Isaac Deutscher 1956

The Meaning of De-Stalinisation

Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). The article originally appeared in Partisan Review, Fall 1956, in answer to the question: ‘Is de-Stalinisation a sign of a liberal trend in Soviet society or is it only a temporary expedient?’ Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

‘Is de-Stalinisation a sign of a liberal trend in Soviet society or is it only a temporary expedient?’ This is probably the question most frequently debated by the intelligentsia nowadays. I shall perhaps be forgiven for saying that behind the mere formulation of the question one can feel an extraordinary remoteness from the realities of the issue. The view that de-Stalinisation is only a ‘temporary expedient’ or a slick manoeuvre, carried out by a few men in the Kremlin in the course of a narrow personal struggle for power, had perhaps a semblance of plausibility in the year 1953 or 1954, before the full force of the reaction against Stalinism had become apparent. In 1956 this view is patently anachronistic and untenable. The break with Stalinism is now felt in every aspect of Soviet activity and thought: in domestic and foreign policies, in education, in philosophical writing, in historical research, and indeed, in the whole atmosphere of Soviet life. The scale and range of the changes taking place indicate that what we are witnessing is a many-sided organic, and at times convulsive, upheaval in the existence of a huge segment of humanity.

I shall not dwell here on such recent events as the Twentieth Congress and Khrushchev’s speech, the importance of which is obvious. What these and similar events show is that even if Stalin’s successors had originally been guided by mere tactical considerations, the effects of their moves have by far transcended all tactics. The autocratic system of government, bequeathed by Stalin, is shattered. The backbone of the MVD, the political police, is broken. The univers concentrationnaire is dissolving. Stalinist monolithic uniformity is slowly, painfully, yet unmistakably beginning to give way to a certain diversity of outlook. If the ‘liberal trend’ is defined as a radical lessening of governmental coercion and a striving for government by consent then this trend has been obviously and even conspicuously at work in Soviet society.

More important perhaps than the political trend is, to my mind, its social undercurrent, which Western commentators and experts have so far hardly noticed. After thirty years of the most ruthless and savage suppression by Stalinism, egalitarian aspirations are coming back into their own, regaining strength, and even exercising a direct influence on official policy. Lack of space does not allow me to summarise here, let alone to analyse, recent developments in Soviet labour and wages policy. Their cumulative effect has been to reduce the grotesque inequalities of the Stalin era. Stakhanovism, in which those inequalities were epitomised, has been given a quiet burial. The ‘progressive piece rate’ (a method of payment under which a worker producing above his norm earns rates rising in ever higher progression with the additional output) has been declared to be obsolete in most cases and socially harmful. (In Stalin’s days the ‘progressive piece rate’ was sacrosanct!) The new wage system which is now being worked out is to be based on the time-wage rather than on the piece-wage, which Marx had described as a typically capitalist form of payment and which Stalin proclaimed as the quintessence of a socialist system of incentives. Twenty years ago Trotsky described, in The Revolution Betrayed and other writings, the crucial role of the piece wage in the Stalinist anti-egalitarian policy. Trotsky’s argument has since been vulgarised and repeated ad nauseam by all leftish and many not so leftish critics of Stalinism. It is therefore strange that the same critics have failed to notice that Stalin’s policy is being reversed in this vital point, too. Similarly, anti-Stalinists have invariably, and rightly, pointed to the introduction, in the 1930s, of fees for secondary and higher education as a measure promoting social inequality – some have even seen in it the decisive act of a social ‘counter-revolution’ in the USSR. It is therefore at least illogical on their part not to recognise that with the abolition of all fees for education Stalin’s successors have struck a momentous blow against inequality. (No nation in the West, not even the wealthiest, as yet provides its citizens with free education in all grades!)

