Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Paul Costello

Stalin and the Problems of Theory

First Published: Theoretical Review No. 9, March-April 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR. Second Period: 1923-30. (Monthly Review, 1978).

* * *

In the last issue of the Theoretical Review we examined volume two of Charles Bettelheim’s history of the USSR in terms of its treatment of Stalin’s historical role. In this issue, we will look at the need felt by the new communist movement to defend Stalin’s ideological legacy and at Bettelheim’s critique of the Marxism of the Stalin era.

Critique of Revisionism, Defense of Orthodoxy

As is well known, the new communist movement in the USA, and internationally, arose as a reaction to and in struggle against modern revisionism. It was clear to these early anti-revisionist communists that revisionism was growing and defining itself as a critique of the previously prevailing Marxism, the Marxism of the Stalin period. Did not Khruschev launch his revisionist offensive with a scathing denunciation of Stalin and his work?

Indeed the revisionists openly proclaimed their break with the Stalinian past and anti-revisionists took them at their word. The first reaction of the anti-revisionist movement was to take up the banner of Stalinian orthodoxy which the revisionists had abandoned. The defense of Stalin, or at least a view of Stalin different from the blanket condemnation characteristic of Khruschev’s secret speech, came to be seen by anti-revisionist communists as essential to their struggle.

Internationally, the tone for this campaign was set by the Communist Parties of China and Albania. In its polemics with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China published a letter “On the Question of Stalin”, which defended him against Khruschev’s attacks; while from 1961 on the Albanian Party of Labor vigorously defended Stalin’s legacy.

Fairly typical of this campaign is the following quote from the Albanian Central Committee organ Zeri i Popullit of 12-21-61:

As much now as during his lifetime, Stalin’s theoretical work is of very great importance to the development and victory of the international communist movement and the cause of socialism throughout the world. It has armed and continues to arm all communists with sound Marxist-Leninist principles...(emphasis added)[1]

American anti-revisionists didn’t wait until 1961 to voice their own concern about the anti-Stalin campaign. In April-May 1956, almost immediately after Khruschev’s secret speech against Stalin, the New York Communist League, an organization which traced its roots back to the struggles in the CPUSA in the 1946-48 period, came to Stalin’s defense.

In an article titled “Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Khruschev (In Defense of Stalin)” they wrote:

We have to do today what Lenin had to do. We have to dig up Marxism and gather together a solid corps of comrades who...will decide to create a Communist Party in its original spirit, the spirit that moved Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Because the distortion of Stalinism is a cover-up for the distortion of Marxism-Leninism, let us say without hesitancy that our campaign operates under the unpopular slogan: IN DEFENSE OF STALIN.[2]

While the New York Communist League was ahead of many anti-revisionists in this respect, by 1961-62, under the impact of the Albanian and Chinese polemics, other groups followed suit. The Provisional Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party (POC)[3], which began by defending khruschev, switched its position in the early sixties.

Progressive Labor’s “Road to Revolution I” in 1963 presented a defense of certain of Stalin’s accomplishments in its critique of Soviet revisionism while the Revolutionary Union did the same in their article “Against the Brainwash” in Red Papers 1. Thereafter, the more stridently the Chinese and the Albanians took up the defense of Stalin, the more their line was echoed in US anti-revisionist publications.

This defense of Stalin was seen by its proponents not simply as a moral or historical obligation, but as a cornerstone of the necessary struggle against revisionism.

Regrettably, such an assessment – that revisionism can be combatted by means of a defense of the orthodoxy which revisionism attacks – is false. Bettelheim makes this point by quoting the French communist G. Madjarian: The fight against ’revisionism’ cannot be waged by conserving, or rather, by merely re-appropriating, Marxism as it existed historically in the previous period. Far from being the signal for a return to the supposed orthodoxy of the preceding epoch, the appearance of a ’revisionism’ is a symptom of the need for Marxism to criticize itself.[4]

It is necessary to examine this analysis which Bettelheim develops in some detail.

The Sources of Revisionism and the Struggles Against It

Premise #1: Revisionism develops within Marxism as a result of a crisis in Marxism

History does not stand still; class struggles, developments in economics, politics, ideology and the sciences proceed, whether Marxism keeps pace with them or not. When Marxist theory does not keep pace with these developments – when the practice of Marxism no longer corresponds to the needs, old and new, of the working class and its allies created by these developments – then a crisis develops within Marxism.

