Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Stalin and Historical Reality

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 8, January-February 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Class Struggles in the USSR. Second Period: 1923-30, Charles Bettelheim (Monthly Review Press, 1978).

* * *

This review attempts to forcefully present some of the political issues raised by Bettelheim’s new book. It is neither intended as an exhaustive treatment of these issues nor as an overall review of Bettelheim’s volume. Those interested in the full importance of the book and for further details on the issues discussed in this review should study the work in its entirety.

Reliance on Stalin in defense of revolutionary Marxism is one of the pillars of the new communist movement. His picture appears everywhere in its publications, his works are quoted endlessly, he even has had organizations named after him (Youth for Stalin, Stalinist Workers’ Group). His name is linked with those of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. Yet in this article we intend to show that this reliance is based on myth, for the understanding of Stalin and his role by the majority of the new communist movement does not correspond to historical actuality. Volume two of Charles Bettelheim’s Class Struggle in the USSR only covers the period from 1923 to 1930, but it contains enough history and analysis for us to begin to dismantle the Stalin myth.

This article attempts to use Bettelheim’s work not merely to examine Soviet history, but to draw from it the necessary political lessons for the contemporary communist movement.

What functions has the Stalin myth served in our movement? Briefly speaking, we can identify four areas:

1) It has served to explain and interpret Soviet history.
2) It has served as a critique of Trotskyism.
3) It has served to uphold the revolutionary tradition in the world and in the US communist movement.
4) It has served in the struggle to defend Marxist-Leninist theoretical principles and to combat revisionism.

Leaving aside the fourth area for a separate article, let us examine the other three in some detail. We will address the elements of the Stalin myth and the reality of history, relying heavily for the latter on Bettelheim’s second volume on Soviet history between 1923 and 1930. Again, Bettelheim presents basically a theoretical-historical approach while we are attempting to draw certain political lessons from that history.

Another caution: Bettelheim understands class struggle in the party as taking the form of two-line struggles. For the period 1923-30.if Stalin was the leading spokesperson for one line, while Bukharin was the leading spokesperson for another. Throughout this review we speak of Stalin and Bukharin and their respective “lines”, as Bettelheim presents them. By this we do not mean to reduce Soviet history to a struggle between individuals. Rather we speak of them as representatives of definite class forces and definite trends within Marxism-Leninism.

Understanding Soviet History

The Stalin myth tells us that Stalin and the cadre around him continued, further developed, and implemented Lenin’s legacy of building socialism in the USSR, and defended it against “left” and “right” deviations.

This assertion must be examined in terms of the major two line struggles within the Soviet state and party after Lenin’s death.

NEP and the Worker-Peasant Alliance

The most important, indeed the decisive factor for Soviet socialism in Lenin’s opinion was the worker-peasant alliance as embodied in the New Economic Policy (NEP). Lenin conceived of the NEP not as a “retreat” from war communism, or some temporary measure, but as the heart of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an active alliance between workers and peasants necessary, in his own words, “for the final establishment and consolidation of socialism.”[1]

Lenin saw the key to the consolidation of socialism in the USSR as the policy of the party and the working class toward the peasantry, the vast majority of the Soviet population. This could only be a policy of trust and reliance coupled with ideological and cultural struggle, the dissemination of Marxism-Leninism and the spread of the party in the countryside. This lesson of Lenin that the peasantry had to be trusted and won over to socialism and the proletarian dictatorship found its clearest echo in the efforts of Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party of China.

After Lenin’s death, one line in the Bolshevik party, led by Bukharin, continued to uphold the NEP, arguing that it was essential to socialist construction, to soviet democracy, and for the harmonious development of all branches of the economy. It called for a strengthening of the worker-peasant alliance as necessary for a strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat and for winning the masses to communism.

