Isaac Deutscher 1958

The Appearance and Reality Of Khrushchev’s ‘Promotion’

Source: The Reporter, 1 May 1958. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

On the face of it, Khrushchev’s new office adds little or nothing to his power. Stalin, throughout most of his career, exercised absolute dictatorship from the party’s General Secretariat without even being a member of the government (he became premier only in 1941). Real power still resides in the party’s Secretariat and Presidium, whose will any Soviet premier has to carry out, and by whose will he is appointed or removed – as the fortunes of Malenkov and Bulganin have shown. Khrushchev has taken the formal lead of the Council of Ministers not so much in order to strengthen his position internally as to regularise his standing in relation to other heads of state in preparation for a summit meeting, or for any important moves in the international field that he may contemplate independently of a summit meeting.

Yet the change in the Soviet premiership must also have a bearing on domestic affairs. Khrushchev appears now to be on top of all or nearly all his adversaries. To the long list of casualties in the struggle for power, Bulganin’s name is now added. He has had to pay for the ambiguous attitude he took last summer, during the showdown between Khrushchev and the ‘anti-party group’ of Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov – and for his more recent differences with Khrushchev. However, the strength of Khrushchev’s position must be judged by a consideration of the circumstances of the struggle and the methods by which he has won it. He has, so far, triumphed under the sign of a ‘return to socialist democracy’, and has owed his successes to the blows he has struck at the Stalinist system of government. He destroyed or helped to destroy Beria as the symbol of the police state with its insane terror, purges and concentration camps. He has discredited Molotov and Kaganovich and expelled them from the seats of power as the leaders of the Stalinist diehards. He has been able to dispose of Malenkov by associating him, not quite truthfully, with Molotov and Kaganovich, and by stressing Malenkov’s responsibility for the Stalinist purges (to which Khrushchev himself also lent a hand). Finally, he has won against Zhukov by mobilising the party cadres against the not altogether imaginary danger of a military dictatorship, playing on the fear that haunts the party of a Russian Bonaparte.

Half Khrushchev, Half Stalin: Thus at every step in his climb, Khrushchev has stirred the Soviet people’s distrust of any pretender to dictatorship and has appealed to the popular craving for freedom, emphatically promising to satisfy it. Though no doubt there has been a great deal of demagogy in all this, Khrushchev is now to some extent the prisoner of his own promises and slogans. He has won at a price that makes it extremely difficult for him to use power in a tyrannical and autocratic manner.

He has also had to make very real, if limited, concessions to the social aspirations of the Soviet people. He has had to satisfy in some measure the egalitarian yearnings of the workers, to improve the lot of the lowest paid among them, to relieve them of the industrial terror of the Stalin era, and to give them some say in the factories and workshops. Furthermore, he has had to meet half way the demands of the peasants, to relieve them of the burden of taxation, to pay them higher prices for farm produce, and to allow them far greater freedom in the management of the collective farms. At present he is transferring, on surprisingly easy terms, the property of the state-owned Machine Tractor Stations to the farms. He has also dismantled the over-centralised bureaucratic machine of industrial control and bestowed a high degree of economic autonomy on the provinces.

Perhaps frightened by the political ferment provoked by his own revelations about Stalin’s misrule, Khrushchev has tried recently to turn the screws of political control. Yet the Soviet Union today is in every respect a much freer country than it was five years ago, and it can hardly be robbed again of its newly won, though very limited, freedoms. The popular pressure for a ‘socialist democracy’ that has wrested so many concessions from the ruling group persists; and the new premier, even if he has defeated all his rivals, has to reckon with it. He himself represents all the contradictions of the present period of transition, during which the Soviet Union has been breaking with the habits and traditions of the Stalin era while still bearing many marks of Stalinism. Khrushchev is, one might say, half a Stalin. His background being what it is, he can hardly be less than that; but on the other hand he cannot be more, either.

We need only to compare Khrushchev’s present position five years after Stalin’s departure with Stalin’s position five years after Lenin’s death to see the difference. By 1929, Stalin had already established his tyrannical rule. He had already banished Trotsky not merely from Moscow but from Russia, and deported thousands of Trotsky’s followers to Siberia. From month to month the terror gained in momentum and insanity. The relentless and hysterical campaigns against all opposition, Right and Left, raged without a moment’s break. By contrast, Khrushchev’s campaigns against his adversaries have so far had little of the vehemence of Stalin’s drives against Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin. Malenkov, Zhukov and Molotov are still waiting in the wings. Attempts at fostering a Khrushchev cult are being made; but they are very timid indeed in comparison with even the earliest beginnings of the Stalin cult. The phony elections and votes, the pretences of unanimity and the monolithic outlook of the party are still what they were in Stalin’s days. But behind this façade, a new public opinion, with diverse crosscurrents, is forming itself. And there are few signs of any real recrudescence of the old terror.

