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The Soviet Union Under Malenkov

John G. Wright, Fourth International

(January 1954)

From Fourth International, Vol.15 No.1, Winter 1954, pp-23-28.
From the Tamiment Library microfilm archives.
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHAT happened in the Soviet Union in 1953? Pablo and his followers pretend to have discovered a “new Soviet reality.” The gist of it is that Stalinism is “dying” there. “For us,” announced Pablo, “Stalinism began to decline before Stalin died.” The originator of this view is not Pablo. It is the journalist Deutscher, who has peddled for some time the notion of the self-reform of Stalinism.

The whole wisdom of the Pabloites is to parrot Deutscher who wrote: “As one analyses Malenkov’s first moves one can almost hear him pleading in the inner circle of the Kremlin: Better to abolish the worst features of Stalinism from above than to wait until they are abolished from below.” As late as August 1953 Pablo refused to see anything except “indecision” in the failure of the post-Stalin regime to revise the Stalinist criminal code which binds the worker to the factory, the peasant to the collective and imposes jail terms for tardiness or “absenteeism.” This revision was originally promised “in 30 days.” Pablo, the “theoretician,” with a straight face posed the following alternative: Either there has been a “retreat” here or “are there inter-bureaucratic difficulties over the exact course to follow on this subject?” He rejected the first and affirmed the second. “We are rather inclined to the second hypothesis, and there will soon be plenty of new developments on this subject.” (La Verité des Travailleurs, Aug. 14, 1953)

Seven months have elapsed since this Pabloite revelation. Malenkov has meanwhile tried and shot Beria and six of his alleged accomplices in the style of “the worst features of Stalinism.” Pablo’s comment? This apologist for Stalinism is still waiting, contentedly, for the promised revision of the criminal code, and still sees nothing, but further “reforms” and concessions to the masses.

Deutscher and the Pabloites are not alone in propagating this revelation of the dawn of a new era under the banner of Stalin’s successors. There is a whole school of new apologists for Stalinism. Thus, the French journalist Alexander Werth hailed the initial post-Stalin maneuvers of the Kremlin as “a turn to the principles of habeas corpus and the Rights of Man.” The notorious renegade from Marxism, Boris Souvarine, writing in Figaro, proclaimed “a total rupture with the policy of Stalin.”

One hundred days of this new “liberal” regime had hardly passed when Malenkov arrested Beria, as an imperialist spy, an assassin, a wrecker and so on. Merely a “shakeup,” concluded all the Pabloite sages.

By December Malenkov staged his frame-up trial. It was a blood purge – precisely on the pattern of the Thirties. Among those who had confidently denied that this could ever happen, perhaps the most confident one had been Beria himself.

Deutscher is now busy apologizing that the Beria purge was, after all, only a “one-night stand.” We may expect similar sooth-sayings, if any are forthcoming, from the Pabloites.

Three Purges in 1953

There occurred in 1953 not one purge but three purges in the USSR. First came the anti-Semitic purge, “the case of the Kremlin doctors,” initiated by Stalin personally, and lasting until his death early in March. Mid-March to the end of June was the period of the counter-purge directed personally by Beria. July to December marked Malenkov’s “purge of the purgers.”

How explain these three purges? How understand them? Deutscher and his Pabloite admirers become hopelessly lost. Why? Because they have cancelled out the central contradiction of Soviet life, without which it is impossible to understand any major development in the USSR.

Soviet society is highly polarized. At one pole there exists a privileged minority of bureaucrats, a social formation, a barbaric vestige of the past, newly revived under the specific conditions in the USSR after Lenin’s death in 1924. This bureaucracy is nationalistic; more accurately, Great Russian, narrow-minded, concerned first and foremost with its power, privileges, revenues. It pretends that it does not even exist. It must engage in social masquerade because of its counter-revolutionary nature. The Pabloites, like Deutscher, assist the Kremlin in this masquerade. They pretend that this bureaucracy is in a process of “self-reform,” and one way or another is declining or disintegrating.

At the opposite pole in the USSR are the new property forms (nationalized industry and land), the new relations of production (planned economy) which this bureaucracy straddles and which it is compelled to maintain, in its own way, with its own methods, as the source of its power; privileges and revenues.

