Max Shachtman


The Stalinist Social System

(May 1954)

From Labor Action, 10 May 1954.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT is impossible to discuss any important political problem of our time, let alone take a part in resolving it, without a clear understanding of what Stalinism really signifies.

It is just as impossible to get such an understanding from the writings and speeches of capitalists, their statesmen, politicians, hangers-on, apologists, or any other beneficiaries of their rule. They are quite capable of describing the notorious vices of Stalinism. Its true social significance, however, escapes them, and so also therefore does the simple secret of combating it effectively.

For the very first task to perform is to ascertain the relations between capitalism and Stalinism, and that is precisely what they are prevented from doing by their own social interests and prejudices.

You can write it down as an iron law of politics today: Whoever does not know what are the real relationships between the social system of capitalism and the social system of Stalinism, may be ever so intelligent in fields like physics or art or investment banking or logistics, but in the most important field of social knowledge, he is helpless. Whoever knows something about these relationships, but refuses to make them the rock foundation on which to base and build his political ideas and actions, may be ever so fine a family man, so tender a poet, so graceful a writer and so eloquent an orator, but in this field of politics he is either a convinced muddlehead, a phrase-drunken emotionalist or a plain demagogue.

The first thing to grasp about Stalinism is that world capitalism is at the end of its rope. It shows all the classical signs of decoy and disintegration in addition to those special signs which are its own distinctive contribution.

With the hugest productive machine ever imagined for the creation of social wealth, it has nevertheless instilled in the entire population over which it holds sway a profound and amply warranted sense of insecurity. Everybody realizes that whatever economic prosperity there is, or seems to be, is based upon the unparalleled economic destruction produced by the wars of today or by the organized economic waste of the periods of war preparations. The very preparation for war requires that a crushing economic burden be kept upon the shoulders of society, above all on those shoulders least able to carry the burden. Yet practically everybody realizes that if world capitalizing were to disarm on Monday (assuming the possibility of such a utopia), or even to reduce its armaments drastically it would be done for on Tuesday.

An even worse showing is made by capitalism in the actual wars themselves. When it was going through its rising phase, wars had a distinctly positive meaning for capitalism. Now, its wars are economically pointless, politically pointless; they do not solve a single important problem and they cannot solve any.

The Second World War showed that ten times more clearly than did the First World War. The war in Korea only underscored the same point. The war of French imperialism in Indochina is the latest underscoring of the point. Capitalism, in general and in its national-state form, cannot have any encouraging perspective in wars; and yet it cannot avoid preparing for them and precipitating them.

The growth and expansion which younger capitalism experienced in the rise of its imperialist power has not only come to an end but is actually going through a reversed process. A hundred years ago and even fifty years ago, world capitalism was adding tremendous new natural resources and vast hordes of new slaves to its domain in the conquest of countries in the so-called colonial world. It battened and fattened on these grisly conquests. The tide is running the other way now.

The old imperialist world of capitalism is shrinking and it will never again be expanded – never. One part of it has fallen under the dominion of Stalinism. Another part of it has won its way to political independence and the end of its colonial status. The remaining part is in a state of permanent warfare against the old imperialist powers which drains them heavily without the old compensations of colonial rule. The capitalist world has shrunk drastically and its prospects have shrunk even more.

All this is reflected both in the thinking of the capitalist class and that of the working classes. In the decline of the old self-confidence. In the United States, one political or intellectual leader after another now repeats, as if it were an incontestable truth, that they face a “fight for survival”; and not a soul has yet been found to reject that ominous formula.

Drowning men fight for survival, dangerously diseased and weakened men fight for survival; imminently bankrupt firms fight for survival. So it is with social systems. The phrase is the panic-stricken, desperate outcry of a social order on the brink of disaster, and it is not by chance that it is so widely and unquestioningly accepted.

And if that is the unwittingly revealed state of mind of the ruling classes of the United States, where capitalism still has some appearance of strength and good health, it requires no great effort to judge the state of mind of the ruling classes in the older, frankly decrepit countries of capitalism which could not exist for five minutes without the financial and military upshoring provided by Washington.

In the working classes, there is a corresponding and much more conscious loss of confidence in capitalism and capitalist imperialism. With the exception of the United States, there is not a single popular movement anywhere in the world that proclaims its allegiance to capitalism or imperialism. The most that capitalism in general – and its last bastion, the United States, in particular – can expect from the masses nowadays is not support but irritated tolerance, as a lesser evil compared with the otherwise universal anger, disillusionment, bitterness, hostility and open warfare directed against it on every continent of the globe.

