Ernest Mandel

East Berlin Conference: New Stage in the Crisis of Stalinism

(July 1976)

Written: July 1976.
Source: Inprecor no. 56. July 22, 1976, pp 21-26.
Transcription/Markup: Martin Fahlgren in 2016 for the Marxists Internet Archive.
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The conference of twenty-nine Communist parties of Europe was finally able to be held, in East Berlin. The Communist party press in some countries, beginning with Pravda itself, hailed its convocation as a great victory. It is known that Brezhnev had made the holding of the conference a question of personal prestige. In fact, the differences of a number of CP leaderships — notably in Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, France, and to some extent Romania — with the leadership of the Soviet CP over some key passages of the final declaration had been so deep that for a long time it seemed that the conference might not even be able to meet.

If it was eventually held, this was essentially because the Kremlin leaders gave in on practically all the points on which their adversaries had insisted. Probably the most costly concession for the Kremlin was the elimination of any condemnation of the Chinese CP or Maoism from the text of the common declaration. But even these concessions did not prevent the most determined advocates of polycentrism — beginning with Berlinguer of Italy and Santiago Carrillo of Spain, but also including Tito — from clearly asserting that such conferences were in fact useless, that common documents should no longer be drafted in the future, and that the question of strategy and tactics in achieving socialism, as well as that of political orientation, were the exclusive province of each national party.

Some false interpretations and a correct one

How should this conference be located in the history of the Stalinist movement? There are a number of interpretations that should be rejected straightaway. One, which is shared by the most conservative sectors of the bourgeoisie (of the Kissinger-Fanfani variety) and certain dogmatists of the so-called far left, blithely asserts that this conference amounts to nothing but a charade aimed at deceiving the gullible and that in reality Brezhnev, Berlinguer, Tito, and Santiago Carrillo are in complete agreement on all points.

Were this the case, it would be difficult to understand the interminable discussions, the many conflicts, and the flare-ups that nearly prevented the conference from being held, not to mention such events as the acid diatribes of the Suslovs, Ponamarevs, and Bilaks, the public attacks of Rude Provo, organ of the Czechoslovak CP, against the French and Italian Communist parties, Moscow's attempts to create a Communist party of Spain (Lister) to counter the Communist party of Spain (Carrillo), the letter of the Soviet CP to all “fraternal” parties denouncing the absence of a critical attitude on the part of our French Communist comrades in regard to the anticommunist interventions of the bourgeoisie.”

The second thesis, diametrically opposed to the first but equally false, claims that “Eurocommunism” represents the end of special relations between the French, Italian, Spanish, British, Swedish, etc. CPs and Moscow and, according to some variants, even sees signs of the dawn of the “reunification of the Western workers movement.” If the French Communist party abandons the dictatorship of the proletariat, some people in France have asserted, then the Tours split (the split in the Socialist party that gave rise to the CP) may be considered pointless. Moreover, it appears that Ceaucescu, leader of the Romanian CP, posed the question in similar terms during the East Berlin conference itself.

As against these incorrect theses, any correct interpretation of the East Berlin conference must begin from a phenomenon which has been developing since 1948 and which revolutionary Marxists call the crisis of Stalinism. This crisis has been advancing, now at an accelerated pace, now more slowly and hesitantly, under the impact of a series of contradictions, partially independent, partially interlinked by a genuine system of interconnected compartments. The crisis of Stalinism may be described as an ensemble of five crises:

* The crisis of Kremlin control over those Communist parties that themselves hold state power, beginning with those parties that seized power in a manner independent of the Soviet bureaucracy, at the head of a genuine mass socialist revolution, even if bureaucratically deformed from the outset (the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese CPs).

* The crisis of CP control over the toiling masses in the capitalist countries (especially the working class) who are marked by growing militancy, anticapitalist consciousness, and clear distrust of bureaucratic manipulations. Moreover, these masses are exposed to the still limited but nonetheless expanding influence of a vanguard which is more influential, more effective, and more strongly implanted in the class than at any time during the past thirty years.

* The crisis of control of the CPs in power in the “people's democracies” (and in China) over the masses, whose political combativity and activity are in the process of awakening. This crisis can advance to the brink of genuine political revolution (October-November 1956 in Hungary, the 1968 “Prague spring” in Czechoslovakia, and, partially, the workers uprisings in Poland in 1956, 1970, and 1976).

