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Fourth International, January-February 1953


George Clarke

Stalin’s Role – Stalinism’s Future


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.1, January-February 1953, pp.5-13.
Based upon a speech delivered on April 10, 1953 in New York City.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


No man ever more accurately expressed the utter bewilderment of bourgeois thought on the Soviet Union than Winston Churchill when he said that “it (Russia) is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Never was it more apparent that this mystery would remain forever unravelled than at the time of Stalin’s death. On the contrary, his death seemed to shroud the thinking of our most eminent – and “practical” – statesmen in a new cloud of illusions. With an amazing alacrity, John Foster Dulles leaped straight into the occult. The age of Stalin has ended, he proclaimed, the era of Eisenhower begun.

There was no enigma, however, in Dulles’ statement. It came straight from the Propaganda Ministry (Time-Life-Fortune) of the House of Morgan. If the “American Century” had fared badly since the end of the war, its advent was now assured with the passing of “that man.” For Dulles, obviously, the Soviet Union and socialism had no separate existence apart from, Stalin and the bureaucratic dictatorship. Logically, the end of the one was the end of the other. To him, the great economic achievements arising from the planned economy and making the Soviet Union the second industrial power in the world were realized solely by sheer force directed against an unwilling people. Similarly, the bonds that link the Soviet Union to China; to Eastern Europe, to colonial revolt in Southeast Asia, to the mass Communist parties of France and Italy are also maintained by sheer coercion. So now with the passing of the “great tyrannical unifier,” the new world of 800,000,000 peoples would fall apart: Mao Tse-tung would take the road to a “Titoite” purgatory; the countries of Eastern Europe would snap the chains; and the Soviet peoples would probably revolt.

Let no one think that the above was merely an outburst of spontaneous rhetoric on the part of the Secretary of State. That is really how they think in Washington. It took only a few weeks for Dulles’ rhetoric to become official state policy. Eisenhower opened his hapless “peace offensive” by instructing the new Soviet rulers that they were now in a position to do what Stalin had been unwilling or unable to do: to get out of Eastern Europe and Asia, to stop the flow of colonial revolt as though it were control led by a faucet from Moscow, to permit the unification of Germany as part of the anti-Soviet military alliance. That’s all. After that there would be peace.

Nevertheless there appears to have been a sneaking suspicion in the imperialist headquarters that what they call “the Soviet Empire” might not crumble to ruins very quickly. There was a thinly concealed frustration that they were in no position to hasten the process by an immediate military assault and so exploit any weakness or confusion occasioned by the change of rule in the Soviet Union. Eisenhower’s “peace offensive” is obviously intended to do in part by diplomacy what cannot yet be attempted by , more persuasive methods. It is easy to predict that this diplomatic stroke, which has no precise objectives, asks everything and gives nothing, will soon come to grief. Fundamentally, it is based on a historically and socially false premise. It is based on the totally false conception that Stalin like other dictators in the past was the keystone of the Soviet regime, which thus could not long survive his death.

Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin

The Cromwellian regime, for example, lasted some six months after his death in September 1658, and the following year the Stuart Charles II returned to power. Napoleon’s empire fell apart and turned against him after his defeat at Waterloo following a 14-year reign. The Bourbons returned to power in, France. Reaction under the Holy Alliance triumphed in Europe. It takes no daring to predict that neither development will occur now after Stalin’s death. The regime will not crack up in six months, or in many times six months. If an attempt is made to crush the regime in war, it will spell the doom of the capitalist not the socialist world.

This is not because Stalin was a greater figure than Cromwell or Napoleon, or even comparable for his conscious efforts and works on a historical scale. Precisely herein is demonstrated the superiority of Marxist thought over all other. Great men may influence the course of history, but its main direction is determined by material (and class) forces beyond and more powerful than any individual, no matter how great. The social system which Stalin ruled will outlast him because it is far more powerful socially and economically than those dominated by Cromwell or Napoleon, and that is decisive regardless of the striking fact of genius on the one side and mediocrity on the other. Its enemies are far weaker materially and in a historical sense than those which beset the erstwhile rulers of England and France. The new bourgeois property forms were still in the infancy of development under Cromwell’s anti-feudal regime, and were not too much further advanced under Napoleon, and particularly in the Europe conquered by him. In contrast, the socialist-type economic system of the Soviet Union now overshadows in strength and scope those of all other capitalist nations save the United States.

