Chris Harman


The gravedigger

(June 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.110, June 1988, pp.17-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One anniversary no one will be celebrating this year is the final consolidation of Stalinist rule hi the USSR 60 years ago. An important new book on the subject has been written by Michal Reiman. Here Chris Harman reviews the book, looking back at the period when the Russian Revolution was lost.

The Birth of Stalinism, the USSR on the Eve of the “Second Revolution”
Michal Reiman
IB Taurus, £24.50

MOST accounts of Russia do not regard what happened in 1928 as particularly noteworthy. They see the triumph of Stalin’s politics as merely the logical outcome of the revolution of 1917.

This is true of both the present Russian leadership and even of some of those who are mildly critical of them, like Roy Medvedev (in his book Let History Judge): they see most of Stalin’s policies as absolutely justified, and dissent only from the “excesses” involved in implementing collectivisation and from the purges after 1934.

It is also true of many of the more determined critics of the leadership in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, for whom the crimes Stalin committed were simply a continuation of earlier revolutionary methods.

For this reason this book should be warmly welcomed. The author is a Czech who was born in Russia (where his father was a Comintern official) in 1930 and who was active in the reform movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968 before leaving for exile in West Berlin. Unlike most East European exiles he still regards himself as some son of socialist.

Reiman’s argument is that, far from being a logical consequence of socialism, the methods Stalin employed were “a complete break with the meaning and essence of the social doctrine of socialism”. But this break did not occur because of the programme of 1917 or even because of some thought out ideology on Stalin’s pan. Rather, Reiman argues, in 1927 the USSR faced an immense economic and political crisis, to which Stalin and his supporters responded “pragmatically”.

It was out of these pragmatic responses that the Stalinist system grew – and in turn shaped the mentality of those who ruled over it, Stalin included, so that “Stalin in 1929” was very different to “Stalin in 1926” in “the general nature of his politics” and the “type of practical solutions he proposed”.

There is a view of Russian history which holds that the economy was doing marvellously under the New Economic Policy of 1921-7 and that if this had only been maintain^ then everything would have turned out alright. For the proponents of this view Nikolai Bukharin and “market socialism” offers the historical alternative to Stalinism.

But the crisis that hit USSR in 1927 was, Reiman argues, a result of problems that built up during the New Economic Policy period.

Between 1921 and 1925 the NEP enabled the economy to grow at considerable speed. This was because both industry and agriculture were able, partially, to recover from the devastation of the civil war period. On the basis of this economic improvement, a stabilisation and improvement of social life in general occurred.

“An economic upturn began, which helped to stabilise social and political conditions. The use of force was substantially reduced in scope and was no longer applied in social and economic spheres. This had a profound effect on many aspects of social life. Although repression, especially political repression, continued to be widespread, the technique of mass preventative terrorism was virtually abandoned. A normal peacetime framework of legality and the observance of legal procedures was established. Everyday civilian life had re-emerged. The NEP era’s distinctive culture came into its own, with its restaurants, confectioneries and places of entertainment. A richer artistic and ideological life also developed.

“The numerical growth of the well-to-do layers of society aroused the discontent of the ‘lower orders’ of society even though the new situation improved their conditions as well. For the first time peasants were able, if only in pan, to take advantage of the new system of land ownership. Workers, now that industry was functioning again, actually experienced the positive aspects of the new trade union laws, labour’s new rights, and the freer conditions of the supervision in the factory.”

Even though this was the period in which Stalin’s influence grew, it did not bring Stalinism as a political system into being, his power was great but not yet unlimited.

BUT the very successes of the NEP period hid from the conservative party leadership deepening problems below the surface – the weaknesses in agriculture, especially in grain production, a low per capita output of industrial goods, very high levels of unemployment in the cities, a high rate of inflation. Also the level of military expenditure (half the pre-World War One rate of the Czarist state) left the country very poorly defended if one of the Western states were to launch an attack.