* The crisis of control of the Soviet bureaucracy over Soviet society. This society is not yet characterized by an awakening of activity and politicization among broad masses, but the dialectic of “de-Stalinization” and of the ripening of the objective conditions for the political revolution has triggered an initial confrontation between the bureaucracy and political oppositions, which adds a new dimension to the crisis of Stalinism.

* 'The crisis of relations between the CPs of capitalist Europe and the Kremlin, which results from the manner in which these parties have been compelled to assimilate de-Stalinization, the manner in which they are inserted into the political life of their countries, and the manner in which they are exposed to the parallel and contradictory pressure of the imperialist bourgeoisie (and the general policy of “peaceful coexistence”) on the one hand and the rise of the proletarian revolution on the other hand.

Once one grasps this overall complexity of the crisis of Stalinism, one can immediately put one's finger on the fundamental cause of the error of interpretation of “Eurocommunism” and of the East Berlin conference committed by so many commentators of both the right and the left. The Soviet bureaucracy must judge everything  that is happening in the Communist parties not only on the basis of its “détente” projects and policies with respect to imperialism, but also on the  basis of its relations with the toiling masses in the  “people's democracies” and the USSR itself.

That's the rub: It is on this point that the dynamic triggered by those CP leaderships that are taking their distance from the Kremlin threatens to make the bureaucracy more vulnerable, to contribute to the ripening of the political revolution.

What the Kremlin can live with and what it fears

Of course, when Berlinguer, Marchais, and Santiago Carrillo renounce the dictatorship of the proletariat, declare themselves in favor of “parliamentary and electoral roads to socialism,” preach for alliances with bourgeois parties, and assert that they will even respect the Atlantic alliance when they become ministers in coalition governments, the Kremlin's grimaces of consternation are only for show. For a long time now, more exactly since the French CP voted for the war credits and since the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, the practice of the CPs has gone in this direction. Theory has finally caught up with practice. In this regard, the reformist CPs have repeated the process of revision of Marxism initiated by the Social Democrats at the beginning of this century. The Kremlin is in fundamental agreement. Renounce the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to gain a few ministerial portfolios? An excellent deal! Many others of the same type were concluded under Stalin.

Does the Soviet bureaucracy fear that this time the integration of the CPs into the bourgeois state apparatus will go all the way and that in the event of conflict between the European bourgeoisie and the Kremlin, the mass CPs will stand squarely in the camp of their own bourgeoisies against the USSR? Most likely, the more the CPs recruit on a rightist basis, the more the ideological differences with the Social Democracy will decline, and the more numerous will be the functionaries and bureaucrats who would be prepared to make this leap (there were already quite a few in August-September 1939, and they will be even more numerous next time). But for the CPs as a whole, to break completely with the USSR would be to lose their own identity, which would be to plunge into an irreversible process of absorption by the Social Democracy. Because of the important material base guaranteed them by their independent existence, it is not likely that the leaderships of these parties will go all the way in the process of Social Democratization and break with Moscow completely. The present relations with Moscow thus suit them nicely at bottom.

But when Berlinguer, Santiago Carrillo, and Marchais speak of a plurality of political parties in the “building of socialism,” when they call for trade-union independence of the state, when they say they are for the right to strike after the overthrow of capitalism, and when they denounce — still in an extremely hesitant and insufficient manner — the violations of and crimes against proletarian democracy and elementary human rights in the USSR and the “people's democracies,” then, yes, the Soviet bureaucracy becomes indignant and panics. To see only the aspect of “capitulation to the bourgeoisie” in “Eurocommunism” is to fail to understand that the Italian, French, Spanish,, and Portuguese CPs are now evolving in a prerevolutionary situation, under the pressure of a working class that has understood some of the crimes of Stalinism and is firmly resolved to prevent their repetition by any means necessary. To see the pledges of the Berlinguers and Carrillos solely as concessions to the bourgeoisie is to fail to understand the powerful antibureaucratic component that accompanies the revolutionary upsurge in capitalist Europe. This was already visible in May 1968. It has powerfully come to the fore in the Portuguese revolutionary process and will be still more powerful in the rising Spanish, Italian, and French revolutions.

