Isaac Deutscher 1952

The Latest Ambiguities of Stalin, the Aging Oracle

Source: The Reporter, 23 December 1952. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

According to party statutes, a congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is supposed to meet at least once every three years. But no such meetings were held between March 1939 and the Nineteenth Congress in Moscow this October.

What accounted for the long delay? None of the party leaders even pretended to justify the postponement, a tacit admission that a congress is now no more than a relic of that remote past when the Bolshevik Party was democratically governed and when its leaders rendered a regular public accounting of their activities to their followers and appealed to them to settle controversial issues through free debate.

In the Stalinist era, controversies have been allowed, if at all, only within Stalin’s immediate entourage; and as a rule Stalin himself settles them. All that a congress is allowed to do is to listen to decisions that have already been reached, to acclaim them, and to stage a celebration for past successes.

In the course of the thirteen years that had elapsed since the previous congress, there had not been many successes to celebrate and many issues of high policy had been in flux. It had been understandably difficult to convene a congress in the early years of the war. The end of the war might have been the occasion for a Victory Congress, had it not been for all the dislocation within the USSR. By the time the domestic situation had improved, between 1948 and 1950, two crucial issues of foreign policy were unresolved. The Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe, recently threatened by Tito’s defection, still had to be consolidated, and the Chinese Revolution, presenting vast new problems as well as vast new opportunities, was not over.

Only this year did the domestic and foreign situations reach a point that gave the leaders confidence to stage a party congress.

New Faces: Nothing provides a more striking commentary on the present state of Soviet affairs than a comparison between this congress and its predecessor.

In March 1939, Russia was still in a state of shock after the great purges in which most of the Bolshevik Old Guard had perished. The delegates to the Eighteenth Congress that year were told that the purges had come to an end, that many innocent people had suffered, and that the party leadership was determined to put an end to the hysteria of mass denunciation.

As a token of the new ‘liberal’ era, Beria had just replaced Yezhov as chief of the political police. And yet neither Russia nor the outside world were convinced that the convulsion was really at an end. Was it possible that Stalin could stop the purges as easily as he had started them? Could he himself escape vengeance?

Thirteen years later it is clear that no avenger has risen from the ashes of the Bolshevik Old Guard, and Stalin’s rule is now consolidated. Although it is still doubtful whether Stalinism can survive its author, there exists at present no political force in Russia capable of challenging it.

In 1939, the Stalinists of the older generation who had taken part in the revolution of 1917 still dominated the congress. Among the twelve hundred delegates to this year’s congress, only twelve or thirteen were members of the party in 1917. Only seven per cent of the delegates had even joined the party before the end of the revolution in 1920. More than two-thirds of them had entered politics only after Stalin had eliminated all of his rivals. This new Stalinist generation has now been elected to the controlling organs of the party, the Central Committee, the Presidium and the Secretariat.

This generation has, of course, no recollection of the great problems, aspirations and scruples which troubled early Bolshevism. The younger men have none of the weaknesses and none of the grandeur of early Bolshevism. Even the long-cherished name, ‘Bolshevik’, which made its appearance in Russian politics exactly forty-nine years ago, has been discarded.

And yet the young Stalinist guard has witnessed a partial self-repudiation of Stalinism. The congress of 1939 marked the apogee of ‘socialism in one country’. In the name of that doctrine, his principal contribution to Communist doctrine, Stalin then openly dissociated himself from the traditional Marxist conception of the socialist state. ‘Engels’ general formula about the destiny of the socialist state’, he told the Eighteenth Congress, ‘cannot apply to... the victory of socialism in one country.’

At the recent congress, however, ‘socialism in one country’ was not mentioned even once. This central dogma of Stalinism had simply been deleted from the party liturgies. Stalin, Malenkov and other leaders spoke instead about the end of the isolation of the Soviet Union, about ‘one-third of mankind united in the struggle against capitalism’, and about the new ‘shock-brigades’ of Communism that had joined the Russian party.

The highlight of the 1939 congress was the memorable speech in which Stalin gave the first public hint that he would be willing to make an arrangement with Hitler if the Western powers spurned an alliance with Russia. The British and French governments missed the significance of the hint, but Hitler did not: a few months later Ribbentrop was in the Kremlin.

At the recent congress Stalin kept silent except for a brief address at the closing session to the representatives of foreign Communist parties, who were assembled in the box for distinguished guests. Throughout most of the debates he sat on the platform, expressionless and inscrutable, not a man of flesh and blood any more, but a monument to himself, a deity to which every speaker piously bowed many times, an object of interminable, vociferous ceremonies of worship.

Stalin, for the first time, did not bother to manage the congress. He left that job to Malenkov, the appointed leader of the new generation, who presented the chief report of the Central Committee. It was as if Stalin had deliberately staged a kind of public resignation of the old leaders. Molotov, Voroshilov and Kaganovich, the pillars of his Politburo, were allowed to perform only short ceremonial functions, such as opening and closing the congress, and such heroes of the preceding era as Andreyev and Budienny were even less conspicuous.