The line represented by Stalin, on the contrary, began to downplay the importance of the worker-peasant alliance, saw the construction of socialism primarily as a result of the smooth functioning of economic and administrative apparatuses and on the external compulsion of the peasants to adopt collective forms of production. This was a conception “radically alien” to Lenin’s as Bettelheim notes.[2]

On this fundamental question of socialist transition, Bettelheim shows, Stalin represented those forces in Soviet society that deviated significantly from the Leninist policy of the worker-peasant alliance, a policy which was completely abandoned by 1930 with the victory of the Stalin line.

Economic Development

The question of the worker-peasant alliance was closely bound up with the question of the economic development of industry and agriculture. The basis of the NEP was the recognition that the different branches of industry had to develop harmoniously in relation to one another, that industry could only develop together with the growth of agriculture. To emphasize the growth of industry at the expense of agriculture, would not only cause great economic hardship, but would also seriously threaten the worker-peasant alliance.

Bukharin repeatedly defended the Leninist line on economic development. Bettelheim says this of Bukharin’s 1928 article “Notes of an Economist”:

the article had the merit that it stressed...the necessity of not attacking the standard of living of the masses; of respecting certain objective relations between consumption and accumulation, between industry and agriculture, and between heavy and light industry; and of not setting targets which failed to correspond to the material and human resources available...[3]

Stalin’s conception of economic development on the other hand “ignored the need to respect certain ratios between the development of the different branches of the economy”.[4] It was based on a one-sided emphasis on heavy industry and by a narrow technicist emphasis which saw economic struggle not as between capitalist and socialist relations of production but between old and new technology.

Stalin’s line, which won out, seriously unbalanced the Soviet economy, reduced the standard of living of the masses for many years after the abandonment of the NEP, seriously weakened the worker-peasant alliance, and subordinated the class struggle and production relations to the needs of technology and labor discipline.

Superstructure, State and Party

To these struggles over the future of the worker-peasant alliance, and the Soviet economic development corresponded other struggles, over the place and importance of the superstructure, the state and the party.

For Bukharin, political, ideological and cultural struggle were decisive for the forward motion of Soviet society. Bukharin and his supporters repeatedly criticised the unchecked growth of the state machinery and the bureaucratic apparatuses of state institutions, as detrimental to the Soviets and democracy. “The stress laid on Soviet democracy, on the role of the masses, and on organizing the supervision that the masses should exercise over the various apparatuses, corresponded to a long standing preoccupation of Bukharin’s.”[5]

Equally, Bukharin criticised the growth in the party of bureaucracy and the steady erosion of freedom of discussion and critical thinking, which accompanied Stalin’s consolidation of his hold on the party apparatus. “For Bukharin there was a connection between the tendency to give up critical thought and what he saw as the gradual disappearance of collective leadership in the CC, in favor of the growing concentration of authority in the hands of one man.”[6]

The line and more importantly the practice of the Stalin leadership was one of applying organizational and administrative measures to an increasing degree, and of the expansion of the state apparatus, as replacement for the activity of the masses themselves. In the party this phenomenon took the form of a campaign for “iron discipline” and “monolithic unity”. Bettelheim explains the inevitable results of these notions:

If the “monolithic principle” is carried to its logical conclusions, the Party deprives itself of the means of uniting the broad masses, because it is led to reject, in practice, the principle of democratic centralism. This latter principle presupposes, indeed, that different ideas can be centralized after being examined and critically discussed.[7]

Taken together these three two-line struggles, over NEP and the worker-peasant alliance, over economic development, and the superstructure, state and party, enable us to better grasp the contradictions present in Soviet society in the late 1920’s. One line, representing the advanced elements in the working class and party cadre, sought to continue and extend the worker-peasant alliance, to conduct political and ideological struggle while building the economy, and to win the peasants and backwards sections of the working class to communism through patient struggle.

The other line, representing key sections of the state bureaucracy, economic directors and managers, party and state functionaries and whose spokesman was Stalin, sought to rapidly develop the economy, most importantly heavy industry, at the expense of the masses, and primarily through the strengthening of state and economic apparatuses and the extraction of a “tribute” from the peasantry.

