Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line


The Origin and Development of Revisionism in the Soviet Union

First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, No. 2, Summer 1972
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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Lenin said that without a revolutionary theory there could be no revolutionary movement. The history of the working class movement during this century has shown this to be true. The development of a revolutionary theory means much more than establishing a set of broad principles or repeating Marxist generalisations. One of the qualities that made Lenin and Mao really outstanding as revolutionary leaders was their ability to use Marxist analysis in order to understand and explain each stage of the developing process, and, on the basis of their analysis to guide action along a consistently revolutionary path. Like Marx and Engels before them, they did not act blindly, seeing only the immediate problem, but were able to see the present in relation to the past and thus lay open the course to the future.

The revolutionary movement is at present suffering from a serious lack of theoretical clarity. If the Marxist-Leninist forces in Britain are to develop, if they are ever to become capable of leading the working class to overthrow capitalism, then a serious analysis must be made of the contemporary situation in Britain and the world. Any analysis will remain partial and defective until certain important questions relating to the recent and not so recent past of the international communist movement are squarely faced.

Eight years ago it was still widely accepted amongst communists that the world was divided into two main camps, one socialist, the other capitalist. The Soviet Union and the new democracies of eastern Europe were considered part of the socialist camp despite the fact that their leaders were thought to be committing serious revisionist errors. Now, the assessment that Marxist-Leninists would make is very different. The Soviet Union is no longer considered socialist, but capitalist and “social imperialist”. This re-evaluation clearly has serious implications for any assessment of the world balance of forces.

I do not think that sufficient thought has been given to some of the propositions accepted in recent years. Neither has there been from any quarter of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Britain any serious attempt to explain just how such a situation came to be. The tendency has been rather to adopt positions in the wake of the Communist Party of China. Whether the positions adopted are right or wrong, there can be no real development in the absence of Marxist analysis.

This article will raise and attempt to answer a few questions which can be brought together under the general heading “The development of revisionism in the Soviet Union”. It must be made clear at the outset that this is not an attempt at comprehensive analysis. It is a small and inevitably inadequate beginning, undertaken in the hope that it will provoke discussion and argument from which will come greater elucidation and deeper understanding of a question which is important to the future of our movement.


Unlike the revisionists who believe that the Soviet Union is still socialist and unlike the Trotskyists who believe that it never was. Leninists consider that the Soviet Union was at one time a socialist country but it is no longer. Both the revisionist and Trotskyist attitudes to the Soviet Union are based on wistfulness not reality. They both avoid facing the question: “What is socialism?” An incorrect evaluation of what socialism means in practice stems from an idealist method of thinking. A Marxist method starts not from any particular idealist notion that may come into mind, but from a scientific exanimation of objective reality.

Socialism is not a completely formed, finite system, but a society in transition to communism. We cannot say that because inequalities exist in such a society ipso facto it cannot be socia1ist. The existence of bureaucracy, inequality, the prevalence of what Marx and Lenin termed “bourgeois right” is inevitable for a more or less (depending on specific conditions) long period of time under the rule of the proletariat. Whether or not a particular country can properly be regarded as socialist depends primarily upon which class rules. Socialism can only exist under the rule of the proletariat. To the utopians who wanted to introduce the classless society the day after the revolution Lenin said:

There can be no thought of abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely. That is utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and begin immediately to construct a new one that will permit the abolition of all bureaucracy this is utopia, this is the experience of the Commune, this is the direct and immediate task ’or the revolutionary proletariat. .. We are not utopians, we do not indulge in dreams of disposing at once with all administration; these are anarchist dreams, based upon a lack of understanding of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve to postpone the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control and “foremen and book-keepers”. But the subordination must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and toiling people, i.e. the proletariat”.[1]

Lenin understood what would be the character of the “first phase of communism” – a system newly emerged from capitalism, neither accepted its inevitable defects as virtues, nor did he try to exorcise them out of existence. He saw the problems of socialist construction for what they were and understood that the means to overcome them lay precisely in the construction of socialism and the struggle for world revolution:

... the first phase of communism cannot yet produce justice and equality: differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still exist, but the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible, because it will be impossible to seize the means of production, the factories, machines, land etc. as private property. ...Marx not only takes account of the inevitable inequality of man, but he also takes into account the fact that the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society (commonly called “socialism” does not remove the defects or distribution and the inequality of “bourgeois right” which continues to prevail as long as products are divided ’according to the amount of labour performed’.[2]

Those who make a case that socialism has never existed in the Soviet Union usually start by asserting the impossibility of establishing a socialist system in a single country, and then go on to point to the existence of bureaucracy, inequality, wage differentials, censorship etc. etc. as proof of their original premise. The extensive cataloguing of apparently non­socialist phenomena in Soviet society from 1917 onwards does not in itself provide proof that socialism never existed there.

