Isaac Deutscher

Khrushchev on Stalin


First Published: Written and first published (in French, German, Italian, Japanese) in June 1956
Transcribed: Martin Fahlgren
Online Version: Marxist Internet Archive 2012
HTML Markup: Martin Fahlgren, 2012

No one who has seen and heard N. S. Khrushchev speaking on a platform or arguing with people will doubt the authenticity of the text, published by the State Department, of his secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. The text probably has its gaps, and here and there the transcript or the translation may not be quite accurate. Nevertheless this is the real stuff — genuine Khrushchev saying indirectly about himself almost as much as he says about Stalin.[1]

The style, like the man himself, is untutored, impulsive, discursive, almost chaotic; yet at the same time it is peculiarly dynamic and down-to-earth. This is no theorist or historian producing a Marxist explanation of the Stalin era or offering analytical ideas and generalizations. In this respect Khrushchev is immeasurably inferior to the great Bolshevik critics who have exposed Stalin before him, to Trotsky, Bukharin, or Rakovsky. Yet he gives by far the most vivid image of the Stalin era, or, at any rate, of its final phase, and incidentally also of Stalin himself. He takes us into the dark corridors and galleries of Russia's recent past as a miner would take us, lamp in hand, down a coalpit; and with a miner's tough fist he puts dynamite under the rocks of Stalinism down below.

His performance must be something of a puzzle to the purveyors of clichés and simplifications about the Stalin era. How is it, one must ask, that a man of so sturdy a character, of a mind so inherently independent, and of so eruptive and untamable a temper could at all survive under Stalin, and survive at the very top of the Stalinist hierarchy? How did Khrushchev manage to control himself, to keep his thoughts to himself, and to hide his burning hatred from Stalin? How did he behave under the dictator's scrutinizing gaze when the dictator snarled at him: ”Why do your eyes look so shifty today?”

This is not the place to analyse the working of the minds of men like Khrushchev during the Stalin era. I have attempted to do it elsewhere, for instance in my book Russia After Stalin. But this much can be said here: in this miner and miner's son risen to his present position one can still feel something of that tenacious, patient, yet alert and shrewd spirit which once characterized the old Russian worker when from the underground he bored under the Tsar's throne. To that spirit are now joined new mental horizons, a new capacity for organization, and an unwonted modernity. As one watches Khrushchev (even, as I have watched him, with a certain bias against him) one comes to think that he is probably still the Russian (or the Russian-Ukrainian worker) writ large—the Russian worker who inwardly remained true to himself even in the Stalinist straitjacket, who has over the years gathered strength and grown in stature and grown out of the straitjacket. One might even say that through Khrushchev the old repressed socialist tradition of the Russian working class takes a long-delayed and sly revenge on Stalinism.

Yet Khrushchev also makes the impression of an actor who, while he plays his own part with superb self-assurance, is only half aware of his own place in the great, complex, and sombre drama in which he has been involved. His long, aggressive monologue is a cry from the heart, a cry about the tragedy of the Russian revolution and of the Bolshevik Party; but it is only a fragment of the tragedy. He himself did not expect to burst out with this cry. Only a few days
before he made the secret speech, he did not know that he was going to make it; or, at any rate, he did not know what he was going to say. Even the composition of his speech shows that he spoke more or less impromptu: he dashes from topic to topic almost indiscriminately; he ventures spontaneously into the side lines; and he seems to throw out reminiscences and confidences and asides as they occur to him. By its irregularity this speech, delivered at the closing session of the congress on 25 February, contrasts curiously with his own formal address delivered at the inaugural session ten days earlier. The two speeches form a striking contrast in content as well. In his inaugural address Khrushchev said, for instance:

The unity of our party has formed itself in the course of years and tens of years. It has grown and become tempered in the struggle against many enemies. The Trotskyites, Bukharinites, bourgeois nationalists, and other most wicked enemies of the people, champions of a capitalist restoration, made desperate efforts to disrupt from the inside the Leninist unity of our party, and they all have smashed their heads against our unity.

The words might have come straight from Stalin's mouth. But ten days later Khrushchev argues thus:

It is Stalin who originated the concept ”enemy of the people”. This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man, or men, engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression ... against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin....

