Max Shachtman


Four Portraits of Stalinism – V

A Critique of Deutscher’s Work on Stalin

(September 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 5, September–October 1950, pp. 293–308.
This was the fifth and final instalment of the series Four Portraits of Stalinism.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(Continued from last issue)

We come finally to Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin. [A] The author’s credentials entitle him to a serious hearing for a serious work. He was a militant in the old Polish Communist movement, then in the Polish Trotskyist movement which he seems to have left either just before or after the outbreak of the Second World War. He is obviously at home in the history of the Russian revolution and of the revolutionary movement in general. His book is free of those bald errors, grotesque misunderstandings and falsehoods which swarm over the pages of most of the current literature about the Bolshevik revolution. His appraisal of Stalinism does not aim, as do most others written nowadays, to discredit that revolution and with it the fight for socialism.

Because he refuses to regard the Bolshevik revolution as the Original Sin from which all the evils of our time flow, and because he endeavours to present an objective sociological, even Marxian, analysis of Stalinism, free of the primitive diabolism which is generally substituted for analyses, an assortment of Menshevik and turncoat-communist reviewers has treated his book as the work of a Stalinist agent, a characterisation which is meant to be taken literally. The only ‘evidence’ that can be adduced for this charge is the firmness of the author’s defence of the Bolshevik revolution as the great socialist emancipation act of our century. This appears to be enough to warrant the label of Stalinist in the eyes of these reviewers. Apart from this the book offers no worthwhile evidence to sustain the charge, even if it offers it in abundance, as will be seen, for a charge of a distinctly different kind.

* * *

Deutscher draws heavily from the Stalin biography by Souvarine [1] and very heavily from all the works of Trotsky, which he has evidently checked independently and added to from most of the available original sources. Except for minor discrepancies, to which other reviewers have already called attention, and which result from the author’s predilection for softening the more sharply-drawn lineaments of Stalin, the portrait that emerges of Stalin’s role in the revolutionary movement and of his personal characteristics is substantially the same as the ones drawn by Souvarine and Trotsky – leaving aside their respective political judgements. The inconsequentiality of Stalin’s role in the early Bolshevik movement is again documented and reaffirmed. The fraudulent official claims about Stalin’s outstanding role in the Bolshevik revolution are refuted with the same finality that Trotsky’s real role is re-established. Every one of the important Stalinist falsifications of history is again exploded with quiet contempt. The fact that Lenin adopted, in 1917, the essential points of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, is made clear. The story of Lenin’s violent break with Stalin from 1922 to 1924 is retold, if not fully, then adequately enough to confirm Trotsky’s version and destroy Stalin’s. The Moscow Trials are placed in the category of infamy and monstrosity to which they belong. These are the outstanding examples and not the only ones. On the face of it, it is preposterous to believe that any sort of Stalinist could write one-tenth of these things about Stalin. Stalinism allows its authentic fellow-travellers a certain amount of a certain kind of criticism, and if they exceed these highly-restricted limits the viciousness of the assault upon them is immediate and unmistakable. What Deutscher has written about Stalin automatically excludes him from friendly treatment by the Stalinists. More plainly, the GPU has shot men for writing or even unwittingly suggesting less – far, far less – than Deutscher here sets down deliberately.

That’s one thing. An entirely different thing is Deutscher’s sociological analysis of Stalinism, as well as the conclusions which follow from it no less significantly because they are more implicit than explicit. Because the analysis really comes to grips with what has become the key question of our time, it is infinitely more interesting and important than the political pornography of boulevard hacks or the contrived literary juxtapositions of demoralised ex-communists we have had to deal with up to now.

* * *

What is Stalinism? Deutscher finds the basis for understanding it in what he sets forth as the fundamental development that ‘has been common to all revolutions so far’. This, essentially, is the development:

Each great revolution begins with a phenomenal outburst of popular energy, impatience, anger and hope. Each ends in the weariness, exhaustion and disillusionment of the revolutionary people. In the first phase the party that gives the fullest expression to the popular mood outdoes its rivals, gains the confidence of the masses, and rises to power... Then comes the inevitable trial of civil war. The revolutionary party is still marching in step with the majority of the nation. It is acutely conscious of its unity with the people and of a profound harmony between its own objectives and the people’s wishes and desires. It can call upon the mass of the nation for ever-growing efforts and sacrifices; and it is sure of the response. In this, the heroic phase, the revolutionary party is in a very real sense democratic, even though it treats its foes with dictatorial relentlessness and observes no strict constitutional precept. The leaders implicitly trust their vast plebeian following; and their policy rests on that trust. They are willing and even eager to submit their policies to open debate and to accept the popular verdict.

But this relationship hardly survives the civil war. The party emerges weary and the people wearier: ‘The anti-climax of the revolution is there.’ The fruits of the now secured revolution ripen too slowly to permit immediate fulfilment of the promises made to the people by the party:

This is the real tragedy which overtakes the party of the revolution. If its action is to be dictated by the mood of the people, it will presently have to efface itself, or at least to relinquish power. But no revolutionary government can abdicate after a victorious civil war, because the only real pretenders to power are the still considerable remnants of the defeated counter-revolution... The party of the revolution knows no retreat. It has been driven to its present pass largely through obeying the will of that same people by which it is now deserted. It will go on doing what it considers to be its duty, without paying much heed to the voice of the people. In the end it will muzzle and stifle that voice.