De-Stalinisation and ‘liberalisation’ would indeed be frauds if they were confined merely to politics, and if they were not backed by a resurgent socialist egalitarianism. Freedom in the USSR shrank and was suppressed as inequality grew; it can grow again only if inequality shrinks. To be sure, Soviet society is, and will remain for some time, highly stratified. Privileges and social differences which have grown up over the lifetime of a generation are not going to vanish and cannot vanish all at once. The struggle against inequality is likely to be hard and long. But what is for the time being of the greatest significance is that after so long a pause that struggle has begun anew, and that the egalitarian trend has already made – with surprising ease! – its first, and rather impressive conquests. This fact outweighs in importance volumes of abstract political theorising about the ‘impossibility of reform in a totalitarian system’.

It goes without saying that three decades of totalitarianism press heavily upon the present situation. The social background in which Stalinism was rooted has been greatly but not completely transformed. De-Stalinisation proceeds in dialectical contradictions. The rule of the single Leader has been repudiated; but not the rule of the single faction (let alone of the single party), out of which Stalin’s autocracy had sprung. The principle of the infallibility of the party leadership has been abandoned; but party members and non-party men alike are still denied the freedom to criticise and remove the fallible leaders. The ruling men proclaim the need for free and open controversy within a Marxist framework of thought; yet as such controversy develops they are seized with fright and not averse to cutting it short by administrative order. (This has happened in the important debate between the ‘consumptionist’ and ‘productionist’ schools of thought.) On the other hand, the controversies over the conduct of Soviet affairs in the last war and over the restitution of truthful history writing, controversies which have a close bearing upon present and future policies, are still in progress. The revulsion against Stalinist discipline and mental uniformity is universal and irrepressible; but it has not been positive enough and inspired by sufficiently great and clear ideas to be able to impart to society a real and fruitful diversity of outlook and to make society politically articulate. The principles and practices of the Stalinist theocracy are deeply discredited; but its mental habits again and again assert themselves. The cult of Stalin is dead; but the cult of Lenin, however more rational in both content and form, continues to obscure political thought.

It is enough to list these contradictions – and there are many more – to demonstrate once again not the spuriousness, as some think, but precisely the reality of the whole process. Without such contradictions de-Stalinisation would have been sheer make-believe, stage-effect and hocus-pocus, or the lifeless concoction of an obtuse ‘political scientist’. With them, it is what it is – an authentic historic development.

Stalinism represented an amalgamation of Marxism with the semi-barbarous and quite barbarous traditions and the primitive magic of an essentially pre-industrial, that is, not merely pre-socialist but pre-bourgeois, society. Yet it was under Stalinism that Russia rose to the position of the world’s second industrial power. By fostering Russia’s industrialisation and modernisation Stalinism had with its own hands uprooted itself and prepared its ‘withering away’. But here again the complex dialectics of the situation mock at the logical abstractions and simplifications of the ‘political philosopher’ and moralist. It is, broadly speaking, the rapid development of its productive forces that both enables and compels Soviet society to free itself from the shackles of Stalinism. But it is also the relative underdevelopment of the same productive forces that keeps the heavy residuum of Stalinism in being.

A nation, the urban population of which has grown by as many as fifty-five to sixty million people in only thirty years, the annual steel output of which has risen from five to fifty million tons in the same time, and the industrial apparatus of which has successfully coped with the problems of nuclear technology well ahead of all the old industrial nations of Europe – such a nation can no longer be ruled by a ‘rising Sun’ and a ‘Father of the People’ and held in awe by the whole set of Stalinist totems and taboos which belonged essentially to a much earlier and lower phase of civilisation. With public ownership of the means of production firmly established, with the consolidation and expansion of planned economy, and – last but not least – with the traditions of a socialist revolution alive in the minds of its people, the Soviet Union breaks with Stalinism in order to resume its advance towards equality and socialist democracy.

This advance, however, finds an immediate obstruction in the relative inadequacy of the Soviet productive forces, which have not been developed sufficiently or have been developed too one-sidedly to secure for the bulk of the people a standard of living much higher than at present, a standard of living at which human relations could cease to be a constant competition and struggle of all against all and could become permeated by the spirit of socialist cooperation and association. The relative scarcity of consumer goods (especially of housing!) is the decisive objective factor which sets limits to egalitarian and democratic reform.