Khrushchev then goes on to say that the Trotskyites, Bukharinites, and so-called bourgeois nationalists, whatever their faults, were not enemies of the people; that there was no need to annihilate them; and that they ”smashed their heads” not against the party's ”Leninist unity” but against Stalin's despotism.

The speaker to whom the congress listened on 25 February was a very different man from the one whom it heard ten days earlier. What happened during those ten days to change the man so radically? Clearly, some dramatic but as yet undisclosed event must have occurred in the meantime, an event which showed Khrushchev that it would not do to sit on the fence and that he had to come down on one side or the other in the conflict between Stalinism and anti-Stalinism. Did perhaps the small band of old Bolsheviks, wrecks from Stalin's concentration camps, who have been brought to the conference hall as guests of honour, stage some demonstration of protest which shook the assembly's conscience? Or were the young delegates, who had been brought up in the Stalin cult, so restive after Khrushchev's first ambiguous hints about Stalin (and even more so after Mikoyan's more outspoken remarks) that they forced him to come out into the open and take the bull by the horns?

Whatever happened, Khrushchev had to produce an answer on the spot; and the answer was an indictment of Stalin.[2] To justify his new attitude he ordered, no doubt with the Presidium's approval, that Lenin's testament be distributed among the delegates, that long-suppressed testament in which Lenin urged the party to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary, the testament for the publication and execution of which the anti-Stalinist opposition once clamoured for years and in vain.

To the student of Soviet affairs Khrushchev's disclosures bring little that is really new. A biographer of Stalin finds in them at the most a few more illustrations of familiar points. Khrushchev confirms in every detail the account of the relations between Lenin and Stalin towards the very end of Lenin's life which Trotsky gave. Stalin's old critics are also proved right in what they have said about his method of collectivization, about the purges, and about the Trotskyite and Bukharinite ”fifth columns”, in the reality of which not only Communists but conservatives, liberals, and socialists in the West once preferred to believe. Nor is there anything surprising to the historian in Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin's role in the last war and about his miscalculations and mistakes.[3]

But it is not from the historian's viewpoint that Khrushchev's performance should be judged. He spoke not to scholars, but to men and women of a new Communist generation; and to them his words have come as a Titanic shock, and as the beginning of a profound mental—and moral—upheaval.

Consider only how Khrushchev's character-sketch of Stalin, drawn haphazardly yet extremely vividly, must affect Communists brought up in the Stalin cult. There they see him now, the ”Father of the Peoples”, immured as he was in the Kremlin, refusing over the last twenty-five years of his life to have a look at a Soviet village —at the new collectivized village; refusing to step down into a factory and face workers; refusing even to cast a glance at the army of which he was the Generalissimo, let alone to visit the front; spending his life in a half-real and half-fictitious world of statistics and mendacious propaganda films; planning unleviable taxes; tracing front-lines and lines of offensives on a globe on his desk; seeing enemies creeping at him from every nook and cranny; treating the members of his own Politbureau as his contemptible lackeys, denying a Voroshilov admission to sessions, slamming the door in Andreyev's face, or upbraiding Molotov and Mikoyan; ”choking” his interlocutors ”morally and physically”; pulling the wires behind the great purge trials; personally checking and signing 383 black lists with the names of thousands of doomed party members; ordering judges and N.K.V.D. men to torture the victims of the purges and to extract confessions; ”planning” the deportations of entire peoples and raging impotently at the size of the Ukrainian people too large to be deported; growing sick with envy at Zhukov's military fame; ”shaking his little finger” at Tito and waiting for Tito's imminent fall; surrounded by dense clouds of incense and, like an opium eater, craving for more; inserting in his own hand passages of praise to his own ”genius” — and to his own modesty! — into his official adulatory biography and into history textbooks; himself designing huge, monstrously ugly, elephantine monuments to himself; and himself writing his own name into the new national anthem which was to replace the Internationale. Thus did Khrushchev expose before his party the huge, grim, whimsical, morbid, human monster before whom Communists had lain prostrate over a quarter of a century.