Younger men stepped into the limelight to accustom the party and the country at large to their unfamiliar names, faces and voices. Andrianov, Aristov, Saburov, Brezhnev, Ignatov, Patolichev, Pegov and Puzanov were the stars. They monopolised the platform. They were promoted to the Presidium, the body that has taken the place of the Politburo. Nearly all of them had been more or less unknown before the congress. That Stalin so ostentatiously pushed them to the fore indicates how seriously he is preoccupied with the succession, not only to himself but to his whole team.

And a New Party Line: Stalin’s own self-effacement at the congress, however, was hardly more than a stage effect. Just before the congress met, he published an article in the Bolshevik and a series of letters to various Soviet theorists. He had written the article many months earlier – it is dated 1 February 1952 – but he published it just on the eve of the congress in order to provide a keynote for the debates that were to follow. Any account of the political significance of the congress must begin with an interpretation of Stalin’s article.

Oddly, the occasion for the pronouncement was a discussion among Soviet economists over the project of a new textbook on political economy. Stalin drew his conclusions from that discussion. His main theme was whether or how the ‘law of value’, as Karl Marx formulated it, operates under socialism or its higher stage, communism. To non-Marxists the article seems as abstruse as a papal bull on some finer point of theology seems to agnostics, although Stalin did have something specific to say on domestic policies and he indicated some important long-term developments, especially in rural policy. But of greater interest to the outsider are the remarks on the international situation which Stalin inserted almost casually into his ‘theoretical’ treatise. It was primarily for the sake of these latter remarks that the piece was published.

The foreign policy statements are contained in two sub-chapters, one dealing with the ‘disintegration of a single world market’ and the other with the ‘inevitability of wars between capitalist countries’. These sub-chapters, singular in both content and style, bristle with the incongruities that are characteristic of Stalin’s prose. But it would be a mistake to overlook their political significance.

He begins with the statement that the most important economic result of the Second World War was ‘the disintegration of a single all-embracing world market’. Many Communists reading this rather belated announcement must have rubbed their eyes with incredulity. Long before the Second World War, all the party economists, headed by Professor Varga, had dwelt on the decomposition of the world market. Soviet Russia had been outside the circuit of world trade ever since the Revolution. In the period of the economic nationalism let loose by the slump of 1929-32, the ‘single world market’ was already a memory.

Stalin’s further statement about the emergence of ‘two parallel world markets’ sounded even clumsier. But these two sophomoric formulas served Stalin as a pretext for his assertion that the West’s economic blockade of Russia and the countries within the Soviet orbit had failed to achieve its objective. It had not disrupted the Russian economy, said Stalin; on the contrary, it had spurred it on to further intensive development; and it had also been conducive to the integration of the economies of Russia, China and Eastern Europe. This was the first time that Stalin had ever publicly spoken with such strong emphasis on the economic integration and the rapid industrialisation of the vast area from the China Sea to the Elbe.

Stalin followed with another curious assertion. Referring to himself in the third person, he declared that ‘the well-known thesis of Stalin about the relative stability of markets in the period of the general crisis of capitalism’ had become outdated. This was an unexpected echo of an inner-party controversy that had taken place almost a quarter of a century before. In the middle 1920s Stalin had indeed spoken of the ‘relative stabilisation of world capitalism’, using this as the major premise for his theory of socialism in one country.

Since then he himself has abandoned the idea of the stabilisation of capitalism, especially after the slump of 1929. Why then did he raise the issue again? Because, he went on to say, ‘some countries are of the opinion that in view of the new international developments... wars between capitalist countries are no longer inevitable’.

Inevitable Capitalist War? This was the first public intimation given the Soviet public of an important controversy that had been going on in Stalin’s entourage. Stalin himself summarised the controversy quite plausibly, and what is more unusual, quite fairly, without labelling those with whom he disagreed traitors or enemies of the people.

The arguments that he set out to refute were: that the antagonism between Russia and the West overshadows all possible conflicts within the West; that the United States would be able to use its economic and military preponderance effectively to keep the West united against Communism; and that the most intelligent spokesmen of Western capitalism knew that they could not afford any internecine struggle, because nothing less than their whole social system was at stake.

This view, Stalin declared, took account only of ‘the surface of events’. He himself was emphatically of the opinion that ‘wars between the capitalist countries are still inevitable’, precisely because of the instability of capitalist economies. In theory, he admitted, it was true that the conflicts between capitalism and Communism went deeper than any antagonisms among the capitalist powers. This was true in theory even before the Second World War. But that war was not a crusade of a united capitalist world against Communist Russia; it had started as an internal struggle of the capitalist world. He suggested that the Third World War, if it comes, will not be different in this respect.

Thus Stalin denied that the present polarisation of power between Russia and the United States was final or likely to remain the predominant factor in international relations. He forecast something like a revolt of the West European governments (and possibly of Japan) against US leadership.

This was neither mere crystal-gazing nor disinterested intellectual probing of the future. From the two views which Stalin summarised, two different tactical lines follow, although he did not define them.

