Duncan Hallas

The Stalinist Parties

(July 1951)

From: Duncan Hallas (ed.), The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists, London 1971, pp.65-75.
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In my opinion, Cde Hillman’s document is not a satisfactory basis for this very important discussion. Therefore, I submit this alternative. It is not a polemic against Cde Hillman; to deal with all the questions raised in The Nature of the Stalinist Parties, some of which have only a remote connection with the subject, would necessitate a document of formidable dimensions. I cannot find the time to write such a document, and, much more important, I suspect that many comrades would not find the time to read it. The following, then, is a bare outline of my own conceptions. (All unidentified quotations are taken from The Nature of the Stalinist Parties by E. Hillman.)


Trotsky’s Analysis of the Stalinist Parties

Trotsky did not assume that “in some unspecified way, the Stalinist parties were parties of the working class”. His conception was perfectly specific. He designated them as centrist parties of a particular kind. Later (after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern) he decided that they had evolved into neo-reformist parties. These clear and concrete descriptions have become blurred by the use of the meaningless term “degenerated workers’ parties”, a term which may tell us something of their origin, but which tells us nothing at all of their present role, a term which covers all kinds of different analyses – hence its popularity within the FI in the post-war period. To avoid any possible confusion, I give Trotsky’s definition in his own words:

The ruling faction of the Comintern represents, not centrism “in general” but a quite definite historical form of centrism, which has its social roots, rather recent, but powerful. First of all the matter concerns the Soviet Bureaucracy ... The party as a self-controlling vanguard of the proletariat no longer exists. The party apparatus has been fused wit the administration. The most important instrument of the “general line” within the party is the GPU. The ruling and uncontrolled position of the bureaucracy is conducive to a psychology which in many ways is directly contradictory to the psychology of a proletarian revolutionary ... In the course of a number of years the Stalinist faction demonstrated that the interests and psychology of the “strong peasant”, engineer, administrator, Chinese bourgeois intellectual and British Trade Union functionary were much closer and more comprehensible to it than the psychology and needs of the unskilled labourer, the peasant poor, the uprising Chinese national masses, the English strikers, etc. But why, in that case, didn’t the Stalinist faction lead to the very end of its line of national opportunism? Because it is the bureaucracy of a workers’ state. Hence is derived the dual psychology and policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Centrism, but centrism on the foundations of a workers’ state, such is the sole possible expression for this duality. [1]

(Notice that Trotsky does not distinguish between the CPSU and the other parties of the Comintern. In fact the article quoted from is concerned with, chiefly, the German Communist Party.)

A centrist tendency is, by definition, evolving either towards or away from Marxism. Trotsky believed that the fundamental evolution of the Comintern was towards classical reformism, just as the evolution of the Russian bureaucracy was towards the restoration of private (i.e. monopoly) capitalism. Hence he believed that the ultra-left line of the “Third Period” (1928-34) must inevitably be replaced by an ultra-opportunistic one.

The Brandlerites, including the leaders of the SAP, remaining even today the theoretical pupils of Thalheimer, saw only “ultra-leftism” in the policies of the Comintern and denied (and continue to deny) the very meaning of bureaucratic centrism. We, on the other hand, were able to forecast with absolute precision the inevitability of a new opportunistic turn. The present (Fourth Period), when Stalin is pulling the European workers’ movement on the hook of the Comintern to the Right of official reformism, demonstrates how shallow and opportunistic is the official philosophy of Thalheimer-Walcher and Co. [2]

The Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 was, for Trotsky, the culmination of the evolution of Stalinism towards reformism.

The “defence of the USSR” is the excuse – not the reason but the excuse – for the capitulation of the Cachins, Jacquemottes, Gottwalds, etc, to the “public opinion” of “their own” bourgeoisie. [3]

The same idea is repeated several times in the fundamental document of the FI, e.g.

The definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world particularly in Spain, France, the United States and other “democratic countries, created exceptional supplementary difficulties for the world proletariat. [4]

Finally, in the event of war, the Stalinists would behave no differently from the reformists of 1914.

No less traitorous is the role played by social democracy and Stalinism in the face of the imminent war danger ... They have neither the desire nor the possibility of organising the struggle against the coming imperialist war. On the contrary, completely corrupted by social patriotism and flying the pirate flag of “democratic” imperialism, they are already acting as recruiting sergeants of imperialism. [5]

This then is Trotsky’s position. Bureaucratic centrist parties swinging right (1923), left (1924), right (1925-27), left (1928-33), right (1934) and finally ending up on the side of the bourgeois order (in its “democratic” form) from 1935 onwards. This conception is clear and unambiguous. We can now see that it is clearly and unambiguously wrong. The early war period (1939-41) cast doubt upon it. The postwar period (especially 1947 onwards) has finally disproved it. Today nobody but an imbecile can maintain that the Stalinist panics are capitulating to “their own” bourgeoisie. And nobody – not even the is – does so.