And yet Khrushchev adds that ”Stalin was convinced that all this was necessary for the defence of the interests of the working class against the plotting of the enemies and against the attack of the imperialist camp.” When he surmised that even those who stood closest to him did not share his phobias and suspicions, Stalin wrung his hands in despair: ”What will you do without me?” he growled. ”You are blind like chicken!” ”He saw this,” Khrushchev assures the congress again, ”from the position of the interest of the working class ... of socialism and communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot.... In this lies the whole tragedy!”

Yet the mainspring of the tragedy remains hidden from Khrushchev. His whole speech is full of the denunciation of the hero cult.  Its one and only theme is the power, the superhuman power, of the usurper who ”placed himself above the party and above the masses”. In passage after passage Khrushchev argues that all the evil from which the Communist Party, the Soviet people, and the international labour movement have suffered for so long sprang from this one ”individual”. And then he tells us in quite as many passages that it is utterly wrong to imagine that one man could exercise so much influence on history, for the real makers of Soviet history have been the masses, the people, and the ”militant Bolshevik Party” bred and inspired by Lenin.

Where then was that ”militant party” when Stalin ”placed himself above it”? Where was its militancy and its Leninist spirit? Why and how could the despot impose his will on the masses? And why did ”our heroic people” submit so passively?

All these questions, which have so close a bearing on the Marxist Weltanschauung, Khrushchev leaves unanswered. Yet, if one agrees that history is made not by demigods but by masses and social classes one has still to explain the rise of this particular demigod; and one can explain it only by the condition of Soviet society, the interests of the Bolshevik Party, and the state of mind of its leadership. But no sooner have we descended with Khrushchev to this depth of recent Soviet history than his lamp is blown out, and we are once again enveloped by dark and impenetrable fumes.

The political evolution of the Soviet régime falls broadly into three chapters. In the first the Bolsheviks under Lenin established their monopoly of power, the single-party system, in which they saw the only way to preserve their government and to safeguard the October Revolution against domestic and foreign foes. But having suppressed all other parties, the Bolshevik Party itself split into several factions which confronted one another in utter hostility. The single-party system turned out to be a contradiction in terms: the single party was breaking up into at least three parties.

In the second chapter the rule of the single party was replaced by the rule of a single Bolshevik faction, the one led by Stalin. The principle of the ”monolithic” party was proclaimed. Only a party which does not permit diverse currents of opinion to emerge in its midst, Stalin argued, can safeguard its monopoly of power. However, the rule of the single faction also proved to be chimerical. Once it had gained complete mastery, the victorious faction, like the victorious party before it, was torn by internal rivalries and divisions.

In the third and final chapter the rule of the single faction gives way to the rule of the single leader, who by the nature of the whole process had to be intolerant of any potential challenge to his authority, constantly on his guard, constantly suspicious, and constantly bent on enforcing his will. The monopoly of power reached its culmination.

The Bolshevik Party, while it was suppressing all other parties, up to the year 1921, was still innerly free and democratically ruled. But having deprived others of freedom, it could not help losing its own freedom. The same then happened to the Stalinist faction. Between 1923 and 1930 it destroyed ”inner party democracy” for its opponents; but it was itself still more or less democratically ruled. In the end, however, it had to surrender all its freedom to its own leader.

From stage to stage the monopoly of power grew ever narrower. The narrower it was, the more fiercely and the more unscrupulously it had to be defended, and the fewer and the weaker were the inhibitions and restraining influences. The early Bolsheviks cherished controversy in their own ranks too much to be able to enforce the ban on controversy outside their ranks by anything like the Stalinist violence. Even the Stalinist faction, before it succumbed to Stalin, only expelled its opponents and exiled them; it could not even contemplate the bloody dénouement of the great purge trials. Stalin had to suppress his own faction before he could stage the holocaust.

Each phase of this evolution followed inexorably from the preceding one; the rule of the single leader from that of the single faction, and the rule of the single faction from that of the single party. What gave to the whole development its momentum and its convulsive and cruel character were the social tensions in a nation which was first ruined and famished after seven years of war, revolution, and civil war, and which was then rushed through forced industrialization and collectivization and drawn into devastating war and armament races, all calling for heavy sacrifice, rigid discipline, and massive coercion, and all providing Stalin with the justifications and pretexts for his use and abuse of the monopoly of power.

