Isaac Deutscher 1959
Source: New Statesman, 24 January 1959. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
The Twenty-First Congress of the Soviet Communist Party is assembling in Moscow almost three years after Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. These were eventful years for the Soviet Union and the other Communist countries, crowded with reforms, counter-reforms and inner-party struggles, with stupendous progress and also retrograde developments. Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ was, of course, the formative event of the period: it has reverberated through all subsequent developments, and it will still echo in the proceedings of the forthcoming congress. Whatever the formal agenda of this assembly – officially it has been convened only to endorse the new Seven-Year Plan – the essential question before it is whether or not Communism is to follow the signposts set up three years ago. What is the order of the day: de-Stalinisation or re-Stalinisation?
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 they had been, in truth, even earlier. It was only while the Twentieth Congress was in session that the Central Committee authorised Khrushchev to come out with his revelations; 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 till 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 and ideological canons. None of the major administrative, economic and social changes that have since been introduced in the Soviet Union could have been even contemplated as long as the party was shackled by the Stalinist orthodoxy.
The story of these three years, however, is full of paradoxes. It falls into at least three 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 last chapter is one of great complexity and confusion.
In the first period the movement for de-Stalinisation developed almost openly and assumed great explosive force. It satisfied 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 is 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 the arts and of an intense ferment of ideas in academic circles. From month to month de-Stalinisation made startling conquests in vital but narrow 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 inarticulate. Therein lay the weakness of the movement. Yet its momentum was strong enough to force Molotov, Kaganovich and their adherents into retreat. They could only watch events with alarm, and warn the Central Committee that it was losing control.
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 of which they spoke were real; and so all the leaders, de-Stalinisers as well as Stalinist diehards, 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 to 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 was pent up in all social classes. The workers began to react against the privileges of the bureaucracy, against social inequality, and against the old and 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 wages policy and a new approach to collective farming were needed.
Thus, even if only to be able to call an effective halt to de-Stalinisation in party politics and ideology, Khrushchev had to carry it into the fields of economic and social policy. Moreover, the Hungarian and Polish upheavals had put a severe strain on the Soviet economy. It had become necessary to prop up economically the tottering or shaky Communist governments of Eastern Europe and to step up the output of consumer goods in the Soviet Union as well as in the other Communist countries. But, under the old over-centralised and rigidly bureaucratic system of economic administration, it was difficult to do this while maintaining a rapid rate of development in heavy industry and forcing the pace in the nuclear arms race.
Khrushchev therefore set out to break up that system and to replace it by the regional economic councils, to enhance the status of the trade unions, and to accord new rights to factory councils and factory committees. 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 gave incentives to the farmers.
The Stalinist diehards put up a stubborn resistance to this series of reforms. They relied on the backing of Moscow’s powerful industrial bureaucracy and on the fear which had, since the Hungarian rising, taken hold of large sections of the party machine. 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 the party’s First Secretary. This was to have put an end to the ‘Period of Troubles’ and ‘risky experiments’.
At this point, however, 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 Communism; and for the occasion each side dragged out quite a few skeletons from the family cupboards. At one point, for instance, while he dwelt on his adversaries’ responsibility for the great purges of the 1930s – the topic invariably recurring in all secret debates since Stalin’s death – Khrushchev, pointing to Molotov and Kaganovich, 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 Politbureau 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. The Central Committee expelled Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov from its midst (but not from the party), and it confirmed Khrushchev in his office. 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. The modern economy and the new structure of society could no longer be reconciled with the old administrative and political superstructure.
Yet, how paradoxical is now the outcome of all these disputes and showdowns! On the one hand, his triumph over his adversaries has enabled Khrushchev 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 towards Stalinism. By eliminating his adversaries, Khrushchev appears to have destroyed the post-Stalinist ‘collective leadership’ and to have become the party’s sole master.
The Seven-Year Plan: This ‘dialectically contradictory’ and ambiguous outcome of all the recent struggles showed itself strikingly 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 has been 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 the overall 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 the gradual introduction of the 30 to 35-hour week.
