Isaac Deutscher 1959

Khrushchev, Mao and Stalin’s Ghost

Source: The Reporter, 19 February 1959. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Twenty-First Congress of the Soviet Communist Party assembled in Moscow almost three years after Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ before the Twentieth Congress. For the Soviet Union and the other Communist-ruled countries, these were eventful years, crowded with reforms, counter-reforms, inner-party struggles, turmoil and confusion. Whatever the formal agenda of this assembly – officially it was convened only to endorse the new Seven-Year Plan – the essential question before it has been whether or not Communism is to follow the signposts set up three years ago. How much of the Stalinist orthodoxy is still valid and how much is discarded? And what is the order of the day – de-Stalinisation or re-Stalinisation?

Inevitably, these questions produced controversy and splits. It is now officially admitted that despite the pretence of unanimity maintained at the Twentieth Congress, the party leaders were then deeply divided over all major issues, as in truth they had been even earlier. It was only while the Twentieth Congress was in session that the Central Committee authorised Khrushchev to make his revelations about Stalin; and only a small majority of the committee voted for this momentous decision. Nearly half the members, led by Molotov and Kaganovich, fought desperately, and until the last moment, to save the idol and the dogmas of Stalinism.

What was at stake was the entire system of government and party leadership, and not merely Stalin’s good or bad name. None of the major administrative, economic and social changes that have since been introduced in the Soviet Union could even have been contemplated as long as the party was shackled by Stalinist orthodoxy. Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ was the prelude to the long series of reforms that have filled the interval between the two congresses.

The story of the interval, however, is full of contradictions and paradoxes. It falls into at least three major chapters. The first was brought to a close by the Polish and Hungarian upheavals in October and November 1956. The second ended with the expulsion from the Central Committee of Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich in June 1957. The third and last chapter, leading up to the present, could be divided into several subchapters; its story is of the greatest complexity and confusion.

Revision and Revolt: In the first period the movement for de-Stalinisation developed almost openly and assumed great explosive force. It met deep and widely-felt needs, it evoked a powerful popular response, and it aroused boundless hopes. The range of the movement, however, was relatively limited, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. It was primarily political in character. Its emphasis was on inner-party reform, collective leadership, and freedom of inner-party criticism – in a word, on the replacement of the Stalinist ‘bureaucratic centralism’ by the Leninist ‘democratic centralism’. These were also the months of the ‘thaw’ in literature and in the arts and of an intense ferment of ideas in academic circles. From month to month de-Stalinisation made startling conquests in vital but narrowly circumscribed fields. The intelligentsia led the movement, while the bureaucracy was divided against itself; but the mass of the working class, not to speak of the peasantry, remained largely inarticulate.

The Hungarian rising gave the Stalinist die-hards the opportunity to rally and to go over to the offensive. They denounced Khrushchev as the unwitting inspirer of the rising and the prompter of revisionism, who had jeopardised Communist rule in Eastern Europe and exposed the Soviet Union itself to dangerous shocks. The perils they spoke of were real enough; and so all the leaders, de-Stalinisers as well as Stalinists, were seized with panic. In the course of eight months Molotov and Kaganovich pressed home the attack and succeeded in regaining much of the ground they had lost. Khrushchev was compelled to call a halt to the debunking of the Stalin era, to declare war on revisionism, and to try and discipline the restive intelligentsia.

But it was impossible to undo the effects of the Twentieth Congress and to make people forget his disclosures about Stalinist misrule. Too much discontent and disillusionment were pent up in all social classes. The workers began to react against the privileges of the bureaucracy, against social inequality, and against the old severe industrial discipline. The peasants refused to increase agricultural production, which was disastrously low and threatened to impede industrial progress.

The party leadership had reason to fear that the disgruntled intelligentsia (whose ranks had been politically strengthened by the release from concentration camps and the rehabilitation of old heretics and ‘enemies of the people’) might appeal to the workers and peasants and set in motion a genuine popular opposition. Something had to be done to dispel the popular discontents – at least a new wage policy and a new approach to collective farming were needed. Thus, even if only to be able to call an effective halt to political and ideological de-Stalinisation, Khrushchev had to carry de-Stalinisation into the fields of economic and social policy.