Stalin did not, thus, appear as a diabolus ex machina. Yet it is as a diabolus ex machina that Khrushchev presents him. It is not difficult to grasp why he views Stalin in this way. Khrushchev and his colleagues represent the Stalinist faction, or, rather, what has remained of it more than twenty years after its suppression. This is a different faction from that of twenty years ago. It rules a different country — the world's second industrial power. It leads a different ”socialist camp” — a camp containing one-third of mankind. It is richer in experience and in dearly bought insights. It is anxious to understand what has happened to it, and it is probing restlessly into its own mysterious past. But this is still the Stalinist faction, trying to grind its old axe and caught up in the tangle of its own experiences and of its traditional but now untenable viewpoints.

Khrushchev has described how the members of the Presidium, the men who rule the Soviet Union and manage its vast, nationalized economy (the world's greatest single industrial concern!) spend their days and weeks poring over the archives of the N.K.V.D., questioning the officials, who once conducted purges and extracted confessions, and reliving in their thoughts the long nightmare of the past. Yet the understanding of which the members of this Presidium, especially the older ones, are capable, has its historically formed limitations, which they cannot easily transcend. They cannot see where and why things had ”gone wrong”. They would like to cross out, if this were possible, the last chapter of their story, the one in which Stalin oppressed and ”betrayed” his own followers. They would still like to think that what was done in the earlier chapters was justified and beneficial and need not have led to the final débâcle and shame.

They denounce after the event the rule of the single leader but see nothing wrong in the rule of the single faction, which in its turn was rooted in the rule of the single party. They would like to remain Stalinists without and against Stalin, and to recapture the spirit of the ”sane” and ”innocent” Stalinism of the 1920s, of that Stalinism which had not yet soaked its hands in the blood of the Old Bolshevik Guard and in the blood of masses of peasants and workers. They do not realize that the latter-day ”insane” Stalinism had sprung from the earlier ”sane” Stalinism; and that it was not only Stalin's whimsical and cruel character that was responsible for it.

This approach governs all of Khrushchev's reasoning. It dictates the range and the nature of his disclosures. Because Khrushchev pleads the case of the old Stalinist faction ”betrayed” by Stalin, his evidence against Stalin shows huge gaps and is all too often ambiguous, despite the bluntness of the language he uses and the shocking character of the facts he relates.

Khrushchev builds his case against Stalin on three sets of facts: on Lenin's denunciation, in his testament, of Stalin's ”rudeness and disloyalty”; on Stalin's role in the purges; and on the faults of Stalin's leadership in the war. Under each count of the indictment he treats the facts selectively so as to turn the evidence against Stalin rather than against the Stalinist faction.

He conjures up Lenin's ghost, because only with this ally at his side can he, after thirty years of Stalin worship, hope to lay Stalin's ghost. He quotes from Lenin's testament the passages aimed directly against Stalin, but he passes over in silence all that Lenin said in favour of Trotsky and Bukharin. He assures us that he now views ”objectively and with detachment” the old party feuds, but he still labels Trotsky and Bukharin ”enemies of Leninism”, although they are no longer ”enemies of the people”. In the light of Lenin's testament, Trotskyism and Bukharinism may be seen as offsprings of Leninism at least as legitimate as even the early Stalinism. The testament was therefore at first not published in Russia—it was only distributed to the delegates at the Twentieth Congress.[4] And even in his secret speech Khrushchev is afraid of making too extensive use of it.

Even more eloquent are the gaps in Khrushchev's story of the purges. He begins with dark hints about the assassination of Kirov in 1934, the event which set in motion the avalanche of the terror. He alludes to Stalin's connivance at the crime but adds that nothing is certain; and he leaves the mystery as deep as ever. Then he gives a more or less detailed and horrifying account of the secret purges of Eikhe, Postyshev, Kossior, Chubar, Mezhlauk, and Rudzutak, who perished between 1937 and 1940, and of the purge of Voznessensky in 1950. But he has nothing explicit to say about the purge trials of 1936-38, which shocked the world and in which the defendants were men of world fame, the recognized leaders of Bolshevism, of the Red Army, of Soviet diplomacy, and of the Communist International. He reveals nothing of the inner story of the purges of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek, Rakovsky, Pyatakov, Tukhachevsky. He is silent on Trotsky's assassination which was instigated by Stalin and Beria. Eikhe, Postyshev, and Chubar were by comparison insignificant figures: their names meant little or nothing not only to the outside world, but even to the young Soviet generation. But they were men of the Stalinist faction; and through Khrushchev the faction honours in them its martyrs.

