Joseph Hansen

Proposed Roads to Soviet Democracy

(Spring 1958)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.2, Spring 1958, pp.43-51.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

How can totalitarianism be ended in the Soviet Union? Analysis of the main proposals reveals areas where reformists and revolutionists can come to agreement

ONE OF THE MOST important and perplexing problems now under discussion among socialists in this country and the rest of the world concerns the enigmatic contrast between the socialistic economic foundations and the glaring inequalities and totalitarian political structure in the Soviet bloc.

It would be difficult to find a contradiction more absolute than that between the extension of democracy and equality forecast by Marx and Engels under socialism and the utterly antidemocratic practices and swollen privileges of the ruling oligarchy. In the struggle to popularize socialism here and in other countries, these practices and inequalities have long constituted a major obstacle; for the working class as a whole, like it or not, has come to associate socialism with the grim political reality of the Stalinized regimes. Few developments could give greater impetus to the advance of socialism on a world-wide scale than the regeneration of democracy in the Soviet bloc. But in view of the resistance of the bureaucracy, how is this to be accomplished?

To judge from the variety of positions put forward, this question is not easy to answer.

* * *

The statesmen of “democratic” imperialism have indicated the kind of solution they have had in mind since 1918 when Churchill organized the interventionist armies in support of the Czarist admirals and generals who sought to restore the Romanov autocracy. Their persistent aim has been to eliminate the socialist property forms in order to bring back capitalism.

Friedrich A. Hayek voiced what theory there is to this approach in his book The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944 and still touted in Chamber of Commerce circles. Hayek’s thesis is that social and economic planning, because of its complexity must inevitably be arbitrary, and, since it is also pervasive, the arbitrariness is imposed on everyone; consequently planned economy inherently threatens individual freedom. Thus the loss of liberty in the Soviet Union was lodged from the beginning in its resort to planned economy. To this we might answer briefly, deferring for the moment a fuller answer, that something still more complex and pervasive, and therefore arbitrary – if we have found the root source of arbitrariness – is the chaos inherent in a crisis-torn capitalism. This system, then, even on Hayek’s assumption must be the ultimate source of the danger to individual freedom in today’s world.

A political variation of this same theme is most persistently advocated by those Social Democrats who hold that democracy in the Soviet Union was doomed from the start by the kind of organization that went into the Bolshevik party. This superficial view, like Hayek’s, completely leaves out of account the interplay of economic, social and political forces in the Soviet Union and the effects on the young, backward and isolated workers state of the reconsolidation of the world capitalist structure in the twenties.

As a rule, however, the capitalist statesmen, as practical men of affairs, are not much concerned about either the theory or practice of democracy; they are intent upon protecting the system that puts profits first and resisting any force that stands in the way, regardless of what happens to other values. The Nazi representatives of German capitalism demonstrated this ferociously enough in the years before the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The representatives of American capitalism have demonstrated it in the postwar decade, not so dramatically but equally unmistakably, by their attitude toward the civil liberties and civil rights of minority groupings, by their involvement in the McCarthyite erosion of democracy in America, by their alliances with the Chiang Kai-shek’s, Syngman Rhee’s and Franco’s, their repeated participation in efforts to suppress the freedom-seeking movements of the colonial peoples, and their dictatorial disregard of the universal opposition to the stockpiling and testing of atomic weapons.

The practical experience of the past forty years demonstrates that any “democracy” exported to the Soviet bloc via guided missiles – even if these did not bring the world to the democracy of a radioactive graveyard – would offer little improvement over the “Aryan culture” exported by Hitler’s Panzer divisions.

* * *

The discussion of the question of democracy in the USSR among socialists can likewise be traced back to the very foundation of the workers state.

At first, debate proceeded over whether or not the Bolsheviks erred in denying democratic rights to the ousted Czarist and capitalist elements. The Bolsheviks pointed to the fact that these elements had not only refused to recognize the Soviet government but were conducting unrelenting civil war against it. By withdrawing from the arena of democratic decision and imposing civil war on the new workers government, the capitalists themselves by that very act rejected the framework of democracy. The representatives of the workers republic recognized that they had no choice but to abide by the harsh methods of civil war chosen by the capitalists or give up the socialist revolution and its conquests in Russia. The Bolsheviks accepted the struggle forced on them and won. Although the capitalists have long since stopped talking about their initial attempt to cut the throat of the young workers republic, they complain to this day about “illegitimate” Bolshevik methods.

This capitalist propaganda had its echoes in the radical movement of the time. Such outstanding Social Democratic leaders as Karl Kautsky inveighed against the Bolshevik course. In considering the Social Democratic position, an element of sincerity should be recognized, for the Marxist program does call for widening – not curtailing – democracy with the victory of a workers government, even in countries with the most democratic traditions and institutions such as England. It should also be recognized that the Social Democratic movement was not prepared for a socialist victory in Russia. Neither Marx nor Engels had visualized the workers coming to government power in a backward country like Russia with its vast illiterate peasantry, tradition of autocracy and serfdom and lack of democratic training. The hesitation of a figure like Kautsky and his thought that perhaps the Russian workers should have refused to take power is understandable, even if wrong and harmful.