The chasm between the rulers and the people widens, without the former having a full understanding of what is happening as they ‘acquire the habits of arbitrary government and themselves come to be governed by their own habits’. The party divides in two:

Some of its leaders point in alarm to the divorce between the revolution and the people. Others justify the conduct of the party on the ground that the divorce is irremediable. Still others, the actual rulers, deny the fact of the divorce itself: for to admit it would be to widen further the gap between the rulers and the ruled. Some cry in alarm that the revolution has been betrayed, for in their eyes government by the people is the very essence of revolution – without it there can be no government for the people. The rulers find justification for themselves in the conviction that whatever they do will ultimately serve the interests of the broad mass of the nation; and indeed they do, on the whole, use their power to consolidate most of the economic and social conquests of the revolution. Amid charges and counter-charges, the heads of the revolutionary leaders begin to roll and the power of the post-revolutionary state towers hugely over the society it governs ...

It is in this broad perspective that the metamorphosis of triumphant Bolshevism, and Stalin’s own fortunes, can best be understood.

That, according to Deutscher, is the law of revolutions, it is the ‘general trend of events; and this has been common to all great revolutions so far’. To make his analysis more specific and to round it out, we must go further with Deutscher. Although Stalinism represents a ‘metamorphosis of Bolshevism’, it is not its negation. In Stalin, there is still the Bolshevik, but no longer in the more or less pure state, as it were. His puzzled opponents ask: ‘What is Stalin, after all? The architect of an imperial restoration, who sometimes exploits revolutionary pretexts for his ends, or the promoter of Communist revolution, camouflaging his purpose with the paraphernalia of the Russian imperial tradition?’ Deutscher answers: Both! Stalinism is revolutionism and traditionalism, stranded in strange interplay; or as he puts it elsewhere, in Stalin there is the ‘conflict between his nationalism and his revolutionism’. As a result of this duality (in Stalin or Stalinism), he carried out, five years after Lenin’s death, Soviet Russia’s ‘second revolution’. It is true that: ‘The ideas of the second revolution were not his. He neither foresaw it nor prepared for it. Yet he, and in a sense, he alone, accomplished it.’ It is likewise true that the cost was ‘the complete loss, by a whole generation, of spiritual and political freedom’, but the ‘rewards of that revolution were astounding’ – namely, the rapid industrialisation, the modernisation of agriculture, the reduction of illiteracy, the bringing of Asiatic Russia nearer to Europe even while European Russia was detached from Europe. Yet the Stalinist revolution differs from the Bolshevik revolution, and the most important difference:

... lies in the method of the revolution. Broadly speaking, the old Bolshevism staked its hope on the revolutionary momentum of the international labour movement. It believed that the Socialist order would result from the original experience and struggle of the working classes abroad, that it would be the most authentic act of their social and political self-determination. The old Bolshevism, in other words, believed in revolution from below, such as the upheaval of 1917 had been. The revolution which Stalin now carried into eastern and central Europe was primarily a revolution from above. It was decreed, inspired and managed by the great power predominant in that area.

The movement connected with his name, ‘at once progressive and retrograde’, shows Stalin to be of the ‘breed of the great revolutionary despots, to which Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon belonged’ (elsewhere Deutscher adds: Bismarck and Czar Alexander):

Like Cromwell as Lord Protector or Napoleon as Emperor, Stalin now remained the guardian and trustee of the revolution. He consolidated its national gains and extended them. He ‘built socialism'; and even his opponents, while denouncing his autocracy, admitted that most of his economic reforms were indeed essential for socialism.

But the fact that Stalin can take his place by the side of Napoleon and Bismarck is not accidental. Here Deutscher finally rounds out his analysis so that the conclusions are clearly implicit in it. Stalin’s role:

... results from one peculiar parallelism between the bourgeois and the Socialist revolution in Europe, a parallelism that has come to light only since the Second World War. Europe, in the nineteenth century, saw how the feudal order, outside France, crumbled and was replaced by the bourgeois one. But east of the Rhine feudalism was not overthrown by a series of upheavals on the pattern of the French revolution, by explosions of popular despair and anger, by revolutions from below, for the spread of which some of the Jacobins had hoped in 1794. Instead, European feudalism was either destroyed or undermined by a series of revolutions from above. Napoleon, the tamer of Jacobinism at home, carried the revolution into foreign lands, to Italy, to the Rhineland and to Poland, where he abolished serfdom, completely or in part, and where his Code destroyed many of the feudal privileges: Malgré lui-même, he executed parts of the political testament of Jacobinism ... The feudal order had been too moribund to survive; but outside France the popular forces arrayed against it were too weak to overthrow it ‘from below'; and so it was swept away ‘from above’. It is mainly in Napoleon’s impact upon the lands neighbouring France that the analogy is found for the impact of Stalinism upon eastern and central Europe. The chief elements of both historic situations are similar: the social order of eastern Europe was as little capable of survival as was the feudal order in the Rhineland in Napoleon’s days; the revolutionary forces arrayed against the anachronism were too weak to remove it; then conquest and revolution merged in a movement, at once progressive and retrograde, which at last transformed the structure of society.

Now the reader has all he needs to know about Deutscher’s analysis of Stalinism. It is not identical with Trotsky’s analysis, but only because it is an extreme and one-sided presentation of it. Yet the similarity between the two leaps to the eye. To the extent that Trotsky incorporated it into his own analysis, he drove himself towards the end of his work into a theoretical and political blind alley, in which his sightless followers have since milled around with such calamitous consequences. Deutscher himself does not follow the practice that his theory entails, for reasons that are not clear but which cannot possible be objective. His book ends with a tentative sort of advocacy of what Trotsky called the ‘supplementary revolution’ against Stalinism. But this half-hopeful note does not even modify the fact that Deutscher has worked out the theoretical basis for a socialist capitulation to Stalinism. To the extent that the working-class and socialist movement shares this theory, any progressive struggle against Stalinism is doomed and with it the struggle for socialism itself. The socialist movement can rise again to a full consciousness of its problem and how to resolve it only – we stress it again: only – if it understands the root-falsity of the theory to which Deutscher has given such utterly tragic and disorienting expression.

