Isaac Deutscher 1956

Break With Stalinism: I:
Symptoms of Transformation in Russian Regime

Source: The Times, 28 February 1956. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. Deutscher’s assessment of Khrushchev was based upon his public speech to the congress; his ‘Secret Speech’ was at this point unknown in the West.

At its Twentieth Congress, the Soviet Communist Party demonstrated to the world that, three years after Stalin’s death, it is politically much more alive and self-confident than it ever was in Stalin’s days. The change from autocracy to ‘collective leadership’ – far from throwing the regime into disarray – has, it appears, only enhanced its stability.

The party’s Praesidium, now re-elected, with not only Mr Khrushchev, Mr Kaganovich and Mr Molotov but also with Mr Mikoyan and Mr Malenkov in their old posts, exercises the collective leadership, under the control of the Central Committee, which consists of 133 members (and of over 260 if alternate members are included). The Central Committee appears to have regained much of the status it had in the Lenin era. It is the body which discusses and approves or disapproves the Praesidium’s policy. In relation to it the Praesidium is once again, as the Leninist Politburo used to be, an executive organ.

The personnel of the Central Committee has been partly renewed. Some of the changes are dictated by considerations of merit and ability. Others reflect the vicissitudes of recent years: the fading of Stalinist orthodoxy, the elimination of the Beria faction, and the reverses suffered by the Malenkov group.

The congress repudiated any aspiration or design to re-establish in the party a form of autocratic rule modelled on Stalin’s. Quite recently it still seemed that such an aspiration was not altogether alien to Mr Khrushchev himself. But, perhaps, it was only the excessive zeal of some of his followers that was responsible for creating this impression. In any case, Mr Khrushchev spoke to the congress with the voice of the Central Committee but not as the committee’s sole master.

Half-Slave, Half-Free: Yet ‘Leninist inner-party democracy’ has not, in fact, been re-established. The congress adopted its resolutions with ‘a hundred per cent unanimity’. Not a single delegate rose to criticise Mr Khrushchev or his colleagues. Nor did the Central Committee expose the differences of opinion which had arisen in its midst in the interval between the two congresses and appeal to the congress for a verdict. If the higher ranks of the party do indeed enjoy the blessings of Leninist party democracy, the lower ranks are still ruled very much in the Stalinist manner.

This can be only a transitional state of affairs. In the long run, the party cannot remain half-slave, half-free. Either the higher ranks will have to share gradually their newly-won freedom with the lower ranks or they themselves will lose it to a new dictator to whom they are so anxious to bar the road.

The repudiation of the leader cult was the most spectacular feature of the congress. But it was by no means the only or the most important sign of the party’s break with Stalinism. What could be more revealing of the new climate of opinion than Mr Khrushchev’s words about the distrust and hostility which now surrounded the political police? He even found it necessary to warn his audience that they should not carry that hostility too far. Marshal Voroshilov announced that the protracted work on the new criminal code was at last completed, that the judiciary had been overhauled into a reliable guardian of the ‘rule of law’, and that the time had come to prepare a new labour code. Besides this, the last year has brought the disbandment of many, or perhaps even most, of the ill-famed concentration camps and forced labour camps and the rehabilitation and the release of great masses of deportees – in fact, the disappearance of the Stalinist univers concentrationnaire. It is clear that the denunciation of the leader cult is only the outward symptom of a deep transformation of the regime.

The changes in social policy, announced by Mr Khrushchev, mark a break with Stalin’s obsessively anti-egalitarian policy. Ruthless guardian of the privileges of the managerial groups and of the ‘labour aristocracy’, Stalin insisted to the end on an ever wider differentiation of incomes which allowed these who earned much to earn more and more, while those who earned little had few chances to improve their lot. Against this, Mr Khrushchev announced the decision to raise the wages and pensions of the lower-paid workers and to cut some of the higher salaries and pensions.

In language which has not for long been heard in Russia he chided trade unions for being too docile tools of the employer state. He also confirmed that all fees for academic education would be abolished at the beginning of the new school year. For the first time for 30 years the Soviet rulers have attacked social inequality. Soviet opinion will certainly see in this the guarantee of a progressive democratisation of the regime.

Conflicting Demands: Mr Khrushchev’s policy evidently represents a compromise between conflicting demands voiced in the ruling group. The controversy between those who, a year ago, favoured a pro-consumer policy and those who insisted on absolute priority for heavy industry is closed. Mr Malenkov did not seek to reopen it at the congress. It is presumably on the understanding that he accepted defeat that he has been re-elected into the Praesidium.

But the Central Committee remains divided over the broader question of how much of the Stalinist orthodoxy the party should discard and how much it should preserve. This is an extremely delicate and potentially dangerous issue with a close bearing on methods of government and on ideology.

This issue underlay the concordant discord of Mr Khrushchev’s and Mr Mikoyan’s speeches. These two leaders appeared to speak in perfect unison. In fact, they represented two different and in part conflicting attitudes. Mr Khrushchev appears to take a middle line between the diehards of Stalinism and the anti-Stalinists.

The diehards of Stalinism do not have the courage to come into the open, although they have a powerful leader in Mr Kaganovich. As for Mr Khrushchev, whenever he renounces any feature of the Stalinist legacy, he does so cautiously, by allusion and implication only, without mentioning Stalin’s name.

As a practical administrator, he is obviously afraid of the emotional force of the current reaction against Stalinism. Yielding step by step to the spirit of the time, he does not wish to encourage that reaction by debunking the dictator’s memory. He is afraid of too much liberalism, too much egalitarianism, and too many embarrassing questions from party intellectuals. He is wary of waking the sleeping dogs of Trotskyism, Bukharinism and bourgeois-nationalism – heresies which the Stalinist canon has condemned.

He offers the country a scapegoat for all of Stalin’s misdeeds. That scapegoat is Beria – a somewhat incredible scapegoat, because the worst outbursts of the Stalinist terror, especially the great purges, occurred before the end of 1938, when Beria became chief of the political police.

The Old Guard: Mr Mikoyan was the mouthpiece of militant anti-Stalinism. He has been the first and so far the only leader to repudiate Stalin explicitly. Instead of heaping abuse on Beria, he told the congress that the evils against which they were fighting now dated back to the early years, perhaps even to the beginning of the Stalin era. Moreover, Mr Mikoyan roundly denounced the judiciary system inspired by the late Andrei Vyshinsky, the chief prosecutor in the purge trials. His speech amounted to a cry for the rehabilitation of the old Bolshevist guard. It would be easy to prove that he consciously borrowed many of his ideas from none other than Trotsky.

The problem of the rehabilitation of the old Bolshevist guard, especially of Trotsky, may yet come to play in Soviet polities a part comparable to the Dreyfus affair in French politics. It may become the cause, or perhaps only the pretext, for a great regrouping of forces in Soviet society. This is what the Khrushchev – Mikoyan duet seems to foreshadow.

This duet was a significant clash of opinion, not less real because it was conducted in somewhat esoteric terms. That the clash was permitted, that the congress gave Mr Mikoyan, who certainly speaks for only a minority in the Central Committee, a great ovation, that he retains his seat on the Praesidium – all these are signs of the times.