Hence we have to re-investigate the question. We cannot maintain our old position. It simply isn’t there to maintain. What, then, are the Stalinist parties?



Workers’ Parties?

Cde Hillman – and also Shachtman – is anxious to show that the Stalinist parties are not workers’ parties. What is meant by this term? A party can be defined according to its composition, its leadership, or its programme – the real, not the formal programme – or according to a combination of these three factors. Cde Hillman – and also Shachtman – take the leadership and (real) programme of the Stalinist parties and conclude that they are not workers’ parties. In the case of Shachtman, the question of composition is ignored. In the case of Cde Hillman an attempt is made to show that the composition is not predominantly proletarian, or that, if it is, workers become “declassed” when they join the party. Let us apply this method to a reformist party.

The leadership of, say, the British Labour Party (BLP) is not proletarian. It consists of Trade Union functionaries, lawyers, clergymen, doctors, professional “liberal” politicians, company directors, ex-civil servants, ex-university teachers, scions of the nobility, etc. It is formed of various sections of the middle classes, including an important (but numerically declining) group from the bureaucracy of the TU’s. It is a petty-bourgeois leadership in ideology as well as in composition. The (real) programme of the party is neo-liberalist class collaboration and pro-imperialism. It is diametrically opposed to the struggle for the unity and emancipation of the workers in Britain or anywhere else. It is a petty-bourgeois programme – and a very reactionary one at that. Finally, the internal regime of the party is not democratic. The democratic façade conceals the dictatorship of the parliamentary leadership and the TUC bosses. All these facts are well known and beyond dispute. The conclusion that would have to be drawn from them, working by the Hillman-Shachtman method, could only be that the BLP is not a workers’ party. But is not only the BLP that has to be considered. All the other reformist parties have similar features; in some cases without even the proletarian membership of the BLP (e.g. the SFIO). But practically the entire international working class is lined up behind the Stalinists and the reformists, or behind semi-fascist nationalist movements (Peron, Vargas, etc), or behind “democratic” bourgeois parties (MRP, Democratic Party of the USA, etc). Therefore, the logical conclusion to be drawn from the Hillman-Shachtman thesis is that there are no workers’ parties at all in the world today. In one sense this is perfectly true, of course, for, if we define a workers’ party by programme and leadership, then the only workers’ parties are proletarian revolutionary, Communist Parties. That these do not exist (on any scale) is obvious. However, this does not elucidate the question of the nature of the Stalinist parties. The whole discussion of “workers’ parties” or “not workers’ parties” is in fact a red herring. The only meaningful definition of a workers’ party is in terms of composition. A party which bases itself mainly upon the working class is a workers’ party. The nature of its leadership and programme has nothing to do with the question. Naturally, such a party cannot have any programme. It cannot have the programme (openly) of the Economic League or Hitler. Naturally also, such a party, with a petty-bourgeois leadership, must play a dual role corresponding to the conflict of interests between the leadership and the membership. All this is obvious. The reason we (as revolutionaries) are concerned with the question at all is because, in order to win the working class, it is necessary to approach such parties in a certain way. That is to apply the united front tactic to them in order to win the proletarian rank and file from the bourgeois ideologies of the leadership. No one has yet shown any other way of doing this.

However, Cde Hillman (and also Shachtman) have another argument up their sleeve. Whereas the reformist parties have their basis in the bureaucracy of the Trade Union and Co-operative movement and are tied to, are part and parcel of, bourgeois democracy, Stalinism, like fascism, is a totalitarian movement which can only came to power by destroying the workers’ organisations. Since Stalinism is in an entirely different category from reformism, the united front tactic cannot be used against them any more than against the fascists. Logically, one would suppose, the tactical approach to them should be expressed in the slogan “Smash the Stalino-Fascists”. (Why not, Cde Hillman?) This thesis, absurd as it appears on the surface, contains elements of truth and must be carefully examined.



Social-Fascist Parties?

This is in reality a theory of “social-fascism”. It makes no difference whether one calls the Stalinist parties “bureaucratic-collectivist parties”, “Red Fascism”, “totalitarian state-capitalist parties”, or any other name. (We will leave Cde Hillman’s personal aberration “totalitarian state-capitalist societies in embryo” for another occasion. In reality, Cde Hillman draws his conclusions not from this conception but from the social-fascist thesis.) The essence of this theory is that the Stalinists, like the fascists, seek to, and under certain conditions are able, to seize power, smash the working class and establish a totalitarian society.