To say that capitalism is at the end of its rope is only another way of saying that it is more and more incapable of solving the important problems of society especially as these problems reach the stage of acute crisis. It is well to emphasize here: when we speak of capitalism solving a social problem it should be self-evident that we mean solving the problem on a capitalistic basis. Capitalism was never able to solve a social problem on any other basis. But the point is that where it was able to solve such problems on that basis in the past, it is less and less capable of solving them even on that basis today.

It is precisely such a decay of capitalism that was not only foreseen by the founders of modern socialism but was regarded by them as the precondition and the eve of the socialist reorganization of society by the working-class movement, They did not and could not foretell all the forms and manifestations of this inevitable disintegration of capitalism, and they did not try to; but they did indicate the main lines along which it would develop, and in doing so they amply forewarned and forearmed us.

The first great world-wide crisis of capitalism broke out toward the end of the First World War. The masses throughout Europe rebelled against the futile imperialist slaughter and their fists hammered at every wall of European capitalism. The wall fell only in Russia, and only in Russia did the socialist working class take power and start to lay the foundations of a new, rational, brotherly social order. In the rest of Europe the walls of capitalism held, mainly thanks to the sturdy and criminal support which the besieged ruling classes received from the conservative Social-Democratic Party leaderships. They saved capitalism; they prevented the working class from carrying out its great revolutionary mission in good time. In addition the victorious Russian Revolution: was allowed to suffocate to death for lack of the oxygen of the revolution in the advanced Western countries which was indispensable to its life and growth.

The effect which the victorious lifting of the revolutionary siege in the:West had upon the Russian Revolution, in dooming it to isolation and therefore to death, was not the one which was generally expected. And it is right here that we are able to take a second big step toward an understanding of Stalinism.

It was assumed by everybody – not only by the Bolsheviks of those days but by all their critics and enemies – that if the socialist Soviet regime were to fall (for one reason or another), it would be replaced by a capitalist regime. Whether it would be a democratic capitalism or a despotic-militarist capitalism was widely argued; but that only a capitalist regime would succeed to a fallen Soviet regime was agreed upon by everybody.

Everybody turned out to be wrong. The socialist Soviet state was undermined and destroyed, root and branch; but it was not replaced by capitalism. What had happened?

That which was assumed by everybody implied – took for granted without more penetrating thought – the existence of a viable capitalist class inside Russia which could replace the Russian working class at the head of the nation and which could proceed to a solution of the nations problems on a capitalist basis; or it implied, at least, the existence of a capitalist class outside of Russia strong enough, single-willed enough and otherwise sufficiently able, to take the place of the Russian proletariat. The assumption was an abstraction; in real life it proved false and disorienting.

It turned out that inside of Russia there simply was no capitalist class in existence and outside of Russia a Russian capitalist class existed only as a joke. It turned out that inside of Russia there were only capitalist middle-class elements in town and country, strong enough to exact concessions from the Soviet state, strong enough to harass and threaten it, strong enough to be of tremendous help in finally destroying it, but by no means strong enough to take power in the country.

Outside of Russia, it turned out the foreign capitalist classes which had at one time unsuccessfully tried by force and arms and corruption to overturn the young Soviet government, could never thereafter manage to get together enough unity of purpose among themselves, unity of military effort, and freedom from working-class and liberal opposition and restraints in their own countries, to try to impose their own capitalist rule over Russia. (In fact, as we saw in 1941, even when Hitlerite Germany made such an attempt, not against a Soviet regime but against a Stalinist regime in Russia, the rest of the capitalist world not only did not come to his aid but helped decisively, as a Russian ally, to fight him off. And as we see today, even with its powerful financial lash, the United States is unable to overcome the mutual antagonisms in the capitalist world to the point where it can be effectively united against the Stalinists.)

The capitalist solution to the social problems of Russia was thereby rendered practically impossible, despite the theory which assumed its inevitability.

With that, the sector of world society known as Russia stood before an apparently insoluble dilemma.

The united efforts of the world proletariat would have been more than enough to solve the social problems of Russia on a socialist basis; indeed, the united efforts of the proletariat of a few advanced countries of Europe would have sufficed for that; Lenin used to go so far as to say, compactly, that “Russia plus Germany equals socialism.” But since Germany and Western Europe in general were prevented from becoming the industrially-advanced “plus”, the Russian proletariat was left to its own resources. And they were not enough to provide a socialist solution.

The result was at first a sort of chaotic stagnation in Russia. Capitalism could not be restored; but neither could socialism be established. By stagnation we mean the condition where Russia could not go forward to socialism nor yet backward to capitalism By chaos we mean the consequent dissatisfaction, resentment, uncertainty, helplessness of all the traditional classes, the repeated but unavailing efforts of each to impose its historic program upon the other.