It seems to me that the kind of utopianism to which Lenin was referring lies at the root of most Trotskyist criticism. If one starts by defining socialism as a society “without classes, commodities, money and state”, as does Ernest Mandel (New Left Review No. 47)[3], then clearly socialism never existed in the Soviet Union, neither does it exist anywhere else. Other contemporary critics seem to argue on the basis of the same definition. But such a definition is completely un-Leninist. The only workable definition of socialism is that which regards it as a society in which “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, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”.[4] Such a society is not classless – it operates a class dictatorship; it has not ’abolished’ the State, the commodity market or money, and it has not introduced universal freedom. So, unless one believes that socialism and communism (or the lower and higher stages of communism) are the same (and such a view is un-Leninist), then it must be recognised that all the above-mentioned phenomena will exist, and are indeed inevitable for quite a long time under what Marx referred to as the lower stage of Communism. The point is not whether the market, commodity production, etc. exist, but in what direction such a society is moving, and that is determined precisely by which class holds political power. As long as political power is in the hands of the proletariat society can move in the direction of communism, i.e. towards the elimination of proletarian power through the establishment of a classless, stateless society. The key question is that of political power.

But the matter cannot be left there. While it is utopian to regard anything short of classless society as socialist, it is equally wrong to regard socialism as a complete and ’truly democratic’ system. The inequalities referred to above, which prevail as long as goods are divided according to the amount of labour performed, are essentially in contradiction with the new social relations brought into being by the socialist revolution. They are both inevitable for a period of time, and also contrary to the goals for which society is striving. They are vestiges of pre-socialist society which must be eliminated in the course of building communism. It does not follow inevitably that the existence of proletarian power guarantees that such contradictory elements in the new society will be resolved successfully. The retention of proletarian power necessitates a bitter struggle, the intensity of which Lenin never ceased to emphasise and the reality of which has been amply demonstrated in practice.

As long as market relationships are subordinated to proletarian power they can be eliminated in the course of time. The exercise of proletarian power in all fields of social life, not least in the field of ideology, is vital to the elimination of the market. The market cannot be ’abolished’ at a stage where the level of development of the productive forces necessitates its retention, but equally the market and market relations must never come to be seen as permanent and desirable features of a socialist economy. Socialism is a transitional stage towards communism – a stage in which the necessary contradiction between centralised planning and market relations will continue to exist. The existence of this contradiction reflects a deeper contradiction, characteristic of all class societies, which still prevails in socialist society; that between the relations of production and the forces of production.

This brings us to a question which is important in the argument with the Trotskyist critics of the Soviet Union. As long as Marxist-Leninists direct their criticism of the Soviet Union today primarily against the inequalities referred to, all of which are so much in evidence in that country, then they miss the main point and lay themselves open to the inevitable question: ’what is your attitude towards similar manifestations during Stalin’s lifetime?’

Criticism at that level is directed at surface phenomena, at the level of the superstructure. The main concern should be with underlying class relationships. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe today there exists what some have termed ’market socialism.’ ’Market socialism’ accepts an elevated role for the market and market relations, regarding them as a desirable permanent feature of the transition to communism, the progress to which needs the implementation of incentive schemes, competition, and the fullest rein being accorded to market forces.

Thus, what at an earlier period was regarded, correctly, as a necessary but temporary evil, is now regarded as something to be built deeply into the fabric of society. I shall argue that this development denotes the passing of power from the hands of the proletariat, and that, this being the case, whatever may be the proclaimed intention, the goal of communism has been abandoned; that the development of ’market socialism’ marks a qualitative change in class relationships in the Soviet Union and that it is a euphemism for state capitalism.

Since the seizure of state power by the proletariat in Russia in 1917, there has been no violent overthrow of proletarian power, no counter-revolution in the sense most people have understood that term. And yet power has passed out of the hands of the proletariat. To try to ascertain when this happened is no mere academic exercise; it is a matter of considerable importance to the development of a Marxist-Leninist critique of the nature and development of modern revisionism within socialist countries.


There has been very little analysis of the development of revisionism in the Soviet Union. In so far as the question is dealt with at all in the Marxist-Leninist movement, it is usually presented as though everything was fine until Stalin died, after which, under the leadership of Khruschov, all the good policies were reversed at the 20th Congress in 1956.The 20th Congress is regarded as the point of turning away from socialism towards revisionism. Such a description is far too facile and does not explain how the policies adopted at that Congress came to be accepted so readily. Also it fails to account for the continued defence of the Soviet intervention in Hungary which occurred after Khruschov’s supposed counter-revolutionary coup.

Nevertheless, the 20th Congress was an important landmark. In 1956 the CPSU announced its acceptance of the theory of peaceful transition to socialism.[5] A new twist was also given at that time to the meaning of peaceful co-existence. Khruschov claimed that:

Which means against restoration? Certainly not. That requires victory for the revolution in at least several countries. It is therefore the essential task of the victorious revolution in one country to develop and support the revolution in others. So the revolution in a victorious country ought not to consider itself as a self-contained unit, but as an auxiliary and a means of hastening the victory of the proletariat in other countries.”[6]

In this formulation the socialist country is regarded as an ’auxiliary’ of the revolutionary proletariat throughout the world. The ’final’ victory of socialism cannot be achieved in a single country. We shall consider later what is meant by socialism’s ’final’ victory, and relate that to Stalin’s assumption that restoration could only occur through outside intervention.


