Isaac Deutscher 1953

The Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Source: International Affairs, Volume 29, no 2, April 1953. This was the text of a speech given at Chatham House on 18 November 1952. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Nineteenth Congress of the Communist Party met in Moscow in October 1952 after an interval of thirteen years. The previous congress met in March 1939. According to the statutes of the party, a congress should meet at least once in three years. In the early period of Bolshevism a congress used to meet at least once a year. One is, of course, entitled to ask what caused such a long interval between the last two congresses? Did the leaders of the party explain it to the delegates? Well, the congress was given no explanation at all. Nobody even tried to justify the long pause. But the explanation is fairly obvious: a congress of the party is nothing more nowadays than a relic of a very remote past. In the old days a congress was something real; the leaders of the party used to appear on the platform to give a genuine account of their activities; they used to submit controversies to the judgement of the rank and file of the party, and await a verdict. At present a congress is only an occasion on which the leaders parade successes, real or imaginary, or draw a balance sheet for a certain period.

Clearly the leaders of the party did not call a congress earlier because they were either not in a position to parade successes before the country, or they felt that they could not draw any definite balance sheets. The statutory period within which the Nineteenth Congress should have been convened was in 1942, some time between the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad. That was obviously not a time for congress-making. At the end of the war a victory congress might have been held, but Russia was then so deep in the aftermath of war, in the chaos and destruction caused by the war, that the leaders again felt that this was not a time for them to face the country.

About 1948, a change for the better had begun in Russia’s economic situation, but the change was rather modest, and the international situation was extremely confused. The Tito controversy had just started. It was not clear how this would affect the situation in Eastern Europe. The Cold War was in one of its initial phases, and Stalin and his lieutenants preferred non-committal silence.

At last this year the Politburo apparently felt that it could draw a balance sheet, and one which was from its point of view quite satisfactory. As I have indicated, the congress did not and could not become the occasion for any general debate or for any real survey of the problems with which the Soviet leadership was confronted. Nevertheless it did offer an opportunity for drawing a retrospective view of the thirteen years between 1939 and 1952. Perhaps nothing is as revealing and instructive as the contrast between this congress and its predecessor.

In 1939 the congress assembled just after the great purges had been concluded. The country was still stunned after the purges. It still had in its ears the sound of the executions and before its eyes the sight of the long columns of men marched off to concentration camps. The old Bolshevik Guard had just been destroyed. At the 1939 congress Stalin announced an end to the great purges. He declared that the party leadership wanted to stop the hysteria of mass denunciations and that many innocent people had suffered. A new quasi-liberal era was to open, and as its embodiment Beria became Chief of the Police in place of Yezhov.

Many people then still wondered whether the purges were really at an end, whether it would be possible for Stalin to control the guillotine which he had set in motion, whether he himself would not be caught by it, as Robespierre was caught by the guillotine which had destroyed Danton, Hébert and the other leaders of the French Revolution. By 1952 the memory of the thirties had almost faded. The Stalin regime had become consolidated – consolidated by the purges, consolidated by the war, and by the aftermath of the war. No avenger of the old Bolshevik Guard seems to have arisen.

In another respect too there was a strong contrast between the two congresses. In 1939 the Stalinists of the old generation still dominated the scene – the men who in their majority themselves took part in the Revolution of October 1917. At the latest congress, in October 1952, among all the 1200 delegates only twelve or thirteen men had taken part in the October Revolution; only seven per cent of the delegates had joined the party before the end of the Civil War in 1920, and more than two-thirds of all delegates had joined only after Stalin had eliminated all his opponents and risen to absolute power. A new Stalinist generation has come of age politically; and it has been one of the very important results of the congress that this new Stalinist generation is now represented on the new directing bodies of the party, on the Central Committee and on the Praesidium which has replaced the Politburo.