Such a situation is unendurable to society, especially in modern times when the simplest aspects of life are so intricately and extensively dependent upon the most complex aspects, and all of them are inescapably and often decisively influenced by state policy. When a social crisis develops, it must be resolved by radical means, in one sense or another, by one social force or another.

And where such a social force does not exist, society does not long brook the vacuum: it brings into being the social force that is capable of ending the social crisis in its own way.

The social force that brought the crisis of the Russian Revolution to an end (even though, in the very course of doing so, it sowed the seeds of another crisis of a different type) was the new Stalinist bureaucracy, which has ruled Russia for about a quarter of a century.

If the crisis in Russia had to be summed up in a single word, the best one that could probably be found would be: modernization. Russia could not be modernized on a capitalist basis and in a capitalist way for the good and simple reason that there was no capitalist class in existence to do that job. The reason why it could not be modernized in a socialist way and on a socialist basis has already been indicated – the enforced isolation of the revolution.

Russia was modernized nevertheless, and built into the second power in the world today, without going back to capitalism or going ahead to socialism. The new Stalinist bureaucracy developed into a new ruling class and the social regime it established become a new society of class exploitation and oppression.

Out of what has the new ruling class come? Out of remnants and segments of older classes: bureaucrats who had risen out of the working class or out of the peasantry without rising (or being able to rise) into the capitalist class; technical and professional personnel whose privileged position is imperilled by a revolutionary and therefore equalitarian working class but which at the same time cannot be assured by the capitalist class or its contemporary property relations. They constitute a distinctive ruling class in every important sense of the term.

They have a common mode of life that distinguishes them from the working classes; they constitute a basic element in the Stalinist mode of production, that is, they organize and maintain the process of production; they determine, as Marx would put it, the conditions of production; they are, as a distinctive social grouping, the first and the principal beneficiaries of the process of production since their social position enables them to determine the distribution of the surplus product with far fewer restraints than the ruling class suffers under capitalism; they are the exclusive owners of the full machinery of the state, which exists solely for the purpose of preserving their monopolistic social power; and since the state, under Stalinism, owns all the means of production and distribution, the Stalinist ruling class, by virtue of its exclusive possession of this state power, enjoys a general and super-concentrated social power over the population such as no ruling class has ever had in the last thousand years.

Socialists have often thought in terms of the need to centralize all the means of production and exchange into the state’s hands. They still think so and rightly. But they think of this centralization not for the sake of centralization, this nationalization not for the sake of nationalization, but because it puts into the hands of the new democratic regime the vast and mighty economic instrument which is indispensable to carrying out the task of fusing political democracy with economic democracy into the new concept of social democracy. The performance of that task is the next great step in mankind’s progress to emancipation.

But where all the economic power is centralized in the hands of the state, and the state is monopolized by a despotic self-perpetuating minority, it therewith acquires an unprecedented power of oppression and exploitation. This new ruler has no private property in the sense of the capitalist, the feudal lord or the slave-owner. His “private property” exists in a new form – the state. He owns it collectively, along with the other privileged members of his social grouping. But because it places in his hands all the economic as well as the political power in the country, at one and the some time, and because he is forced to direct this power against the masses, against their interests, and against their aspirations – otherwise his privileges would not last one minute – we have, not socialism and not even a “socialist type of state”, but, as we call it, totalitarian or bureaucratic collectivism, a regime of modern barbarism, modern slavery, permanent police terror and super-exploitation, the regime of the permanent denial of all democratic rights and institutions to the masses, a regime in which all political and economic rights are openly and exclusively in the hands of the ruling class, which is the distinctive hallmark of Stalinism.

This new social force reduced a great nation – and more than one nation – to slavery; its destruction and waste of productive forces, of the precious creative forces of society, have been colossal and not one whit less than capitalism in its worst abominations; it represents a social order which is in a state of permanent crisis; and, as the most relentless, conscious, consistent, thoroughgoing represser of the working class and revolutionary movements, it constitutes the mightiest and most effective force for reaction in the world today.

All this is true and true twice over. But it should not blind us to the fact that Stalinism rose to solve a social crisis, in its own way, which other existing social forces could not or would not solve in the way that is appropriate to them.

This basic interpretation of its character is corroborated by the development of Stalinism outside of Russia. The cause was the isolation of the Russian Revolution; the effect was the victory of Stalinism. But effect in turn becomes a cause, and this has certainly been the case with Stalinism.

Its victory has weakened world capitalism, but at the same time it has brought such demoralization and disorientation and paralysis into the working-class movement all over the world as to weaken and undermine its socialist struggle against capitalism.