The Berlinguers, Marchaises, Santiago Carrillos, and Cunhals do not like workers councils any more than the Brezhnevs, Husaks, or Kadars do. But they cannot frontally oppose the emergence of these councils so long as we are in a rising phase of the revolutionary process in southern Europe. They will be compelled to take evasive action rather than strike openly, to maneuver with the councils rather than liquidate them. Moreover, this is what makes their role especially dangerous from the standpoint of the fate of the socialist revolution, for these maneuvers are incontestably aimed at restabilizing the bourgeois order. But to be able to execute these maneuvers during a period of revolutionary upsurge, they must pay an ideological and political price. And this is what exploded like a bombshell in East Berlin. This is what is driving the bureaucracy to distraction. This is what has a boomerang effect for the Kremlin. The action of the Polish workers against the price increases, temporarily crowned with success, can only augment the dangers to its rule the Kremlin now sees taking shape on various sides.

The leaders of the CPs of Western Europe are defending some elementary principles of application of democratic liberties and human rights during the phase of construction of socialism in their own countries, without the Kremlin excommunicating them the way Tito and Mao were excommunicated. Thus, one can be an advocate of a multiparty system, real freedom of the press, and the real right of the workers to strike after the overthrow of capitalism without automatically being dubbed a “frenzied anticommunist,” an “agent of imperialism”, or even a “Hitlerite Trotskyist.” A question is thus immediately posed: Suppose a Czechoslovak, East German, Polish, Bulgarian, Soviet (or Yugoslav!) Communist demands the application of these same principles in his or her country as well? Would that make him or her an “anticommunist,” a “partisan of the restoration of capitalism,” a “slimy viper,” or an “anti-Soviet agitator,” simply for having repeated what “comrades” Santiago Carrillo, Berlinguer, and Marchais had proclaimed aloud in East Berlin?

According to information from generally well informed sources (although we have not yet been able to confirm the authenticity of the document), a letter drafted by a number of leaders of the Czechoslovak CP eliminated by the “normalization” (although Dubcek himself is said not to have signed) was distributed to the participants in the East Berlin conference. (Excerpts of it will be published in a future issue of INPRECOR.) This letter speaks of a “faction” of Czechoslovak Communists who agree with the “Eurocommunists” whose theses triumphed at the conference. Under these conditions, they call for an end to the repression to which they have been subjected and for the restoration of their rights, since their political line has already been rehabilitated in reality!

In order to escape from this embarrassment, Pravda censored practically all the “controversial” passages in the speeches of the “Eurocommunists.” But there was immediately a new accentuation of the crisis. Other bureaucrats of the “people's democracies” were unable to completely imitate Moscow's action. The bureaucrats of the German Democratic Republic, up to now the most rigid and servile in their subordination to the Kremlin, were compelled to publish the speeches of Berlinguer and company without a single cut, for the simple reason that the East German radio and television had already broadcast these speeches live and millions of people therefore already knew about them. Once again the revolutionary potential of instantaneous transmission of events at moments of great political and social crisis was verified, this time in East Europe.

Thus, the Kremlin's great fear is not so much that its influence over the CPs of West Europe will be further reduced. What it really fears are the effects “Eurocommunism” and the concessions to the antibureaucratic sentiments of the masses it entails can have on Moscow's control of the CPs and masses of East Europe and the USSR itself. In its own way, the accentuation of the crisis of Stalinism by the East Berlin conference heralds the tremendous storm that will break over East Europe and the USSR (and even China) after the first victories of the proletarian revolution in capitalist Europe.

It could then be asked why the Kremlin finally ceded before “Eurocommunism” and “polycentrism” if the repercussions in its own sphere of influence threaten to be so negative. The answer is that the cure would have been worse than the disease. A new, third “schism” in the Stalinist universe, with the open excommunication of the Spanish, Italian, French, and British CPs, would have unleashed even greater centrifugal forces in the “people's democracies” and the USSR. Especially in the light of the great events on the horizon in Spain and Italy, such an excommunication would have left the Kremlin with no capacity for intervening in the political life of capitalist Europe and would have been laden with consequences both in relation to imperialism and in relation to the least depoliticized sectors of the masses in the USSR and East Europe. Brezhnev thus opted for what was the lesser evil, from his own point of view.

One step forward, two steps back

Does this mean that we applaud the success incontestably won by “Eurocommunism” and “polycentrism” at the East Berlin conference? This would be to fall into a one-sided and opportunist evaluation of the balance-sheet of this conference.