The Skeleton Battle: Khrushchev set out to break up the over-centralised and rigidly bureaucratic system of economic administration and to replace it by the regional economic councils – by means of local initiative and responsibility he hoped to increase the efficiency of the entire industrial machinery. Acting on the same principle, he released the collective farms from bureaucratic tutelage, transferred to them the property of the Machine Tractor Stations, abolished compulsory food deliveries, and offered the farmers all sorts of material incentives.

The Stalinist die-hards put up a stubborn resistance to this series of reforms. They relied on the backing of Moscow’s powerful industrial bureaucracy and on the caution and fear that had seized large sections of the party machine since the Hungarian rising. In June 1957, Molotov and Kaganovich were on the point of bringing their counter-offensive to a successful conclusion. Strengthened by the adherence of Malenkov and Shepilov, de-Stalinisers of the previous period, and by Bulganin’s hesitations, they obtained a majority within the Presidium of the Central Committee and carried a motion deposing Khrushchev from the post of First Secretary of the party. This was to have put an end to the ‘Period of Troubles’ and ‘risky experiments’.

At this point, though, Khrushchev appealed from the Presidium to the Central Committee. If the records of that session of the committee were to be published, the effect, at least in the Soviet Union, might be almost as shocking as was that of Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’. The debates were stormy. The antagonists charged one another with working for the ruin of the Soviet Union and of Communism; and for the occasion each side dragged skeletons from the family closets. At one point, for instance, while Khrushchev dwelt on his adversaries’ responsibility for the great purges of the 1930s – the topic invariably recurring in all secret debates since Stalin’s death – he pointed at Molotov and Kaganovich and exclaimed: ‘Your hands are stained with the blood of our party leaders and of innumerable innocent Bolsheviks!’ ‘So are yours!’ Molotov and Kaganovich shouted back at him. ‘Yes, so are mine’, Khrushchev replied. ‘I admit this. But during the purges I was merely carrying out your orders. I was not then a member of the Politburo and I bear no responsibility for its decisions. You were.’

Thus Khrushchev went on playing on the revulsion against Stalinism; and this was indeed strong enough to assure his success. Essentially, the vote reflected the majority’s conviction that it was impossible for the party to go on ruling the country as before and that the reforms advocated by Khrushchev were sound and overdue.

It was no accident that in June 1957 Marshal Zhukov threw his weight behind Khrushchev. Perhaps more strongly than any other group, the officers’ corps had resented the Stalinist purges, and it was convinced of the urgency of economic and administrative reform. But in a few months it was Zhukov’s turn to be expelled from the Central Committee. Speaking on 3 February before the Twenty-First Congress, Zhukov’s successor as Defence Minister, Marshal Rodion L Malinovsky, declared that Zhukov had ‘tried to set himself up as a new Bonaparte’ in the months following the June session.

Two Steps Forwards…: Yet how paradoxical is the outcome of all these disputes and showdowns! On the one hand, Khrushchev’s triumph over his adversaries has enabled him to go ahead with his reforms, every one of which takes the Soviet Union further and further away from the Stalinist system of government. On the other, his triumph appears to have driven the party, politically, a long way back toward Stalinism. By eliminating his adversaries, Khrushchev appears to have destroyed the post-Stalinist ‘collective leadership’ and to have become the party’s sole master.

This ‘dialectically contradictory’ and ambiguous outcome of all the recent struggles was strikingly demonstrated in the December sessions of the Central Committee and of the Supreme Soviet, which were convened in preparation for the congress. An immense amount of new legislation was placed before these two bodies. Nearly all of it was designed to demonstrate that the break with Stalinism is continuing, is deepening, and is spreading to ever new spheres of Soviet life. The new Seven-Year Plan does not aim only at approaching the level of American industry. Its special feature is the new emphasis on the need for the ‘harmonious’ development of producer and consumer industries; and this has necessitated some slowing down in the rate of over-all development. The plan makes important concessions to consumer interests. It also marks a further departure from Stalin’s anti-egalitarian policy; it provides for a steady narrowing of the gap between high and low incomes; and for a shortening of working hours in industry.