Such conditions made imperative “more rapid industrialisation” but there were not “sufficient resources” for this. And the sources from which the pre-revolutionary state had achieved extra resources – “the influx of foreign capital, loans and credit” – were almost completely cut off by the embargo on trade with Russia of the most powerful Western states. At first the leadership tried to ignore these problems. They argued that the USSR could, in the words of their leading theoretician, Bukharin, proceed towards socialism in one country at a “snail’s pace”. Even when, at the end of 1925, they edged towards a greater rate of industrialisation, they ignored the central problem of where to get the resources to accomplish it.

Their assumption was that somehow they would be able to muddle their way through, getting them from ad hoc measures internally and breaking out of isolation abroad by alliances with the trade union bureaucracy in the advanced countries and the nationalist movement in the biggest of the backward countries, China.

The “successes” of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership were great enough to secure its position even when the best known leaders of the pre-1917 party, Zinoviev and Kamenev, joined Trotsky in opposition in 1926.

But then the crisis suddenly erupted. Its “immediate cause was a crisis in foreign relations”. First, the faith which Stalin and Bukharin had placed in their alliance with the nationalist Chiang Kai-shek in China was rudely shattered when he turned on the Communist led workers’ movement that had welcomed him into Shanghai, murdering thousands in April 1927.

A month later “a new and still heavier blow” was delivered by the British government. It severed relations with Russia and stopped virtually all trade. Britain had been, until then, Russia’s biggest trading partner and British banks had played a central role in Russia’s dealings with other countries, especially Germany. Suddenly any hopes of using foreign trade to ease the problem of finding resources for industrialisation were dashed.

The external crisis translated itself immediately into an internal crisis.

“The changed international situation critically affected internal relations in the USSR. The authority of the party leadership was severely undermined ... Confusion and disorientation were felt in political circles. The party leadership ... was beset by increasing nervousness and anxiety ... A wave of disillusionment swept over the government’s political base. Resignations from the party rose in frequency and the influence of the left opposition grew. A war scare, which was spurred by official statements suggesting war was imminent, affected broad layers of the population ... many rushed to the shops to buy whatever was available. In rural areas people began hoarding. Inevitably the peasants lost their willingness to part with their surpluses. The country’s modest reserves of manufactured goods were quickly reduced.”

Reiman argues that in this situation the left opposition rapidly became much more influential than is generally thought:

“Oppositional activity was spreading like a river in flood. The organised mass meetings of industrial workers in Ivanovo-Voznosensk, Leningrad and Moscow; at a chemical plant in Moscow shouts were heard, ‘Down with Stalin’s dictatorship, down with the politbureau ...’ There were rumours of underground strike committees, in which the opposition were said to be participating, in the Urals, the Donbass, the Moscow textile region and Moscow proper – and of funds being raised for striking workers. The GPU reported to the leadership that it could not guarantee ‘order’ nor prevent the ‘demoralisation of the workers’ if it was not given the right to arrest oppositionist party members ... The opposition organised a meeting at the Yaroslav station in Moscow to say farewell to one of its leaders, Ivan Smilga ... As many as two thousand people turned up to this farewell demonstration ...

“Reports of heightened opposition activity came one after another from various cities and from entire provinces – Leningrad, the Ukraine, Transcaucasia, Sibera, the Urals and, of course, Moscow, where the greatest number of opposition political leaders were working. There was a steady growth in the number of illegal and semi-legal meetings attended by industrial workers and young people ...

“During Leningrad’s celebration of the tenth anniversary of the October revolution in mid-October 1927, the opposition suddenly received impressive support. Trotsky, Zinoviev and other oppositionists who found themselves by chance on one of the official reviewing platforms as the workers of Leningrad paraded past, found themselves the object of demonstrative greetings and cheers from a crowd of a hundred thousand. The authorities appeared powerless to control the crowd.”