The theoreticians of this school are unquestionably correct when they state that this is the aim of the Stalinist leaderships. They are also correct when they say that the methods of Stalinism in dealing with opposition are identical with those of fascism. Whenever it is able to do so, Stalinism reinforces its slander machine with thugs and gunmen. Conditions permitting, the beating-up and murder of opponents (especially revolutionaries) is a normal Stalinist tactic. In this respect there is no distinction between the Storm-Troopers of Hitler and the Storm-Troopers of Stalin. There is a further analogy in the internal structure of their parties and in the character of their propaganda and agitation. For all their pseudo-Marxism, the ideology of Stalinism is as much based on leader-worship as that of fascism. The psychology of Stalinism is similar to that of fascism (summed up in Mosley’s slogan “ACTION!”)and so on.

The fundamental defect in the social-fascist thesis is that it ignores the class struggle. Given that the Stalinist parties are social- fascist – and the description is not wholly inaccurate – the question is: Can these parties take power in the same way as the fascists can (and have)? The question has only to be posed to see the fallacy of the idea. Fascism in Germany, for instance, was a movement of petty-bourgeois and lumpen-proletarian radicals which was lifted into power by the big bourgeoisie in order to preserve monopoly capitalism or state-monopoly capitalism. In no case whatever did fascism seize power against the big capitalists – it could not do so. The only way to do so is to lead the masses into head-on conflict with the state machine and thereby smash it. But these same masses would not then permit the fascist bosses to enslave them. The result would not be fascism but socialism. Now, unlike fascism, Stalinism seeks, not to preserve monopoly or state-monopoly capitalism, but to establish the “Russian System” (it is immaterial, for this argument, whether this system is called “bureaucratic collectivism”, “bureaucratic state-capitalism”, or what have you) and this system involves the liquidation of the big bourgeoisie (as a class) and their replacement by a single bureaucratic corporation. We can therefore say with complete confidence, that the big bourgeoisie will not lift Togliatti and Reimann into power as they lifted Mussolini and Hitler. (For notwithstanding Cdes Hillman arid Shachtman the bourgeoisie is by no means baffled by “this movement that has hitherto defied logical explanation”). There are two other possible roads to power. The road of revolutionary struggle – from which the Stalinists are barred for exactly the same reason as the fascists – and the road of becoming gauleiters for a foreign conqueror. This last road is. the only real one (except under certain conditions discussed later). This is the reason, as Johnson (quoted by Hillman) correctly states, for their “loyalty” to the Kremlin – “sheer naked self-interest”.

The objection will be raised that the theory that Stalifiism cannot seize power against the bourgeoisie has been disproved in practice in two cases – Yugoslavia and China. In fact, the “exceptions” do not disprove the case but they do raise an extremely important issue. What had China and Yugoslavia in common? The simultaneous existence of an extremely weak and impotent bourgeoisie which did not control the state machine (in Yugoslavia the state machine was simply a shadow of the Wehrmacht, in China the state machine was in the hands of the Bonapartist clique of Chiang-Kai-Shek) and an extremely weak, scattered and impotent proletariat in a predominantly peasant country. Under these circumstances, it was possible for the Stalinists to build a Bonapartist military-state machine based on the peasantry and to conquer, by military means, a disintegrating opponent. The resulting regime is bureaucratic state-capitalism imposed upon a primitive peasant agriculture. Obviously, then, we have to admit the possibility of the Stalinist parties taking power in other areas given similar conditions. In those countries where the bourgeois revolution was never achieved Stalinism represents a possible means of destroying the old society, given the impotence of the working class. The theory of Permanent Revolution has therefore to be modified to meet this case Is also to meet the case of the bourgeoisie, again under exceptional conditions, achieving the main essentials of a bourgeois revolution. The theory then appears as a statement of revolutionary strategy and not as a law of development. This does not involve any modification of the conception that the Stalinists cannot seize power by a revolutionary struggle. The decisive battle for socialism must necessarily take place in the areas of proletarian concentration, i.e. in the advanced countries. The colonial revolts are only an auxiliary, an important auxiliary but only an auxiliary force.