* * *

The crux of Deutscher’s disaster lies in his ‘peculiar parallelism’ between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. Historical analogies are by their very nature seductive. There is especially good reason for comparing the socialist revolution with the great bourgeois revolutions of the past two centuries. Indeed, unless they are compared, and their similarities established, the socialist revolution becomes incomprehensible or, at best, is cast back to the utopias of pre-scientific socialism. But this is no less important: unless they are contrasted, and the fundamental differences between them clarified, the socialist revolution becomes impossible! Deutscher’s treatment of the two revolutions suffers from two defects, but those two suffice: he does not deal with their differences at all, and he presents them as similar precisely in those respects where they are and must be different, decisively different, so different that they cannot be compared but only contrasted to one another.

The aim of every bourgeois revolution was simple: to establish the economic supremacy of the market, of the capitalist mode of production. These already existed to one degree or another under feudalism. But feudalism impeded their full unfoldment, it ‘fettered’ them. Its outlived laws, customs, traditions, regulations, estate-ish and geographical divisions, privileges – all blocked off the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ required for the full expansion of the new mode of production; all were constricting clamps upon the winding and unwinding of that mainspring which is the stimulator and regulator of capitalist production, namely, the free market. The removal of these fetters, blocks and clamps was all that was essentially required for the triumph of the bourgeois revolution, and not necessarily the complete destruction of feudalism in all its forms or even of the feudal lords themselves. Indeed, in many (if not most) countries where the fetters of feudalism were finally broken, the new mode of production could and did coexist, either at home or within their world empires or both, with the old feudalists and their economic forms, intact or more or less capitalistically transformed.

But because social progress required the victory of the bourgeois revolution, it did not follow that the bourgeoisie was everywhere the organiser and leader of the revolution. In our Marxist literature, the bourgeoisie of the period in which feudalism was generally replaced by capitalism is often referred to as having been ‘a revolutionary class’ or ‘the revolutionary class’. This is true, but only in a very specific, distinctly limited sense. The capitalist mode of production, even in its incipiency under feudalism, to say nothing of its post-feudal days, was inherently of a kind that constantly revolutionised society, that constantly required expansion, and was therefore an intolerant rebel against the feudal fetters upon it. The bourgeoisie was revolutionary primarily and basically only in the sense that it was at once the agent, the organiser and the beneficiary of capital, in the sense that it was the bearer of the new mode of production which was irreconcilable with the supremacy of feudal backwardness and stagnancy. But never – more accurately, perhaps, only in the rarest of cases – was the bourgeoisie revolutionary in the sense of organising and leading the political onslaught on feudal or aristocratic society. That would have required either a radical break with the feudalists for which it was not prepared, or the unleashing of ‘plebeian mobs and passions’ which it feared – or both.

The Great French Revolution was great – the greatest of all the bourgeois revolutions, the classic among bourgeois revolutions – precisely because it was not organised and led by the French bourgeoisie! It was the work of the Jacobins, of the lowly artisans and peasants and tradesfolk, the plebeian masses. The Cromwellian revolution was far more the work of the small independent landlord, the artisan, the urban tradesman than the work of the then English bourgeoisie – in fact, Cromwell’s Puritans had to fight bitterly against the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. Napoleon, who extended the bourgeois revolution to so many lands of feudal Europe, based himself not so much upon the bourgeoisie of France as upon the new class of allotment farmers. In Germany, it was not the bourgeoisie that unified the nation and levelled the feudal barriers to the expansion of capitalism, but the iron representative of the Prussian Junkers, Bismarck. He carried out the bourgeois revolution in the interests of the feudal Junkers, and made his united Germany a powerful capitalist country, but without the bourgeoisie and against it. Much the same process developed in distant Japan. As for that late-comer, czarist Russia, the bourgeoisie remained a prop of the semi-feudal autocracy to the last, and the bourgeois revolution was carried out in passing by the proletariat and only as an episode in the socialist revolution.

Yet in all the countries (except of course in Russia) where the bourgeois revolution was carried out – always without the bourgeoisie, often against the bourgeoisie – it did not fail to achieve its main and primary aim: to assure the social rule of the bourgeoisie, to establish the economic supremacy of its mode of production. This was all that was needed to satisfy the fundamental requirement of bourgeois class domination.

* * *

It cannot be underlined too heavily: once the fetters of feudalism were removed from the capitalist mode of production, the basic victory and the expansion of the bourgeoisie and its social system was absolutely guaranteed. Once the work of destruction was accomplished, the work of constructing bourgeois society could proceed automatically by the spontaneous expansion of capital as regulated automatically by the market. To the bourgeoisie, therefore, it could not make a fundamental difference whether the work of destruction was begun or carried out by the plebeian Jacobin terror against the aristocracy, as in France, or by the aristocracy itself in promotion of its own interests, as in Germany.