Stalin’s position was in accord with the views express by Lenin as early as 1915:

Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence the victory of socialism is possible, first in a few or even in one single capitalist country taken separately. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would rise against the rest of the capitalist world, attract to itself the oppressed classes of other countries, raise revolts among them against the capitalists, and in the event of necessity, come out even with armed force against the exploiting classes and their states.”[7]

The general outline contained here could not take account of the complexities that were to arise during the subsequent decades of Soviet power, when the Soviet Union existed alone in a hostile capitalist environment. Socialism existing within the framework of a single national state had to face the problems of its own destiny as a new system of politic and economic organization, and its relationship to the proletarian movement abroad. The paramount problem was how to maintain a consistent proletarian internationalism and at the same time conduct necessary relations (which involved every aspect of its existence) with the rest of the world. The course to be followed was an extremely tortuous one, for obviously any betrayal of the first principle (proletarian internationalism) would in fact be a blow against the revolution inside the Soviet Union itself. On the other hand there would inevitably arise many occasions where various kinds of compromise in international relations were called for.

How successfully such contradictions are handled depends upon the clarity strength and firmness of the revolutionary leadership and their ability to appreciate the contradictions. The calibre of the evolutionary leadership in turn depends upon how firmly the proletarian class is in power .If the dictatorship is weak – i.e. – if the masses are not increasingly and actively involved in handling the affairs of state – then the bourgeoisie will come increasingly to strengthen its grip within the institutions of proletarian power.


From the early days of the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet State enjoyed tremendous prestige throughout the international workers’ movement. The establishment of the Communist International after the imperialist war was a necessary sequel to the revolution, in accordance with Lenin’s strategic principles on world revolution.

The failure of the German revolution in 1919 had much to do with Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s failure to grasp the Leninist method of party organisation. That is not to say that the revolution would have succeeded had the Spartakus Bund become a fully bolshevised party, but their errors were a factor in the defeat.

The creation of the Comintern was a necessary and overwhelmingly positive step towards organizing and strengthening the forces of world revolution. The principles of Bolshevism had to replace the disastrous class-collaboration of the Second International. However, there were dangers present from the beginning in the relations between the Bolshevik Party in power and the weaker parties abroad that had been brought into existence largely on the initiative of the Bolsheviks. The great prestige enjoyed by the Bolsheviks led other parties to regard them as the repositories of all wisdom and tended to produce amongst the Bolshevik leaders themselves a belief that they were the directors of the world revolution. Perhaps this development was unavoidable, but there is little doubt that such a lop-sided relationship came to prevail in the Comintern. Even if it is assumed that the political line of the Comintern (which was always the political line of the CPSU) was generally correct during the 24 years of its existence – and such an assumption would be a rash one – it cannot be denied that the sharp changes of policy in 1928, 1935 and 1939 came down to the member parties as something in the nature of directives. Of course those parties who accepted the directives uncritically, as most of them did, were largely to blame, but a style of work grew up in the late 19Z0s that was never corrected throughout the Comintern’s existence.


Before dealing in greater detail with aspects of Soviet policy in the 1930s, it is worth considering some of the views Stalin expressed in 1925 in a lecture to the students at Sverdlov University. In reply to a question concerning the danger of the Party degenerating as a result of the stabilization of world capitalism, he admitted that there undoubtedly was such a danger. Expressing the view that the danger of degeneration did not only result from capitalist stabilization and possible long-term isolation of the Soviet State, he listed the following as the three main dangers facing the Party:

l) the danger of losing the socialist perspective in our work of building up our country, and the danger of liquidationism connected with it;

2) the danger of losing the international revolutionary perspective, and the danger of nationalism connected with it;

3) the danger of a decline of Party leadership and the possibility connected with it of the Party’s conversion into an appendage of the state apparatus.[8]

In dealing with the second of these dangers he warned of:

a lack of confidence in the international proletarian revolution; lack of confidence in its victory; a sceptical attitude towards the national-liberation movement in the colonies and dependent countries;..... failure to understand that the victory of socialism in one country alone cannot be final because it has no guarantee against intervention until the revolution is victorious in at least a number of counties; failure to understand the elementary demand of internationalism, by virtue of which the victory of socialism in one country is not an end itself, but a means of developing and supporting the revolution other countries.

Such an attitude, said Stalin, led along “the path of complete liquidation of the proletariat’s international policy, for the people affected with this disease regard our country not as a part of the whole that is called the world revolutionary movement, but as the beginning and the end of that movement, believing that the interests of all other countries should be sacrificed to the interests of our country.”