That the Stalinist faction should rehabilitate its men, that it should pay tribute to its martyrs and that it should show up the cup of misery which its own leader made it drain is understandable. Only the meanest of its enemies can give themselves to Schadenfreude over this spectacle, or make light of the tragic note which reverberates through Khrushchev's speech. Khrushchev has revealed the enormity of the pogrom which Stalin inflicted on his own followers. Not for nothing did he dwell so much on the fortunes of the delegates to the Seventeenth Congress, which was held in 1934. At that assembly the Stalinist faction celebrated its final triumph over all its adversaries, and in party annals the congress is referred to as the ”Victors’ Congress”. Of nearly 2,000 of those ”victors”, delegates present at the congress, about 60 per cent. were, according to Khrushchev, ”arrested on charges of counter-revolutionary crimes (most in 1937-38)”. Of the 139 members of the Central Committee then elected ”98 persons, i.e. 70 per cent., were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-38)”. Thus, in those years alone Stalin annihilated 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of the leading cadres of his own faction; and there were uncounted victims among the rank and file.

Public opinion outside Russia has in recent years been aware of the fate of the anti-Stalinist victims of the terror. It is only right that it should also be aware of the fate of the Stalinist victims. But do not Khrushchev and his associates feel the indecency of their exclusive concentration on their own Stalinist martyrs? Do they really think that a Trotsky, a Zinoviev, a Bukharin, a Tukhachevsky, or a Rakovsky, not to speak of others, will be forgotten while an Eikhe and a Postyshev are not?

Throughout Khrushchev's indictment of Stalin runs the motif of self-exculpation. We feel as if we sat in court and listened to a counsel for the prosecution who, while heaping accusations on the man in the dock, must remember all the time that he has also to prove that he, the prosecutor, and his friends, have had no share in the defendant's crimes. We readily believe in the defendant's guilt, but we wonder whether the prosecutor has not gone too far in self-exculpation. We even feel a sneaking suspicion that in order to exonerate himself he may have painted, here and there, the defendant's character just a shade too black.

”Everything depended on the wilfulness of one man,” Khrushchev repeats again and again. But if so, ”comrades may ask us: where were the members of the Political Bureau ...? Why did they not assert themselves ... why is this being done only now?” These whys buzz in Khrushchev's ear like hateful wasps, and somewhat angrily he tries to chase them away. Unwittingly he only demonstrates that much more was at play than the ”wilfulness of one man”. Stalin had so much scope for his wilfulness only because Khrushchev and his like acknowledged him as their leader and accepted his will.

Khrushchev recalls how at first they all trusted Stalin and zealously followed him in the struggle against the other Bolshevik factions until they made him so powerful that they themselves became powerless. He shows that even when they might have been able to act against him they did not wish to act. He relates that in 1941, when the Red Army reeled under Hitler's first onslaught, Stalin's nerve snapped; he was despondent and sulked in his tent. It might seem that this was an opportunity for the party leaders to get rid of him. Instead they sent a deputation to Stalin to beg him to seize the reins again; and so they condemned themselves and the country to another twelve years of terror and degradation. None of them had the confidence and courage of Trotsky, who as early as 1927 foresaw such a turn of events and said (in his famous ”Clemenceau Thesis”) that in such a crisis it would be the duty of party leaders to overthrow Stalin in order to wage war more efficiently and to a victorious conclusion.

The Politbureau of 1941 was afraid that a change of leadership in the middle of war would produce too dangerous a shock to morale; and it rallied to its oppressor. It should be noted that this was not the first situation of this kind. In exactly the same way the Politbureau had hoisted a dejected and sulking Stalin back into the saddle nine years earlier, at the height of collectivization. In every major emergency the Politbureau felt the need of the ”strong arm”, and it turned to Stalin only to groan under his strong arm years thereafter. They had puffed up his authority sky high and so in a crisis they felt that they had not enough authority to take his place. As the history of the Soviet Union was one sequence of emergencies and crises, the Stalinist faction was all the time in an impasse, from which it was unable to get out even if for so many of its leaders and members the impasse was the grave.