Khrushchev’s powers thus appear to be limited by the new political atmosphere in the country, even if they are not checked by envious rivals in the Presidium. Apart from Zhukov, perhaps, his old rivals, though they may be waiting in the wings, have little chance of a comeback. Their weakness vis-à-vis Khrushchev lies precisely in their belonging to the old climate and the old era, and, for the most part, to the old generation.

Men of a new generation and outlook are coming to the fore. It is from among them that Khrushchev’s potential rivals and successors are likely to come. They have been quite unknown until recently, and so little or nothing can be said about their personalities. Most of them, like the new First Vice-Premier Frol R Kozlov, have been promoted by Khrushchev. Yet this does not necessarily make them his stooges. He has brought a few of them from the Secretariat to the party’s Presidium to fill the places vacated there by the Stalinist old guard. But already he is sharing his power with them to an extent to which Stalin never shared his.

In this connection, the new relationship between the Presidium and the Secretariat deserves attention. The fact that these two bodies have recently been so overhauled as to become almost identical in composition – ten members of the present Presidium are also members of the Secretariat – has been generally interpreted as being an indication of the growth and consolidation of Khrushchev’s power.

In the light of the past relationship between these two bodies, however, a very different conclusion would seem to be far more justified. Stalin built up and secured his autocratic dictatorship precisely by keeping the Politburo (the Presidium’s predecessor) and the Secretariat strictly separated. He alone was the link between them. In theory the Politburo was the party’s supreme authority, but in practice the Secretariat wielded the power. Stalin never allowed other members of the Politburo to gain any foothold in the Secretariat or any share of control over it; this was his exclusive domain. As a rule, he also kept the men of the Secretariat away from the Politburo. Stalin’s adversaries made repeated attempts to bring the Politburo and the Secretariat closer together. All these attempts failed because Stalin was bent on keeping the Politburo, which was in name the policy-making body, deprived of the machine that it would have needed for the implementation of policy.

The present close connection between the Presidium and the Secretariat has changed all this. The men of the Secretariat have been promoted to the rank of policymakers, but as policymakers they maintain control over the party machine. Khrushchev shares with them the responsibility for policy decisions as well as the power to carry out such decisions. They may not be Khrushchev’s actual rivals as yet – for that they are too fresh to their offices – but this arrangement may well limit his powers much more effectively than any old-style rivalry within the Presidium could do.

Khrushchev has reached his pinnacle as almost the last representative of the Stalinist old guard. That guard as a whole has been removed from power. For how long the men of the new generation will recognise him, the survivor of the Stalin guard, as their leader remains to be seen. He can lead them only if he yields to them and follows them. Should he try to establish himself against them, as the new autocrat and demigod, and to rule by means of a Stalinist terror, then he will certainly meet with bitter and dangerous resistance. He has done something to immunise Russia against the ‘cult of the individual’, and he must bear the consequences.

The Big ‘Peace Offensive’: Gromyko’s announcement, made at the session of the Supreme Soviet on 31 March, that Russia has unilaterally stopped nuclear tests indicates further that Khrushchev has assumed the office of premier mainly to associate himself most closely with the big ‘peace offensive’ in which the suspension of nuclear testing is only the first spectacular move.

It is probable that, as with all major decisions of recent years, the decision in favour of the cessation of nuclear tests was arrived at only after serious controversy within the ruling group. The same motives for which the American and British governments have been against the unilateral suspension of tests must have induced certain Soviet leaders (and Bulganin may have been among them) to oppose this decision. This opposition was defeated within the party Presidium, and Khrushchev, in the eyes of the Soviet people, takes credit for the new initiative. Marshal Voroshilov hinted at this background to the latest developments while introducing Khrushchev to his new office, and it was this, in effect, that the people of the Soviet Union were given as the main, or even the only, reason for Khrushchev’s appointment.

Three years ago when Marshal Bulganin became premier, that action was justified on the grounds that Malenkov, his predecessor, had shown himself inexperienced and inefficient. Malenkov himself came forward to confess his failings. But Bulganin has left office without any such confession, and no accusations have been publicly levelled against him.

The Soviet people have instead been given to understand that the struggle for peace has entered into a decisive phase in which Khrushchev, the supreme champion of peace, would be the best man to be in charge. Whatever practical importance is or is not attached to the cessation of tests, there can be no doubt that the decision itself has been taken to some extent in response to a genuine and deep desire for peace among the mass of the Soviet people.