First of all, the increased prestige won at low cost by the Berlinguers and companies in East Berlin increases their ability to manipulate and thereby betray the rising proletarian revolution in the West as well as the rising political revolution in the East. Significant evidence for this is provided by the euphoric commentaries of R. Havemann (who is nevertheless an honest, critical, and leftist communist and a fierce opponent of the bureaucracy) published in the July 5 issue of the West German weekly Der Spiegel. Enthusiastic about the “democratic” professions of faith of the “Eurocommunist” leaders and hoping for innumerable beneficial repercussions for opposition communists and toilers in the “people's democracies,” Havemann fails to see the decisive concessions to the bourgeoisie. The abandoning of any struggle to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus and the strangling of the self-organization of the masses that is the inevitable consequence of attachment to bourgeois-parliamentary institutions imply the risk of defeat of the socialist revolution in southern Europe. The disastrous consequences this defeat would entail for the working class and for critical communists in East Europe are obvious.

Second, the ideological retreats of the leaders of the mass CPs in West Europe also unleash an objective dynamic. They have negative consequences both on Communist cadres and militants and on Communist workers. An entire generation of vanguard toilers who joined the CPs because they considered these parties the most combative and anticapitalist mass parties will be systematically misled into confusing the democratic rights of the masses with bourgeois-democratic institutions, opposition to the bureaucratic dictatorship and one-party regime with opposition to the power of workers councils, and, eventually, “austerity” imposed by a government of coalition with the bourgeoisie in order to restore the capitalist rate of profit with “a stage in the transition to socialism.” This threatens to have extremely serious consequences during a decisive test of strength between the bourgeois state apparatus and the nascent organs of workers power, as was the case in Germany in 1918-19 or in republican Spain in 1936-37.

All this indicates the responsibility of revolutionary Marxists, who must combine utilization of the new breach opened in the Stalinist fortress by “Eurocommunism” with an intransigent struggle for an anticapitalist revolutionary strategy in West Europe. Enlarging the breach also means going after the “Eurocommunist” leaders on their own abridgments of proletarian democracy.

It is one thing to strut about like great democrats in big auditoriums in Rome, Paris, Madrid, or even East Berlin, It is quite another thing to practice proletarian democracy where one holds real power. It is our duty to stress this contradiction and exploit it to the advantage of the working class.

What, then, are these great democrats waiting for before granting the right of tendency in the CGT (the French trade-union federation) or the CGIL (the Italian union federation) or the national and regional coordinating bodies of the Workers Commissions (in Spain), which they control? What are they waiting for before allowing the election at all trade-union congresses of delegates elected in general assemblies, delegates chosen on the basis of the presentation of reports and counterreports by each of the trade-union tendencies and ideological currents present in the trade unions? What are they waiting for to introduce freedom of the press in the trade unions, with open discussion tribunes for different tendencies? Are they prepared once and for all to halt the bureaucratic practice of expelling revolutionary minorities from the unions? What are they waiting for to reintroduce the right of tendency in their own parties?

As for denunciation of the crimes committed by the bureaucracy against workers democracy, the rights of the toilers, and human rights, their first timid protests cannot satisfy anyone. Some leaders of the Spanish CP have declared that Trotsky was a great revolutionary. (See extracts attached to this article.) We hail this confession as a step forward. It immediately follows that these same leaders must publicly denounce the crimes committed by the GPU against Andres Nin, the leaders of the POUM, the Trotskyists and left anarchists during the Spanish civil war.

But there is more. One ex-member of the Communist party of Spain (or is he still a member?), Ramon Mercader, murdered the great revolutionary Trotsky. He lives in Moscow today, decorated with a high Soviet medal, and whiles away his time writing a history of the Spanish civil war (who knows, maybe it will be “critical” too). The leaders of the Spanish, Italian, and French CPs should demand that this vile murderer be hauled before a tribunal formed by the international workers movement. They should demand the public rehabilitation of Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, and all the old Bolsheviks. They should demand that the works of these great revolutionaries be freely published and distributed in the USSR and the “people's democracies.” Otherwise their pledges in favor of socialist democracy remain little credible.

The same remark applies to the advocates of “liberal communism” in East Europe. It appears that Tito and Ceaucescu applaud “Eurocommunism” with both hands. But violations of proletarian democracy are multiplying in Yugoslavia (and violations of self-management too, witness the affair of the Marxist professors of philosophy in Belgrade), while the internal Romanian regime is one of the most repressive and Stalinist of all the “people's democracies.” Let these gentlemen begin to bring their actions into conformity with their words; otherwise the credibility of their “democratic” and “pluralistic” pledges will be undermined even further.

