international – economic, military and social – conditions, and keep it united, is a central factor in the crisis of Russian state capitalism.



In conclusion

A few central threads run through all aspects of crisis in Russian state capitalism. The Kremlin tries out a number of policies, quite often contradictory, in an effort to meet the deep crises and revolutionary challenge. They are largely self-defeating, as they are effected in a bureaucratic way. Nor can reform in the long run lead to popular contentment and social stability.

“... it is not always when things go from bad to worse that revolutions break out,” de Tocqueville observed. “On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has just put up with an oppressive rule over a long period of time without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it ... Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds. For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling ...” [7]

Revolutions spring not from despair, but from rising expectations.

In 1857, at the beginning of Alexander II’s reforms Herzen wrote in his paper Kolokol: “The government corrects this or that particular situation, but the principle, the idea out of which all our radical abuses spring, remains untouched ... It is still the same old Nicholaean period, but diluted with molasses.” People in contemporary Russia must view their situation in much the same way. They will not be satisfied with Stalinism “diluted with molasses”. Khrushchev could well repeat the desperate verdict of Livy: “We have come to such a pass that we can bear neither our vices nor the remedies for them.”

The rest of the present book will elaborate these themes.




A. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XI.

B. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XII.

C. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XIII.

D. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XIV.

E. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XV.

F. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XVI.

G. This problem is further elaborated in Chapter XVII.




1. M.N. Pokrovsky, Brief History of Russia, London 1933, Volume I, p.116.

2. L. Owen, The Russian Peasant Movement-1906-17, London 1937, p.264.

3. A. Vucinich, The State and the Local Community, in C.E. Black, editor, The Transformation of Russian Society, Cambridge (Mass.) 1960, p.202.

4. B.M. Almedigen, The Emperor Alexander, London 1962, p.156.

5. Pokrovsky, op. cit., p.178.

6. K. Marx, Introduction to The Critique of Political Economy.

7. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, New York 1955, pp.176-7.


Last updated on 30.1.2005