The Nature of Stalinism

Stalinism is a unique phenomenon. Like fascism, it is a “thing in itself” and not some variety of any well-known movement. It is, as Hillman and Johnson stress, a product of the defeat and demoralisation of the working class. The Stalinist parties are, like both fascism and social-democracy, petty-bourgeois in their ideology and leadership. Like the social-democratic parties but unlike the fascist parties, they base themselves in the advanced countries upon the working class, i.e. they are “workers’ parties”. Like the fascist parties but unlike the social-democratic parties, they are totalitarian in structure and aim. Like social-democracy, Stalinism exists by virtue of the absence of a revolutionary proletarian movement. Marx said that society was more and more splitting into two great classes. This is true but it is also an oversimplification. State-monopoly capitalism creates a whole series of intermediate castes or sub-classes whilst at the same time preserving large sections of the “old” petty-bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, small businessmen, etc) as its captives. The most easily recognised of these castes is the labour bureaucracy – the real backbone of “classical” reformism. But other castes, not tied fundamentally to bourgeois democracy, are also created – professional administrators, technicians of all kinds, some socially necessary engineers, chemists, etc, others purely parasitic – advertising agents, insurance brokers, etc. It is the aspirations of these strata that are reflected, in varying conditions, by both Stalinism and fascism. (Both movements gain substantial support also, from pre-capitalist survivals – especially the peasantry – in countries where these classes are numerically important.)

These groups do not invariably support either of the totalitarian ideologies – quite the reverse, they are often supports for social-democracy or “democratic” conservatism. But under conditions of great social conflict, given the absence of the revolutionary party, they are impelled against the working class either directly (fascism) or indirectly (Stalinism). There are considerable differences in the ideological content (apart from the obvious difference in form) of fascism and Stalinism corresponding to their differences in aim. Stalinism reflects more the “pure” managerial outlook of the “new petty-bourgeoisie” and the totalitarian labour bureaucrats with their contempt for bourgeoisie and proletariat alike. Hence its pseudo-rationalism and “marxist” phraseology. It is the most up-to-date “scientific” totalitarianism. Whereas fascism, with its irrationalism and Blood and Soil nonsense, has only violence to offer as a solution to the crisis of civilisation, Stalinism, proposing a radical reorganisation of class society in order to save class society, is able to dominate the working class, under favourable conditions, and thus it is the most reactionary (because most effective) of all the petty-bourgeois ideologies. On the other hand its weakness, as compared to its rivals, is its inability to take power and its dependence upon the Kremlin bureaucracy. The fact that it is a “workers’ party” (in the sense described) is its Achilles heel as well as its strength. It is this vital distinction that enables it to be disintegrated by a growing revolutionary tendency instead of, as in the case of fascism, necessitating a frontal assault.



The Struggle against Stalinism

The weakness of the “neo-reformism” conception of Stalinism is shown clearly by its inability to explain the facts of life. Its proponents are compelled to construct a dream world for themselves and thus become completely disorientated. This was the fate of the is and its adherents. Their latest lurch into pro-Stalinism is the result. The weakness of the “social-fascism” conception, on the other hand, becomes clear only when the question of a practical struggle against a mass Stalinist party is posed. Since this is not an issue in the USA, the falsity of Shachtman’s line is not so clear as the stupidity of Cannon’s. Once the question is faced – how do we win the workers from Stalinism? – the error of “social fascism” is obvious. The workers, far from ceasing to be such on joining the a, join (in the main) because for them the CP is the party of working-class struggle. They will break with Stalinism only in the course of struggle. Our whole future perspective is based on the conception that, in the long run, the class struggle will prove stronger than the most solid party apparatus.. It is from this fact that the conclusions must be drawn. From This flows our line for the struggle against Stalinism – the tactic of the united front. Of course this is not an immediate slogan. To demand that someone form a united front with us presupposes that we dispose of a force of our own – which we do not! Cde Hillman is probably correct when he says that our forces will come, in the first instance, from left social-democracy – at least in many cases though not necessarily in all (e.g. in Germany our obvious line is to assist the leadership of the UAPD, Stalinist in origin, to a revolutionary position).

But having got a cadre party, the question remains – how do we win the workers from Stalinism? The only serious answer is – in the same way as we win them from social-democracy, the united front tactic. Cde Hillman says (correctly), “When the Stalinists operate a united front it is invariably led by them and is invariably bureaucratic, counter-revolutionary ...” etc etc. Of course. But This is not the question at all. The united front tactic presupposes also that the leadership of the anti-revolutionary organisation is against a united front. The whole point of the tactic is to unite the workers in spite of their leaders either by forcing them (by the pressure of their membership) into united action (the best variant) or by tearing away sections of their following. That this is more difficult in the case of a Stalinist organisation with its monolithicism, discipline and leader-cult than with the more heterogeneous social democracy, is indisputable.