Neither the revolutionary French plebeians nor the Napoleonic empire-builders could replace feudalism with a special economic system of their own, or create any social system other than bourgeois society. In Germany, no matter how exclusively Bismarck was preoccupied with maintaining the power of the Prussian king and the Junkers, with modernising the nation so that it could defeat its foreign enemies, the only way the nation could be united and modernised was by stimulating, protecting and expanding the capitalist economic order. A prerequisite for this was of course the removal of all (or most) feudal and particularist obstacles in its path. If Bonapartism and Bismarckism prevented the bourgeoisie from exercising the direct political influence that, ideally, it prefers, this was more than compensated by the fact that they suppressed or curbed an infinitely greater threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie – the plebeian and later the proletarian masses. And if the bourgeoisie gives up or allows the curbing or even destruction of its own representative parliamentary institutions, under a Bonapartist or Bismarckian regime, or under its most decadent manifestation, fascism, it only admits, to quote the famous passage from Marx, ‘that in order to preserve its social power unhurt, its political power must be broken; that the private bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and rejoice in “property,” “family,” “religion” and “order” only under the condition that his own class be condemned to the same political nullity of the other classes’. [2] But its social power is preserved ‘unhurt’ just the same, and the evidence of that is the prosperity that the bourgeoisie enjoyed under Napoleon, Bismarck and Hitler.

When, therefore, Deutscher stresses the fact that east of the Rhineland the ‘popular forces arrayed against it [moribund feudalism] were too weak to overthrow it “from below”; and so it was swept away “from above"’, he is as wide of the mark as he can possibly be if this fact is adduced to show the similarity between ‘the chief elements of both historical situations’, namely, the spread of Bonapartism and of Stalinism. The absurdity of the comparison is clear if we bear in mind the equally incontestable fact that whether feudalism was swept away ‘from above’ or ‘from below’, the difference in the result was, at the very most, secondary. In both cases the victory of capitalist society was secured and its growth guaranteed. Once the feudal fetters on capitalism were broken – whether by Cromwell’s Ironsides or Napoleon’s Grand Army, by Robespierre’s Jacobins or Bismarck’s Junkers – capitalism and only capitalism could be solidly established.

According to Deutscher, feudalism could be swept away and the rule of capitalism installed by a revolution carried out, from above or below, by the plebeian masses, the petty-bourgeois masses, the bourgeoisie itself, even by feudal lords themselves (and even by the modern imperialist big bourgeoisie, as we know from their work against feudalism in some of the colonies they penetrated). For the comparison to be less than ludicrous, it would have to be demonstrated that today ‘moribund capitalism’ can also be swept away and the rule of socialism also installed by a revolution carried out by the petty bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie and any other class, in addition to the proletariat. It would also have to be demonstrated that, just as it made no essential difference to the bourgeoisie how its revolution was effected, so today it makes no decisive difference to the proletariat whether it makes its own socialist revolution or the revolution is made by a GPU which enslaves and terrorises it. To demonstrate that would be difficult.

* * *

The socialist revolution does not even lend itself to the kind of comparison with the bourgeois revolution that Deutscher makes.

The emancipation of the working class, said Marx, is the task of the working class itself. To which we add explicitly what is there implicitly: ‘of the conscious working class’. Is this mere rhetoric, or a phrase for ceremonial occasions? It has been put to such uses. But it remains the basic scientific concept of the socialist revolution, entirely free from sentimentality and spurious idealism.

The revolution which destroys the fetters of feudalism, we wrote above, assures, by that mere act, the automatic operation and expansion of the new system of capitalist production. (We stress the word ‘new’ to distinguish capitalism in the period of its rise and bloom from capitalism in its decline and decay, when the automatic regulators of production break down more and more frequently and disastrously. But that period is another matter.) Conscious direction of the capitalist economy plays its part, but at most it is secondary or, better yet, auxiliary to what Marx calls the ‘self-expansion of capital’.

It is altogether different with the socialist revolution. In this case we cannot say that regardless of what class or social group destroys the fetters of capitalism, the act itself assures the automatic operation and expansion of socialist production. Socialist production and distribution will take place automatically, so to speak (each will give what he can and take what he needs), only decades (how many we do not know or need to know) after the revolution itself has taken place, only after civilised socialist thinking and behaviour have become the normal habit of all the members of the community. But immediately after the socialist revolution takes place, production and distribution must be organised and regulated. The bourgeoisie can no longer organise production, since it has just been or is about to be expropriated, and thereby deprived of the ownership and control of the means of production. The market can no longer regulate production automatically, for it has been or is being abolished along with the other conditions of capitalist production; in any case, it disappears to exactly the extent that socialist production advances.

Unlike capitalist production, socialist production (that is, production for use) demands conscious organisation of the economy so that it will function harmoniously. It is that consideration and it alone that requires of the new revolutionary regime the nationalisation, sooner or later, of all the means of production and exchange. And it is this centralisation of the means of production that makes possible, to an ever-increasing degree, the harmonious planning of production and distribution. Planning, in turn, implies the ability to determine what is produced, how much of each product is produced, and how it is distributed to the members of the community (limited only by the level of the available productive forces) – to determine these things consciously, in contrast to capitalism which produces according to the dictates of the blindly-operating market and distributes according to glaring class inequalities.

Now, what assurance is there that the masses, who have made the revolution in order to establish a socialist economy, will be the main beneficiaries of the planned decisions that are taken and executed? (We say, cautiously, ‘main’ and not sole beneficiaries, for obviously, in the first stage of the new society the economy will necessarily be encumbered by ‘parasitic’ specialists, military households and bureaucrats.) Only one assurance: that the decisions on what and how much is produced and how it is distributed are taken by the masses themselves, concretely, through their freely and easily elected – and just as freely and easily recallable – representatives. Otherwise, there is no assurance whatever that those who make the decisions on how the economy shall be organised will make them in conformity with the economic principles of socialism, or principles that are socialist in type, socialist in direction. In other words, the economic structure that replaces capitalism can be socialist (socialistic) only if the new revolutionary regime (the state) is in the hands of the workers, only if the working class takes and retains political power. For, once capitalist ownership is destroyed, all economic decisions are necessarily political decisions – that is, decisions made by the state which now has all the economy and all the economic power in its hands. And if the working class then does not have political power, it has no power at all.