He went on to give examples of this ’new type of nationalist frame of mind which is trying to liquidate the foreign policy of the October Revolution.’

Support for the liberation movement in China? But why? (say the nationalists) Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Wouldn’t it bring us into conflict with other countries? Wouldn’t it be better if we established ’spheres of influence’ in China in conjunction with other ’advanced powers’ and snatched something from China for our own benefit?”

Stalin traced both liquidationism and nationalism to the growth of bourgeois influence on the Party in the sphere of internal and foreign policy respectively.

There can be scarcely any doubt that the pressure of the capitalist states on our state is enormous, that the people who are handling our foreign policy do not always succeed in resisting this pressure.

He concluded:

The first country to be victorious can retain the role of standard-bearer of the world revolutionary movement only on the basis of consistent internationalism...That is why losing the international revolutionary perspective leads to the danger of nationalism and degeneration. That is why the struggle against the danger of nationalism in foreign policy is an immediate task of the Party.


At the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928 Stalin predicted the economic crisis that was actually to hit the capitalist world a year later. The period of stabilization was at an end, and, it was argued, the policies and tactics that had prevailed during the preceding five years were now outdated. What was needed was a fresh offensive against capitalism and all its agencies, including the social-democrats. The reformists were now regarded as ’social fascists’ (a term that had not been widely employed before) and there could be no question of even tactical alliances with them. It is not possible here to go into detail about this ’third period’ of Comintern history during which the ’class against class’ line prevailed more or less unaltered until 1935. Just a few comments are necessary.

Firstly, it was dictated by very real considerations. The conditions of international struggle had changed, and in country after country the social-democrats had revealed themselves in the hour of capitalist crisis as staunch defenders of the tottering status-quo. On the other hand the tactical line was one of crude oversimplifications which failed to take account of the real significance of fascism. In 1935 Dimitrov was to admit that many of the communist parties had been guilty of left-sectarianism in the treatment of the social-democratic masses. The influence of left-sectarianism in the Communist Party of Germany cannot be ignored as a factor assisting reaction in dividing the working class movement. But what Dimitrov did not admit was that the Comintern itself bore a large part of the responsibility for encouraging left-sectarianism

By 1933 fascism had triumphed in Germany and Europe had clearly embarked on the road to a second imperialist war. Two years later at the Seventh World Congress of the C.I., the United Front/Popular Front line was proclaimed. The whole emphasis of the previous seven years’ policy was changed. Dimitrov’s report contained an analysis of the new world balance of forces and examined the strengths and weaknesses, the mistakes and achievements of the communist parties. He concluded that there was an urgent need to unite the working class and all anti-fascist forces to block the fascist-imperialist onslaught and to prevent war. He pointed to the class-collaborationist role of the social-democratic leaders as a major factor in opening fascism’s path to power:

Our attitude of absolute opposition to Social-Democratic governments, which are governments of compromise with the bourgeoisie, is well-known. But....we do not regard the existence of a Social-Democratic government or a coalition government formed by a Social-Democratic party with bourgeois parties as an insurmountable obstacle to the establishment of a united front with the Social-Democrats on definite issues.[9]

Dimitrov was careful to emphasise that such governments could never bring ’final salvation’ for the proletariat; that could only come through socialist revolution. He also attacked the Right opportunists who ’tried to establish a special ’democratic intermediate stage’ lying between the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the purpose of instilling into the workers the illusion of a peaceful parliamentary procession from one dictatorship to another.

We must increase our vigilance...bearing in mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion as the wide united front develops more and more.

And there can be no doubt that Right opportunism did increase rapidly in the international communist movement from that time. The concepts of the United Front as defined by Dimitrov was, in the main, correct, but in attempting to implement it most of the Western communist parties, to one degree or another, fell into Right opportunism. But criticisms must also be made of Dimitrov and the CPSU, for in abandoning the policy of the third period the Soviet leaders and the E.C. of the Comintern made no self-criticisms of their own left-sectarianism during the preceding seven years. The Seventh World Congress report contains many ambiguities in its treatment of the Social-democrats. It reflects all the difficulties involved in trying to square the newly adopted line with the one just abandoned. Dimitrov’s position was in many respects itself a rightist one. In a section dealing with world trade union unity he declared:

We are even prepared to forego the creation of communist factions in the trade unions if that is necessary in the interests of trade union unity.

The period 1935-1939 saw the establishment of Popular Front governments and movements in a number of countries. For the most part the communist parties increased in popularity and membership .The Spanish War brought the contradiction to a head and put the whole popular-front policy to the test. Whatever may have been the intention of the Soviet government and the Comintern, these years also saw the end of an independent class position on the part of most European communist parties. What was wrong with the struggle for the United Front and the People’s Front was not the communist parties failure to proclaim socialist revolution as their immediate aim, but that the defence of bourgeois democracy came to be seen as an end in itself. Dimitrov had stressed that the defence of bourgeois democracy against fascism was only a part of the long term struggle to end bourgeois democracy and establish workers’ power and workers ’ democracy. But in practice Lenin’s teaching on the class character of bourgeoisie democracy came to be forgotten and the struggle against fascism came to be regarded as a defence of ’Democracy.’


