Isaac Deutscher 1958

The Irony of History in Stalinism

Source: A review of EH Carr, Socialism in One Country 1924-1926, Volume 1 (Macmillan, London, 1958), Labour Review, Volume 3, no 5, December 1958, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 3 November 1958. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers

How many people, I wonder, can still remember all the sound and fury that were once aroused by Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country? For nearly a quarter of a century, from the middle 1920s to the late 1940s, this was the sacred canon of the Soviet Communist Party and of the international communist movement. The great ideological controversy raged in the middle of the 1920s, but once it had been concluded no doubt about the canon was tolerated; and innumerable Bolsheviks and foreign communists suffered the Stalinist anathema, or paid with their lives, for the slightest deviation from it. The second quarter of this century has, indeed, entered the annals of communism as the era of socialism in one country.

Mr EH Carr is therefore justified in giving to the second part of his History of Soviet Russia the title Socialism in One Country. He proposes to deal with this subject in three volumes, of which the first has just appeared. The book has all the merits which one has come to expect from Mr Carr’s work: acute analysis and interpretation, clarity of exposition, and a massive and severe structure of historical facts. It is a searching examination of the main circumstances and trends which found their epitome in Stalin’s doctrine.

What were those circumstances? The isolation of the Russian Revolution; the frustrated Bolshevik hopes for the spread of communism in the West; Russia’s inherited backwardness and poverty; the legacy of world war, revolutionary turmoil and civil war; the collapse of an old social structure; the desperate slowness with which a new structure was taking shape; the weariness and exhaustion of all social classes; and, above this convulsive chaos of a nation, the Bolshevik machines of state and party struggling to come to grips with the chaos, to order it and to mould it.

Underneath there unfolded, in Mr Carr’s words, ‘the tension between the opposed principles of continuity and change’ which forms ‘the groundwork of history’ (p 3). The October Revolution marked a deep and dramatic break in Russia’s destinies:

Never had the heritage of the past been more sharply, more sweepingly or more provocatively rejected; never had the claim to universality been more uncompromisingly asserted; never in any previous revolution had the break in continuity seemed so absolute...

But presently tradition begins to unfold its power as the antidote to change... tradition is something which remains dormant in uneventful times... of which we become conscious mainly as of a force of resistance to change... Thus in the development of the revolution the elements of change and continuity fight side by side, now conflicting, now coalescing, until a new and stable synthesis is established... Broadly speaking the greater the distance in time from the initial impact of the revolution the more decisively does the principle of continuity reassert itself against the principle of change. (pp 3-4)

From this angle Mr Carr surveys various aspects of post-revolutionary Russia such as family life, the position of the Greek Orthodox Church, currents in literature, legal institutions, the mechanics of government, party and class, and the economic and social background at large. Everywhere he demonstrates the force of the resistance to further revolutionary change in that particular period. Everywhere past and present, tradition and revolution, Marxism and native Slavophile and Populist ideologies, socialist ideas and Messianic Russian aspirations interpenetrate and coalesce, until they form a curious amalgam in Stalinism and socialism in one country.

Now, this tension between change and continuity or revolution and tradition undoubtedly permeates all of Russia’s recent history. I do not intend to question this — I myself have devoted considerable attention to this problem in my studies of Stalinism. But what is the balance between change and continuity? This surely is the crucial issue. To which of the two sides of the equation the historian is inclined to give greater weight of emphasis depends, of course, on the standpoint from which he approaches his subject. The pseudo-revolutionary doctrinaire will treat it differently from the Marxist realist; and the Marxist realist from the conservative. Broad-minded and sympathetic to the revolution though Mr Carr’s approach is, his premises are, to my mind, essentially conservative. He tends to overstate the element of continuity, just as Tocqueville or Sorel, whom he quotes frequently, overstated it in their treatment of the French Revolution.