The Bolshevik leaders argued that the facts of civil war and their inescapable political consequences had to be recognized. Not to have taken power in 1917, or not to defend the workers republic thereafter against all enemies, would have meant the triumph of the worst reaction in Russia. A Soviet victory, on the other hand, could inspire the working class everywhere and accelerate the movement toward world-wide socialism. The Bolsheviks stressed the enormous difficulties they faced because of the failure of the Social Democratic leaders to carry out the socialist revolution in Western Europe when the opportunity came, a failure they traced to the 1914 debacle of the Second International when the Social Democratic leaders gave up the struggle for socialism in order to back the capitalists in the world’s first general slaughter.

In the light of all that has happened in the forty years since the event, the correctness of the Bolshevik position in this sharp dispute surely appears to be certified. If nothing more were involved, the matter could be relegated to the history books. However, two complications, one of enormous proportions, ensued.

First of all, under the intolerable stresses of civil war, famine and the devastation in the wake of World War I, the Bolsheviks felt constrained to temporarily limit democracy in other sections of the population besides the capitalists and landlords. The limitations at one point included prohibition of factional activity in the Communist party itself.

The historian, judiciously balancing accounts decades later, with all the advantages of 20-20 hindsight, may well include these admittedly temporary measures, taken under military necessity, among the mistakes made by the Bolshevik leaders. The fact remains that, apart from these, the workers democracy was very real. It included workers control of the government through Soviets, the most democratic political institution that has yet appeared. It included the election and control of officers by the ranks of the armed forces. It included equality for national minorities, the youth and women. As for discussion, Soviet Russia enjoyed a freedom of expression that attracted independent thinkers the world over.

The temporary character of the subordination of workers democracy to the requirements of a successful outcome of the civil war in Russia would have been made evident by another socialist victory anywhere else in the world, for the pressures which Lenin’s government felt constrained to counteract by extraordinary measures of dictatorship would have been relieved. As is known, this did not happen.

Another possible source of relief was victory in the civil war and the recovery of Russian industry. This did occur. But about the time that the partial limitations on workers democracy might have been expected to give way to a new advance of democracy, a second complication, something unforeseen, intervened. A force gathered headway in Soviet Russia itself which was intrinsically inimical to democracy: the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy in its drive to power had to smash the very organs of democracy established under Lenin and Trotsky. It liquidated the Soviets. It destroyed the democratic life and socialist integrity of the Communist party by converting it into an instrument of bureaucratic rule. It did the same to the trade unions. It ended democracy in the armed forces, setting up a privileged officer caste modeled on that of the capitalist armies. It purged, framed-up and murdered virtually the entire generation that had led the revolution. It banned independent thinking, putting all fields, including art and science, under government ukase. In place of growing equality it erected special privilege into its guiding principle. It crowned this totalitarian political structure, fittingly enough, with what Khrushchev himself has portrayed as the personal dictatorship of a bloodthirsty paranoiac.

Thus over the next thirty years the axis of the problem of democracy in the Soviet Union shifted from concern with an attempted capitalist come-back and the possible errors of the Bolsheviks to something of a different order – the role of the bureaucratic caste and the task of removing it. The destruction of the very institutions through which Soviet democracy had operated – whether poorly or admirably, with or without flaws and mistakes - – made this issue a primary one.

This did not lead, however, to freer and more intensive discussion of the question. With the consolidation of the political counter-revolution which it represented, the Stalinist regime ruled out any whisper of discussion about Soviet democracy. It was the official and unchallengeable creed that both democracy and socialism were in full bloom – and anyone who felt disposed to question this was taken care of by way of purges and frame-ups.

Circles under Stalinist influence outside the Soviet Union did not take this suppression of discussion of democracy as evidence of any lack of democracy. Instead, for more than twenty years, propaganda picturing the Soviet Union under Stalin’s Constitution as the most democratic country in the world was accepted at face value. Mere inquiry into the question was amalgamated with capitalist counter-revolution and those inclined to call attention to flaws in the Stalinist Kodachromes were brushed off as “fascists,” “Trotskyists,” “agents of imperialism,” and so on.

The long-standing taboo was finally broken by Stalin’s successors. Khrushchev at the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist party ventured to confess some of Stalin’s crimes, to criticize some of the late dictator’s totalitarian practices and to promise to “go back to Lenin.” This ended the hypnosis.

Today, at last, objective consideration and a fraternal exchange of views on this vital problem is possible among the various political currents that recognize and support what is progressive in the Soviet economic and social structure. Many elements both in the satellite countries and inside the Soviet Union are debating among themselves this overriding question on which their fate hinges. In radical circles, particularly in this country, people who were formerly not on speaking terms are now drawing together, probing differences over what can and should be proposed to help restore democracy in the Soviet Union.

With increasing points of agreement, the possibility of united action among socialists in speeding the process already at work looms as a realizable goal.

The Various Positions

WHAT ARE the principal roads to democracy in the Soviet Union proposed by currents in the working-class movement? We may classify them as follows:

(1) Social Democratic Reformist. This is short on socialism and long on democracy – US State Department style. Discourteous as this judgment may appear, it is not intended as an epithet. Not much study of such publications as The New Leader is necessary to reach the conclusion that the editors are most agonized in their appraisals over the lack of finesse – and success – the State Department displays in conducting the cold war. By refusing to see anything progressive whatsoever within the Soviet Union that is worth defending against capitalist aggression, these Social Democrats deny themselves any possibility of assisting or influencing those forces that can bring about the rebirth of democracy in the Soviet bloc.