At this point it is appropriate to return to the points raised by Stalin in his lecture to the Sverdlov University students in 1925 , and to ask whether the dangers against which he had warned had not a1ready come to loom large in Soviet policy . Two question arise: (1) had the construction of socialism in USSR come to be regarded as a ’final victory ’ of socialism? (2) Had the ’nationalist degeneration’ already begun to develop in Soviet foreign policy?

With regard to the first question it is worth comparing Stalin’s presentation with that made by Mao Tse-tung in 1968. Stalin expressed the view that ’the victory of socialism in one country cannot be final because it has no guarantee against intervention. Thus the decisive factor is seen to be the danger of intervention that prevents the victory of socialism being ’final’.

Mao put the question in this way:

We have won a great victory. But the defeated class will struggle. These people are still around and the class still exists – therefore we cannot speak of final victory. Not even for decades. We must not lose vigilance. According to the Leninist viewpoint , the final victory of a socialist country not only requires the efforts of the proletariat and the broad masses of the people at home, but also involves the victory of the world revolution and the abolition of the system of exploitation of man by man over the whole globe upon which all mankind will be emancipated. Therefore, it is wrong to speak lightly of the final victory of the revolution in our country; it runs counter to Leninism and does not conform to facts.’[10]

Mao starts by stressing the internal factor; the continuation of class struggle in China despite great victory in the Cultural Revolution. He then puts this in its global context, seeing the final victory of socialism not merely in the revolution in ’at least several countries’, but its victory ’over the whole globe.’ So in the two conceptions there is a different sense of what is meant by socialism’s final victory. Mao’s view is different from Stalin’s in important essentials. By the late 1930s there is little doubt that Stalin had come to regard socialism in the Soviet Union as completely consolidated. This is a. little strange in view of the purges that were taking place in the country at the time, but the evidence from reports and speeches made then shows that this was indeed his view.

In his report to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU in March 1939 Stalin outlined the two phases through which he said the Soviet State had passed since its inception. The first phase was ’the period from the October Revolution to the elimination of the exploiting classes.’ The second phase was ’the period from the elimination of the capitalist elements in town and country to the complete victory of the socialist economic system and the adoption of the new Constitution.’ The principle task in this period, he said, was:

to establish the socialist economic system all over the country and to eliminate the last remnants of the capitalist elements, to bring about a cultural revolution, and to form a thoroughly modern army for defence of the country. And the function of our socialist state changed accordingly. The function of military suppression inside the country ceased, died away; for exploitation had been abolished, and there were no more exploiters left, and so there was no-one to suppress. In place of this function of suppression the state acquired the function of protecting socialist property from thieves and pilferers of the people’s property. [Stalin’s reference to ’thieves and pilferers’ should be compared to similar references in Khruschov’s reports to the 20th and 22nd Congresses of the CPSU. He castigated ’swindling and money grabbing ’ and those ’who maliciously break the rules of our socialist community.’ Notable in both cases is the failure to relate these phenomena to continuing class antagonisms.- M.F.]The function of defending the country from foreign attack fully remained; consequently the Red Army and Navy fully remained, as did the punitive organs and the intelligence service, which are indispensible for the detection and punishment of spies, assassins and wreckers sent into our country by foreign espionage services...Now the main task of our state inside the country is the work of peaceful economic organisation and cultural education. As for our army, punitive organs and intelligence service, their edge is no longer turned to the inside of our country, but to the outside, against external enemies.....As you see we now have an entirely new, socialist state without precedent in history and differing considerably in form and functions from the socialist state of the first phase.

And turning to the future, Stalin declared:

But development cannot stop there. We are going ahead towards communism. Will our state remain in the period of communism also?

And he answered:

Yes, it will, unless the capitalist encirclement is liquidated, and unless the danger of foreign military attack has disappeared.[11]

It emerges from this that the internal class struggle was at an end in the Soviet Union in 1939. The great purges had ended one year before and the period 1936-1938 had seen the liquidation of thousands of people. But according to Stalin, during that period ’there was noone to suppress’ except assassins, foreign agents, thieves and pilferers. The ’Trotskyite and Bukharinite leaders....were in the service of foreign espionage organisations and carried on conspiratorial activities from the very first days of the October Revolution.’

This picture does not square with reality. Although there can be no doubt that the fascist and imperialist states sent in large numbers of agents, it is inconceivable that the opposition in the Soviet Union consisted entirely of such people.

It also emerges from that part of Stalin’s report quoted above, that he believed it was possible to build communism in one country. Such a proposition departs radically from the whole argument about ’socialism one country’ that had been conducted with the Trotskyists in the 1920s. It also departs radically from Marxism-Leninism. To talk about the state still remaining in communist society is an absurdity, made even more absurd by qualifications concerning the possibility of a hostile encirclement. Communist society presupposes the ending of classes and the withering away of the state and is, as Mao says, dependent on ’the abolition of the system of exploitation of man by man over the whole globe.’ It is only possible to speak of final victory once communism has been attained.