* * *

Here we come to another basic difference between the two social systems, and not their similarity, as Deutscher says. It relates to the question of how social power is exercised in each case. The bourgeoisie’s power over society rests fundamentally upon its ownership of property (the means of production and exchange). That ownership determines, in Marx’s excellent phrase, its mastery over the conditions of production; and therefore over society as a whole. Any state, any political power, which preserves capitalist property, is a bourgeois state, is indeed the ‘guardian and trustee’ of the social power of the bourgeoisie. This holds for the state of Napoleon, Bismarck, Roosevelt, Ramsay Macdonald and Hitler. Deutscher understands that well enough, for he writes that ‘when the Nazi façade was blown away, the structure that revealed itself to the eyes of the world was the same as it had been before Hitler, with its big industrialists, its Krupps and Thyssens, its Junkers, its middle classes, its Grossbauers, its farm labourers and its industrial workers’. The social power of the bourgeoisie was and remains its property ownership, its economic power.

It is exactly the other way around with the proletariat! It is not a property-owning class and it cannot be – not under capitalism, not under the revolutionary regime that separates capitalism from socialism, and certainly not under socialism itself, which knows neither property nor proletariat. The revolution which expropriates the bourgeoisie does not turn its property over to the workers (this worker or group of workers now owns a steel mill; that one a railroad; the other a bank, etc.). That would indeed be a revolution-for-nothing, for it would merely create a new type of capitalist, property-owning class. No, the revolution nationalises, immediately or gradually, all property, turns it over to the new regime, the revolutionary state power. That is what happened in Russia in 1917, when the revolution was carried out ‘from below’ (the ‘old Bolshevik’ method). Every politically-educated person knows that it was a socialist revolution, that it raised the proletariat to the position of ruling class, that it abolished capitalist property and established socialist (socialistic) property in its place.

In that case, wherein lies the fundamental difference between that revolution and those carried out ‘from above’ by Stalin throughout the Balkans and the Baltic? The bourgeoisie was expropriated, politically as well as economically, its property was nationalised and turned over to the new state power. According to Deutscher, there is no basic difference, no class difference, so to say. Just as Napoleon carried the bourgeois revolution to Poland, so Stalin carried the socialist revolution all the way to Germany. The ‘orthodox’ (Oof!) Trotskyists are reluctantly but irresistibly drawing closer to the same monstrous conclusion. Their embarrassment over Deutscher is due entirely to the fact that he has anticipated them.

Yet there is a difference and it is fundamental. The Communist Manifesto stresses (and how much more emphatically should we stress it in our time?) ‘that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy’. It is not just some new political power in general that will socialistically expropriate the bourgeoisie, but the new proletarian power. As if in anticipation of present controversies, Marx underscores the point, at the beginning and at the end: ‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy, to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state.’ What state? To make sure he is understood, Marx adds: ‘that is, of the proletariat organised as the ruling class’. [3] The test of this ‘formula’ for the socialist revolution (to say nothing of a dozen other tests) was passed precisely by the Bolshevik revolution.

Nothing of the sort happens in the case of the Stalinist ‘socialist revolution’, the revolution ‘from above’. The proletariat is never allowed to come within miles of ‘political supremacy’. What the new state ‘wrests’ first of all, and not very gradually, either, are all the political and economic rights of the proletariat, reducing it to economic and political slavery. The difference between the revolution ‘from below’ and the revolution ‘from above’ is not at all a mere matter of difference in ‘method’ but one of social, class nature. It might be compared to the difference between cropping a dog ‘from the front’ and ‘from behind’. By one ‘method’, the tail is cut off, and the dog, according to some fanciers, is healthier and handsomer; but if the other ‘method’ were employed and his head were cut off, we would not have a ‘bureaucratically-degenerated dog’ but a dead one. Like all comparisons, this one too has its limitations: Stalinism does not cut off the head of the socialist revolution only because it does not even allow that revolution to grow a head.

Yet Stalin, while depriving the proletariat of all political power, did maintain state property in Russia, did extend it vastly, and did convert capitalist property into state property in Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Because the Bolshevik revolution established state property, and Napoleon’s extension of bourgeois property seems to lend itself to analogy, Stalin becomes, to Deutscher, the representative of those rulers who, ‘on the whole, use their power to consolidate most of the economic and social conquests of the revolution’, and even to extend these revolutionary conquests at home and abroad. The formula, alas, is originally that of Trotsky, who wrote that the Russian workers ‘see in it [the Stalinist bureaucracy] the watchman for the time being of a certain part of their own conquests’. [4] If that is true, so much the worse for the Russian workers; but in any case it does not reduce the magnitude of the error.

By what it says and implies, this formula tells us that the state is socialistic (a proletarian state) because the economy is nationalised, statified. The nature of the state is determined by the property form. That is indubitably true in all societies where private property exists. But it is radically false when applied to a society where the state owns the property. The exact opposite is then true, that is, the nature of the economy is determined by the nature of the state! That it is necessary to argue this ABC of Marxism and of evident social reality today, is one of the indications of the sorry state of the movement.