But the greatest reason for the durability of the Soviet regime is a political one, and it is this that extends its life span far beyond the mortality of any ruler. Regardless of political oppression, the rigors of an iron dictatorship, of poverty and burdensome toil, the Soviet regime rests upon new socialist property forms which have entered the consciousness of the masses not as a repetition of old exploitation in new forms, not as a change from feudal lords to capitalist profiteers, but as the road to the future, to the end of all exploitation of man by man. Not all the privileges and plundering of the bureaucracy has been able to undermine this historically justified idea. On the contrary, it is this idea which, with the growing cultural and material strength of the Soviet Union, is more and more undermining the basis for the existence of the bureaucracy.

The death of Stalin presages not the twilight and doom of socialism, but the beginning of the end of Stalinism. This forecast will occasion little joy in capitalist circles. For if the system that is evolving toward socialism is now strong enough to begin to correct its internal distortions, then it derives its strength for reform and change not merely internally but primarily from the irresistible power of the revolutionary proletarian and colonial movements in the capitalist world itself. It is in this sense – which we shall develop later – that the death of Stalin is an evil omen for world capitalism.

Three Decades – and Not a Tear

For those who understand the Marxist method and are able to grasp the real essence of the relationship between the Soviet system and the usurping bureaucracy and of the transitory character of this ruling caste, Stalin’s role is no enigma. It was explained by Trotsky many years ago. Now in the few short weeks after his death, this analysis has been receiving an amazingly rapid confirmation.

Stalin’s rule lasted longer than that of any other single figure in our time – an entire epoch. No other figure remained so long, so constantly in the public eye as he. It was said of Franklin Roosevelt that a generation had grown up not knowing there had ever been another President. But of Stalin, it could perhaps be said that two generations had never known another ruler, another leader of Russia.

Lenin’s regime lasted but seven years; Stalin’s almost three decades. Yet the events following closely upon his death already indicate that never is so prominent an individual being more quickly forgotten. It is as though his memory were an evil thing to be conjured up in anger and hatred of monstrous, untold crimes, for cynically, wantonly inflicting endless suffering and death.

The funeral orations of the triumvirs who fell heir to the bureaucratic rule already spoke volumes on this score. They were far, far from that deeply felt eulogy that is so naturally accorded those who have rendered great services to humanity, who have illuminated the path of progress to be travelled. Malenkov, Beria, Molotov droned on in the same ritualistic way at Stalin’s bier, making the same – and perhaps the last – obeisance to him they had made so often during his lifetime. Their dull, grey style, forcibly stamped on Soviet thought and speech by Stalin himself to maintain his pre-eminence, gave the nightmarish feeling that the deceased ruler was making his last pronouncement through the tongues of three living shadows. There was not a tear in their remarks, not an inspired word, not a cry of pain or anguish, not even a tone of regret – discernible only was fear of their own uncertain future. Nobody swore to Stalin as Stalin had sworn to Lenin when at his grave in 1924 he chanted in an almost medieval litany that he would be true, he would carry on ... Everybody expected, demanded that Lenin’s heirs continue his work. Nobody, to a certain extent not even the bureaucracy itself, wanted that of Stalin’s successors. Their speeches seemed an apology for their long association with the deceased. Beria’s reference to Malenkov’s close links to Stalin had almost the sound of a slur.

On the other side of the world, Mao Tse-tung, in paying his last respects to the departed dictator, bowed in somewhat mock deference to the men who had assumed the title but seemed to be taunting them with Stalin. He seemed to be saying: I had to pay a certain price to him, to make a certain obeisance because he wielded so much power, held the reins so firmly. But which of you is his heir? I rendered to Caesar, that which was Caesar’s. But now Caesar has no successor. Malenkov is official but he is not Stalin.