(2) Stalinist Die-hard. In America this position is most consistently represented by the Fosterite grouping in the Communist Party. Since the Khrushchev revelations they have reluctantly admitted that certain “excesses” occurred under Stalin; but they claim that corrections have already been made or are well under way. They call for complete confidence in Stalin’s heirs as genuine representatives of socialism. They are still inclined to brand as “counter-revolutionary” any socialist who seeks ways and means to encourage and aid the Soviet people themselves in their struggle for democracy in the Soviet Union.

(3) Pro-Soviet Reformist. This important body of opinion recognizes that the Soviet political structure is totalitarian, in conflict with the nationalized economy and in need of democratization. The range of views in this grouping is wide. Some think that the bureaucracy is quite capable of reforming itself out of enlightened self-interest. Others that mass pressure will compel such an accumulation of reforms that the eventual total effect will be to dismantle the tyranny. Their general consensus is that progress toward democratization will be made by slow steps and doled-out concessions, with no major, deep-going and irreconcilable clashes between the rulers and the ruled.

On the key question of the relation between the bureaucracy and the masses in the struggle for democracy, Isaac Deutscher, the most influential and informed spokesman for this view, at first placed considerable hope in the self-reform of the bureaucracy. However, after the Hungarian events, he began to put much more stress upon the dynamic role of self-action by the masses. The American Socialist, which tends to follow Deutscher’s opinions, recently ventured an “educated guess” at a “protracted, see-sawing process” involving both “reform from above” and “action from below.”

The Monthly Review, on first considering the question, left the answer indeterminate. After a trip to Europe that included a visit to the Soviet Union, editor Paul M. Sweezy took out some of the indetermination:

“It goes without saying that the democratization of the Soviet Union will have to be the work of the Soviet people themselves. It will come, if at all, not as a gift from above but as the result of struggle from below. I for one believe that such a struggle will be undertaken, that it will be protracted and in the main non-violent, and that it can succeed.” (Monthly Review, February 1958.)

(4) Socialist Workers. The position of that school of thought to which the Socialist Workers Party belongs has a long history, going back to the bloc formed in 1923 by Lenin and Trotsky against Stalin. From 1923 to 1933 the Left Opposition of Russian and international Communism fought the rising bureaucracy on a program of restoring democracy by means of reforming the Communist Party and the Soviet government. Even after Trotsky was exiled and the movement he headed had been crushed, he still sought to achieve a return to freedom through the road of reform. The Stalinist officialdom, however, viewed its usurpation of power as fixed and final and closed all legal means for changing their autocratic political structure. From this fact Trotsky reluctantly drew the conclusion that the new despots had left the masses no alternative but direct action to throw out the Stalinist bureaucrats and put in a new regime of their own choice. Since 1935, therefore, the Trotskyists have seen a political revolution, in which supreme power is transferred from its present possessors to the people, as the only realistic way of democratizing the Soviet Union.

The correctness of this outlook has thus far been substantiated in two respects. First, the Kremlin has vigorously suppressed all political opposition – even potential opposition – not hesitating to use the most fearful terror to this end. Secondly, the workers intent on securing changes have had to take the road of mass rebellion in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Vorkuta concentration camp area. It is true that Stalin’s heirs have granted concessions, but these have been yielded in attempts to soften the powerful pressures or revolutionary struggles of the awakening masses.

The program of political revolution is not held as a dogma by the Socialist Workers party. It is a conclusion drawn from an analysis of the forces at odds in the Soviet bloc and from the experience of the past decades. It can be modified or revised if further events require it. In any case, the viewpoint is subject to free and full discussion by all socialists concerned with preserving and developing the gains of the Russian revolution, uprooting Stalinism, and participating in the formation of an honest and genuinely democratic revolutionary workers movement. In such a discussion the analysis from which the program of political revolution is derived may not stand up, or it may yield new results due to profounder considerations or to new developments in the changing relation of forces within the Soviet bloc.

With the understanding that the final result of reasoned discussion cannot be decided in advance and that it is best to keep one’s mind open, let me attempt a more detailed examination of the three main positions.

* * *

The Stalinist die-hards headed by Foster are in the unenviable status of cult-worshippers whose Great Man-God has been exposed as a murderous Moloch. Their adjustment to the new reality is reduced to trying to find some good in the evil. Their best hope is to reconstitute the cult of unthinking and automatic adherence to whatever heir happens to be wearing Stalin’s mantle, in order to sell the “new look” totalitarian regime as “socialist.” They have made no attempt to explore in a scientific, socialist manner the material interests and social forces that brought a psychotic dictator to power and kept him there for a quarter of a century. They see no need for any essential modifications in the Soviet political structure.

In this they are simply continuing to read and follow the signals from Moscow. They have not questioned the totalitarian political structure because, despite all the promises about a “thaw,” they have seen no indication in the Kremlin of genuine intention to turn toward democracy. They did not see it under the “collective leadership” that swore collective loyalty over Stalin’s coffin; they do not see it now under Khrushchev, who so crudely and cynically shot or dumped his colleagues.

What can be expected from bureaucrats of the Foster type in regard to the Soviet workers struggle for democracy has been demonstrated in the crisis in the US Communist Party over the past two years. There were many who thought the organization capable of self-reform (in line with their hopes about self-reform of the Soviet bureaucracy) and who urged that from now on it should try to reach its own decisions and, if occasion arose, voice criticism of errors of other Communist parties or of crimes committed by the Kremlin against the working class, as in the case of Hungary. They were met with the response: “Get out of the party.” If they left, they faced the charge of “capitulating to American imperialism.” John Gates publicly charged that even the party’s newspaper the Daily Worker, which he edited, was deliberately destroyed by the Fosterites because of the staff’s inclination to take independent and critical stands.