Three alternatives present themselves as possible “solutions” to the crisis. One “solution” is to continue practicing the existing Marxism. But this is really no solution at all to the crisis. Efforts may delay its explosion, but they cannot prevent it.

Another “solution” which presents itself is revisionism, a parody of Marxism, which seeks to “solve” the crisis by bringing the Marxism “up to date” through the introduction into it of notions, ideas and practices of bourgeois origin at the expense of the Marxist science. This, too, is no solution, as it leads not to the strengthening of Marxism, but to its negation.

A third solution is possible, a Marxist solution, but different than the Marxism in crisis. It is a solution which calls for, in Bettelheim’s words, “the appearance of a Marxism of the new epoch” which will both criticize the Marxism in crisis and go into battle against revisionism. But communists can consciously struggle for this new Marxism only when the very character of Marxism is itself understood.

Premise #2: Marxism as it historically develops, that is the Marxism of any epoch, is not homogeneous, but consists of three distinct but inter-related elements.

Bettelheim argues that Marxism is historically constituted in each epoch and in different countries on the basis of the character and extent of the fusion between the scientific theory of Marxism-Leninism and the organized movement of the vanguard of the proletariat.[5] He writes:

Marxism constituted in this way signifies a systematized set of ideas and practices which enable the revolutionary working class movement claiming to be Marxist to deal, in the concrete conditions in which it finds itself, with the problems it has to confront.[6]

The three elements which go into the creation of this Marxism are 1) what Bettelheim calls “revolutionary Marxism”, or Marxist scientific thought; 2) ideological currents alien to Marxism; and 3) Marxist ideology, the ideology which guides the revolutionary workers’ movement and which has a scientific basis. The character of the Marxism of any particular epoch can be judged by knowing the relation among these elements and determining which element is primary.

All of these elements of necessity are to be found within Marxism. The science must exist to give Marxism its consciously revolutionary basis, the basis to distinguish Marxism from bourgeois ideological systems, and the basis from which practice can be guided with precision and foresight. As Bettelheim notes:

Empirical knowledge can orient action in a general way, but only scientific knowledge can give it precise guidance, enabling it actually to achieve Its aim, because such knowledge makes possible analysis, foresight and action with full awareness of what is involved.[7]

Yet the science is never complete, it always must be developed, expanded and rectified. And its presence in Marxism as historically constituted is always problematical, It varies from epoch to epoch in terms of the scientific principles which are incorporated and their relation to the other elements (a relationship of either dominance or subordination).

The presence of ideological currents alien to Marxism is also inevitably to be found within Marxism. Marxism arose and developed under capitalism and it cannot be immune from the bourgeois ideology which surrounds and penetrates it. As long as capitalist social relations and their corresponding ideologies exist and reproduce themselves, they will make their presence felt within Marxism.

The third element, Marxist ideology, is distinct from the others but is, at the same time, the product of them. The thinking of the working class is its ideology, the communist struggle is to win the working class to adopt the ideology of Marxism-Leninism “because it corresponds to the place occupied by the working class in production relations” and because it will enable the working class to organize and transform itself for the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

Therefore, in addition to the class struggle between workers and capital and the struggles to win the working class to Marxism, another class struggle is going on. The site of this other class struggle is Marxist ideology, Marxism as historically constituted. The struggle is between the principles of scientific theory and the notions of hostile bourgeois ideology. At stake is the ideology which communists are using to guide and win over the working class: will it be revolutionary and liberating or will it become another form of bourgeois ideological domination.

Contrary to the idealist conceptions of the history of Marxism which see it as passing in each epoch from a lower level of theoretical sophistication to a higher one, Bettelheim presents the relationship between Marxist theory and Marxist ideology in a different light. He writes:

Marxism as historically constituted in each epoch experiences not only theoretical enrichment...but also impoverishment, through the fading, obscuring, or covering up, to a greater or less degree, of some of the principles or ideas of revolutionary Marxism.[8]

The Marxism of each epoch must then be evaluated not only in terms of the dominance of Marxist scientific principles, but also the degree these principles are acting to transform, advance and deepen the revolutionary content of Marxist ideology, and combat and eliminate bourgeois ideological currents within it.