In 1963 the Peking ’People’s Daily’ published a pamphlet entitled ’On the Question of Stalin’, which attempted to make a balanced assessment of Stalin’s role in Soviet and world history. Properly stressing his achievements, and concluding that these outweighed his negative side, the article nevertheless made certain criticisms. The Chinese considered that:

In his way of thinking, Stalin departed from dialectical materialism and fell into metaphysics and subjectivism on certain questions and consequently he was sometimes divorced from reality and from the masses. In struggles inside as well as outside the Party, on certain occasions and on certain questions he confused two types of contradictions which are different in nature, contradictions between ourselves and the enemy and contradictions among the people, and also confused the different methods needed in handling them. In the work led by Stalin of suppressing the counter­ revolution, many counter-revolutionaries deserving punishment were duly punished, but at the same time there were innocent people who were wrongly convicted; and in 1937 and 1938 there occurred the error of enlarging the scope of suppression of counter-revolutionaries.[12]

There is no doubt that many thousands who were in fact innocent were arrested, detained for long periods without trial, and in many cases executed as ’enemies of the people’ during these years. Evidence that has subsequently come to light, particularly concerning the east European trials of the late forties and early fifties establishes beyond any doubt that those convicted were wrongly convicted. But it was not simply a matter of ’mistakes’. Detailed information provided by the survivors of the ’Slansky’ trial in Prague in 1952, reveals the systematic employment of psychological torture, the fabrication of incriminating evidence and the extraction of phoney confessions in political frame-ups supervised and staged by the Soviet security forces. It does not help for Marxist-Leninists to deny or ignore these unpleasant facts, or to make light of them. The point is to understand how such things could have come about.

The only satisfactory explanation that Stalin and most of the Soviet leadership, including the opposition, had become seriously divorced from the masses and were either unable or unprepared to face up to the real contradictions before them. In many respects Stalin’s analysis of the problems facing the Party and the country had been brilliant, but by the thirties he had come to commit some of the mistakes against which he had warned at an earlier period. In the years immediately follow World War II nationalism began to assert itself more and more in Soviet foreign policy. A serious blurring of the international revolutionary perspective occurred. Stalin had earlier warned against ’believing that the interests of all other countries should be sacrificed to the interests of our country.’ But such a tendency began to appear in Soviet policy during his lifetime.

The tendency to develop a ’national’ interest apart from the world revolutionary movement, ironically, began to appear at a time when Molotov could talk about the Soviet Union entering the epoch of ’transition from socialism to communism.’ The Soviet Union came to be described as the ’homeland of victorious socialism’ at a time when Voroshilov could point proudly to the fact that Red Army officers had received average pay increases of nearly 300% in 5 years, giving them an average annual pay of 8,000 roubles, while ordinary soldiers received an annual average of 150 roubles. At the time when socialism was supposed to have achieved complete victory, Shvernik could say, ’the policy of our Party with regard to wages has been directed towards stimulating labor productivity, towards abolishing indiscriminate equalization in the wages paid for skilled and unskilled work, towards abolishing levelling in the wage scales of the various branches of industry.’[13]

The point to be made here is not that socialism did not exist at all, but that it was very much socialism of the lower stage. To fail to recognise this, to entertain notions about ’entering the path of transition to communism’, indicated a failure to understand the objective situation.

Stalin had warned in 1925 that to lose the international perspective involved the danger of nationalism and degeneration and said that the basis for such degeneration was the growth of bourgeois influence in the Party and the state. The people handling Soviet foreign policy, he said, do not always succeed in resisting the enormous pressure from the capitalist states.

This pressure increased tremendously during the decades following 1925. With the ever-present and increasing danger of an imperialist attack on the Soviet Union during the 1930s; with one country after another going under the fascist jackboot, it is not surprising that Stalin reviewed the situation with some alarm and looked to the defence of Soviet frontiers. But, from approximately the time of launching the Popular Front movement, can be said that concern with the national position of the USSR had taken precedence in policy over the interests of the international communist and workers’ movement.

The failure of the united front movement and the ’collective security’ policy to prevent the outbreak of war, led to the signing of the German-Soviet Pact of Non-Aggression. While in the circumstances prevailing the Soviet government had no alternative but to sign such a pact, the conduct of Soviet and Comintern policy between November 1939 and June 1941 can be regarded as nothing other than the abandonment of proletarian internationalism.[14]


The analysis of the war made by Dimitrov for the ECCI in November 1939 correctly concluded that it was an imperialist war. But the directive to the communist parties involved another 180° switch in the policy to be adopted towards social-democrats. The Seventh Congress in 1935 had called for the removal of quotation marks from ’left’ social democrats and the forging of alliances with all social-democrats for the common struggle against fascism. This policy most communist parties had embraced with a deep sigh of relief after years in the wilderness. Now, in November 1939, the social-democrats were again to be considered as a major enemy. Dimitrov told how September 1939 ’the imperialists of Britain and France had passed over to the offensive, have hurled their people into a war against Germany, endeavouring in every way to win a number of other states to their side.’[15]

Clearly expediency had taken over. In his report on the war Dimitrov presented an analysis which was dictated by the needs of the Soviet Union’s national defence. It did not even amount to an equal condemnation of all the capitalist countries involved in the war, but virtually presented Germany as the victim of Anglo-French imperialist aggression. This was also the tone of most Soviet reporting of the war during its first year.