Most of these men are between forty and fifty years of age. Their memories of the pre-Stalinist period are dim. The men of the old Stalinist guard had apparently been told by Stalin to efface themselves. They made only brief ceremonial appearances at the congress, and they played no significant part in its proceedings. Stalin himself sat on the platform, not a living man any more, but a deity, worshipped and glorified. It was only towards the end of the congress that he made a short speech, addressed not so much to the Russian delegates as to the leaders of the foreign Communist parties assembled in the box for distinguished guests.

It was in keeping with this change of generations, or rather with the change of guards, that the party dropped its name, Bolshevik, that name which was once its pride, and which had come into use forty-nine years ago – in 1953 it will be half a century since that momentous breach between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the Second Party Congress.

In yet another and even more important respect the recent congress contrasted very strongly with its predecessor. In 1939 the dominant doctrine was Socialism in One Country. The year 1939 saw its apotheosis. In 1952 Socialism in One Country was not mentioned even once. From a doctrinal and political point of view the significance of the congress lay primarily in this that it put the seal, so to say, on the discarding of Socialism in One Country. This was the party’s final parting with that doctrine in which Stalinism saw for such a long time its raison d'être. This time Stalin spoke about the new ‘shock brigades’ of Communism, the brigades which had joined the Soviet Union, once the lonely vanguard of proletarian revolution. Stalin’s speech at the final session of the congress was a virtual confession to foreign Communists, in which he told them in his cryptic way: ‘Well, I had to do a lot of very unpleasant things at a time when we were isolated, and often we had to parley and to make compromises with the bourgeois world at your expense.’ (That is at the expense of foreign Communism.) He may have had in mind the pact with Hitler in 1939. ‘But now things go much easier, we now have behind us one-third of all mankind.’

I may be dwelling on somewhat obvious contrasts, but sometimes it is important to emphasise the obvious. We are all a little inclined to think of Russia in outdated terms. In the nineteen-thirties many were inclined to think of Russia in terms which would have been quite up to date in the nineteen-twenties. In the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties one is inclined to think in terms which would have been very up to date and very realistic in the nineteen-thirties.

A similar time-lag occurs, of course, in our thinking about any country and any political movements. But the time-lag is perhaps most pronounced in our thinking of Russia, because hardly any contemporary nation changes so significantly from decade to decade as Russia does, and it is naturally difficult to adjust one’s views to these rapid changes. I do not intend to deny the element of historic continuity – it is very strong. One can trace many features of the early Russian Tsarist Empire in contemporary Russia. But together with continuity there is also the strong and rapid flux of life, and there is the danger of underrating the great, momentous changes that occur.

I shall try to illustrate this by a brief survey of the new Five-Year Plan which the Nineteenth Congress has adopted. For this some figures and statistics are necessary, but these figures indicate extremely important developments likely to affect the whole balance of power in the world and the trend of world politics for years and perhaps decades to come.

The new Five-Year Plan is to run from the years 1951 to 1955; it provides for an increase over those years of the national income of the Soviet Union by 60 per cent and of gross industrial output by 70 per cent. Employment is to grow by six million – six million more people are to be employed by the state in 1955 than in 1951. As in the previous plans the emphasis is on the development of heavy industry – that is of producer goods – the output of which is to rise by 82 per cent; whereas consumer goods are to increase only by 64 per cent. The output of steel in 1955 is to be 45 million tons. In 1940, Russia’s last prewar year, it was 18 million tons and it is about 35 million now: coal – 372 million tons compared with 166 in 1940; oil – 70 million tons compared with 31 in 1940; electricity – 158 billion kilowatt hours compared with 48 billion in 1940. I am convinced that these targets are not mere propaganda stunts, and I am even inclined to assume that they will be not only reached but surpassed at the end of the Five-Year Plan, as was the case with the targets of the previous plan. Russia is clearly right in the middle of a tremendous all-out industrial race.