That scarcity should not be viewed merely in the context of the domestic economic situation of the USSR. It must be seen against the background of the world situation which imposes upon the USSR an economic and power-political race with the United States and up to a point compels the Soviet rulers to press on with the development of heavy industry at the immediate expense of consumer interests. The needs of the industrialisation of China and partly of Eastern Europe, too, have the same effect. The Soviet worker has begun to ‘finance’ in all earnestness the industrialisation of the underdeveloped Communist countries; and he ‘finances’ it out of the resources which might otherwise have been used to raise his own standard of living. This, incidentally, is another usually overlooked yet extremely important aspect of de-Stalinisation. (Stalin, at least in the first postwar years, compelled other Communist countries to ‘finance’ Russia’s economic recovery!) Here indeed two aspects of de-Stalinisation – Russian domestic reform and reform in Russia’s relationship with the entire Soviet bloc – can be seen in actual conflict with each other. (The fact that the Soviet worker ‘finances’ at his own immediate expense the industrialisation of underdeveloped Communist countries is, of course, an historic innovation of the greatest possible consequence. It contrasts sharply with the practice of imperialism which has secured surplus profits to capitalists but has also raised the standards of living of the workers of imperialist nations at the expense of colonial subjects. An exactly opposite development is taking place within the Soviet bloc. This explains perhaps why Western talk about Point Four programmes has become the laughing-stock of Asia. However, Russia’s new commitments towards other Communist countries act also as a brake on the reformist trend inside Russia.)

The contradictory character of the subjective, human and psychological, factors of de-Stalinisation is not less striking. The force of inertia which keeps alive Stalinist habits of action and thought must not be underrated even after the check it has received since the Twentieth Congress. It has certainly not spent itself. A privileged minority is bound to defend its privileges. A bureaucracy accustomed to rule in the absolutist manner exerts itself to preserve its preponderance. The labour aristocracy, or a section of it, may not favour policies which narrow the social gap between that ‘aristocracy’ and the mass of workers. Yet the resistance of all these groups to the new policies has so far proved to be weaker, far weaker, than might have been expected. The worst crucial contradiction lies in the character of the chief agents of de-Stalinisation who are none other than the former guardians of Stalinist orthodoxy. (How much ink my critics, especially in the USA, have spilled to declare me an ‘incurable wishful thinker’, or even a ‘Stalinist apologist’, when three years before Khrushchev’s secret speech I forecast this paradoxical development!)

The paradox is not accidental. De-Stalinisation has become a social necessity; and necessity works through such human material as it finds available. Had any of the old Bolshevik Oppositions – Trotskyist, Zinovievist and Bukharinist – survived till this day, Messrs Khrushchev, Bulganin, Voroshilov and Co would surely have long since been removed from power and influence, and anti-Stalinists would have carried out the de-Stalinisation wholeheartedly, consistently, rationally, and with complete frankness. But the old Oppositions have been totally exterminated, and new ones could not form themselves and grow under Stalin’s rule. The job which it should have been the historic right and privilege of authentic anti-Stalinists to tackle has thus fallen to the Stalinists themselves who cannot tackle it otherwise than half-heartedly and hypocritically. They have to undo much of their life’s work in such a way as not to bring about their own undoing. Circumstances have forced Malenkov and Khrushchev to act up to a point as the executors of Trotsky’s political testament. The wonder is not that they act these roles awkwardly, badly and even monstrously badly, but that they act them at all!

How long can their performance last? How far can the epigones of Stalinism go on liquidating the Stalinist legacy? Can ‘reform from above’ abolish the totalitarian system, or what is left of it, and replace it gradually by a socialist democracy? Or is the development of such a democracy inconceivable without a revolutionary upheaval from below, at the mere threat of which, however, the present ruling group would retreat in panic from the road of reform?