The East Berlin conference reflected a deepening not only of the crisis of Stalinism, but also of the ideological and theoretical bankruptcy of Stalinism. At a time when the international capitalist system is going through its most serious crisis since the second world war, the CPs of Europe are completely incapable of drawing any of the indicated conclusions for the workers of Europe and the world. They have nothing to offer but timeworn neo-Keynsian palliatives, which the bourgeoisie itself is now questioning as less and less effective. At a time when the internationalization of the productive forces and class conflict is attaining an unprecedented degree, the CPs proudly come up with an increasingly pronounced nationalist withdrawal.

In face of this bankruptcy, the Fourth International, legitimate heir of communism and the Communist International, today embodies living Marxist thought, proletarian internationalism, and the road to the proletarian revolution. With its still weak and very insufficient forces relative to the gigantic tasks of our epoch, but forces that are after all growing rapidly, that have increased tenfold during past years, the Fourth International says to the proletarians of Europe and the world: The combined crisis of capitalism and Stalinism facilitates the accomplishment of your historic task. Forward to the socialist revolution, to the overthrow of the reign of capital, to the democratic power of workers councils, to the Socialist United States of Europe and the World!

Forty years ago, Trotsky wrote: “Many things suggest that the disintegration of the Comintern, which has no direct support in the GPU, will precede the fall of the Bonapartist clique and the entire thermidorian bureaucracy in general.” (Transitional Program.) When Tito, paraphrasing Berlinguer, said of the East Berlin conference that it “has no past and no future,” in his own way he confirmed Trotsky's prediction. In Warsaw it is being murmured that Stalin died for the third time in East Berlin, but that he is not yet dead for good. The victory of the proletarian revolution in Europe will bury him definitively.

July 13, 1976

The following is an excerpt from a dialogue between Fernando Claudín, ex-member and leader of the Communist party of Spain, and Manuel Azcárate , who is presently a member of the Executive Committee of this party. The dialogue appeared in the Spanish weekly Triunfo (July 3, 1976) under the title “Azcárate and Claudín Discuss Eurocommunism.”

Claudín. . . . In the USSR a bureaucratic system was created, whatever may be the historic and objective reasons. According to Trotsky, there were socialist structures on the one hand and a bureaucratic superstructure on the other (he called it a “deformed workers state”), with the superstructure in contradiction to this socialist structure. But at the end of his life Trotsky himself affirmed that if this was transformed into a stable regime, this bureaucratic class would be transformed into a ruling class, not in the sense of a body of private proprietors and a state subject to these proprietors, but rather because of the function its components would fulfill within the state and the party. For these reasons, it doesn't seem to me mechanical to characterize the USSR as a system that does not have socialist relations of production. But it does seem to me mechanical to assert that on the one hand there are socialist relations of production and on the other hand a political and ideological superstructure that is not socialist. This is one of the great problems that Marxists are now studying and discussing in order to arrive at the most scientific possible definition of the nature of the Soviet system, which cannot be assimilated to the western capitalist system, but in my opinion cannot be called a socialist system either. . . .

You said that one of the important problems is the question of the relations between the party and the state. Why do the Communist party of Spain and the other CPs maintain that there can and should be various parties, both in the phase of transition and under socialist society? Is it a matter of tactics or is it a profound question that corresponds to a requirement of social reality in these different phases of the march to socialism?

Azcárate. It turns out that I am in greater agreement with Trotsky than you are. (Laughter.) This doesn't bother me. Trotsky was a great revolutionary, a great Marxist thinker. Regardless of the fact that some of his theories, especially during the last phase of his life, have proven erroneous, a good part of his critique of the Soviet system has been shown to be valid with the passage of time, especially as concerns the bureaucratic deformation of the Soviet system. I don't want to go into an exhaustive discussion about a theme around which investigation has to continue, but I would say that the Soviet system is a primitive socialist regime. This is a consequence of its extraordinarily low starting point, the international conditions under which it arose, and a series of enormous deformations, of which Stalinism is the expression, which froze it in this primitive state. I agree that there is an enormous distance between Soviet reality and our socialist ideal. . . .

As for our conception of the march to socialism, the basis must be a plurality of parties, both socialist parties and parties that are enemies of socialism, that represent sectors that do not agree with socialism but which, in our view, will be beaten politically because the parties that support socialism will be stronger. Neither in Marx nor in Lenin is there the idea that socialism means one party....