This central contradiction aggravates all the others which exist in Soviet life. As Leon Trotsky long ago pointed out, the contradictions of Soviet society are deeply different from the contradictions of capitalism. But they are nevertheless extremely tense. And the tensest of them is represented precisely by a bureaucracy which, having arisen from Russia’s backwardness, from the isolation of the first workers state in a capitalist environment, is the planter and promoter of material and cultural inequalities. The new Soviet social institutions, on the contrary, provide the foundation for just the opposite, that is, for the spread of material and cultural equality. The one excludes the other. Hence the unheard-of ferocity of the regime, hence the method of the purge. Every purge, the purge of Beria as well as the preceding ones, is intended in the first instance to secure the bureaucratic autocracy, to perpetuate its rule.

The new social institutions and productive relations created by the 1917 revolution represent a great dynamic power, the greatest mankind has yet seen. They allow of tempos of growth of productive forces wholly unattainable under capitalism.

On the other hand, the existence of the multi-millioned bureaucracy, crowned by the Kremlin autocrats, finds its crassest expression in the disproportions and ills that afflict Soviet economy. The bureaucracy is not only costly, wasteful and inefficient. It is above all the implanter and promoter of material and cultural inequalities. What the champions of the “new Soviet reality” studiously ignore is that the stormy Soviet industrial progress has been accompanied at every stage not by a lessening of social inequalities, but by their multiplication and growth.

Each industrial success had widened the gulf between the privileged few and the unprivileged bulk of the Soviet people. Advocates of the theory of the bureaucracy’s “decline” not only ignore it, they deny it. Instead of pointing to the growth of material and cultural inequalities these “realists” see only the tendencies toward the elimination of inequality. What a mockery of Marxism! What a falsification of Soviet reality!

Abundance – of Demagogy

Malenkov’s demagogy of abundance for the Soviet people is just that – demagogy to hide the growing material and cultural privileges of the bureaucratic usurpers.

Under Stalin, that is, up to March 1953, the Kremlin did not promise abundance some time in the future. Stalin claimed that abundance was already here, right now. The collectives were happy and prosperous. So were the workers. So were the “intellectuals.” Life was joyous and abundant for everyone and would become increasingly so in Stalin’s alleged “transition from socialism to communism.”

The Kremlin proclaimed nothing but successes all along the line – in industry as well as agriculture, in consumer goods as well as in capital goods.

For a month after Beria was arrested there was still no mention of shortages, let alone any hint of difficulties in food supplies. The official mid-year report issued in July 1953, some four months after Stalin died, claimed a successful fulfilment of the 1953 plan in all major branches, including agriculture; it even recorded a new growth of animal husbandry, just as did every previous post-war report.

In August, at the session, of the Supreme Council when Malenkov publicly assumed Stalin’s mantle; he still talked about abundance and not about any shortages.

It was only in September that the tune was suddenly changed. For the first time came admissions of shortages and declines in crops, declines in livestock, fodder, fertilizer, potatoes, vegetables, etc. The privileges of the bureaucratic minority have been rendered all the more provocative because they exist not amid plenty, but amid growing shortages of basic necessities for the mass of the Soviet people.

It now turns out, by admissions of the Kremlin dignitaries, that agricultural shortages, except for grain and some technical crops, have been chronic for the last three or four years. For example, potatoes and vegetables have been available in cities at the height of the season, from August to December, only to disappear for the next 7-8 months.

The authority for this is Mikoyan, the recently appointed Minister of Home Trade. Discussing “many serious shortcomings in the trade of potatoes and vegetables,” Mikoyan stated: “The basic mass of potatoes and vegetables is expended in the period from August to December, but from January-February this trade takes place with big intermissions” (Pravda, Oct. 25, 1953.) What else could happen after the “basic mass” had been expended?

So customary had these shortages become, that the Kremlin has not bothered even to maintain, let alone expand, the storage facilities for the crops. The available storage space for potatoes and vegetables is almost one-third less than in pre-war days, Mikoyan said. This means that even had there been bumper crops of vegetables and potatoes in the post-war years, there would still have been no place to store them! And potatoes and vegetables are by no means the only items for which proper storage facilities are lacking.