Basically the Stalinist Bourbons are committed to some kind of rehabilitation of Stalin – a political miracle to justify not only their past defense of the dictator’s crimes and false policies but their present support of the anti-socialist policies and totalitarian institutions administered by Khrushchev and Company. Such a miracle is less likely than the second coming of Christ.

Can the Bureaucracy Be Reformed?

THE DESIRE to democratize the Soviet Union through reform of the bureaucracy is reasonable and has much to commend it. Of that there can be no doubt. First of all, it would be the smoothest and most economical road, for it would entail the least disruption. Secondly, it would be the safest road, offering the least opportunity for intervention by the imperialist powers One can wholeheartedly concur with these sentiments as the preferable way of restoring workers democracy to the Soviet Union.

Another possibility, under exceptionally favorable internal and international circumstances, is that the Soviet masses could mobilize such overwhelming forces and mount so powerful an offensive against a demoralized and divided absolutism that it could overcome the resistance of the bureaucracy as rapidly and easily as Czarism was overthrown. Such a consummation is “devoutly to be wished.” It could be facilitated by the fact that, apart from distant America, no foreign army could intervene to crush the popular upsurge, as Soviet troops did in Hungary.

But where such great issues are at stake, and such immense social forces are locked in combat, it would be reckless, it seems to me, for those on the side of the people to count solely upon the realization of the easiest and most pleasant road of struggle. The better course is to carefully consider just how much realism there is, from our present vantage point, in the prospect of transforming the bureaucracy or ousting it from power by way of reform.

We have just witnessed how obstinately the handful of Fosterite representatives of the Soviet bureaucracy here resist reforming themselves or liquidating their holdings, slim as they are. We have seen how murderously the Kadar’s reacted to the Hungarian insurgents. How much more powerful must be the inclination of the million-membered caste in the Soviet Union, especially its top brackets, to cling to the enormous special privileges they enjoy!

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky estimated “that 15 per cent, or, say 20 per cent, of the population enjoys not much less of the wealth than is enjoyed by the remaining 80 to 85 per cent.” The Kremlin publishes no statistics on such disparities in the USSR, but the evidence is that the inequalities have not diminished since Trotsky’s estimate in 1936. The bureaucracy acts like a ruling class, although it is only a parasitic formation, in the persistency with which it advances its own standard of living at the expense of the country as a whole.

These very real material interests are the most formidable block to the surrender of the autocrats and a gradual growth of democracy in the USSR. In fact it was to protect and increase these economic advantages that the bureaucracy crushed Soviet democracy in the first place. Trotsky accurately indicated the root of the totalitarian trend when he observed:

“In its conditions of life, the ruling stratum comprises all gradations, from the petty bourgeoisie of the backwoods to the big bourgeoisie of the capitals. To these material conditions correspond habits, interests and circles of ideas.” (The Revolution Betrayed, p.140.)

Can it reasonably be supposed that narrow-minded, selfish bureaucrats, Russian replicas of the Beck-Meany-Reuther type, long in the habit of allocating the national surplus without any democratic checks, will gradually cut down on what they have been diverting to themselves and their cronies, or gradually hand over to the workers the political power that has assured this lucrative control?

* * *

Isaac Deutscher has argued that the growth of material wealth in the Soviet Union now makes it feasible for the bureaucracy to introduce more and more democracy. If I follow his argument correctly, the greater the wealth, the greater the feasibility of democracy and therefore the greater the chances for its gradual emergence. This is the counterpart of Deutscher’s view that the crushing of democracy in the Soviet Union, regrettable as it may have been, was historically inevitable and even, in a certain sense, progressive, for it allegedly made possible the accumulation of capital on which depended the increase in material wealth seen today. Poverty fostered totalitarianism; totalitarianism fostered wealth; wealth should now foster democracy.

At first sight this line of argument is highly attractive. The trouble is, however, that it views the rise and decline of Stalinism as an automatic economic process, directly and wholly linked to the development of Soviet industrial capacity. In this evolutionary process the inner conflicts of social and political forces and the intervention and influence of conscious socialist leadership are reduced to minor importance. Out of moral or humanist considerations the Deutscherite historian can sympathize with those who opposed Stalinism – but actually wasn’t their opposition Utopian and weren’t those who backed Stalinism objectively playing a progressive and even revolutionary role?


A second look at this hypothesis induces even greater caution in accepting it. Isn’t it an illegitimate application to quite different forces and circumstances of the Marxist theory about the withering away of the state?

Marxist theory holds that once socialism is achieved, the state will began to lose its function as a repressive instrument. With the loss of its original function, the workers state will decline as an institution. Its growing role in the administration of planned economy will convert it eventually into a simple administrative apparatus in which, we may now suppose, electronic computers will play a considerable role.

The material basis for the withering away of the state will be the increase in wealth, an increase of such enormous proportions as to wipe out all poverty. This theory holds, it must be noted well, only under the achievement of socialism. That means an integrated, planned economy on a world-wide scale, or at least among the major countries, a planned economy based on the achievements of capitalism and carrying them forward at an accelerated rate.