* * *

The theory that the economy is socialistic simply because the state owns it was originated by Stalinism. It was needed by Stalinism to help achieve its counter-revolution. It constitutes to this day the quintessential theoretical basis for its worldwide mystification. As early as 1925, almost coincidental, significantly enough, with the launching of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, the Stalinists began to put forth, cautiously but unmistakably, the theory that Deutscher has so uncritically taken for granted. As cautiously as the one but not so uncritically as the other, the then Leningrad Opposition (Zinoviev and Kamenev) took issue with the theory and warned against it. Kamenev’s speech on the question of the nature of the economy in Russia, delivered at the Fourteenth Party Congress towards the end of 1925, is therefore of prime interest:

Do we perhaps doubt that our factories are enterprises of a ‘consistently-socialist type'? No! But we ask: Why did Lenin say that our enterprises are ‘enterprises of a consistently-socialist type'? Why didn’t he say directly that they are genuinely socialist enterprises?

What does this mean: enterprises of a consistently-socialist type? It means that these enterprises are essentially socialistic enterprises. They are socialist in what are called property-relations. The factories belong to the proletarian state, that is, to the organised working class ...

The correct conception of our state industry consists in this, that our state enterprises are really enterprises of a consistently socialist type, inasmuch as they represent the property of the worker’s state, but that they are far from being complete socialist enterprises because the mutual relations of the people engaged in them, the organisation of labour, the form of the labour wage, the work for the market, represent no elements of an unfolded socialist economy.

At this point, it is worth noting, the congress minutes report an interruption from one of the hostile Stalinist delegates: ‘You have discovered America!’ In those early days, the Stalinists did not dare challenge, directly and openly, the simple ABC ideas Kamenev was expounding. His ideas are clear. The property, the economy, can be considered socialist-in-type (not even socialist, but as yet only socialist-in-type) only because ‘they represent the property of the workers’ state’, only because ‘the factories belong to the proletarian state, that is, to the organised working class’. The character of the economy is determined by the character of the political power, the state!

The Stalinists needed the very opposite theory in order to cover up and justify their destruction of the political power of the working class and therewith of the workers’ state. Where Kamenev, and all other Marxists, declared that the property is socialist only because it is owned by a workers’ state, ‘that is, the organised working class’ in power – the Stalinists declared the state is socialist simply because it owns the property. This theory is now canonised as constitutional law in all Stalinist lands and all arguments against it are promptly and thoroughly refuted by the GPU.

The theory is a Stalinist invention from start to finish. The finest-toothed comb drawn through all the writings of every Bolshevik leader – Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev – will not find so much as a phrase to sustain it. Until Stalin turned the Marxian view upside-down, every one of the Marxists, without exception, repeated literally thousands of times that because the state is in the hands of the proletariat, therefore the economy is proletarian (socialist-in-type). They never argued that because the economy is in the hands of the state, therefore the state is proletarian – never!

How could they? The proletariat, not similar to the bourgeoisie but in contrast to it, establishes, asserts and maintains its social power only when it gets and holds political power. As the bourgeoisie is nothing without its economic power, its ownership of property, so the proletariat is nothing without its political power. Only political power can give it economic power, the power to determine the ‘conditions of production’. This was always understood by Marxists, not only by Trotsky as well but by him first and foremost. In different ways he always repeated what he wrote, for example, in 1928:

The socialist character of our state industry... is determined and secured in a decisive measure by the role of the party, the voluntary internal cohesion of the proletarian vanguard, the conscious discipline of the administrators, trade-union functionaries, members of the shop nuclei, etc... the question reduces itself to the conscious cohesiveness of the proletarian vanguard ... [5]

In a word, the nature of the economy is determined by the nature of the political power. In the 1930s, however, it became plain that while the proletariat of Russia had lost all political power and even the possibility of reforming the Stalinist regime, the latter had not introduced capitalism (as Trotsky erroneously predicted it would). Only then did Trotsky find himself impelled to reverse himself completely. He then argued that the fact that the state continued to own the property determined its character as a workers’ state. It was not to be found in any of his preceding writings, not so much as a hint of it. It was to be found in the doctrines of Stalinism. That’s where it still is; that’s where it belongs. For socialists to adopt it would be to capitulate theoretically to Stalinism, which consistency would demand be extended to a political capitulation. In this case, capitulation means guaranteeing the triumph of a new tyranny, the abandonment of the ‘battle of democracy’ which is won when the proletariat is raised to political supremacy.

* * *

Deutscher’s theory, or rather his adoption and adaptation of Stalin’s, leads him to downright apologetics for the new tyranny – all very objectively put, to be sure, for there seems no doubt about his personal antipathy toward the abominations of the regime.

There is, first of all, the law of revolutions which Deutscher sets forth, as we have quoted it above. It is superficial; it is false and misleading. Certainly all the old revolutions and their leaders made promises to the masses that they did not fulfil. But that is a ‘law’ of all bourgeois revolutions and is absolutely characteristic of them. Bourgeois revolutions are made under the sign of ideologies, using that term strictly in the sense in which the early Marx used it, namely as a synonym for false consciousness or as we would say after Freud, for rationalisation. They think and say they are fighting for Freedom. ‘They’ includes, as Marx wrote, not only men like Danton, Robespierre, St Just and Napoleon, ‘the heroes as well as the parties’, but even ‘the masses of the old French Revolution’. But no matter what they think or what they say or what they do, the revolution does not and cannot go beyond the ‘task of their time: the emancipation and the establishment of modern bourgeois society’. [6] At bottom, all that Freedom can mean in the bourgeois revolution is ... freedom of trade.