Bukharin’s line and the forces represented were largely defeated by the year 1930. They failed to put forward a concrete plan for bringing the NEP forward into.the new conditions of Soviet life and often merely repeated what Lenin had said in the early 1920’s, defending it in a general way. Thus they tended to simply critique the line of the Stalin group, without presenting a real alternative for the party. More fundamentally, Bukharin had not really broken with the economist perspective nor was he willing to conduct sharp struggle in the party and raise the issues among the masses. Preferring to remain silent and maintain their positions the Bukharin forces failed to go against the tide. This contributed to their isolation and helped the Stalin forces defeat them.

Bettelheim demonstrates that, in the debate over socialist development, which commenced with Lenin’s death and became increasingly sharp in the late 1920’s, Stalin and the forces he represented increasingly departed from the Leninist thesis that the NEP was the road to socialist construction and replaced it with a policy of heavy industrialization and the extraction of a tribute from the peasantry.

Needless to say, this historical reality is not to be found in the History of the CPSU(B), that infamous work of apologetics, written under Stalin’s direction in 1939. Nor is it to be found elsewhere in the writings of American communists on this period. Until Bettelheim, the Stalin myth served to hide the truth of these years behind a mask of platitudes and abuse. But it will be asked, what about the years 1924-1927, didn’t Stalin lead the party successfully against the Trotskyists? Wasn’t Stalin’s great contribution his refutation and defeat of the Trotskyite opposition to Leninism?

On the Struggle “Against” Trotskyism

There can be no question that Stalin together with Bukharin and the great majority of the Bolshevik party leadership struggled against Trotskyism in the period immediately following Lenin’s death. This was done largely by defending, in the years 1924-26, the legacy of Lenin, the policy of the NLP and the consolidation of the worker-peasant alliance, in this struggle Stalin played a prominent and important role.

The Stalin myth has for a long time played up this role, only to grow silent about the content of Trotskyist theories of Soviet development and Stalin’s relation to them in the next period, from 1926-1930. It is this period which we want to now examine as it related to the question of Trotskyism and Stalin.

“Primitive Socialist Accumulation”

The Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution, in opposition to Leninism, viewed NEP as a temporary retreat, it denied the long term significance of the worker-peasant alliance, and insisted, in the early 1920’s that the only correct economic policy was rapid industrialization. When faced with the problem of how to finance this industrialization, the Trotskyists replied that the “capital” had to come from one source–agriculture and the peasantry.

This thesis on the extraction of capital from the peasantry to finance industrialization was labeled as “primitive socialist accumulation” by the Trotskyist economist Preobrazhinsky, after the mechanism by which capitalism itself accumulated in its early period.

In the early 1920’s Stalin strongly denounced this thesis as constituting a grave threat to the working class’ link to the peasantry. By 1928, however, with the Trotskyist threat no longer present, Stalin took up the theme himself, by putting forward the demand that the peasants pay a “tribute” to finance industrialization. This theory of exacting “a tribute” from the peasants, Bettelheim observes, “was basically, only another version of the theory of ’primitive socialist accumulation’”.[8]

In fact the policy of heavy industrialization and the forced collectivization of agriculture begun in 1929 was the implementation of this policy, with all the grave consequences the party had warned about when it had combatted this policy as put forth by the Trotskyists after Lenin’s death.

Distrust of the Peasantry

This policy of extracting “tribute” from the countryside was inseparably bound up with a general attitude of distrust toward the peasants on the part of sections of the party and state, an attitude which threatened the worker-peasant alliance. In the early 1920’s this distrust was expressed most clearly by the Trotskyites. Formally the party, Stalin included, repudiated their views, but such ideas never really disappeared.