The Marxism of the Stalin Period

Turning to the history of the Bolshevik Party, Bettelheim attempts to apply this analysis to determining the character of the Marxism of the Stalin period.

“During the first half of the 1920’s,” he writes, “the principle formulations issued by the Party leaders, and embodied in the resolutions adopted at the time, either reaffirmed the essential theses of revolutionary Marxism or else constituted a certain deepening of basic Marxist positions.”[9]

But later, after 1925-26, the changes brought about by the struggle in the Bolshevik Party and in Soviet society culminated in the victory of the Stalin group. This victory was accomplished through the defeat of the anti-Leninist, Trotskyist opposition and the remnants of the Leninist wing in the Party, led by Bukharin. Bettelheim characterizes this victory as “the reinforcement of ideological elements that were alien to revolutionary Marxism.”[10] Consequently, this later Marxism, the Marxism of the Stalin epoch, which dominated the world communist movement for decades, was a Marxism in crisis. When the crisis exploded in the mid 1950’s, the product of this explosion was modern revisionism.

The character of this crisis was two-fold: not only was it a problem of a Marxist ideology dominated by elements hostile to revolutionary Marxism, it was also a problem of revolutionary Marxism, Marxism as a living science, having ceased to exist. Bettelheim goes to considerable length to demonstrate the accuracy of this assessment.

The anti-revisionists failed to grasp the nature of the Marxism of the Stalin period, its character and its crisis. For them the crisis of modern revisionism was caused by factors largely external to Marxism, not organic to it. For them the defense of Stalin is a defense of essential revolutionary principles. The accurate characterization of the Marxism of the Stalin period is, therefore, essential for a correct orientation of the anti-revisionist movement, for a positive solution to the crisis of Marxism.

Economism and Mechanical Materialism

Stalin’s work Dialectical and Historical Materialism is considered by Bettelheim to be “the most systematic exposition of what gradually became, after the late 1920’s, the dominant conception of the Bolshevik Party.”[11] It is therefore a basic starting point for the analysis of Bolshevik ideology under Stalin.

This work is short and it should be studied together with Bettelheim’s critique. Here we can only summarize his conclusions. While revolutionary Marxism holds that class struggle is the driving force in history, the presentation in Stalin’s work has it that changes in the instruments of production determine changes in society and history. Class struggle, which is present in the “dialectical materialism” section of Stalin’s article, is entirely absent in the “historical materialism” part.

This absence, together with the emphasis on the role of instruments of production, clearly identifies the economist character of Stalinian ideology and science, and economism which Bettelheim had already discussed in volume 1 of his Class Struggles in the USSR.

If, in its theory, the Marxism of the Stalin period abandoned the Leninist thesis on the primacy of politics over economics, how did this theoretical error manifest itself in the ideology and politics of the Bolshevik Party? It resulted in a mechanical materialist conception of the effects of machinery and technology on class consciousness and class struggle. An example of this, cited by Bettelheim, was Stalin’s view of the effect of collective farms on the peasantry. In 1929 Stalin insisted that the collective farms were the principal base for remolding the peasant’s outlook because they required the use of tractors and machinery. Stalin was saying, in effect, that: “it was not the peasants who were to transform themselves through class struggles... but the peasants who were to be acted upon by means of technology,”[12]

Unity and Democratic Centralism

While revolutionary Marxism held as Lenin put it that “the splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts...is the essence of dialectics,” the Marxism of the Stalin period placed unity over contradiction. One of the most significant areas where this approach produced negative results was in the theory of the party which developed in the Stalin period.

In place of the Leninist conception of the party as embodying a contradiction of democracy and centralism under the domination of the former, Stalin put forward the notion of the “monolithic party.” This notion cannot be reconciled with Leninism and democratic centralism. In fact,

If the ’monolithic principle’ is carried to its logical conclusion, the party deprives itself of the means of uniting the broad masses, because it is led to reject, in practice, the principle at democratic centralism.[13]

Democratic centralism presupposes that differing views will exist, that they can and will be centralized through democratic struggle. The monolithic party is founded on a denial of difference and on the practice of ruthless struggle against such differences. It is based on a sterile and purely formal unity, achieved not through ideological struggle, but by administrative pressure and expulsions.