The principle of de-Stalinisation, however, has been most strikingly evident in the new criminal code, which its sponsor introduced to the Supreme Soviet as an act of legislation designed to ‘liquidate the shameful heritage of the past’. The code had been under debate for many years, and it is the resultant of conflicting viewpoints. It does not go as far as the most liberal Soviet jurists had expected, but it does go a very long way towards transforming a police state into a state ‘ruled by law’. The code deprives the political police of the powers to sentence, imprison and deport citizens. No one is to be sentenced otherwise than by a normal court in open trial. Penalties are reduced. Guilt by association, the category of the ‘enemy of the people’, the co-responsibility of the defendant’s relatives, the penalty of the deprivation of citizenship, and many similar features of the old code are abolished. No defendant may be charged with ‘terrorism’ unless there is prima facie evidence of an actual attempt at political assassination.

Under such a code it would have been impossible for Stalin ever to produce his univers concentrationnaire, to stage any of his great purges and the Moscow trials, and even to deport Trotsky to Alma Ata and Constantinople. As if to stress the meaning of the code, General Serov, the grim old policeman, was replaced as chief of state security by the ex-Komsomol leader Shelepin.

Yet – and here is the greatest paradox – the ghosts of the great purges seemed to be crowding back into the Central Committee’s conference hall in December when Bulganin made his confession of guilt, denouncing Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich and extolling Khrushchev’s infallibility; and when the Central Committee rejected his confession as hypocritical and inadequate, and Rudenko, Vyshinsky’s successor as state prosecutor, spoke about the ‘crimes of the anti-party group’. We were back, if not in 1936, the year of the Zinoviev trial, then at least in 1930-34.

Khrushchev’s purpose is to break the morale and expose the weakness of Molotov and his friends; but they have evidently not yet laid down their arms. From their retreats they have continued their ‘factional activity’, trying to rally their followers and attacking Khrushchev’s policies. Khrushchev feels that his armour has chinks and that he cannot afford to ignore the attacks. He has not made his position easier by promulgating the new criminal code. In order to chastise his adversaries in Stalin’s manner, he would have to tear up that code – otherwise his hands will be tied. Will he dare to tear it up?

… One Step Backwards: What the Stalinist die-hards are now fighting may be only a rearguard battle, but for the time being their strength is by no means negligible. To keep them at bay Khrushchev has had to press on with his anti-Stalinist reforms and also to try and steal Molotov’s thunder, to strike at the revisionists, to break with Tito, to acquiesce in the execution of Nagy, and so on. As long as he rides from success to success, this may be enough. But he may run into trouble if he fails in any of his daring reforms – if the fat years in farming are followed by lean ones, if the peasants, emboldened by his concessions, increase their demands (as they have been doing here and there), if the workers’ discontent with the still desperate shortage of housing grows more acute and vocal, or if once again something goes wrong in Eastern Europe.

Of all these possibilities, on which Molotov and his associates bank, none is perhaps more real than that of a setback in farming. Khrushchev has staked much on the success of his slogan ‘Catch up with American per capita production of meat’. Meanwhile, the advance in farming, though considerable, has been far slower than he expected it to be; and a setback might jeopardise the industrial targets of the Seven-Year Plan and most of his social policies.

However, all this does not account fully for the timing and the ferocity of the attacks on the ‘anti-party group’. What aroused Khrushchev’s ire and alarmed him was the circumstance that the Stalinist die-hards appear to enjoy a measure of encouragement from Mao Tse-tung or his entourage. (Molotov has probably found his embassy in Outer Mongolia a convenient point for establishing close contact with Peking; and this may explain the rumours about his transfer to The Hague, where he would be cut off from both his Soviet following and his Chinese well-wishers.)