Can this concept about the evolution of the state under the socialist plenty of the future be applied to the evolution of the parasitic bureaucracy yesterday and today in the poverty-stricken Soviet Union? There, for all its advances, the country’s economic task is still to catch up to the capitalist levels, especially in the living standards of the people.

The role of the Stalinist bureaucracy is not analogous to the role of the state in the first phases of socialism. That state will give truly prodigious impetus to production. The role of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been to retard and mismanage production, to slow down the accumulation of capital, to divert and waste the wealth produced by the workers. True enough, the bureaucrats have been in charge of the planned economy, but it is a considerable error, as I see it, to credit the bureaucrats with the achievements inherent in planning itself.

In the first place, democracy is absolutely essential to the efficient operation of planned economy; a bureaucracy that is inimical to democracy is by that very reason inimical to the flourishing of planned economy. The diversion of the surplus product into plush living for the bureaucracy is also a diversion of that surplus from the expansion of the means of production.

The extra hardships imposed on the workers in the form of miserable housing, poor food, bad working conditions and a drab existence lower the productivity of labor power, the country’s greatest resource. Moreover, the general politics of the bureaucracy has profound economic consequences. It should be sufficient to cite the disruptive effect of the pervading atmosphere of fear that is only now beginning to dissipate. In addition, the foreign policy of the bureaucracy has had unfavorable economic consequences; this was demonstrated in catastrophic fashion in the case of the Stalinist policy that paved the way for the German imperialist invasion of the Soviet Union. It was shown again by the explosion in Hungary.

* * *

Granting all this, one may reply, there has still been an observable increase in Soviet wealth and this must have some effect on the bureaucracy, mellowing it, making it more inclined to take the road to democracy. The bureaucracy, as it gains in culture due to increased wealth, is, so to speak, affected qualitatively for the better.

One elemental fact uproots this assumption. Soviet productivity has long been great enough to provide immense boons for a privileged minority but not a high income for the whole population. The increase in Soviet productivity has been far from sufficient to provide abundance for all. At best the increase has been sufficient to provide for a quantitative increase in the bureaucracy or for a quantitative increase in the privileges already enjoyed by the ruling minority. Even at the present rates of expansion, this disparity will hold for a long time to come.

Meanwhile what are the masses going to do? Accept the inequalities passively? Apparently the ruling clique has a fairly realistic appreciation of what the masses are capable of doing, given the right combination of circumstances. That is why they have not yet granted one single deep-going democratic concession. That is why they strive to retain the entire totalitarian apparatus. That is why they are following the policy of maneuvering, promising, delaying, granting concessions, then again mobilizing their repressive agencies and cracking down.

The fact is that as Soviet productivity has grown, inequalities have intensified and become more intolerable rather than softening and becoming easier to bear. The increased flow of goods has whetted the appetites of the workers and peasants as it has increased the greed of the bureaucrats. Consequently what we can expect under these conditions is still fiercer strife over the division of the national income between the bureaucracy and the industrial and agricultural producers. Naturally it is to be expected that the bureaucracy can and will throw the workers something in hope of appeasing their most urgent demands, but they cannot give them enough to satisfy their growing material and cultural needs; the bureaucrats will not erase their own privileges nor relinquish the economic and political supports of their own parasitism.

* * *

The means of pressure and protest available to the workers are extremely limited under the totalitarian setup. They are denied real participation in collective contracts, setting of work norms, the right to strike. When the avenues of peaceful negotiation are closed, the settlement of differences tends to become arbitrated by means of direct action, the display and exercise of power by both contending parties.

This likewise holds true in regard to political policies. Any lowering of international tension, like the increase in Soviet productivity, tends not to lessen but to sharpen internal frictions. The masses feel freer to put the heat on for concessions. Up to a point they can extort reforms through indirect pressure. But then issues of the most elementary democratic kind arise – the right to organize in the plant, the right to criticism or opposition in the governing party, the right to assemble freely, publish a newspaper, form a party, and so on. How are these questions to be settled? So far, all the concessions have been made within the established totalitarian framework. What happens when the most aggressive sections of the masses start going by direct action beyond these limits? This would signify the beginning of a revolutionary situation heading toward a showdown between the opposing social forces.

Stalinist “Vigilance”

The widespread mistrust of individual initiative has eaten so deeply into public life fin the USSR] that even when young people join together in publicly proclaimed tasks, they may be met with suspicion and fear. For example, not so long ago a group of Russian youngsters banded together for hikes, games, swimming parties, and also to help keep up their city’s parks. Officials of the Young Communist League learned of this extraordinary development, suspected the orthodoxy of a group that had formed without their knowledge, and sent an emissary to the local high school to look into the “secret organization.” “It is only natural,” Komsomolskaya Pravda ruefully concluded, “that the young people are afraid to meet any longer.”
The Reporter, Feb. 20.

Because of the peculiar role of the state in Soviet life, the economic struggle against material inequalities tends to merge with the political struggle for democracy. The government is not only the upholder of the totalitarian political structure but also the direct employer, the regulator of planning, production and distribution. This imparts extraordinary explosive force to large-scale economic struggles, since a fight over distribution of the national income can quickly become transformed into a political fight over who shall wield state power, the bureaucrats or the workers.

The revolutionary challenge emerges so sharply because the workers cannot achieve economic equality without winning political democracy – and this means deposing the bureaucracy, stripping it of all its arbitrary powers and privileges.