It may be assumed that Khrushchev’s government will not be content with announcing the stopping of tests. Determined to maintain the diplomatic initiative in its hands and to enhance and enlarge the moral advantage it has gained, it will almost certainly follow up with further and even more dramatic moves than are implied in the cessation of tests.

What Next? The next important move may be nothing less than an announcement that the Soviet government has decided to stop unilaterally all further production of nuclear and hydrogen bombs. This, at any rate, is the substance of a proposal that Khrushchev and his colleagues are at present contemplating. The discussion is evidently not yet concluded, and it may take quite a few months before a decision is made. The Soviet government is in no hurry to make up its mind.

The announcement about the cessation of nuclear tests gives it plenty of time in which to manoeuver in the international field, to watch reactions, to stimulate the pacifist mood in the West, and to exercise pressure on the NATO governments. In the meantime, the policymakers in Moscow can thrash out the pros and the cons of the proposal to stop the manufacture of nuclear and hydrogen bombs.

Khrushchev at this time has come very near to committing himself in favour of this proposal. The reasoning behind it is simple. This may not, of course, commend it to military experts or diplomats in and out of Russia; but it need not prevent it from playing ultimately an important part in Soviet diplomacy and from having an impact on world policy. Khrushchev’s argument is broadly this: at the present level of technological development, the hydrogen bomb can already be regarded as an absolute weapon in the sense that it is not subject to obsolescence. This makes any further continuation of the armament race in nuclear and hydrogen weapons absurd.

Every conventional armament race has always been carried forward by two basic factors: the limitation of the destructive power of the weapons and their liability to become obsolete. If two potential enemies had each at his disposal, say, 100,000 guns, 20,000 planes and 30,000 tanks, neither could stop the race, for each would fear that the other might accumulate more guns, planes and tanks and wield greater destructive power. Each would also be afraid that the other might perfect his weapons and that his own guns, planes and tanks would become obsolete.

Similar considerations and fears, however, tend to lose their point with the new technological developments. When a government like the Russian or the American has accumulated a stockpile of hydrogen bombs sufficient to lay waste half the world and to paralyse the enemy completely, that government no longer has any reason for adding to its supply of bombs or for fearing that the bombs it has stockpiled will become obsolete. What does it matter if they do?

This means that something like a new law of diminishing returns is thus dramatically asserting itself in the field of nuclear armament. What Khrushchev is suggesting is that the returns have already diminished so much that they are almost at the vanishing point.

Only the military experts and the nuclear scientists who know the size and the power of the Russian and American stockpiles of bombs are in a position to judge whether this view is realistic or not. But the view is apparently taken seriously enough in Moscow to serve as the basis for a top-level discussion and as the starting point for possible governmental action.

An Assumption of Strength: If the proposal to stop nuclear armament unilaterally were to be adopted in Moscow, this would not amount to a decision to disarm. It would, on the contrary, be based on the assumption that Russia had reached the point of absolute armament. By itself, therefore, it would not be a positive contribution to peace unless it served as the starting point for genuine disarmament, which would first call for the destruction of existing supplies of bombs. But even if it were not to lead to such destruction, a unilateral cessation of nuclear armament by Russia would have momentous economic and political consequences. It would free the Soviet economy from the very heavy burden of nuclear armament and release enormous resources, including nuclear ones, for the development of civilian production.

This would enable the Soviet Union, by withdrawing from the armament race, to leap ahead powerfully in the industrial race with the United States and thereby to enhance in time the international attraction of Communism. The whole question, from the Russian viewpoint, is whether Russia has really reached the point of absolute armament. Directly or indirectly, Khrushchev will provide the answer within a year or so.

In the meantime, Soviet diplomacy will do its utmost to make as much capital as it can out of the cessation of nuclear tests. It will play all its trump cards. It will point out that the United States has no excuse for refusing to follow suit since it has carried out more than one hundred nuclear tests while Russia, it is estimated, has carried out less than sixty; and that in stopping the tests, Khrushchev’s government has taken up a proposal that Adlai Stevenson made in 1956.

The Soviet Union will also use the effect of its latest initiative to put Konrad Adenauer’s government on the defensive, and to present the nuclear armament of the West German Federal Republic as a provocation. If the NATO powers go on arming West Germany with atomic weapons, the Soviet Union may reply by setting up nuclear-missile bases in East Germany and Poland, although the value of such a retort may for Russia be more political than military. Finally, if the United States and Britain do not stop the tests and the Soviet government decides to renew them, it will be able to place the onus on the Western powers. In doing so, it will certainly carry a great deal of conviction with the uncommitted nations of the world and with considerable sections of public opinion in Western Europe.

It may be seen from all this that Khrushchev has indeed taken over the reins of government for a very intense and dynamic drive in the field of diplomacy.