The question inevitably arises whether during all those years any members of the ruling group made an attempt to destroy the incubus. It would have been unnatural if no plots at all had been hatched against Stalin in his own entourage. If Khrushchev and his colleagues really thought that ”it all depended on the wilfulness of one man” (which Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev never thought), might not some of them have concluded that the way out was to eliminate that one man? Khrushchev tells us that Postyshev, Rudzutak, and other leading Stalinists did indeed come into opposition to Stalin. But here, too, he leaves many things unsaid; and so the story of the Stalinist opposition to Stalin remains to be disclosed. The historian finds a further contradiction in Khrushchev's testimony, one which it has in common with Trotsky's appraisal of Stalin, although in Khrushchev the contradiction is, of course, far cruder. Khrushchev stresses the achievements as well as the failures of the Stalin era. For the achievements—industrial advance, educational progress, planned economy, victory in war—he praises the masses, the people, the party, the Leninist doctrine, and even the Central Committee, the cowed and docile Central Committee of the Stalin era! For the failures he blames Stalin alone. This distribution of praise and blame is too neat to be convincing. That Stalin's personal contribution to the black sides of Soviet life was exceptionally heavy goes without saying. But surely the backwardness and apathy of the masses and stupidity and blindness in the party also had something to do with the failures?

If the qualities of one man were responsible, say, for the Soviet military disasters of 1941-42, were they not also in some measure responsible for the victories of 1943-45? If all major decisions on policy and strategy were taken by Stalin alone, as Khrushchev says, then it is at least illogical to deny Stalin all credit for the results.

At times Khrushchev's argument savours of Tolstoy: in War and Peace Tolstoy argues that all ideas, plans, and decisions conceived by emperors, generals, and ”great men” are meaningless and worthless; and that only the innumerable, spontaneous, and uncoordinated actions of nameless masses of people shape history. But Tolstoy is consistent: he attributes to ”great men” no special influence on history, for evil any more than for good, whereas the present Soviet ruling group seems to play heads-I-win-tails-you-lose with Stalin's ghost.

As a reaction against the Stalin cult this is inevitable and perhaps even healthy. Not the first time in history is an orgy of iconolatry followed by a bout of iconoclasm. In a sense the man who smashes his idol stands above the one who prostrates himself before it; his understanding comes closer to truth. Yet his is still only a negative and limited understanding. The higher comprehension of her past which post-Stalinist Russia has yet to reach will surely transcend both iconolatry and iconoclasm.

No matter how vigorously Khrushchev pleads the alibi for himself and the present ruling group, he proves a semi-alibi only. This particular prosecutor cannot convince us that he has not been the defendant's accomplice — at best he persuades us that he was an accomplice under duress. He speaks of Beria as that ”villain who climbed up the government ladder over an untold number of corpses”. How true! But was Beria alone? Who of those who mounted the ladder of government under Stalin did not climb over his comrades' corpses? One wonders whether Beria, if he had been given the benefit of a public trial, would not have used in self-defence the same arguments that Khrushchev uses. Did he not use them at the secret trial?

However, we need not go so far. Khrushchev describes with horror the character of a former official who took part in preparing the purges of 1937-38 and in extracting confessions—the official was brought before the Presidium and questioned. He is, says Khrushchev, ”a vile person, with the brain of a bird, and morally completely degenerate”. Again, we need not doubt the truth of the description: the man's qualities evidently suited his function. But what does this repulsive character claim in his defence? His plea, as reported by Khrushchev, is that he acted on higher orders which he understood it to be his duty as a party member to carry out; and that he could do nothing else. Khrushchev indignantly rejects this apology as worthless. Yet almost in the same breath he uses the same apology for himself and the other members of the Politbureau: Under Stalin, he says, ”no one could express his will”.

The tragedy of contemporary Russia is that the whole élite of the nation, its intelligentsia, its civil service, and all its politically minded elements share in one degree or another in Stalin's guilt. Probably no one in Moscow who would set himself up today as Stalin's accuser and judge could prove his own alibi. Stalin made of the whole nation, at any rate of all its educated and active elements, his accomplices. Those who refused to do his bidding perished, with very, very few exceptions, long ago.