Bukharin and others, including Krupskaya, Rykov and Tomsky, recalled Lenin’s insistence that the working class had to always strive to help the peasants to go over to cooperatives and communes without threat of coercion. Bettelheim writes: As Bukharin saw it, the future of the revolution depended on a firm and trusting alliance with the peasantry, and it was essential for the party to seek to strengthen this alliance through organizational and cultural work that took account of the peasantsí interests. He warned against the idea of a “third resolution” which would impose collective forms of production from above.[9]

Stalin, on the contrary, as early as 1926 was expressing his distrust of the peasantry as a reliable ally of the proletariat. He counterposed reliance on the peasants with reliance on the West European proletariat, should a revolutionary crisis develop there. This theme became increasingly popular after the world capitalist depression of 1929 began. In this way essentially Trotskyist theses, repudiated in 1924-26 re-emerged as dominant themes in the party under Stalin in 1929-30.

Economist Problematic

The basis of their common economic policies (“primitive socialist accumulation”) and distrust of the peasantry was that Stalin and Trotsky shared something even more fundamental. Both Stalin and Trotsky were caught up in an economist caricature of Marxism, which Bettelheim calls the “economist problematic”. It is this common denominator which most sharply points up the inability of Stalin’s work and his line to stand up as an adequate critique of Trotskyism.

Bettelheim defines economism as the view that the development of the productive forces, not the class struggle, is the driving force in history. Economism enabled Stalin in the 1930’s to insist that socialism had been built in the USSR by 1936 because it had attained a certain level of development in industry and production. His writings in the thirties reflect this idea that the heart of the class struggle in the USSR was the struggle to lay a material basis for socialism, rather than a campaign for new relations of production, new political and new ideological relations. Trotsky, on the other hand, starting from the same economist premises, arrived at opposite conclusion in his The Revolution Betrayed, reasoning that the USSR could not be socialist due to the low level of development of its productive forces. Opposite conclusions, but a common starting point and methodology–economism.

Can Trotskyism be combatted from fundamentally similar premises? The answer to this question is given by merely posing it. The Stalin myth has never served as an effective theoretical critique of Trotskyism because it is the substitution of one theoretical failing for a similar one, the substitution of one myth for another. The US communist movement’s reliance on this myth has backed us into a corner with no way out: a situation which can only be remedied by breaking out of the economist straight-jacket and starting from revolutionary Marxist premises to examine the genuine Leninist trends within the Bolshevik party in the 1920’s.

Stalin and the World Communist Movement

The period 1928-30 saw a dramatic turn not only in the internal policy of the Soviet Union, but an equally dramatic change in the line of the world communist movement, the Communist International. This change, like the other was accompanied by sharp struggle and numerous contradictions. A pivotal center for this struggle was the Soviet party leadership, which was the moving force in the leadership of the Communist International. Naturally then, the struggle within the Soviet delegation to the sixth congress of the Communist International, in 1928, the decisive moment of this turn in Comintern tactics, is particularly important.

In this struggle, as in the one over the direction of development of the USSR, Bukharin, as head of the Comintern, represented the continuation of the Leninist line on the international communist, movement, while Stalin represented forces deviating significantly from Leninism.

The difference between the two lines appeared on a number of questions: the developing economic crisis of world capitalism, the characterization of the social democratic parties, the communist tactics in the trade union movement. The Stalin myth tells us that he led the struggle in the world communist movement against: the “right” danger, against those who were unable to advance the communist movement in new conditions of capitalist crisis.

The Stalin view that the Western European proletariat was facing a revolutionary situation and the clear possibility of seizing state power was not, Bettelheim argues, purely accidental. Rather he suggests, it corresponded to a real need. The Stalin forces, preparing as they were to end NEP and to turn from trusting the peasants to financing industry at their expense, saw the need for a new ally for the Soviet working class to rely upon. Such an ally, they thought, could be found in the European proletariat, particularly if it could gain state power. The need for this ally, Bettelheim says, was the basis for Soviet insistence on the new line in the Communist International.