* * *

The increased flexibility of Kremlin policy since the death of Stalin has been interpreted by many as a favorable omen indicating the readiness of Stalin’s heirs to turn to the rule of law and reason. The secret police have been curbed, the concentration camps reduced, political prisoners rehabilitated, legal abuses corrected and the artists told to breathe easier.

All of this is undeniable. They are welcome changes. But the limits of the increased flexibility appear to have been rigidly determined. Not even the disputes in the top circles are conducted or concluded democratically. Rule by personal dictatorship has not been ended. The measure of freedom granted the artists was withdrawn by Khrushchev, evidently in fear that the mildest centers of intellectual freedom might become rallying points for popular resistance. The aim of the increased flexibility seems clear – it is not to prepare for the introduction of more democratic reforms but to strengthen bureaucratic resistance against them.

The limits of bureaucratic elasticity stand out even more clearly when we turn to the problem of those nationalities who yearn to throw off Moscow’s domination. How explosive these national feelings and stirrings are can be judged from what has already happened in East Germany, Poland and Hungary. The revolutionary potential extends to the USSR itself, especially the Ukraine and the Baltic countries. But will the Great Russian bureaucracy grant freedom to the Ukrainians and the other national minorities any more than it did to the Hungarians? The exploitation of the subject republics, including the East European satellites, constitutes a big source of income for the bureaucracy. If it will not voluntarily relinquish what it wrings from the Russian workers, how can it be expected to act more generously with those less powerfully situated?

The national minorities have already demonstrated that they do not care to wait, hands folded, for that distant day when the bureaucratic satraps reform themselves. Not even new bloodlettings such as the Kremlin visited on the Hungarian people can save the bureaucracy from an eventual accounting. When it comes, we may envisage that nothing will be able to stop the national minorities from gaining their freedom, but it is not likely to come as a gift thoughtfully packaged by the bureaucracy.

* * *

Closely related to the theory of the “mellowing” of the bureaucracy is the theory of “convergence,” which has been picked up by such former Communists as Joseph Starobin. The reciprocal relation set up under “competitive coexistence,” it is held, will lead to America’s democratic practices rubbing off onto the Soviet Union; vice versa, the government planning of economy in the USSR will rub off onto the United States. They imitate us where we’re strong; we imitate them where they’re strong. The two countries gradually “converge,” coming to be more and more alike, each beneficially absorbing the influences of the other.

The best that can be said about the idiocy of this supposition, which leaves out the class struggle, is that it is cheerful. Suppose that only the bad on each side rubs off onto the other, what then? Or the good and bad mutually interpenetrate in such a way as to rub off at the same rate as they rub on?

* * *

In the preceding analysis it may seem that I have treated the Stalinist bureaucracy too much like a true ruling class. This analogy, it may be argued, has strict limits – limits which are, in fact, determined by the pressures exerted upon the bureaucracy. What we are really dealing with, it may be said in refutation, is a caste structure and a workers bureaucracy. As such, whether under attack from the side of capitalism, or, in an opposite way, from the Russian workers, with enough pressure the bureaucracy may be obliged to take a proletarian, even revolutionary, orientation.

There is an element of truth in this contention. However, it is necessary, one must think, to separate out the aims of the bureaucracy from the consequences of its actions. These do not necessarily coincide.

For example, the bureaucracy may grant a concession, hoping to allay the dissatisfaction of the workers; this may well have the consequence of encouraging the workers to demand more, as it did in East Germany in 1953. On the other hand, the bureaucracy may undertake a repressive action in hope of clubbing down the dissatisfaction; and this may have the effect of infuriating the workers to such an extent as to touch off an uprising as happened in Hungary in 1956.

A concession does not indicate that the bureaucracy has become more democratic. A repressive action does not indicate that the bureaucracy has become more reactionary. In both cases its fundamental character and role remain the same.

The essentially reactionary character of the bureaucracy does not change even when, as in the case of Eastern Europe, it finds itself forced to overturn capitalist property relations, nationalize the economy and institute planning. This was fully demonstrated when the bureaucracy followed up the overturns in Eastern Europe, which were progressive, with a bloody purge and a series of frame-up trials of native Communist leaders modeled on the infamous Moscow trials of the thirties. It was demonstrated again by Stalin’s heirs when the “thaw” was followed by the repression of the Hungarian revolution.

The truth is that the distribution of the national income in the Soviet Union occurs, not in accordance with socialist or working-class norms, but in accordance with bourgeois norms. Moreover, it proceeds under the totalitarian political rule of a social stratum differentiated out of Soviet society in correspondence with these bourgeois norms. Insofar as distribution of the national income is concerned, it serves a bourgeois function.

The fact that this social formation has not succeeded in extending its bourgeois function to production and property ownership, thereby achieving the status of a true class, does not mean that its personal consumption is any the less bourgeois in character. It is the planter, and the promoter, and the protector of inequality in all domains of Soviet life.

The bureaucracy also manages the planned economy and in this function serves, in the final analysis, as a “workers” bureaucracy. But it is a basic error to think that the character of the bureaucracy as a ruling caste is derived from its managerial function. If such were the case, it would have to be called a class in the scientific sense of the term and we would have to add that the nationalized and planned economy of socialism itself will inevitably generate a ruling class – the administrators or managers.