Tocqueville and Sorel, however, dealt with a revolution which only substituted the bourgeois form of property for the feudal one; and private property, however changed in form, made for the continuity between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary France. The Russian Revolution has uprooted private property at large, first residual feudal property, then bourgeois property, and finally peasant property as well. The impulse for social change has been accordingly deeper and stronger. Mr Carr therefore seems to me to overstate his case when he says that ‘once the revolution has... enthroned itself in the seats of authority a halt has to be called to further revolutionary change’ (p 5). Soviet society, I suggest, underwent its most drastic upheaval, the forcible collectivisation of farming, only in the years between 1929 and 1932, long after the revolution had ‘enthroned itself in the seats of authority’. Nor is it necessarily a law of history that ‘the greater the distance of time from the initial impact of the revolution, the more decisively does the principle of continuity reassert itself against the principle of change’. That this principle reasserted itself with extraordinary force while Soviet Russia was both isolated and underdeveloped is, of course, true. But is it still true today? Should we still assume that ‘the greater the distance in time from the October Revolution’ the more strongly does continuity reassert itself against change? Is the dynamic force of the Russian Revolution spending itself in the same way as that of the earlier revolutions did? I do not think so.

If the spread of communism in the last years of the Stalin era, especially its triumph in China, and the domestic Russian developments of the post-Stalin years are any pointers to the future, then the opposite seems to be true: the further we move from the October Revolution, the stronger is its impact. Far from having spent itself, the dynamic of the revolution seems to be growing; and after a period during which it was indeed overlaid by the patterns of Russian tradition it reasserts itself all the more powerfully — industrialisation and mass education have shattered the very foundations of the old Russian tradition. One can hardly say of Russia today: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose; it is rather: plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change.

However, while one may argue about Mr Carr’s general historical perspective, he is certainly right in underlining the predominantly conservative mood of the Russia of the middle 1920s. Continuity, a revulsion against revolutionary change, and a kind of Soviet isolationism were indeed the keynotes of that period; they all went into the making of the doctrine of socialism in one country. The Bolshevik reaction against the internationalist revolutionary aspirations of the Lenin era found its expression in Stalin’s idea. ‘While the Bolshevik leaders’, says Mr Carr, ‘were absorbed in a vision of a progressively expanding revolution’ they became ‘in defiance of their intentions the wielders and defenders of Russian state power, the organisers of what was in all but name a national army, the spokesmen of a national foreign policy’ (p 7). This ‘laid the psychological foundations of “socialism in one country"’ (p 7), which sought to disguise a traditionally Russian raison d'état in socialist terms. The resurgence of traditionalism and nationalism was stimulated by the weakening of the proletarian element in the Russian body politic and by a temporary, yet significant, strengthening of the peasantry. This was the heyday of the so-called bloc between Stalin and Bukharin, when the Bolshevik party was committed to a pro-muzhik policy and when even an ideologue like Ustryalov spoke of the peasant as becoming ‘the sole and real master of the Russian land’. The peasant’s horizon, Mr Carr rightly observes, ‘did not extend beyond the limits of his own economy... “Socialism in one country"... was a conception which fitted in perfectly with his... aspirations’ (p 97).

Here, however, the Hegelian List der Geschichte, the sly irony of history, comes into its own. Circumstances force men to move in the most unforeseen directions and give their doctrines the most unexpected contents and significance. Men and their doctrines thus serve purposes sometimes diametrically opposed to those they had envisaged. Socialism in one country had, in opposition to Trotsky’s permanent revolution, proclaimed the self-sufficiency of the Soviet Union — its self-sufficiency within a social framework of which the private and even capitalist farmer was to remain an essential element. Trotsky questioned the idea of self-sufficiency and pointed to the approaching conflict between the collectivist state and the individualistic farmer. Stalin prevailed against Trotsky; but presently he found himself to be carrying out, in his own way, some of the major policies expounded by his defeated enemy. Stalin had put socialism in one country on his banner because this seemed to ‘fit in perfectly with the peasant’s interests and aspirations’ and because the essence of his policy allegedly lay in a lasting accommodation between the collectivist state and the property-loving peasantry. Yet it was under the same banner, the banner of socialism in one country, that Stalin set out to destroy the kulak as a class and to uproot peasant property. The revolution, so Stalin presently concluded, could not achieve self-sufficiency, nor even survive, within the social framework of the 1920s. He smashed that framework by a stroke of unparalleled violence.