What particularly worried the leadership was that the growth in the influence of the opposition occurred at a time of growing discontent among workers over material factors – over shortages of a wide range of foodstuffs, over increased prices as people were forced to turn to the private market for food and clothing, over the pressure for speed up and three shift working in factories, over rising unemployment and restrictions on dole payments.

For months the ruling politbureau dithered over what to do. A section – including Stalin – veered towards offering massive concessions to the Western powers, including the abrogation of the Russian state’s monopoly of foreign trade, in an effort to get foreign investment, only to find that no number of concessions would induce the West to break its embargo on trade. Some, including Bukharin, spoke of the need for a “re-enforced offensive against the capitalist elements, including the Kulaks”; others feared open talk about economic difficulties in case they built the credibility of the opposition.

The GPU exerted pressure for permission to arrest the opposition and, when this was granted, for still more vigorous repression. Stalin, for his own reasons, initially urged “moderation” on the question and was opposed by Bukharin and Ordzhonikidze who, at one meeting, shouted out, “Trotsky’s place is in the inner prison of the GPU.”

SUCH vacillation could not lead the country out of the crisis. The leadership could not simply let things fall apart. It was compelled to take a series of ad hoc measures to protect the positions of the one social layer which would support it against the opposition and against the growing mood of discontent of both workers and peasants – the bureaucracy.

This path began with repression against the opposition. The leadership used “fighting units” to prevent the opposition putting its view at party meetings, it victimised worker oppositionists from their jobs, it began expelling the leading oppositionists from the party, and finally it lifted the rule which prevented the GPU taking action against party members.

But that in itself was not enough to deal with the discontent which was building support for the opposition. Almost by accident Stalin found a way to deflect this into safe channels. The local GPU head in the Donetsk basin, worried by a wave of strikes, framed a group of engineers and technicians on “sabotage” charges.

These had been under pressure to increase productivity in the mines in a way that necessarily led to a series of accidents and provoked a rash of strikes. This trial, the “Shakhty case”, led to many workers blaming the technicians for the terrible conditions in the mines and fragmented the discontent that had caused the strikes. The ground was laid for the great purges of the 1930s when, by purging terror against middle level bureaucrats, Stalin was able to protect his own rule. But a price had to be paid for the trial. Among its victims were some German technicians – and it served to deepen the international isolation of the regime. Stalin, who had shortly before been for an end to the monopoly of foreign trade, found that considerations were pushing in the direction of a self contained “autarchic” economy.

Similar pragmatic considerations underlay the turn towards collectivisation of agriculture. Fear of war led the leadership to push for higher rates of industrialisation than previously. But that necessarily meant reducing the output of goods to the countryside in return for grain.

Faced, in any case, with a worse than usual harvest, the peasants stopped delivering food to the state and the state suddenly faced a crisis when it came to feeding the towns and sustaining even the old level of industrial output, let alone raising it. The leadership had only one resource at its disposal if it was to cope with the situation – the repressive power of the party apparatus itself and the GPU.

In December 1927 and January 1928 local party officials were told they would face reprisals themselves unless they went into the countryside and persuaded peasants to hand over food supplies, if necessary simply confiscating them. In March 1928

“special powers were given the GPU to maintain surveillance over economic life and the activity of party organisations ... With this the USSR took a big step towards fundamental changes in its internal living conditions and power structures. The entire atmosphere in which the economic, government and party work went on was abruptly altered ... the extraordinary measures enacted in response to economic crisis began to change the pattern of economic and social relations ...”

The countryside suffered most from this policy at first. There was a situation of near civil war as government agents and the GPU went from farm to farm, searching silos, seizing food and arresting anyone who resisted. But the crisis in the countryside could not help leading to an onslaught on workers’ living conditions as well.

For the seizure of their grain by the state in the winter of 1927-8 led peasants to reduce their supplies to the state in the autumn and winter of 1928, and then Stalin sent the party apparatus and GPU against them again, to kill their livestock. Food supplies to the towns dropped massively, and with them workers’ living standards.