The power of Stalinism has consequently been extended beyond anything that anyone may have dreamed twenty-five years ago. And wherever this has happened, the tell-tale relationship between capitalism and Stalinism has been revealed again and underlined again.

Most revealing and emphatic in recent times has been the development in China.

There are now all sorts of confusionists, romanticists and even theoreticians who argue that the Chinese Stalinists are not really Stalinists, that they really did carry out a sort of socialist and democratic revolution, and that in any case they are developing away from “typical Stalinism” and toward genuine socialism. The truth is that the Chinese Stalinists are, if anything, the most chemically pure example of the basic social type, and not at all a welcome deviation from it.

Mao, Chou and Co. did not even pretend to be a proletarian socialist party, as Stalin and Co. did. Mao’s movement did not even arise out of the industrial – that is, the proletarian – centres of China. The working class never played any role, either in Mao’s party or in Mao’s military exploits against Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. While the Stalinists were making their successful march southward to complete victory over China, there was not a single industrial centre where the working class rose in revolution to “supplement” Mao’s triumph.

The Chinese Stalinists – unlike the Russian or, let us say, the Czech Stalinists – at no time really based themselves on working-class organizations, and the “trade unions” they now have are as worthy of that name as are the speed-up machines that go by that name in Russia or the late Hitlerite Labour Front. The Stalinists won their domination of China without the working class of that country, against that working class and behind its back. A fine “socialist” revolution! A fine socialism that will lead to!

As for the other point of the confusionists, who are little more than independent apologists for Stalinism, they forget that if the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy rose as the police-oppressor of the nation because of the economic backwardness of the country (as they say, and rightly), how can they expect the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy to develop as anything but a trebly-brutal police-oppressor of a nation that suffers from twenty times the economic backwardness of Russia?

But the fact of the matter here is that the Stalinists did triumph in China and thereby opened up a new page of cardinal importance in world politics.

A proletarian socialist movement did not exist in China, except in the form of tiny, uninfluential groups (whose existence the Stalinists have been cutting down with the same animal savagery displayed by the GPU) which were not in a position to provide a democratic and socialist solution to the problems of China.

The bourgeoisie? Both the Chinese and the international bourgeoisie proved incapable of solving the Chinese problems on a capitalist or imperialist basis. They supported the arch-corrupt, arch-impotent regime of Chiang Kai-shek. What other regime was there for them to support or even to encourage? (People who refuse to learn that capitalism and capitalist imperialism are in their death agony are still looking for another alternative to Chiang whom the Chinese or at least the American bourgeoisie can support. They will for sure wear themselves to death without finding one.)

The Stalinists triumphed in China not because the Russian army intervened to put them in power, and not because Chiang was “betrayed” by Roosevelt, Truman, Acheson, Marshall or anyone else, but because they filled the vacuum created by the inability of capitalism to solve the protracted crisis in China and the absence of a working-class movement armed with a socialist programme for solving the crisis.

It should be clearer now why the professional supporters of capitalism are incapable of analysing and understanding Stalinism. Such an understanding implies a thoroughgoing indictment of capitalism which is unacceptable to those who are wedded economically or intellectually to this moribund social order.

Such an understanding implies that the fight against Stalinism is not a fight against socialism in any sense of the word, since Stalinism is one of the cruellest punishments that could be visited upon a people that has failed to fight for socialism.

Such an understanding implies that precisely because Stalinism has expanded its power over the world the fight against it must be redoubled; but that the fight against it cannot be conducted in alliance with – let alone in support of – the very capitalist order whose decay produces it.

It implies that the fight against Stalinism can be effective and consonant with the interests of progressing mankind only if it is at the same time a fight against capitalism.

It is only in this sense that both the durability and the nature of Stalinism will eventually receive its final determination. And in this sense – it is the only fundamental one – the race is not between capitalism and Stalinism, as seems so overwhelmingly to be the case at the moment. If it is understood that Stalinism has risen because of the failure of socialism to replace the dying capitalist order, the real race is for the society that is to succeed capitalism: the fall into a new barbarism which Stalinism stands for, or the rise to socialist freedom.

In that race, the real one of our epoch, our basic confidence has never been changed: not all those who are repelled by Stalinism are passing into the camp of capitalism; not all those who turn away from capitalism become the victims of Stalinism.

In hundreds of ways, obscure to the superficial eye, unseen by the panic-stricken and the fatalistically resigned, but evident to those who always seek to probe beneath the surface of events, the idea of independence from capitalism as well as from Stalinism and of struggle against both, asserts itself among the toiling masses, those natural bearers of democracy and socialism.

To make this idea the conscious, directly-expressed and deliberately-acted-upon program of the masses, is the only worthwhile task of socialism and the advanced section of the labour movement today.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 24 April 2019