The Party and Theory

Another area in which the thesis of the primacy of unity over contradiction led to the abandonment of revolutionary Marxist positions is the question of the relationship between the party and its theory.

For Lenin, the relationship between the line of the party and theory was always contradictory. It was always a struggle to ensure that the party’s position correctly embodied the necessary theoretical principles. In the Stalin period, however, an automatic identification of the party line with theory was increasingly fostered by the party leadership.

Bettelheim points out two negative developments flowing from this equation. First, it restricted the possibility for theoretical development because it curtailed ideological struggle (“the party is always right”) and because it concentrated authority on matters of theory in the party leadership. Second, it led the party to be less alert to new ideas and initiatives of the masses. Since the party’s line was theory (that is, correct), criticism from the masses came to be viewed with suspicion and alarm; not as a necessary element in the rectification of theory and the line, but as an attack on the party. Both theory and the line of the party were treated as absolutes, rather than as ongoing processes requiring constant development and rectification.

Theory and Practice

As mentioned above, an essential factor in the advance of Marxist ideology, in its ability to guide and serve the communist and workers’ movement in the class struggle, is that it be guided by advanced revolutionary Marxist theory. This relationship between theory and practice is at the heart of Marxism-Leninism. The abandonment of this correct relationship is therefore one of the most telling critiques of the Marxism of the Stalin epoch.

The changes in Bolshevik ideology under Stalin severely reduced the Party’s ability to “use revolutionary Marxism as an instrument for analyzing reality.”[14] The political role of the Marxist ideology of the party was equally effected. Here is how Bettelheim describes it:

Under these conditions, the Bolshevik ideological formation in its changed form served, with ever greater frequency, to justify after the act the adoption of political lines which were no longer based on a rigorous concrete analysis of reality. It then functioned as a “system of legitimation”, as a grid of ideological notions which one “applied” to reality, and not as a set of concepts to he used in living analysis.[15]

If theory is to serve its purpose, to guide practice, it must function to creatively analyze reality. When theory is required only as a justification after the fact, its living, creative, critical faculty is quite unnecessary. The only thing required is the ability to take quotes out of context, to twist and shape them to fit the appropriate action being justified.


We have examined above only a few of the elements of the ideological formation of the Bolshevik Party under Stalin as presented by Bettelheim in his new book. In a review of this type we can only summarize his conclusions in an equally abbreviated manner.

The form of Marxism which developed in the Stalin epoch, Bettelheim argues, was a kind of simplified or congealed Marxism, which departed significantly from revolutionary Marxism and constituted a caricature of it. It failed to adequately guide the Bolshevik Party in its intervention in the class struggle, and, despite the assertion of the Albanian comrades at the beginning of this article, it cannot serve the present anti-revisionist communist movement. We are back to the crisis of Marxism, but now we can also see a viable solution.

A correct struggle to develop Marxism-Leninism and to defeat revisionism is not possible by the simple return to the previous orthodoxy, the Marxism of the Stalin epoch. It can only come from a struggle to rectify Marxism in both its aspects – revolutionary Marxism and Marxist ideology.

These then are the two general tasks of the contemporary communist movement: to transform Marxist theory into a living science, through a critique of the sterile dogmatism of the Stalin epoch, and to create a living ideology of Marxism, by decisively demarcating ourselves from the vulgar Marxism of the past and the revisionist betrayals of the present.

The communist movement can and will go forward. The serious study of Bettelhelm’s Class Struggles in the USSR and its lessons can be a great contribution to that end.


[1] Turning Point, Vol. XIV, no. 6, June, 1962.

[2] Ibid. Vol. IX, no. #4-5, April-May, 1956.

[3] The Provisional Organizing Committee (POC) was a left wing split off from the Communist Party, USA which was founded in 1958.

[4] Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR. Second Period: 1923-1930. {Monthly Review, 1978), p. 567.

[5] Ibid., p. 501.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 506.

[8] Ibid., p. 503.

[9] Ibid., p. 507.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 509.

[12] Ibid., p. 520.

[13] Ibid., p. 540.

[14] Ibid., p. 535.

[15] Ibid.