In apparent contrast to this egalitarian trend stands Khrushchev’s school reform, also passed in December, which partly curtails universal secondary education. The truth is that the Soviet educational system has, in its unparalleled growth, run ahead of the social system as a whole, and has outrun the nation’s resources. Every year millions of young people, their secondary education completed, knock at the doors of the universities and are turned away. The universities, where expansion cannot possibly keep pace with expansion in secondary education, have been unable to accommodate so many candidates; and the rush of the young to the universities has threatened to starve industry of manpower. Khrushchev is now chasing the mass of Soviet youth from the university gate to the factory bench; and he is anxious to stop the rush to the universities at an earlier stage – at the secondary school. But he has met with widespread, and more than usually articulate, opposition; and he has had to compromise. He has increased this year’s budgetary grants for education by as much as 50 per cent; declared that the retrenchment in secondary education is only temporary; denied that there has been any retrenchment; and he had to dwell on the egalitarian character of the polytechnical school where theoretical education is to be combined with productive labour.
The principle of de-Stalinisation, however, has been most strongly in evidence 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 product of conflicting viewpoints. It does not go as far as the most liberal of Soviet jurists had expected, but it does go a very long way towards transforming a police state into a state ‘ruled by the 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 deprivation of citizenship, and many similar features of the old code are abolished. No defendant must 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 to stage the great purges of the 1930s. As if to stress the meaning of this reform, General Serov, the grim old policeman, has been 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 held 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’. The spectacle was staged in order to bring pressure to bear on Molotov and his associates and to make them appear before the Twenty-First Congress in sackcloth and ashes, with confessions similar to those that Stalin’s adversaries were forced to make.
Why does Khrushchev need these confessions? And will Molotov and his friends make them? Khrushchev’s purpose is to break their morale and expose their weakness; but until now they have evidently not yet ‘laid down 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 is not without 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. Will he dare to do so?
What the Stalinist diehards are fighting may be only a rearguard battle, historically; but for the time being their strength is by no means negligible. We have seen that, to keep them at bay, Khrushchev has had to press on with his anti-Stalinist reforms, and also to try to 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: the Stalinist die-hards cannot come back. Sputniks, industrial records and bumper harvests (obtained mostly from ‘virgin soils’) have bolstered his prestige. 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, raise 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 something once again goes wrong in Eastern Europe.
All this, however, does not account fully for the timing and the ferocity of the attacks on the ‘anti-party group’. What has provoked Khrushchev’s wrath and alarmed him is the circumstance that the Stalinist diehards appear to enjoy a measure of encouragement from Mao Tse-tung or his entourage. (Molotov has probably found in his embassy in Mongolia a convenient vantage 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 which have induced the Chinese to somersault from the anti-Stalinism of the ‘Hundred Flowers’ to their present dogmatic attitude and to view with favour Khrushchev’s adversaries cannot be gone into here. Mao may be lending support to Molotov from motives either of principle or merely of tactics. However that may be, this is a decisive factor in the present tension between Peking and Moscow. When Khrushchev denounces Mao’s People’s Communes as ‘reactionary’ to the American Senator Humphrey, and when Mikoyan does the same and speaks of Chinese ‘hotheads’ to Wall Street bankers, relations between Moscow and Peking are in a very critical state indeed. Mao cannot fail to protest to Khrushchev against so flagrant a violation of the accepted rules of comradeship, and Khrushchev’s and Mikoyan’s strictures are meant to serve notice of the reprisals with which they may retort to Mao’s intervention in the internal Soviet struggle.
The omens point towards a breach between Moscow and Peking which would, of course, be far more momentous than any rupture between Moscow and Belgrade has ever been or could be. Precisely because of this, Khrushchev and Mao may still shrink from bringing the conflict into the open; and if they are, nevertheless, driven to take the fateful step, they must then strive to keep the relations between their governments, and their military alliance, as little affected as possible by the controversy between the parties. The anxiety to keep apart these two aspects of Soviet – Chinese relations may indeed have led Mao, deeply involved as he is in the ideological differences, to resign as Head of State and to confine himself to his role as the party’s leader. But will it be possible to keep the two aspects apart? And, regardless of this, the open division of international Communism into three distinct wings – the Titoist ‘revisionist right’, the Maoist ‘left’ and ‘ultra-left’ and the Khrushchev ‘centre’ – would finally destroy the ‘monolithic’ character of the movement.
Can Moscow risk such a division? It may take some time before we learn what, if any, is the answer of the Twenty-First Congress to this question. But this is the gravest issue, at once domestic and international, which faces the congress.