This is the unpropitious background against which de-Stalinization is now carried out. That it is being carried out at all shows to what extent it has become a national necessity for the Soviet Union. But the initiators and the agents of de-Stalinization are themselves inevitably tainted with Stalinism — no other human material is or can immediately he available. To paraphrase a famous Bolshevik saying, the edifice of post-Stalinist society has to be built with the bricks left over from Stalinist Russia.

Whatever is said against Khrushchev and his associates, the blow he has struck against Stalinism is much more than a tactical manoeuvre, and much more than the move of a dictator anxious to elevate himself at his predecessor's expense. Khrushchev has exposed not only Stalin but Stalinism, not only the man but his method of government; and this renders the continuation or revival of the method nearly impossible. He set out to state only the case of the Stalinist faction against Stalin; and he has destroyed the case of the Stalinist faction. He has, after all, heel, unable to confine himself to the rehabilitation of the Stalinists only. The logic of his argument led him to rehabilitate, reluctantly and half-heartedly, the martyrs of anti-Stalinism as well. He read out Lenin's and Krupskaya's letters from which the party learned that not Stalin and Molotov but Kamenev and Zinoviev (whom Khrushchev himself had described as ”enemies of the people” only a few days earlier) were the men who had stood closest to the founder of Bolshevism. He added that if the party had managed its affairs in the Leninist and not in the Stalinist manner, it would have worked tolerantly with those ”enemies of the people”, even if it disagreed with them.

These were not just bygones. Nor was Khrushchev merely crying over spilled blood. Willy-nilly, he has exploded the idea of the monolithic party and of the monolithic state in which all must think alike. In terms of a historical revision he has proclaimed a new principle legalizing a plurality of views, differences of opinion, and controversy. He further justified and enhanced this new attitude by rejecting emphatically Stalin's theory which had served as the moral excuse for government by terror, the theory that as Russia advances along the road to socialism class conflicts grow sharper and ”class enemies” become more dangerous. Against this, Khrushchev insisted that the class conflicts grow milder, and the class enemies become fewer, less malignant, and less offensive; and that there is no need therefore to fight them in the manner in which they have been fought hitherto.

In acclaiming this view the Twentieth Congress has shattered the system of terroristic rule bequeathed by Stalin. It has also given a new impulse to the reversal of the trend that had led from the single party to the single leader, and from the monopoly of power to the monopoly of thought.

Having produced the shock, Khrushchev is anxious to soften its impact. ”We cannot let this matter get out of the party, especially not to the press”, he warned his listeners. ”It is for this reason that we are considering it here at a closed Congress session. We should know the limits; we should not give ammunition to the enemy: we should not wash our dirty linen before their eyes.”

It was, however, hardly of the anti-Communist world, the ”enemy”, that Khrushchev and the other party leaders were afraid in this case. One may even suspect that the indiscretion which has allowed the State Department to act as Khrushchev's first publisher, was not unwelcome to Moscow. It is from the mass of the Soviet people that his speech has been kept secret so far. To them the truth is conveyed only in carefully weighed and carefully graded doses.

It may be that the Soviet people would have reacted nervously or even morbidly to this awakening from the Stalin era, if it had been too rude. But it is just as possible that they would have shown the gratitude which people usually feel when they are awakened from a nightmare — and the ruder the awakening from a nightmare the better. However, an outsider cannot easily appraise the position in the Soviet Union. It may be that those in charge of this difficult and salutary operation judge the psychology of their own people correctly.

All the same, the ”washing of the dirty linen” can hardly be carried on behind the back of the Soviet people much longer. It will presently have to be done in front of them and in broad daylight. It is, after all, in their sweat and blood that the ”dirty linen” was soaked. And the washing, which will take a long time, will perhaps be brought to an end by hands other than those that have begun it — by younger and cleaner hands.


[1] For an english translation of Khrushchev's speech, see Speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U.Ed.

[2] Since these words were written we have learned that Khrushchev had for this the approval of the Central Committee, or rather of its majority — a large minority, consisting of Stalinist die-hards, was opposed to his coming out with the revelations.

[3] See, for instance, my Stalin, pp. 453-9.

[4] It has since been published in Kommunist and in Lenin's Works.

Isaac Deutscher Archive