When, in 1941, the Soviet Union was itself the victim of Nazi aggression, the war was no longer simply an inter­imperialist one. The popular front policy of the 1930s, briefly interrupted during the period of the Pact, now gave way to the ’grand alliance’ of the united nations against the fascist Axis.

The Soviet Union played by far the major part in defeating fascism in World War II. Nothing can detract from the heroism and tremendous sacrifice of the Soviet people between 1941 and 1945. In comparison with their titanic struggle the war on every other front was a picnic. Over 20 million Soviet people were lost and a third of their country laid waste. The great toil and self-sacrifice of a whole generation of Soviet workers and peasants was largely obliterated by the Nazi invaders. Over 20 million were made homeless. These points should not be forgotten when considering the Soviet Union’s role in war. And Stalin’s conduct of the war was perhaps his greatest achievement. His example, his calm confidence in victory and his iron determination were a great inspiration to the Soviet people. It was not for nothing that thousands of Soviet soldiers died with ’Long live Comrade Stalin!’ on their lips.[16]

To criticise certain aspects of the way the war was conduct and certain negative features that became more pronounced in Soviet society during the war, is in no way to denigrate the heroic efforts of the Soviet people.

During the war there was, understandably, an upsurge of national feeling against the Nazi aggressors, but Stalin encouraged this far beyond a point compatible with the proletarian internationalist principles on which the Soviet state was based. He invoked the spirits of Russia’s imperial past in the early days of the war:

Let the manly images of our great ancestors – Alexander Nevsky, Dimitry Donskoy, Kazuma Minin, Dimitry Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov – inspire you in this war! May the victorious banner of the great Lenin be your lodestar![17]

Writers like Alexei Tolstoy and Ilya Ehrenburg helped to whip up a nationalist hatred of all Germans. Towards the end of the war Ehrenburg said that he entertained no hopes of a popular uprising in Germany because ’for a popular movement you need people. But what we have in Germany is millions of Fritzes and Gretchens a greedy and stupid mass some brazen others timorous but still incapable of thinking or feeling.’[18] The constant repetition of a propaganda line which dismissed all Germans as brutalised sadists could not but prevent any real understanding of fascism. Presumably in order to invest bourgeois nationalism with some dignity Stalin expressed the peculiar opinion that the Nazis were not really nationalists :’Can the Hitlerites be regarded as nationalists? No they cannot. Actually the Hitlerites are not now nationalists but imperialists.’[19]

In the Red Army there was a return to pre-revolutionary traditions. After 1942 soldiers were officially released from all socialist obligations. Their only duty was to serve their fatherland. New regiments were created with names taken from the Tsarist past. Epaulettes were re­introduced as well as segregation of ’officers’ from ’other ranks’. The generals assumed a role of great importance just as in bourgeois armies and they were constantly being decorated. Stalin himself assumed the title of ’Marshal’ and ’Generalissimo’ and his portrait appeared in a uniform covered with medals.

Although Stalin was not himself swept along on the nationalist tide he did not try to stem it. He even encouraged it. Perhaps there was no alternative, but that begs the question about the nature of policies prior to the war. The war was fought in the way it was because no other course was possible. A ’people’s war’ in the sense that the Chinese have explained it, could not have been waged by the Soviet Union in 1941 because the political-ideological prerequisites which alone would have made it possible to mobilise the people in that way did not exist.

In a word what was lacking was a real ’mass line’. Both Lenin and Stalin had emphasised the need to draw the masses of workers into the governing of the state. Stalin had talked about the need to revitalise the Soviets;

It will be impossible to reform the state apparatus to alter it thoroughly, to expel elements of bureaucracy and corruption from it and make it near and dear to the broad masses unless the masses themselves render the state apparatus constant and active assistance....The Soviet state apparatus...merges with the masses for it cannot and must not stand above the masses if it wants to remain a Soviet state apparatus for it cannot be alien to these masses if it really wants to embrace the millions of working people.’[20]

There is no evidence that the Soviet state apparatus really did begin to ’merge with the masses’ or ’embrace the millions of working people’. In the absence of a mass line the degeneration of the Party and the state was inevitable sooner or later. The basis of such degeneration is to be found in the representatives of the bourgeoisie within the apparatus itself. If the dictatorship of the proletariat undergoes constant strengthening and purging from beneath – from the masses, then the contradictions arising in the process of socialist construction can be successfully handled. If this does not occur then the dangers against which Stalin warned in 1925 become facts of life. The Party becomes increasingly divorced from the masses and social contradictions are inevitably mishandled. The bourgeoisie increases its grip on the state in order to retain and perpetuate everything that is essentially bourgeois in the social relations. Eventually the course is changed, for eventually the bourgeoisie comes into complete control.