WHEREAS the party leadership had dithered in 1927, it now split down the middle. People like Rykov, the prime minister, and Tomsky, the head of the unions, were unhappy at Stalin’s measures. They constituted a bloc of “moderates” in the politbureau which tried to resist the trend towards increased attacks on workers and peasants, and the use of GPU repression and terror which accompanied them.

Eventually (although much later than many of his latter day admirers usually claim) Bukharin broke with Stalin and joined them. For a time they even seemed to be in a majority. Yet they could not prevail against Stalin.

The reason was not any lack of energy on their part or even Stalin’s quite exceptional deviousness. It was that they did not have a programme of their own for getting out of the crisis. Clinging on to the policies of NEP was not a way forward, since it was precisely these policies which had left the country defenceless against external threats and incapable of mobilising the internal resources for building up industry. And so “the moderates constantly avoided making an evaluation of the real situation of society and the limits it imposed.”

This was always Stalin’s trump card in arguments. By a series of emergency, ad hoc measures he had found a method that could build industry – however barbaric the effects:

“In a situation of very severe economic and social crisis, which had already brought unbelievable deprivation to broad layers of the population, his programme inevitably showed a disregard for the human factor and human needs; it did not hesitate to accept any moral, material or human loss regardless of its extent. Stalin’s social and economic concepts ... sank to the level of thinking common to any exploitative system that is not forced to allow for the corrective effect of public resistance to government action.”

When the final version of the First Five Year Plan was drawn up it was based, not on any assessment of the real resources available to the Soviet economy, but on what was needed to build up the country’s heavy industry and defence capacity.

“The implications of such planning were clear. The fulfilment of the plan depended directly on a very brutal attack on the living and working conditions of the industrial workers and the rural population ... This was a plan of organised poverty and famine.”

Carrying through such a policy did not mean simply repression against other forces in Russian society. It also necessitated an internal change in the party apparatus itself.

“In terrorising not only the broad masses of the population but his own party as well, Stalin obtained an instrument necessary for the realisation of his economic and political aims. Society began to take on striking new features: human life lost its value and the worst forms of social bondage reappeared ... The implementation of Stalin’s programme required the existence of a ruling social stratum, separated from the people and hostilely disposed towards it ... Elements in the ruling stratum that tried to represent or even consider the interests of the people were suppressed.”

DID an alternative to Stalinism exist? Reiman does not fully identify with the left opposition, but does recognise that it at least partially foresaw the crisis and had a programme of sorts to deal with it. He also insists that although Stalin took individual elements from this programme,

“Stalin borrowed primarily the external aspects of the opposition’s ideas; he left out the core – the opposition’s orientation towards improving the material conditions of the workers and poorest sections of the rural population and increasing their actual participation in public and political life.”

He does not discuss in any detail why the opposition was unsuccessful. But he does provide evidence out of which it is possible to construct an explanation. The bureaucratisation of the party apparatus in the early 1920s prevented the opposition ever winning enough control to win power by “peaceful” means; even those people in the apparatus, like Tomsky, who still had some links with the working class, had crystallised out into a layer separate from the class, analogous to the trade union bureaucracy in the West; but at the same time the opposition shied away from a direct, non-peaceful bid for power. It was a focus for working class opposition to the regime in 1927; even in 1928 after it was banned and its leaders were in exile,

“Trotsky’s popularity was growing ... For many the name ‘Trotsky’ became a symbol of consistent and open struggle against Stalin’s policies.”

But the working class itself was generally demoralised. It has to be remembered that the number of unemployed workers in the towns was nearly as high as the number in state owned industry. Under such conditions there could be very rapid shifts in the mood of workers – from a desperate identification with the opposition in the summer of 1927 to the reactionary hysteria around the Shakhty trial only a few months later. Whilst the militants were victimised and caned off by the GPU, their place in the factories was taken by masses of fresh peasants without traditions of collective struggle. Finally, it has to be remembered that already, early in 1928, the opposition was enormously weakened as some of the best known names in the opposition – notably Zinoviev and Kamenev – were already crawling back towards Stalin.