The shortage of basic foods in the cities is paralleled by shortages in the villages. The peasants find it difficult to obtain such items as salt, matches, kerosene, soap, cotton cloth, etc., in the rural cooperative stores. It seems incredible, doesn’t it? Surely there cannot be shortages in the USRR of such items. Mikoyan assures us that there is indeed no shortage. The storehouses are loaded with salt, matches, kerosene, etc. The hitch is that the peasants have no access to storehouses: they depend upon the bureacratized rural stores, if there are such in the vicinity. And these stores, “many of them,” admitted Mikoyan, simply neglect to stock these items. This does not mollify the peasant, it only makes him angrier.

But even this is not all. Many key agricultural areas have been left without rural stores. In passing Mikoyan noted that the rural trade network still remains sharply below pre-war levels. In the Ukraine, for instance, there are only 88.3% as many stores and small shops as there used to be in 1940. In Byelorussia there are only 80.4% as many, while provinces like Smolensk have some 82%.

The “lag” is so serious, it will take several years to overcome it. Within “the next two or three years,” promised Mikoyan, “the lag in developing the retail network in the village will be liquidated.” And meanwhile? Meanwhile the peasant must put up with shortages.

The peasants are by no means the only ones in this plight. According to Mikoyan, in the first six months of 1953, i.e., amid the hullabaloo about material abundance, “there were closed for various reasons 1,940 stores” in various cities. The magnitude of this decline may be gauged by the fact that the 1953 plan for the expansion of the trade network called for 285 new stores in the whole of the Ukraine and 77 new stores for the whole of Byelorussia. More than five times as many stores were taken out of the Soviet trade network in a six-month period as were supposed to be added in a whole year in these two republics alone.

Mikoyan said that these were “intolerable facts.” One can easily imagine how the Soviet workers and peasants feel about this bureaucratic performance.

The Peasants’ Struggle

We have repeatedly stated that behind the unfolding farm crisis in the Soviet Union were the ruinous consequences of the bureaucratic method of rule and administration. There has ensued a revival of the peasants’ struggle against the state, marked by cuts in crops.

The Pabloites met this Trotskyist conclusion with yelps of displeasure and with denials. According to them the “new Soviet reality” excludes such a development. With an air of profound wisdom, they want to know what are the motives of the peasants. Are they political motives? Do the peasants want to do’ away with the collectives? Do they want to restore capitalism? Those who raise such objections only show how quickly they have discarded whatever Marxism they once possessed.

The peasant does not need a political motive in order to cut production. He cuts production not because he opposes the Kremlin’s politics, not because he is opposed to the collectives, but because he does not like the bargain offered him by the Kremlin. In return for crops, the regime is unable to guarantee the countryside even such items as salt, matches, kerosene, etc. The peasant replies in his traditional manner.

The Kremlin pictures Soviet industrial growth solely through quantitative indices. Such a one-sided, mechanical approach naturally serves the Kremlin’s, needs. It serves to hide the terrible contradictions, disproportions and all the other evils Stalinist rule accumulates and aggravates. This quantitative approach to Soviet industrial growth has been borrowed from the Stalinists by Deutscher and the Pabloites. They accept uncritically and unthinkingly the Kremlin’s statistics. And the Kremlin has long ago claimed that Soviet economy had reached “comparable levels” to those of advanced capitalist countries.

To be sure, from the standpoint of gross industrial output the Soviet Union is today second only to the United States. The Pabloites forget to add a trifle, namely, that in economics, as in politics, who does it is just as important as what is being done. Stalinist rule has left its indelible imprint on Soviet industrial growth. Here are some of the more important elements.

Bureaucratic rule and management is expressed in the low coefficient of effective use of machinery. It is evidently lowest in Soviet agriculture, where two-thirds of the machinery, by official admission, remained idle, failed to fulfill daily shift-quotas. Technology serves a primary purpose – to save labor time. Soviet labor productivity lags sadly behind “comparable levels” of the more developed countries, with the lag, again, most acute in agriculture.