That’s why the bourgeois revolutions could not keep their promises to the masses, why they often had to establish the most dictatorial governments over and against the masses in the post-revolutionary period. But since Deutscher has tried the impossible task of formulating a law of all revolutions, when he might have known that every different social revolution develops according to different laws, the most important fact has escaped his attention: the bourgeois revolutions did fulfil their promises to the bourgeoisie. The plebeian masses were crushed after such revolutions, but that was only in the nature of the revolution: while it may have been made by them, it was not and could not have been made for them. It was made for the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie prospered under it. Which is why it deserves the not-at-all-dishonourable name, bourgeois revolution!

Deutscher, however, gives Stalin’s overturns the distinctly honourable name, socialist revolution, and adds with a refined shrug, if the masses suffered all sorts of horrors, cruelties and oppressions after this revolution, if the promises made to them were not kept, why, ‘this has been common to all great revolutions so far’. Preposterous conclusion: while the bourgeois revolution keeps its promises to the bourgeoisie for whom it is made, the socialist revolution does not keep its promises to the masses for whom it is made. Correct conclusion: the Stalinist revolution is not a socialist revolution in any sense and therefore is not intended to make good its promises to the masses; it is a revolution of the totalitarian bureaucracy and it most decidedly does keep its promises to this bureaucracy!

There is, in the second place, Deutscher’s weird justification of the ‘follies and the cruelties’ of Stalin’s ‘second revolution’, the industrialisation of Russia. We have listened with sheer amazement, in recent times, to the same justification on the lips of British socialists who are not abashed at abusing the name of Trotsky by assuming it. Now we see it in print under Deutscher’s signature. Stalin’s ‘follies and cruelties’ we read, ‘inevitably recall those of England’s industrial revolution, as Karl Marx described them in Das Kapital’. He continues:

The analogies are as numerous as they are striking. In the closing chapters of the first volume of his work, Marx depicts the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital (or the ‘previous accumulation’, as Adam Smith called it), the first violent processes by which one social class accumulated in its hands the means of production, while other classes were being deprived of their land and means of livelihood and reduced to the status of wage-earners. The process which, in the 1930s, took place in Russia might be called the ‘primitive accumulation’ of socialism in one country ...

In spite of its ‘blood and dirt’, the English industrial revolution – Marx did not dispute this – marked a tremendous progress in the history of mankind. It opened a new and not unhopeful epoch of civilisation. Stalin’s industrial revolution can claim the same merit.

The comparison is so microscopically close to being an outrage as to be indistinguishable from one, and it shows how Deutscher has literally lost his bearings.

The period of the old Industrial Revolution was a brutal one, but a harsh social task faced society and it had to be performed. By whom? The feudal aristocracy could not perform it; the foetus of a proletariat was not yet able to perform it. There was left only the young, lusty, callous bourgeoisie. It proceeded to concentrate property and capital in its hands in sufficient quantity to develop the forces of production on a vast scale and a breath-taking pace. Who suffered the hideous cruelties and horrors of this accumulation? The little people – small peasants, the yeomanry, tradesfolk, the artisans and their social kith and kin. Who were the beneficiaries of these horrors? The bourgeoisie. Moral indignation apart, the process unfolded as it had to unfold, given the times, given the class relationships. It was a question of the primitive capitalist accumulation.

Accumulation is a need of all societies, the socialist included. Indeed, fundamentally the problem of a socialist accumulation was the economic rock on which the ship of state of the Russian Revolution foundered (a subject that requires the special study that it merits). The problem was not unknown to the leaders of the revolution. They debated it often and warmly. In the early 1920s, Preobrazhensky devoted a special work to the subject, which soon evoked a violent controversy. He pointed out that in the past, every social order achieved its particular accumulation at the expense of (‘by exploiting’) earlier and inferior economic forms. Therefore, continued Preobrazhensky:

The more economically backward, the more petty-bourgeois, the more agricultural is the country that is passing over to a socialist organisation of production, the slighter the heritage that the proletariat receives for the fund of its socialist accumulation at the time of the social revolution – the more the socialist accumulation will have to base itself upon the exploitation of the pre-socialist economic forms and the lighter will be the specific gravity of the accumulation derived from its own basis of production, that is, the less will this accumulation be based upon the surplus product of the worker in socialist industry. (The Basic Law of Socialist Accumulation, in the Herald of the Communist Academy, 1924)

Although the Trotskyist Opposition, of which Preobrazhensky was a prominent leader, did not endorse his views, the Stalinists let loose a hue and cry against Preobrazhensky that echoed for years. In his restrained way, Stalin denounced these views because they would ‘undermine the alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry’ and shatter the dictatorship of the proletariat – not less – for Preobrazhensky’s views so easily lent themselves to the interpretation that the peasantry as a whole had to be exploited to build up the fund for socialist accumulation.

But what if someone had merely hinted; in the most delicate way, the socialist accumulation fund would have to be built up not only by exploiting the peasantry, which is not, properly speaking, a socialist class, but also the proletariat, which is the socialist class; and that the socialist accumulation would have to proceed along the same barbarous lines as the primitive capitalist accumulation in England? If he were not hooted out of sight as a crude defamer of socialism, it would only be because everybody else would have been stricken with dumbfounded silence.

That Stalin’s ‘second revolution’ did start a process ‘by which one social class accumulated in its hands the means of production’, and along the lines of the primitive capitalist accumulation, is absolutely true. But his accumulation, like the English, was directed against and paid for by the popular masses. It had nothing in common with socialism or socialist accumulation. It was not the ‘second revolution'; it was the counter-revolution.