Bukharin strongly resisted this assessment and these tactics. Bettelheim declares:

for Bukharin, the development of an economic crisis in the advanced capitalist countries would not lead directly to a prospect of revolution. He thought that the metropolitan centers of imperialism would not experience internal collapse in the years ahead, and that the center of gravity of the world revolution lay in the countries of the East.[10]

Corresponding to this accurate assessment of the prospects of world revolution, Bukharin continued to uphold the Leninist policy of the united front, denounced the sectarian isolation line of the Stalin forces, and opposed the characterization of the social democrats as “social fascists”. In spite of this, the victory of the Stalin group in the Soviet party led to Bukharin’s removal from the Comintern and the defeat of his line, with disastrous consequences.

Stalin and American Communism

Bettelheim warns us against a mechanical view of the relation between the Bolshevik Party and the rest of the world communist movement. This view, that the history of the Comintern can be understood simply as the dictation of the policy by Stalin to the parties, is found, for example, in Claudin’s Comintern to Cominform. If parties followed the line put forward by the Soviet party, Bettelheim insists, the reasons for this must be sought in a number of factors: the social practice of these parties, their internal situation, their ability to generate criticism and self-criticism, etc.[11]

Bettelheim does not make such an analysis of the CPUSA in his volume or why it faithfully followed every turn in the Soviet line, including the change in 1929. Nonetheless, the entirety of his analyses suggest some tentative comments.

The tremendous prestige of Stalin and his personal intervention in the affairs of the Communist Party, USA has, from the beginning, effectively prevented any reassessment of this episode. Two factors, one specific and one general, have also contributed to block such a reassessment. The first is the long and notorious role of Jay Lovestone as a professional anti-communist for the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. The second is the tradition that developed under Stalin of reading the errors or deviations of one period backwards into previous periods. In this case, it was always assumed that, since Lovestone later turned into an anti-communist, therefore he must have been wrong in 1929.

This reading of errors backwards into time is alien to Marxism-Leninism. It judges individuals not on the basis of their actual position and line in a definite conjuncture, but on the basis of some idealist conception of a faulty human essence. Under Stalin, for example, Bukharin, who had previously been recognized as the leading theoretician of the Communist International and a leading figure in the CPSU, disappeared from the history books. Since he was in essence an enemy of communism, as “proved” in 1938, he must have only hidden this essence in previous periods. All his earlier life, however, could then only be understood as the unfolding of that hid den essence.

Lenin himself, it must be remembered, always opposed this approach to treating political opponents. Although Plekanov had for a long time been* a Menshevik, and was a violent foe of the Bolsheviks and the October revolution, Lenin never hesitated to correctly evaluate Plekanov’s role in the early period of Russian social democracy and to highly recommend Plekanov’s works written in that period. Unfortunately, this Leninist tradition was abandoned all too soon after his death.

In the case of the Communist Party, USA in the 1928-29 period, a two line struggle which had a long and bitter history was coming to an end, in the context of the sharpening struggle internationally within the Comintern.

In addition to the international questions of the character of the economic crisis, the issue of the “social fascist” character of social democracy, and the line on the trade union question, at stake in this struggle was another issue of fundamental importance for the future of Communism in the USA. To be decided was the question: was American communism going to develop on the basis of its own analysis of the specific features of American capitalism and its corresponding class struggle, or was it going to be locked into the mechanical repetition of general formulas produced elsewhere?

One line, the party majority, was lead by Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow and Bertram Wolfe. The other, the minority, was led by Foster, Cannon (the father of American Trotskyism) and Browder among others.

That the struggle in the Soviet party and within the Comintern leadership would spill over into the world parties, including the Communist Party, USA was unavoidable. The victory of Stalin intensified the struggle that was already going on in the communist movement as a result of his efforts against what was called “the right danger”. In the CPUSA the party majority had already been labeled as “rightists” by the minority and Stalin personally intervened in the struggle within the CPUSA in three speeches when the matter was taken before the Executive Committee of the Comintern in Moscow in 1929.