The surge of workers towards the left opposition in 1927 was an example of the way in which a workers’ movement which is in decline is still capable of one last gasp – but also how that last gasp is rarely capable of breaking through to victory.

THIS book does not fully spell out what the other class forces involved in the fatal turning point of 1928 were. But, again, it is not difficult to fill out Reiman’s account. The decimation of the working class in the course of the fight against counter-revolution and foreign invasion in the years 1918-21 had left power in the combined hands of its most advanced militants, the Bolshevik Party, and many elements from the bureaucracy of the old Czarist empire.

In the early 1920s the cadres of the party itself began to reflect the influence of those they worked with, and mobilised against those who continued to accept the revolutionary message of 1917 – the left opposition.

In this period the apparatus of the party, led by Stalin and including very many elements who had played no role in 1917, began to raise itself above society. But it did not yet fully break its links with either the bureaucracy of the workers’ movement or with the mass of peasant interest in the countryside.

The USSR still had some of the features which Lenin had given expression to when he spoke at the Tenth Party Congress in 1921 as a “bureaucratically deformed workers’ and peasants’ state”. So it was that the workers, the peasants, the urban petite bourgeoisie and the party bureaucracy all benefited to some extent from the economic recovery of the NEP years, enabling Stalin and his allies to isolate Trotsky and the opposition.

The outbreak of crisis in 1927 necessarily produced splits between the different forces who had defeated the opposition, the formal unity of the party. The “moderates” tried to maintain the old balancing act between the material interests of workers, peasant and bureaucrats. But this was no longer possible in face of the foreign threat and the internal lack of resources to meet it.

The working class lacked the self confidence to pose its own solution to the crisis, even though it did, at times, offer passive support for the opposition. The peasantry was congenitally incapable of posing a national solution and those that could simply engaged in passive resistance.

The urban petite bourgeoisie fragmented and without access to state power could be used by the party apparatus as a counterbalance to the opposition, but was not capable of independent action.

This mutual paralysis of other social forces enabled Stalin’s bureaucracy to muddle its way through the crisis, using crude force to enforce a series of ad hoc measures which added up to a state capitalist way out. The bureaucracy was able to raise itself even further above the rest of society and to establish the most vicious mechanisms of exploitation so as to accumulate capital at the expense of the working class and peasantry.

It was thus able to provide for the military defence of the USSR in a way which was not possible under the NEP. But the price of doing so was to destroy the last vestiges of the gains made by workers and peasants in 1917, and to re-establish a form of class society, with all its brutality and irrationality.

Forty years ago Tony Cliff argued in the first edition of his State Capitalism in Russia that 1928 was the year in which quantity turned into quality, in which the slow degeneration of the Russian workers’ state gave way to its counter-revolutionary replacement by bureaucratic state capitalism.

Reiman does not analyse the dynamic of the new Stalinist order and so he does not arrive at a definition of it as state capitalist. But his account of what he calls the “Stalin revolution” is a valuable aid to anyone who does recognise that dynamic.

The account is not completely new. There are elements of it to be found in the volume Foundations of the Planned Economy in E.H. Carr’s epic History of Soviet Russia and in Moshe Lewin’s Russian Peasants and Soviet Power. But Reiman provides a much sharper account of the way in which external and internal factors combined to produce the crisis of 1927-8 than do either of these works.

He throws a completely new light on the rise and fall of the influence of the left opposition. And he points to flaws in the approach of the “moderates” which are virtually ignored by those, like Lewin, who believe Bukharin offered a realistic alternative to Stalin. It is a book which anyone who wants, seriously, to study the rise of Stalinism should read.

Last updated on 15 April 2010