In industrial policy, too, socialism in one country stood originally — in 1925-26 — for resistance to change, for the cautious and moderate tempo of development, and against the ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ and the rapid industrialisation advocated by Trotsky and Preobrazhensky. However, five years later, by 1929-30, socialism in one country had changed its content — what it had come to mean was precisely primitive accumulation and forced industrialisation.

The supreme feat of history’s irony, however, came only shortly before the close of the Stalin era. The party which had accepted socialism in one country as its canon played for international safety. It shunned world revolution and extolled the Soviet Union’s sacred egoism. In every act of his policy and in every fibre of his being Stalin was the embodiment of that egoistical, self-sufficient and self-centred Soviet Union. Yet after the Second World War Stalin, still waving the flag of socialism in one country, found himself carrying revolution into half a dozen foreign countries, carrying it on the point of his bayonets, and exporting it in the turrets of his tanks. He out-Trotskyed Trotsky, as it were, who had never thought of spreading revolution in this manner. And finally, in his last years, the author of socialism in one country viewed with incredulity, and not without misgiving, the rise of Chinese communism. The era of socialism in one country was at an end.

Looking back on this closed chapter, one may well ask again what was the meaning of Stalin’s doctrine. I recollect the gravity with which thirty years ago in Moscow and in the European communist movement we argued this issue as a purely theoretical proposition: is it indeed possible to achieve socialism in a single and isolated country? No, said the old Leninists, to whom socialism meant a classless and stateless society, an international society based on international division of labour. To those old Leninists the Soviet Union was a nation in transition from capitalism to socialism. They held that no matter what progress the Soviet Union might make in various fields, it would remain in that state of transition at least as long as it was isolated. The Stalinists and the Bukharinists argued that the Soviet Union would achieve fully-fledged socialism, even if it were to remain isolated for an indefinite time. They were indeed half-convinced that the Soviet Union was destined to become something like a laboratory of socialism in a single country.

Who was right? The answer which events have given is by no means clear-cut; it is certainly far more complicated than those who tried to anticipate it over thirty years ago could expect. Has socialism in one country justified itself as a theoretical proposition and a forecast of events? Did the Soviet Union achieve socialism while it stood alone? Even in the early 1930s Stalin proclaimed that it did. This is still the orthodox view in Moscow today; and we are told that Soviet society is now making its passage from socialism to communism. But what is socialism? If it were simply the wholesale nationalisation of industry, then Russia would have achieved socialism as early as the first year of the October Revolution and the whole great controversy of the 1920s would have been irrelevant. The mere fact that the controversy went on indicates that its participants had a rather different conception of socialism. To all of them socialism still meant a highly developed classless society, free, at the very least, from glaring social inequalities and political coercion. By this standard Stalin’s — and indeed Khrushchev’s — Soviet Union can hardly be said to have achieved socialism. Soviet society is still engaged in the transition from capitalism to socialism. It is far more advanced on the road than it was twenty or ten years ago, but it is still far from its goal; and in its social relationships it still contains strong elements of the bourgeois way of life. Moreover the Soviet Union which Stalin left behind had also ceased to be the ‘single and isolated country’ to which the controversy had referred. History has, as it were, refused to make of the Soviet Union the laboratory of socialism in one country; and so it has confined to Limbo the once so passionately debated doctrine.

But if socialism in one country has, as an abstract theoretical proposition, remained meaningless, it has nevertheless played an outstanding part as a modern myth and an ideology. The myth helped to reconcile the Soviet masses to the miseries of the Stalin era; and the ideology helped to discipline morally both the masses and the ruling group for the almost inhuman efforts which assured the Soviet Union’s spectacular rise from backwardness and poverty to industrial power and greatness.