In his speeches, Stalin polemicized against the majority’s views, which he characterized as “American exceptionalism” and which he described as the notion that the USA was somehow exempt from the developing world capitalist crisis, or even of the general laws of capitalism itself. The Stalin myth tells us that these speeches were brilliant interventions, decisive in the defeat of American opportunism and in setting the CPUSA on a correct revolutionary road.

The myth notwithstanding, the polemics against “American exceptionalism” had a very different objective. At issue was not the belief by the Lovestone forces that America was immune from the laws of capitalism, but their refusal to wholeheartedly embrace the ultra left line of Stalin in the Comintern, based on their Independent analysis of the reality of US capitalism, the recognition that America was not on the eve of revolutionary upheaval and the knowledge that sectarian practices would not build the party.

This was the real threat posed by the majority group’s leadership to the new line in the Communist International of which Stalin was spokesman. By formulating the issue as “American exceptionalism”, Stalin and his supporters insisted that the sole function of American communists was to repeat the general laws of world capitalism and the corresponding communist tactics as set forth by the Comintern executive. By definition, US capitalism could be fully understood by knowing these general laws; any attempt to go beyond the general to the specifics of US capitalism was to be viewed with suspicion, as “American exceptionalism”.

In many respects 1929 was a turning point in the history of the CPUSA. It ended the endemic factionalism in the party, it saw the beginning of the great depression which created the conditions for a mass communist movement, and it was the beginnings of the party’s practice of the “Black Nation” line. An assessment of the campaign against “American exceptionalism” and the extent to which this campaign and its memory continued to serve as a block to creative and independent theoretical work by American communists remains to be made.


In turn we have looked at the myth and the reality of Stalin’s role: in Soviet history until 1930, in the struggle “against Trotskyism”, in the context of the world and the US communist movements, all in the light of Charles Bettelheim’s new book.

At the end of each section, we attempted to summarize our conclusions. Here we want to put forward some more general theses.

1) The theory and practice of Stalin and those forces which rallied around him represented a basic departure from Marxism-Leninism:
–in its understanding of the class struggle and the transition to communism, in which it gave primacy to the development of productive forces while incorrectly appreciating the role of relations of production, political and ideological struggle.
–in its understanding of the political and ideological struggle of the party and the working class for which it attempted to substitute administrative and bureaucratic structures imposed from above.
–in its understanding of the role of the party which it subordinated to the state apparatus and its repressive agencies; and its understanding of democratic centralism, “a one sided stress on unity and centralism”.
–in its understanding of the theory and practice of the communist parties of the world in which it replaced the concrete analysis of each party of its concrete conjuncture and tasks with the mechanical repetition of general theses and tactics.

2) The myth of Stalin has functioned in the US communist movement, in particular in the new communist movement, to block its theoretical and historical understanding:
–it has mystified Soviet history, the history of the world and the US communist movement; blocking all efforts to critically examine the reality of that history.
–it has locked us into a theoretical-political line which not only was inadequate for the struggle against Trotskyism and other hostile currents within Marxism, but which in fact reproduced many of the elements of these currents.
–it has locked us into the economist problematic, the theoretical system which has dominated world communism since the 1930’s and which by failing to grasp class struggle as the key link, has impoverished and deformed all our theory and practice.

3) The dissolution of the Stalin myth, its caricature of history and the economist deviation from Marxism-Leninism and the constitution in its place of a revolutionary Marxist theoretical problematic with its corresponding critical examination of our communist history and the lessons of class struggles in the USSR is an essential task of our movement if we are to lay a solid foundation for a genuine communist party.


[1] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR. Second Period: 1923-1930. Monthly Review, 1978, p. 23.

[2] Ibid., ppS. 589-94

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid., p. 413.

[5] Ibid., p. 423-34.

[6] Ibid., p. 424.

[7] Ibid., p. 540.

[8] Ibid. p. 401, 506-07.

[9] Ibid., p. 420.

[10] Ibid., p. 404.

[11] Ibid., p. 20.