At the opening of the Cold War the Russian steel output was either one-eighth or one-seventh of the American. By 1955 it should amount to half the American output. In power-political terms this may sound a little paradoxical, but is true nevertheless, that one American million tons of steel does not equal one Russian million tons, for the simple reason that of every million tons of steel produced in the United States a much higher proportion must go to keep functioning the country’s civilian economy. An American worker will not reach his factory if he has no car; he must be supplied with a car, even during war. In Russia the whole output of cars, that is civilian, normal passenger cars, is not more than 65,000 a year. The same is of course true of refrigerators and many other domestic goods.

As a result of a prolonged saving of steel and other basic materials for capital investment the level of the Russian engineering industries is well above the general level of the Russian economy. Those branches of industry on which Russia’s industrial – military power depends directly are high above other branches, even such as coal and steel. When you compare American and Russian steel output you may arrive at the conclusion that in three years the Russian industrial potential and/or output may reach roughly half the American; but when you look at the engineering industries you will not go far wrong if you assume that the gap between the American and the Russian engineering industries will be (and already is) very much narrower. Accordingly, the gap between the respective military-industrial potentials also appears narrower.

When we compare again what the Russians expect and are likely to achieve by 1955 with what they had in 1940 we see that they expect within these fifteen years their national income to be doubled, their gross industrial output to be trebled, and the output of their engineering industries to be quadrupled. Again I do not think that these proportions are propaganda stunts. Certainly, not every figure the Russians issue about their industrial development is correct, but the mutual proportions in which they describe the various branches of their industries certainly are.

It goes almost without saying that the Russian consumer goes on financing this tremendously ambitious programme of industrialisation. Russia has been taking part in this industrial race with the West almost barefoot, half-naked, and not very well fed. Nevertheless we should do well not to exaggerate this aspect of the problem. The Russian national product has been growing so fast that even if a growing proportion of it goes for capital investment and armament the part that can be allocated for consumption is also growing. Russia’s present position is in this respect different from what it was in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties. Russia can now afford a little more butter and many more guns. The dilemma between guns and butter is no longer as inexorable as it used to be in Russia. Important political conclusions may follow from this. I think that in this respect Russia’s situation compares favourably with that of Western Europe. Among people whose standards of living rise slowly, even very slowly, acute political discontent is not likely to be widespread. The Russian people do have a visible and obvious rise in their standard of living. Their standard is far below the Western European, but they have the satisfaction that comes from a movement upward and forward; and they can continue to improve their standard of living very slowly even while they expand their capital construction and armament programmes.

In Western Europe, on the contrary, the armament programmes already impinge and press on the standards of living. We see this in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. I think that there is more likelihood of political dissatisfaction among people who have to descend from their accustomed standards of living, even if these are relatively high, than among people who ascend, be it very slowly, from low standards of living. This was what the leaders of the Communist Party brought out at the congress. They could point to definite achievements, to a very definite strengthening of their power-political situation in the world.

Yet Stalin and his team are also confronted with the question – how far can they carry on with the policy to which they owe their present position of power? What is needed in order that this policy should be carried on to a point where Russia could find herself much further ahead in the industrial and power-political race than she is now?

I would briefly describe these conditions as the ‘five big ifs’. Russia can continue in this race:

1. If the process of industrialisation is not interrupted by war.

2. If the discipline, the totalitarian discipline, imposed on the consumer to compel him to finance this programme does not break down.

3. If no internal convulsion, especially after Stalin’s death (he is, after all, a mortal man), shakes the system.

4. If Russian resources are not dissipated and dispersed in an attempt to keep under rigid control the Russian orbit, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and China.

5. If the equilibrium between the various elements of the industrialisation – the actual equilibrium between investment, raw materials, resources, manpower – is not disturbed.

These ‘five ifs’, so it seems to me, dictate Stalin’s lines of policy, his desire if not to avert then at least to delay a third world war for as long as possible, to settle in advance the succession to his government or personal rule, to settle relations between Russia, China and the other countries within the Russian orbit, and so on.