Stalinist rule is expressed in the aggravation of another key problem of production – quality. Leon Trotsky pointed out that it is “a unique law of Soviet industry that commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the mass consumer.” This holds with as much force today as in the pre-war days when Trotsky made his analysis. Why? Because the mass consumer is still completely without rights. Behind the problem of quality stand not merely questions of technical improvements. It goes far deeper. “Under a nationalized economy,” correctly said Trotsky, “quality demands a democracy of producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative – conditions incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.” These are timely words today.

Bourgeois Norms

Bureaucratic rule finds its expression in the methods of distribution. It employs methods which Trotsky scientifically characterized as bourgeois. Under Stalinism this conflict between bourgeois distribution methods and nationalized economy has led to an unheard-of aggravation between city and country, a monstrous disproportion between production of mass consumer goods and the production of capital goods. As we shall presently see, not even the Stalinists are able today to deny it.

The Pabloites blot out all these elements of Stalinist rule because they do not conform to their scheme of “new Soviet reality.” Yet they are as important a part of Soviet economic life as the quantitative indices of industrial growth.

The bureaucratic rule also finds its expression in the character of Soviet domestic trade.

In every developed country the bulk of trade consists of manufactured goods. Under Stalinism just the opposite is true. Today as in pre-war days, agricultural products account for the bulk of Soviet trade.

Take a recent boast of Mikoyan about “the serious improvement in the structure of our trade turnover.” What does this improvement consist of? “In the pre-war days manufactured goods took 36.9% of the trade turnover of our country, but in 1953 it is – 45.3%,” stated Mikoyan. In other words, at a time when industrial production as a whole has more than doubled, the production of manufactured goods for city and country has stagnated, registering a rise of less than nine percent; agricultural products still remain the bulk of “retail goods” available to the population.

Mikoyan’s boast about Soviet trade turnover indicates in reality that for the mass of the Soviet workers, whose numbers have grown by tens of millions since pre-war days, there has been no marked improvement in living standards. As we know from Mikoyan’s and Khruschev’s admissions, the position of important peasant layers, especially among the oppressed nationalities, has actually worsened in the meantime. But for the bureaucracy, especially its upper echelons, the case has been otherwise. The biggest post-war growth in “manufactured goods” has been recorded precisely in items available exclusively to the bureaucrats, such as autos, champagne, woolen and silk cloth and similar items.

City “Aristocrats“

The widening gulf between the relative comforts of city life and the deprivations of rural existence has created ironical difficulties for the Kremlin. The privileged layers in the villages gravitate toward the urban centers; the bureaucrats, nesting in the towns, resist transfer to the villages. Paralleling the huge turnover of personnel of the Machine and Tractor Stations, collective farm directors and other administrative functionaries, there is the resistance of “specialists” to accept permanent assignments in the countryside. Those forced to go, cling to the nearest town, “commuting” to the collectives or the MTS, transacting their affairs by phone, by speedy auto tours and the like. Needless to add, the incumbent rural bureaucrats are not happy either about these newcomers from the cities.

Simultaneously with the executions of Beria and his aides, the Russian press launched a campaign against “aristocrats,” singling out, under this heading, agronomists, zoologists, technicians, collective-farm directors, regional party secretaries, and others who are balking at transfers into the villages.

The aggravation of the Soviet farm crisis finds its reflection in the constant revision of personnel allocations for “improving” the work and leadership in agriculture. The decrees of Sept. 1953 envisaged sending 100,000 specialists by spring 1954; 6,500 engineer-mechanics and technicians into the MTS “in 1954-55“; and less than 150,000 newly trained skilled machine operators to expand the permanent MTS personnel “in 1954-57.”

Since then Pravda has announced that “over a million” trainees are to be sent into the MTS this year alone. And on Jan. 26, 1954 Pravda stated that in the period since last September: “Into the MTS have been sent more than 21,000 engineers and technicians. To service the collectives, 104,000 agronomists and zoologists have been directed into the MTS.” And this is not hailed as a solution of the targets set but merely referred to as an “aid in raising the work of many MTS.”

The Kremlin’s revelations since last September make it clear that the current farm crisis has been chronic in the post-war period. We did not await these disclosures to point out the situation.