The reasons that have induced the Chinese leadership to make the somersault from the anti-Stalinism of Mao’s benevolent ‘Hundred Flowers’ speech to their present dogmatism and that prompted them to favour Khrushchev’s adversaries cannot be gone into here. Mao may have been lending support to Molotov from motives either of principle or merely of tactics. However that may be, his role was no less curious and self-contradictory than Khrushchev’s: his very defence of the Stalinist die-hards led him to criticise the near-Stalinist manner in which Khrushchev deals with them and to uphold against him the principle of ‘collective leadership’.

Family Quarrel: This was a decisive factor in the tension between Peking and Moscow on the eve of the Twenty-First Congress, a tension whose symptoms were unmistakable. When Khrushchev, in his talk with Senator Humphrey, denounced Mao’s people’s communes as reactionary, and when Mikoyan followed suit in talks to American bankers and imperialists, relations between Moscow and Peking must have been in a rather critical state. Mao could not fail to protest against so flagrant a violation of all accepted rules of Communist comradeship and solidarity. Khrushchev’s and Mikoyan’s strictures were obviously meant to serve notice of the reprisals with which Moscow might retort to Mao’s intervention in the internal Soviet struggle. Just before the congress, Moscow and Peking probably exchanged fairly vehement messages on this subject; and the omens pointed towards a breach far more momentous than any rupture between Moscow and Belgrade ever was or could be.

Neither Khrushchev nor Mao could face this prospect with equanimity. At the very least they had to try to keep relations between their governments and their military alliance as little affected as possible by the controversy between their parties. It may have been anxiety to preserve these two aspects of Soviet-Chinese relations that led Mao, deeply involved as he had been in the ideological differences, to resign as head of state and to confine himself to his role of party leader.

Both Mao and Khrushchev have for the time being shrunk from bringing their controversy into the open. The risks were too great. For one thing, both had reason to fear that the inner-party conflict might wreck the Soviet-Chinese alliance. For another, both were afraid that the breach between them would create a new opening for Tito and the revisionists and finally destroy the monolithic character of the Communist movement, splitting it into three wings: the Titoist and revisionist Right, the Maoist Left and ultra-Left, and the Khrushchevite Centre.

Khrushchev was therefore able to produce at the congress something like a compromise with Mao. For the first time he openly admitted the existence of important differences between Peking and Moscow, differences over the methods of building socialism; and he uttered not a word of approval for the Chinese people’s communes. But despite these differences, he said, the Chinese and the Russians were determined to maintain their solidarity vis-à-vis the West; it was mainly in this respect that the relationship between the Russian and the Chinese Communists differed from the relations with the Yugoslavs. Khrushchev then went on to the principle on which that solidarity is to rest – that Communist parties must not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.

In relations between Communist parties this is a novelty indeed. Hitherto the principle of non-interference has had its application in relations between states only, while the Communist parties were by definition entitled, and indeed in duty bound, to criticise each other. Non-interference is the formula of Khrushchev’s and Mao’s latest bargain. It obliges Mao to withdraw support from Molotov & Co and to acknowledge Khrushchev’s leadership, while it obliges Khrushchev and his colleagues to refrain from any criticism of China’s way of building socialism and of the peoples’ communes in particular. This compromise could also be read between the lines of Mao’s message to the congress and of Chou En-lai’s speech.

Khrushchev thus appears to have succeeded at present in closing the breach and consolidating his leadership. Yet the congress does not seem to have given him a free hand for a showdown in the Stalinist manner with the anti-party group. The speakers were clearly divided over this. While Spiridonov, the leader of the Leningrad organisation, demanded that Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich should appear before the congress and recant, Mikoyan almost openly spoke up against the repetition of these Stalinist practices and urged the congress to consider the struggle against the anti-party group as a closed chapter.

Khrushchev himself, when he said that in the Soviet Union no one was held in prison for political reasons any longer, gave the congress something like a pledge that Stalinist purges would not be re-enacted and that the de-Stalinisation proclaimed at the Twentieth Congress had not been in vain.

Such at least is the impression one gains from the proceedings of the Twenty-First Communist Party Congress. As during the Twentieth Congress, one cannot be sure that the official record tells the full story. Khrushchev may once again have disclosed the most important part of the story at a secret session; and if so, it may take time before this reaches the outside world.