About these aspects of Soviet policy the congress did not give us much illumination. Stalin, however, did make a few interesting remarks in his article in the Bolshevik which appeared just on the eve of the congress. That article provided the keynote to all the debates; and it was at once hailed in that familiar style of the ridiculous Stalin cult as one of the greatest philosophical and intellectual feats of the century.

Curiously enough, Stalin wrote the article as a postscript to a debate between Soviet economists on a new textbook of political economy. (It is interesting that the great dictator assembled the economists of Russia at the Kremlin to discuss in detail the new standard textbook of economy.)

I shall not go into Stalin’s strictly theoretical argument, because to non-Marxists this must be almost as confusing and boring as a dissertation on some very fine theological points may be to agnostics. I am concerned now with the remarks on international policy which Stalin dropped en passant (I do not really think that he dropped them – he made them deliberately).

Stalin’s remarks were interesting in more than one respect. For the first time he revealed something of a significant controversy which was going on in his entourage. He said: ‘Some comrades are of the opinion that in view of the international developments wars between capitalist countries are no longer inevitable.’ It is natural that there should be men in Stalin’s entourage who should hold this view, a view fairly common among half-way informed people in the West, namely, that world politics have reached the stage of a definite polarisation of two camps, one led by the United States, the other by Russia, and that there is no room for any third force in between.

Speaking not as a politician but as a student of affairs, I deplore this very much, but nevertheless this is the fact. Well, Stalin came out against this view and argued that the polarisation of the two camps is merely the ‘surface of events’ and that there is ample room for conflicts between the capitalist powers. The conflicts between the capitalist powers, he maintained, are more explosive than the antagonism between capitalism and Communism. He forecast something like a revolt of either Britain or France, or Germany or Japan, or of all these nations – he was not very specific about this – against American leadership, a revolt leading to a breakdown of the Atlantic bloc.

Stalin went even further and declared that wars between capitalist countries are still ‘inevitable’, whereas war between East and West is not. Incidentally at the congress, where every speaker was and had to be highly enthusiastic over Stalin’s Bolshevik article, very few quoted this sentence about the inevitability of war between the capitalist countries; this seemed almost too incongruous, even to the Malenkovs and Berias. One had the impression that they tried to tone down this statement and to indicate just this, that friction between the nations of the Atlantic alliance is likely to delay the building up of the military power of the Atlantic bloc rather than to suggest that Soviet policy could count on a breakdown of the Atlantic alliance; there was a certain change in emphasis and in tone, between what Stalin himself had said, and what was said by the chief speakers at the congress.

This was no abstract debate about the prospects of the world situation. Implied in each view is a certain practical political line. The problems which Stalin tried to solve were:

a) Whether the contradictions in the capitalist world would develop so strongly that a third world war would not start as a war against Russia; and...

b) Whether, in the case of a third world war, Russia could count on any capitalist allies, such as she had in the last war, or whether the Soviet bloc would find itself fighting against the whole capitalist world.

If you assume that in any foreseeable future Russia could find allies in the capitalist camp, a definite tactical line follows from this. If Russia could not count on any capitalist allies, then she would fight a clear-cut revolutionary struggle – Communism versus capitalism. Should, however, Russia be able to gain allies from the capitalist camp, then the practical political conclusion would be that Russia must try to encourage the popular front tactics which she promoted on the eve of the Second World War, also in an attempt to gain allies in the West.

This issue does not seem to have been resolved by Stalin. No indication of a clear-cut decision was given at the congress. In the Bolshevik article Stalin issued a very cautious appeal for trying out popular front tactics on an anti-American basis, but in his short speech at the congress he seemed to contradict that appeal, and to indicate that the Communist Parties could really not hope to gain allies in the capitalist camp.

These were broadly the highlights of the congress, or of that part of its proceedings which had a bearing on the present international situation.