In their thoroughly bourgeois function of siphoning off the surplus for their own personal benefit, the bureaucrats act in complete contradiction to their managerial function. As between plundering and managing, their primary interest is plundering. Since this side is uppermost, Trotsky used the term “parasitism” to describe the contradictory relation of the bureaucracy to the planned economy. The term is exact enough. The utterly reactionary character of this layer of Soviet society does not come from the planned economy, nor from managing the planned economy, as Hayek would have us believe. On the contrary. It is the democratizing efforts of the Soviet masses that derive from the organic necessities of planned economy. The bureaucracy is simply defending its parasitism and that is the source of the tenacity with which this caste defends its totalitarian political rule.

The same conclusion also underscores the uselessness of the bureaucratic caste. The planned economy can be managed better under workers democracy.

However, even if it were true that the Soviet bureaucracy is like a trade-union bureaucracy in every respect, it does not follow that as a whole it is amenable to reform like some sections of the trade-union bureaucracy. To base a policy on that perspective seems to me not only illogical but unwise. Political experience advises against counting on the easiest way out of so profound a conflict. It is wiser, if we are to draw any lessons from the past, to prepare for the more difficult alternative. However things turn out, the stronger the workers are, the better organized, the more resolute, the easier the job will finally be. That is also the experience, isn’t it, of struggles for democracy in trade unions where a reactionary bureaucracy has become entrenched?

The Program of Political Revolution

LET ME BEGIN by indicating where I can agree with those who prefer to confine themselves to a program of reforming the regime.

The struggle for reforms is surely progressive and worthy of energetic support. There is nothing wrong with peaceful reform; in fact, as I have already tried to indicate, ideally it would be the best way. Moreover, from the Marxist point of view, any partial gains are completely acceptable, and wholly to the good. Above all, it seems to me, one must favor the effort and the struggle.

The reservation which I feel must be made in regard to the reformist position is simply that the struggle, in the course of action, will tend to pass beyond the limits of mere reforms and that such a climactic development should not be rejected if it turns out to be the reality. By peaceful means and measures, if possible; revolutionary resistance, if necessary – this alternative holds true for all struggles of the masses against reactionary forces.

To stand by a program of political revolution does not exclude either fighting for reforms or winning reforms. In fact, it presupposes such a struggle. These can be considered as by-products of revolutionary struggle insofar as they are actually achieved. Such reforms under capitalism as the shorter work day, the right to organize, higher wages, and so on, resulted from truly titanic struggles when they first became working-class goals.

Reforms are partial successes on the road to more definitive solutions of pressing problems: they can stimulate the working class and help prepare the stage for bigger struggles for more decisive goals. Looked at in this way, for instance, the great achievement in winning industrial unionism in the United States in the thirties laid a powerful basis for independent political action at the next stage. The rise of the CIO, I am convinced, will eventually be regarded as an indispensable preliminary stage in the rise of a labor party in the United States, which in turn will prove but a prelude to the victory of socialism.

At the most advanced stage, reforms, however won, prove inadequate in meeting the needs of the masses, and so the struggle passes beyond the limits of reforms. This has been the experience in every great revolutionary transition. At a certain point the masses are driven to intervene directly and forcefully to set up new institutions of their own choice. We saw this in Hungary where the masses considered the reforms finally granted in response to their pressure to be too little and too late. They set about revolutionizing the entire political structure to bring it into conformity with what they felt were the needs of planned economy. From this experience it seems safe to make the generalization that in the Soviet bloc not even the biggest bounty from the bureaucrats will in the long run satisfy the masses. They want to get rid of the privileged and brutal Stalinist bureaucracy itself and they will not hesitate at direct intervention and open struggle to achieve it.

The program of political revolution in the Soviet Union has been badly misunderstood – and sadly misinterpreted – in the radical movement. It has been pictured as “revolutionary romanticism,” a smoking-hot kind of sectarianism that rejects the struggle for reforms in principle, a remote - from - this - world attitude like that of the DeLeonists, who haughtily scorn “mere” reforms and who will settle for nothing less than the whole hog delivered at the kitchen door. A more generous vizualization sees something like a TV Western where the victimized cow hands organize a posse to shoot up the outlaws who have taken over the sheriff’s office.

It is much closer to reality to view the program of political revolution as the total series of reforms, gained through militant struggle, culminating in the transfer of power to the workers. No revolution comes in a single oversize dose like a horse pill. It develops in interlinked stages affecting interlinked fields. If any of the demands of any of the stages be viewed in isolation, or fixed as an end in itself rather than a means to a higher goal, it appears as a reform. If its connections to the demands of other stages be kept in mind, it appears as a transitional step. It is only when the process is viewed as a whole – in its origin, its fundamental aims and final results – that it appears for what it really is, a revolution: an organic qualitative change in whatever structure is involved.

This way of considering the program will become clearer if we simply project a few successes in what the Soviet people are seeking right now.

Let us suppose that sufficient mass pressure develops to force the bureaucracy to grant the elementary democratic right of freedom of thought in the arts and sciences. What happens next? Intellectuals capable of expressing independent ideas in these fields will at once become centers of attraction, especially for the student youth. Their homes, their classrooms, the forums at which they appear will begin to change into incipient clubs for the exchange of opinion. This happened in Poland and Hungary. There is not the slightest doubt that this exchange of opinion will rapidly extend to related problems in other fields. The preparation of a cadre of young independent leaders will have already begun.