To say that it is impossible is to ignore the dual character of the Stalinist party and to lose, in advance, any prospect of winning the workers away from it. The “social fascist” theory ignores The fact that every successful action by the working class enhances its self-confidence and its will to fight – and to that extent undermines the basis of Stalinism. An upsurge of the masses creates the possibility of building a revolutionary party. A defeat, as Cde Hillman himself tells us, produces reaction and demoralisation. Obviously then we work to strengthen the upsurge – by trying to force the reactionary leadership into the fight. If the Stalinist leadership itself is prepared to conduct a struggle within certain limits (for its own reasons, of course) so much the better. Neither Cde Hillman nor anyone else has told us any other method of participating in and helping forward the class struggle. Adherents of the “social-fascist” conception should ask themselves – why is it that the Stalinist leaderships are always against a united front with revolutionaries? Because it will strengthen Stalinism?

There is no doubt that the GPU is a serious threat in disturbed conditions – but the only way to fight it is by gaining a mass base. Moreover, the use of terrorism against revolutionaries is not avoided by a sectarian attitude towards Stalinism – it is enhanced as the revolutionaries have less contact with the Stalinist-influenced workers. To murder Erwin Wolf was simple, to murder Nin a great deal of trouble, to murder Vasquez impossible. It is not d question of defensive precautions (necessary as these are) but of a mass base.

I have not dealt at all with the question of the struggle against Stalinism in power. This is simply the class struggle itself. There are many problems involved, of course, but they have no particular reference to this discussion.




The above is only an outline of a position. It does not deal with a great many minor difficulties or with the general prospects for Stalinism. The latter omission is deliberate. It is impossible to make short-term forecasts without fortune-telling and the future of the Stalinist parties depends above all on the development of a revolutionary movement. One topic must be touched upon, however. What is the probable evolution of Stalinist splinter groups? Several such groups have appeared in recent years (“Red Flag” group in Burma, Schappe and Co in Germany, Cuicci-Mangano in Italy, le Cone in France, etc) and others are inevitable in the future. On the social-fascist theory these are merely rival aspirants for power in the (future) state-capitalist society – like Strasser or Leese in the Hitler and Mosley movements. This again illustrates the error of this theory. The very fact of breaking with the party compels such groups to struggle against the fountain head of Stalinism -and once having been forced into an anti-Moscow attitude they must necessarily rely upon gaining working-class support on a class struggle basis regardless of the needs of Russian diplomacy. The present line of Stalinism, which they have accepted, makes it difficult for them to go over immediately to social democracy and Belgrade is no substitute for Moscow. Thus they become centrist groups evolving towards a revolutionary position. As such, they offer a major possibility for us to win over.

On the other hand, no confidence can be placed in such groups in advance. Their leaders have had many years’ training in bureaucratic manoeuvres and in many cases will no doubt prove incapable of freeing themselves from thei~ past. Previous experience leads us to suppose that such elements will evolve towards social-democracy or fascism. But it is essential to remember that this experience was gained in a period of defeat. There is no a priori reason why such an evolution is inevitable. Above alt the issue depends on the revolutionary forces, upon our ability to demonstrate in practice that we are capable of building a serious movement. Our attitude towards such groups must be one of friendly collaboration in practical work, together with firm political criticism. It would be fatal to approach such groups in an ultimatist spirit; no less fatal to ignore or whitewash their errors. Our approach to them, as to the Stalinist parties proper, must be based upon a practical, concrete programme of struggle against the bourgeoisie. Outside the Russian Empire and Yugoslavia it is sheer nonsense to assert that “the struggle against Stalinism is, in fact, the sharpest and highest expression of the class war”. Exactly the opposite is the case. It is the struggle against the bourgeoisie and its social-democratic agents that is the decisive one. The struggle against Stalinism is subsidiary to that major conflict and flows naturally from it. Without in any way underestimating the difficulties and dangers of unity in action with the Stalinist workers we have to say that such unity is an absolutely essential step towards the goal of breaking up Stalinism. We have broken with the paralysing conception of workers’ statism. We are in no danger at all of falling into pro-Stalinism: we are in considerable danger of following Shachtman and Co in the no less dangerous mistake of Stalinophobia.

July 1951.




1. Centrism “in General” and the Centrism of the Stalinist Democracy, 1931. All emphases in original.

2. The Soviet Union Today (footnote), 1935.

3. The Seventh Congress of the Comintern, 1935.

4. Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938. (My emphasis – D.H.)

5. ibid.


Last updated on 24.4.2007