If the Western world is firmly and lastingly united against Russia, according to Stalin’s theory, then Soviet diplomacy is left with no room for manoeuver among the Western powers, and the Soviets cannot hope to gain capitalist allies in a Third World War as they gained them in 1941. The whole Russian bloc would then have to shape its policies from a strictly revolutionary standpoint and consider the Third World War as the final clash between Communism and capitalism.

If it is assumed, however, that the anti-Communist unity of the West is merely ‘a surface phenomenon’, less real than the inner rivalries in the Western camp, then Soviet diplomacy should have ample room for manoeuver. And it should be its task as well as that of all Communist parties to look for potential allies inside the present Western bloc.

Thus, in his cryptic manner, Stalin appeared to caution Communists that they should not commit themselves irrevocably to revolutionary tactics and that they should not give up the search for bourgeois allies. The long-heralded and now approaching economic slump in the capitalist countries, he said in effect, should ease their task. Under present international alignments, he suggested, his followers ought to concentrate all their efforts on splitting the Atlantic bloc. He hinted that over the years another alignment might develop, broadly similar to that which had been formed in the last war. This could be brought about by the renascence of German and/or Japanese military power. It would be wrong, he argued, to rule this out. After the First World War German military recovery had also seemed impossible. Yet it took place, and reversed the postwar alignment, which had also been directed primarily against Soviet Russia.

If the search for capitalist allies is not hopeless, then the Soviet bloc and the Communist parties in the West must be prepared to attract potential allies by ideological concessions. ‘The contemporary movement for peace’, Stalin pointed out, ‘strives to rally popular masses for the struggle for preservation of peace and prevention of another world war. Consequently, it does not pursue the aim of overthrowing capitalism and establishing socialism – it limits itself to the democratic objectives of a struggle for peace. In this respect the contemporary movement... differs from that which during the First World War had worked to transform imperialist war into civil war...’

This was exactly the formula on which the Popular Fronts of the late 1930s were based. Stalin’s words so far sound like a cautious signal for the revival of Popular Front tactics.

Stalin Disagrees with Stalin: Yet Stalin himself betrays his own uncertainty about this search for bourgeois allies. In his speech at the closing session of the congress, he himself virtually dismissed his own prognostication about the revolt of bourgeois France and England, or bourgeois Germany and Japan, against American leadership.

In the past [he said], the bourgeoisie led the nation, defended the rights and independence of the nation... Now not a trace is left of the ‘national principle’. The bourgeoisie is selling out national rights and independence for dollars. The banner of national sovereignty has been thrown overboard. There can be no doubt that you representatives of Communist and democratic parties have to raise this banner and carry it forward...

This amounted to saying that none of the bourgeois governments could be counted upon to break away from the Atlantic bloc. Stalin did not even try to square this with his earlier statement that war between the capitalist nations was ‘inevitable’.

In his elusiveness and apparent lack of concern over his own contradictions, Stalin has remained true to himself. Similarly, he did not try to reconcile his call for an anti-Nazi alliance in 1939 with his intimation of readiness to come to terms with Hitler. Now as then he prefers to keep all his irons in the fire. He banks on the breakdown of the Atlantic bloc and on Popular Fronts (under the banner of ‘national sovereignty’) in France, Italy and other European countries. At the same time, he reckons with the solidity of the Atlantic alliance and with the possibility that the Communist parties might fail to reconstitute Popular Fronts on an anti-American basis.

The controversy in his entourage, which he had set out to resolve, remains unresolved after all. The congress seems to have taken Stalin’s utterance about ‘the inevitability of wars between the capitalist nations’ with a grain of salt. None of the speakers questioned it, of course, but very few quoted it with the zealous approval that is customary. Most of them seemed anxious to tone it down discreetly and merely to suggest, with reserve and realism, that friction and discord within the Atlantic bloc might delay the build-up of Atlantic power and give the Russian bloc needed time.

The news from the West which reached Moscow while the congress was in session seemed up to a point to justify hope in these traditional diversionary tactics, and the spirits of the delegates rose accordingly. Much comment was devoted, for instance, to Britain’s exclusion from the defence arrangements between the United States, Australia and New Zealand. This was interpreted as just another stage in the process by which the United States ‘expropriated Britain of its Empire’. Malenkov made the most of it.

English propaganda alleges [he said] that the Communists destroy the British Empire. But the ruling circles of the British Empire cannot be blind to the obvious fact that not Communists but American multi-millionaires grab British imperial possessions.

A real bombshell, and a most welcome one for Moscow, was the news that French Prime Minister Pinay had rejected an American ‘note’ on the financing of French rearmament. Then came the reports that Herriot and Daladier had, with Pinay’s approval, denounced as unconstitutional the Bonn contractual agreements. France’s reluctance to give final acceptance, under American auspices, to military partnership with Germany was hailed as the confirmation of Stalin’s words about the incipient revolt against the Atlantic bloc.

Stalin is not altogether a fool. Behind the scenes his diplomacy is engaged in an effort to break through the chain of the Atlantic alliance at its weakest link. The weakest link right now seems to be France.