‘Marx did not dispute this’, Deutscher reminds us. He did not dispute that the industrial revolution ‘marked tremendous progress in the history of mankind’, but only for the reason given above: there was no other class but the bourgeoisie to carry it out and it carried it out in the class way characteristic of it. To have looked for the proletariat to carry out the old industrial revolution, was utopian, because whatever proletariat existed then in England or Europe was utterly incapable of performing the mission which therefore fell to the bourgeoisie.

* * *

It only remains to ask: is it likewise utopian to expect the present proletariat to carry out the modern revolution for the socialist reconstruction of society? Or, since capitalism today is moribund and cannot be reinvigorated by man or god, must the work of dispatching it be left to a social force that puts in its place the most obscene mockery of socialism and social progress ever devised by man?

Deutscher gives no direct answer, to be sure. But implicit in his theory, in his whole analysis, is an answer in the affirmative, even if it is accompanied by shuddering resignation.

He writes movingly about those tragic figures, the great captains of the revolution, who were paraded through the prisoner’s dock of the Moscow Trials by a new ruling class installed in the ‘second revolution’. He explains – rightly, on the whole, we think – what brought these once indomitable revolutionists from recantation to capitulation and capitulation to recantation until they finally allowed themselves to be used for the nightmarish indignities of the Trials. Deutscher’s appraisal of the revolutionary capitulators is noteworthy:

Throughout they had been oppressed by the insoluble conflict between their horror of Stalin’s methods of government and their basic solidarity with the social regime which had become identified with Stalin’s rule.

Insoluble conflict! Right. But especially right if we understand that all of them had abandoned any belief in the possibility of a proletarian revolutionary movement independent of Stalinism. That only removed the last barrier to an already indicated capitulation. They believed that the Stalinist regime represented at bottom a socialist or proletarian state, and horror over its methods could not eliminate the feeling that it was the regime of their class and by that sign also their own. So long as they thought, as Trotsky also did for a long time, that Stalinism represented a return to capitalism, they fought it openly and vigorously. They were wrong in that analysis and Stalin was not long in proving them wrong. When it became perfectly clear that Stalinism mercilessly crushed capitalism wherever he had the power to do so, that he preserved and extended the realm of statified property, they simply equated his anti-capitalism with the defence of socialism. Their ‘basic solidarity with the social regime which had become identified with Stalin’s rule’ decided, if it did not guarantee, their capitulation to Stalinism. And really from the standpoint of Deutscher’s analysis, why not? The German bourgeoisie may not have been enthusiastic over all the methods of Bismarck, of Wilhelm II, and later of Hitler. But they were ‘in basic solidarity with the social regime which had become identified’, successively, with those three names. They never fought these regimes; they never rebelled against them, except, perhaps, for an inconsequential handful of bourgeois and military plotters against Hitler. In their way, they were certainly right: ‘It is our regime, the regime of our class.’

‘In his exile’, writes Deutscher, after the words we quoted above, ‘Trotsky, too, wrestled with the dilemma, without bending his knees.’ True. We do not believe that Trotsky would ever have capitulated to Stalinism, and that not only because of his unsurpassable personal qualities as a revolutionist. To the extent that he shared the fatal theory that Stalinist Russia is a workers’ state and that the Stalinist bureaucracy is still a sort of watchman over some of the conquests of the revolution, the same must be said of him as is said of Deutscher; the course of most of his followers since his death bears witness to this. But everything within limits. In the first place, Trotsky introduced a radically modifying ‘amendment’ to his theory, in a small but increasingly invaluable section of his ten-years-ago polemic against us which has proved so much more durable than those remaining sections which should be mercifully consigned to the oblivion of archives. The amendment did neither less nor more than allow that events might prove that the Stalinist ‘workers’ state’ was only a new class system of totalitarian collectivist exploitation, the state of neo-barbarism. In the second place, he replied unhesitatingly and confidently in the affirmative to the key question he posed there: ‘Will objective historical necessity in the long run cut a path for itself in the consciousness of the vanguard of the working class?’ [7]

These views, despite his internally-contradictory theory about Stalinist Russia, enabled Trotsky to remain the active and dreaded mortal enemy of Stalinism. Because he could write that the one and only decisive standpoint for the revolutionist was the enhancement of ‘the consciousness and organisation of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones’, he remained the greatest contemporary champion of the proletarian socialist revolution, that ‘revolution from below’ which alone is socialist. [8] It is these views that mark the chasm between their upholders, on the one side, and those who, out of despair or panic or premature fatigue, have retired from the struggle for socialism or gone over to an enemy camp.

Let them go. But those still resolved to carry on the fight must rid themselves and all others of the last trace of the view that, in some way, in some degree, the Stalinist neo-barbarism represents a socialist society. The view is disseminated, for different reasons but with similar results, by both the bourgeois and the Stalinist enemies of socialism. It has become the curse of our time. Of that, Deutscher’s book is only another and saddening proof. Its value in the fight against Stalinism can only be to startle some people into thinking and rethinking the problem of Stalinism and seeing it for what it is. For it is a problem about which we can say with Jean Paul: ‘Wenn Ihr Eure Augen nicht braucht, um zu sehen, so werdet Ihr sie brauchen, um zu weinen.’ – ‘If you do not use your eyes to see with, you will need them to weep with.’


A. Stalin, A Political Biography, by I. Deutscher. Oxford University Press, New york 1949, 540 pp. $5.00.

Footnotes by MIA

1. See Stalin: A Critical Survey of Bolshevism.

2. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

4. L.D. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed.

5. L.D. Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin.

6. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

7. L.D. Trotsky, The USSR in War, In Defence of Marxism.

8. L.D. Trotsky, The USSR in War, In Defence of Marxism.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 2 November 2014