The answer to this question is not a matter of theoretical preference either for ‘reform’ or for ‘revolution’ (as those of my critics seem to suppose who charge me with preaching a sort of an ‘inevitability of gradualness’ for post-Stalinist Russia) but of the facts of the situation. The break with Stalinism has so far been carried out by the way of reform from above. The whole record to date of the post-Stalin years is one of an astoundingly intense reformist initiative coming from the ruling group. No doubt, this initiative must have been stimulated by a variety of pressures from below, which have made the ruling group aware of the incompatibility of the new structure of Soviet society with the Stalinist ‘superstructure’. But the pressures from below have been only semi-articulate, at best. So much so that no one outside the Soviet ruling group has been in a position to measure them or even to define them with any degree of precision. In any case, no conscious and effective political initiative has so far come from below – no spontaneous mass movement, no new political organisation, programme, idea or even slogan. (I am, of course, dealing with USSR only; I cannot analyse here the different and in some respects more complex state of affairs in Eastern Europe.) True, political prisoners in the Vorkuta camps and elsewhere have struck to defend their rights; and Georgian students have demonstrated to defend... Stalin’s memory. But these and possibly other similar and divergent manifestations of political action ‘from below’, however significant as symptoms, have been confined to the fringes of political life and do not as yet add up to any national political movement from below, ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’. The apparent absence of any such movement throws into even sharper relief the phenomenon of reform from above.

This state of affairs, too, has not been accidental. It reflects the gap which events of more than thirty years have created in the political consciousness of the nation. That Stalinism has ‘atomised’ and reduced to amorphousness the political mind of the Soviet people is an oft-repeated truism. However, it is easier to repeat the truism than to draw the consequences which inevitably follow from it. In a society whose political consciousness has been atomised or reduced to amorphousness any major political change, if there is an overwhelming social need for it, can come only from the ruling group. This is precisely what has happened in Russia. No matter how much one may dislike Stalin’s epigones, one must acknowledge that they have proved themselves capable of a much more sensitive response to the need for reform than was generally expected of them.

However, the present phase is one of transition. It can last only as long as it takes to bridge or fill the historically-formed gap in the political consciousness of the Soviet people. The present degree of liberalisation is probably just sufficient to allow some scope for new processes of political thought and opinion-formation to develop in the intelligentsia and the working class. By their nature these are molecular processes, which require time to mature. But once they have matured they are certain to transform profoundly the whole moral and political climate of Communism, and to transform it in a spirit of socialist democracy.

Only when the gap in the political consciousness of the Soviet masses and of the Soviet intelligentsia has been eliminated can de-Stalinisation be brought to that ultimate conclusion to which Stalin’s epigones can hardly carry it. To some extent, the change in the political climate is bound to coincide with a change of generations. It must take a few years more before the results of post-Stalinist opinion-formation show themselves and before new men come forward to expound new ideas and to formulate new programmes. By that time the generation of Khrushchev, Bulganin and Co will, in any case, be making its exit; and it may well be replaced at the head of affairs not by the men of the middle generation who have spent, and in part wasted, their best years under Stalinism, but by much younger people who are only now growing to political maturity.

Whether the change and replacement of ruling groups and generations will proceed gradually and peacefully or through violent convulsions and irreconcilable conflict is a question which need hardly and can hardly be resolved a priori. The whole development is quite unprecedented; and there are too many unknowns in the equations. One can at the most analyse the conditions under which the change, or the series of changes, can run its course in a relatively peaceful and reformist manner; and those under which the reformist phase would prove to be a mere prelude to violent upheaval. The subject is too large, complex and speculative to be tackled in this contribution. Moreover, whatever the variant of the historic development, the essential prerequisite for it is the same: the emergence of a new and genuine political consciousness, which will be neither crippled by the imposition of any monolithic pattern nor falsified by totalitarian myths. De-Stalinisation makes possible and even inevitable the crystallisation of such a consciousness. Therein lies its progressive significance.