Although the process of degeneration was not completed in the Soviet Union until sometime after the war, it was already well advanced in 1939. At the agreements struck at Teheran and Yalta it was decided that Europe should be divided between the allied powers into ’spheres of influence’. At Teheran in 1944, an agreement was struck between Stalin and Churchill by which Britain was to be allowed a free hand in Greece in return for Soviet supremacy in Rumania. At Yalta, in February 1945, in an agreement with Roosevelt, the Soviet Union obtained the Japanese Kurile Islands and the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, as well as Port Arthur. Soviet foreign policy in 1945 was a far cry from Stalin’s 1925 warning about the danger of losing the international revolutionary perspective, and the associated danger of nationalism.[21]

Revisionism, which was already evident in the Soviet Union from 1935, had, by the end of the war, succeeded in turning the majority of European communist parties into parliamentary reformist parties. The British Communist Party led the way with Harry Pollitt’s class-collaborationist articles published between 1945 and 1947, leading up to the formulation of ’The British Road to Socialism’ which was published prominently and in its entirety in ’Pravda’ in 1951.

By the time Stalin came to write ’ Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’ in 1952, the course of degeneration was irreversible. It is clear from that work that he had seen many of the danger signals, but it was already too late.[22]

If on his death, Stalin left behind him a proletarian dictatorship, it had certainly undergone a good deal of erosion. It has been said that the biggest criticism that can be made of Stalin is that he was followed by Khruschov. And that speaks volumes.



[1] Lenin. ’State and Revolution’ Selected Works. Moscow 1952. Page 249.

[2] Ibid. P.297

[3] New Left Review No.47. ’Trotsky; An Anti-Critique’ by E. Mandel.

[4] Marx and Engels ’The Communist Manifesto.’

[5] The theory of ’peaceful transition’ to socialism had been expounded by various communist parties since the end of the war – see particularly Harry Pollitt’s ’Answers to Questions’ (1944) and ’Looking Ahead’ (1947) with the apparent approval of the Soviet leaders. Stalin himself in an interview with a British Labour Party delegation in 1947 expressed the view that a peaceful transition was possible in Britain. The CPGB’s program ’The British Road to Socialism’ set out the strategy for a peaceful transition in 1951. It had the approval of Stalin and the Soviet leadership.

[6] Stalin ’The Foundations of Leninism’ Moscow 1934. P.40

[7] Lenin ’Collected Works’ (Moscow 1960-1970 Vol 21.P.342)

[8] Stalin ’Collected Works’ Moscow 1954, Vol 7.

[9] Dimitrov. Speech at Seventh World Congress of the C.I.1935. Reported in ’The United Front against Fascism’.

[10] Mao Tse-tung. From a talk on the GPCR in 1968, quoted by Lin Piao in his report to the Ninth Congress of the CPC, April 1969.

[11] Stalin. Report to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU, March 1939. (’Land of Socialism Today and Tomorrow’).

[12] ’On the Question of Stalin’ Peking 1963. This article repeats, although somewhat less strongly, the criticisms of Stalin made by the Chinese Communists in 1956 in ’On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. According to Edgar Snow (recent revised edition of ’Red Star over China’) Mao told him that the assessment of Stalin contained in the earlier document reflected his own views precisely.

[13] N. Shvernik. Speech at the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU.

[14] For a detailed account of Soviet policy statements and press coverage of the War during the period of the Pact see Alexander Werth’s ’Russia at War’ (Pan Books 1966)

[15] Dimitrov. ’Communism and the War’ November 1939.

[16] See Alexander Werth ’Russia at War’.

[17] Stalin ’War Speeches’ Radio broadcast, July 3rd, 1941.

[18] ’We Come as Judges’ Soviet War News. Collection of articles from ’Red Star’ by Ilya Ehrenburg.

[19] Stalin ’War Speeches’.

[20] Stalin. ’Collected Works’. Vol.7. Page 161

[21] In an interview with a visiting group of Japanese socialists in 1964, Mao Tse-tung expressed criticism of Soviet territorial policies negotiated at Yalta with regard to Mongolia, Rumania and the Japanese Kurile islands. (Report in Japanese paper ’Shekai Shuho’ August 11, 1964).

[22] It appears that Stalin was intending to tackle these problems by resorting to another purge of the kind that was then in progress in eastern Europe. The notorious ’Doctors’ Plot’, with its insidious undertones of anti-Semitism, was reminiscent of the charges brought in the Rajk and Slansky trials and had all the hallmarks of another frame-up.

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