Back in May 1953 we said that “before Stalin died the columns of the Soviet press were dotted with warnings of ‘serious shortcomings,’ ‘oversights,’ ‘pilferings,’ etc. in state-farms, in collective-farms, in spring sowing, preparations of MTS, the lumber industry, the paper industry and so on. The post-Stalin press has multiplied these ‘alarm signals’ in agriculture. The new, consolidated Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Stocks, under Minister Alexei I. Kozlov, is intended to solve this ticklish situation in Soviet agriculture ... The regime was caught by surprise in 1928-29; another shock is in store for the Kremlin incumbents.” (The Militant, May 11, 1953.)

In 1949-50 the policy was followed of amalgamating the collective farms. The chief aim was to do away with the individual peasant land-strips and midget economies. The peasants were to be made dependent for all their income upon the amalgamated collectives, the so-called agro-gorods or agricultural cities. Nikita Khruschev, the incumbent first secretary of the Russian party, was a prime sponsor of this policy. This adventurist measure collapsed because it was purely administrative. The peasants were not supplied with either an efficient management or the requisite flow of manufactured goods.

In September 1953 this same Khruschev presented an agricultural program based on the most sweeping concessions and encouragement since 1924-28 of private, individual peasant households. In other words, from the previous adventurist economic policy, the Kremlin, as it did in the past, has switched to an opportunist economic policy.

Stalin’s death was an incidental factor in this switch. The primary factor was the growth of peasant resistance, marked by admittedly calamitous declines in cattle herds, fodder crops, vegetables and potatoes, etc. At the same time, the lag in consumer goods production became more accentuated because even the miserly targets set under Stalin were not being fulfilled. We are now in position to confirm this by an admission made by Mikoyan in the report we have already quoted.

In the first quarter of 1953, i.e., from January to March, “there took place,” admitted Mikoyan, “a sharp lag in the fulfilment of the adopted plan of trade turnover, which was fulfilled only 94.9%.” This “sharp lag,” further admitted Mikoyan, was not made up in the second and third quarters of 1953, despite the emergency measures taken by Malenkov and Co., “and likewise not fulfilled were the supplementary tasks regarding the trade turnover.”

In this annihilating admission we get an instructive lesson of how false is the Pabloite attempt to judge Soviet industrial growth by quantitative indices alone, without considering the other factors such as the effective use of machinery, the quality of products, especially consumer goods, the methods of distribution, and above all, the nature and role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. These newly fledged apologists for Stalinism know little and understand less about the true Soviet reality.

The Farm Crisis Deepens

Since October the crisis in agriculture has worsened because of an unexpected early winter and severe frosts. Malenkov’s struggle for abundance today comes down to the struggle to save the 1954 crops and prevent even worse shortages than those of recent years. No sooner was the opportunist economic policy proclaimed than it boomeranged. The peasants hastened to save their own crops and cattle at the expense of the collective crops and herds. Since December, Pravda has been “signaling” reports about “alarming” and “downright criminal” neglect of crops and cattle and machines in one region after another.

The Russian press now talks openly about the “renovation” of collective farm administrations, of leading MTS personnel and the introduction of a “new structure of rural regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” (Pravda, Jan. 11, 1954.) References to the “days of the Thirties,” that is, the struggle in the countryside in connection with the “wholesale collectivization,” have become a commonplace in major Russian periodicals.

Talk is reviving of “splinters of hostile classes,” a marked departure from the long-standing Stalinist boast of “the complete elimination of capitalist elements.” Following the blood purges of the Thirties, the Kremlin has talked of bourgeois survivals only “in the mind,” in attitudes and habits; i.e., as a psychological remnant of the past. Significantly, attacks on “bourgeois nationalism” are once again being coupled with charges of “cosmopolitanism,” which in Stalin’s day were synonymous with the propagation of Great Russian chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and an anti-nationalities attitude generally.