It takes little imagination to picture the effect of such a success on the Soviet workers. They would begin pressing for acknowledgment of their own elementary democratic right to organize in unions of their choice; and, as in the United States in the thirties, would probably begin organizing committees in the plants even before the right was officially conceded. New incipient centers of organization, paralleling those in the intellectual fields, would thus appear with extraordinary speed. We may be sure that close ties would rapidly be forged between the workers and the intellectuals. Thus would begin the preparation of a cadre of militant union and factory committee leaders.

The preliminary actions of the new union movement will involve the settlement of grievances over working conditions, production norms, hours and wages. A few successes, however, and the struggle would widen to include housing, shortages of basic necessities and the prices of commodities. The logic of this is the organization of consumers committees where housewives play a dynamic leading role.

The agricultural workers, who have a long list of grievances of their own, would soon begin pressing their own demands and organizing committees in their own way.

Long before this, the bureaucracy, we might expect, would have begun considering to what uses the armed forces might be put in stemming the tide. But the Russian workers have had experience along these lines, too. Very likely the rank-and-file soldiers and sailors tied up with the masses would already be pressing their own democratic demands, especially a return to the practice under Lenin and Trotsky of organizing their own committees and subjecting the officers to their democratic control.

Stiff resistance by the bureaucracy would now pose the question of political democracy in all its force. Do dissident members of the Communist party have a right to organize factions, to publish bulletins? Do insurgent workers have a right to organize their own political parties, the right to run slates of their own choice against officially hand-picked nominees? Shouldn’t the one-party system in the Soviet Union – as Trotsky proposed more than twenty years ago – give way to democratic freedom for all Soviet parties?

All these developments point to a great new stage – the revival of Soviets, the councils where all tendencies and parties meet to discuss and act on policies and problems of government. With the appearance of soviets, dual power would exist in the USSR and the developing revolution would enter its crucial stage.

At every turn in these events, the crisis in the bureaucracy deepens. A section of the officialdom, the section that is capable of responding sensitively to the demands of the people, comes over to the workers at various speeds and in varying degrees, providing fresh sources of encouragement.

The final result is the complete elimination of the bureaucratic caste and the democratization of Soviet life from top to bottom. Industrial management is exercised through factory committees, democratically elected and holding control over the specialists. Government is run once again through the Soviets where representatives are subject to instant recall and serve at the same rate of pay as a factory worker. The whole hideous apparatus of secret political police, political prisons and concentration camps, which served the totalitarian bureaucracy so well, disappears with the bureaucracy itself.

This type of change is best called a “political revolution” although any one of its stages centers upon this or that demand for workers democracy, which, in isolation, might appear simply as a reform.

To remove any further misunderstanding, I want to emphasize that political revolution is not proposed as a slogan for immediate action. Nor is it proposed as a slogan for agitation. It is a strategic line to be used as a guide for understanding and helping to shape coming events in the whole next historical period of Soviet development.

At present, in the period of preparation, it can be presented solely as a goal, a method, a program around which only the most advanced and socialist-enlightened elements can be rallied. Even in the Soviet bloc it is not suitable for agitation or action, for the masses appear ready to demand and fight for only partial, limited, or if you prefer to call them that, “reformist” demands. But it does seem to me that a general formulation of the underlying aims and the inescapable outcome of the process is an essential part of the struggle and that it should be included in the program of any socialist leadership concerned with the fate of the Soviet workers and their planned economy.

In politics the road to the goal is no less important than the choice of the goal itself. It cannot be a matter of indifference which road is recommended to the Soviet peoples by their authentic spokesmen and supporters in their drive toward democratization. The results attained, and the achievement of the objective itself, can depend in the last analysis upon which course is taken.

The program of reform, it appears to me, moves along the line of least resistance; it relies over-much upon the prospect of a change of attitude and policy within the ruling group and to reliance upon supplication rather than the methods of mass action. The program of political revolution, as I understand it, urges not the slightest confidence in any benevolence of the bureaucrats, hard or soft, but only the independent organization and activity of the workers, peasants and intellectuals themselves. It is the line of utmost opposition, aimed at mobilizing the masses to chase out their oppressors in the shortest order.

Finally, I would like to make clear that dissidence and opposition in the ranks of the Stalinist parties and regimes are extremely important, both as symptoms of the mass pressure and as possible points of support for increasing the pressure. We should offer critical support to any tendency, no matter how partially developed it may be, or what illusions it may have, so long as it seriously struggles for democratic reforms.

That includes heads of states like Tito and Gomulka as well as prominent officials or rank-and-file members of the Communist party or those who have left it. Such leaders do not merit political confidence from the workers so long as they have not broken clearly and completely with Stalinism, and adopted in practice a consistent and comprehensive socialist course, but it is surely correct to favor collaboration in organizing and conducting their opposition. As in Hungary, we can expect that many of them, when the showdown comes, will be found fighting in the workers camp against the bureaucracy.

To those fellow socialists who have reached the conclusion that Stalinism must go but are undecided whether or not the bureaucracy can be reformed out of existence in one way or another, I am quite willing to let the test of further events prove which program and perspective best fits the needs of the workers struggle amidst the new conditions of Soviet life. Let’s continue the discussion and the exchange of ideas on this process as we join in combatting capitalism and in supporting every effort of the Soviet masses to win back and extend the democratic rights that are indispensable to the development of a socialist society.


Last updated on: 30 April 2009