The Kremlin’s theoreticians are now openly admitting that “under the conditions of socialism the contradiction between production and consumption remains operative,” and furthermore that “contradictions exist and arise between the productive forces and the productive relations.” In other words, the Kremlin’s academicians are being permitted to recognize “in theory” the grim facts of Soviet reality. They recognize these contradictions only promptly to resolve them “without conflict.” The contradictions do not “arrive at conflict thanks to the correct policy of the Communist Party.” (Pravda, Dec. 7, 1953.) The Stalinist theoretician, it will be noted, skips from economics to politics the moment he touches an admitted contradiction. He takes refuge in the “wisdom” and “authority” of the Kremlin.

The Malenkov Cult

This is the doctrine of individualistic fetishism Stalinism has always artificially inculcated. Under Malenkov, as under Stalin, the sources of success, both real and pretended, are invariably located in the extraordinary quality of the leadership, and not in the conditions of socialized property created by the 1917 revolution. Failures are unloaded on scapegoats. The Pabloites have had much to say about the Kremlin’s cynical disclaimers of “the cult of the individual,” but not a mumbling word, about the equally abominable cult of the Malenkov-led Central Committee.

This same lengthy Pravda article, a condensation of a lecture on dialectical materialism delivered by theoretician Stepanyan before the Academy of Social Sciences attached to the Central Committe of CPSU, contains, ironically enough, a veiled polemic against the Trotskyist program of political revolution in the Soviet Union.

“The new system,” argued Stepanyan, “free from national and racial oppression, secures the equality of people in all spheres of social life. In these conditions there falls away every ground for political revolution and there is created the possibility and necessity, as already Lenin foresaw, for the economic and cultural re-education of the new society in the spirit of communism.” (Same source.)

The latest apologists for Stalinism – from Deutscher through Pablo to Cochran – have arrived on the scene precisely when the Kremlin is crawling out of its skin for plausible arguments in favor of “reform” and “re-education” as against – political revolution. There is no irony more savage than that of history.

The discoverers of the “new Soviet reality” find the ground for the “liberalization” of the post-Stalin regime in its demagogy of abundance, its promises of material concessions. Just the contrary is true.

Every effort of the regime to bridge the “gap” between production and consumption must be accompanied by intensified pressure on the mass of the workers and the peasants to increase production. The Russian press is now harping on “increased production from the existing productive areas” in industry. This squeeze for more production takes place amid growing shortages of foodstuffs and consumer goods. It does not remove but renders more urgent the need for administrative measures, for repressions.

The regime has brought Soviet economy to the brink of cleavage between the city and the village. The farm crisis has already turned” into a crisis of the fifth Five Year Plan. Production targets have been revised not only for light industry but also for all the branches of heavy industry, including the defense and aviation industries. This does not reduce the Kremlin’s need of repressions, but increases it.

Finally, the promises of material concessions are not as benign as they seem. First, it is necessary to safeguard against mass reactions to actual performances as against the glowing but false promises. In the second place, the regime plays with fire in unveiling even a little corner of the true conditions in consumer-goods production. Leon Trotsky explained this many years ago.

“The ulcers of bureaucratism,” he wrote, “are perhaps not so obvious in the heavy industries, but they are devouring, together with the co-operatives, the light and food-producing industries, the collective farms, the small local industries – that is, all those branches of economy which stand nearest to the people ... It is possible to build gigantic factories according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic command – although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow.”

Only the intervention of the masses can really solve the problem of quality of consumer-goods supply. The bureaucracy knows this and is determined to avert this mass intervention at all costs. Hence the continued ferocity of the regime.

Placed in its real context, Stalin’s anti-Semitic purge discloses itself as a projected mass blood-letting to cope with the unfolding farm crisis, the threatening cleavage between city and country, the growing peasant resistance and the growing workers’ discontent. Events have proved that the post-Stalin regime, given its counterrevolutionary character, has no other recourse.

Stalin’s death confronted his “heirs” with the crisis of succession amid an already critical domestic situation. The greatest threat to them was the emergence of the Soviet workers as an independent force. To forestall this it was urgent to create an illusion of self-reform, of a “liberalized” regime ready and willing to make more and more concessions to the masses. Not the least crime of the Pabloites is that instead of exposing and denouncing this vile deception, they are aiding the Kremlin, as best they can, to promote it.

January 1954

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