The Achievements and the Man

Closer to home, the Monthly Review, which has difficulty in distinguishing between criticism of the bureaucratic regime and attacks on the Soviet system, found itself obliged to memorialize Stalin with an apology. “One can argue,” says an editorial (April 1953), “that Stalin’s methods were unnecessarily harsh and ruthless ...” But “it is extremely difficult to believe that any of the other candidates for Lenin’s position (Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin) could have succeeded as Stalin did.” Stalin himself also found this “difficult to believe” and that explains perhaps why he resolved the question by slander and frame-up, by murdering all “the other candidates” and many others. Nevertheless, says Monthly Review, “whatever one may think of his methods, one cannot deny him his achievements.” This of course is the heart of the apology; the nub of the question.

Stalin’s name is associated with the greatest social achievements of our age: with the lifting of Russia, by the methods of socialist planning, from ancient backwardness to a foremost modern, industrial society; with the extension of the foundations of the socialist society to one-third of the world. Were these really his achievements, Stalin, despite all his ruthlessness and brutality, would enter history as one of the world’s great immortals, as great or greater than Marx, Engels or Lenin, for what they projected in theory, or took merely the first step in practice, he would have carried out on a vast arena, solving hitherto unforeseen problems, overcoming titanic difficulties. In fact, were that the case, the four names would be indissociable, the fame of Marx, Engels, Lenin proved and vindicated by the works of Stalin.

This, to be sure, is one of the most complicated questions in modern history – perhaps in all history. How can the achievements of a regime be divorced from the man who held its reins? Or contrariwise, can these achievements be attributed to the very man whose entire life-work was carried on by “harsh and ruthless” methods in mortal antagonism to the very forces who consciously strove for these achievements and in the end made them possible?

A riot of conflicting answers arises from the quest to compress an unmanageable reality into convenient, simple formulas:

  1. Stalin was the architect of industrialisation, of the victory and spread of the revolution.
  2. Stalin had nothing whatever to do with them.
  3. The methods were bad, therefore the achievements are bad – they do not exist.
  4. The methods were necessary, the results are good, therefore they are justified.

The answers are like those given by the blind men about the elephant when they each touched it in a different part. The role of Stalin is only to be discovered by discarding the methods of the blind men of formal logic and empiric thought for the application of the Marxist dialectic of historical materialism to the concrete-ness of Russian conditions which gave rise to the phenomenon of Stalinism.

Strength and Weakness of Russia’s Workers

The Russian working class, small numerically amidst a vast agricultural population living under conditions of semi-feudalism, but strong because of the concentrated organization of Russian industry and because of its socialist consciousness, proved powerful enough to overthrow a weak capitalism whose fate was tied to a rotting Czarist Empire. But the great revolutionary action of October 1917 did not immediately or automatically overcome the backwardness and poverty of Russia. Powerful enough to eliminate the fundamental social causes which produced this backwardness, the proletariat was still too weak to overcome the consequences of this, backwardness which were bound to remain until a new economic structure could be created on a Russian and world scale. It could overthrew Kerensky, defeat Wrangel and Kolchak, hurl back the intervention of the imperialists, but by itself, without the aid of the more advanced working class of western Europe, it was too weak to prevent the rise of the most characteristic phenomenon of backwardness – the rule of bureaucratic overlords, headed by Stalin, on the back of the revolution. If Lenin reflected the strength and greatness of the Russian proletariat, then Stalin was the product of its weakness and of a society weighed down with the inheritance of an almost medieval past.

But the question does not end there. If it did, the Men-sheviks who had predicted dire consequences if Russia dared to skip over the stage of capitalism, would today be an important current in the workers’ movement instead of dopesters and scribblers whose knowledge of Russian permits them to furnish useful bits of information to the press and State Department. Stalin throttled the revolutionary wing of the Russian working class when he smashed the Left Opposition in the Twenties. With that defeat the proletariat as a whole was removed by a bureaucracy as the conscious, guiding force of the revolution and from all direct participation in the state and the economy. But the peculiarity of this development lies in the fact that the victory of reaction was not accompanied by a restoration of capitalism, that the revolution survived this terrible defeat. It not only survived but it even succeeded in making its agent in a distorted and unexpected way the very engineer of the triumphant reaction, Stalin himself. And precisely therein is the key to the enigma of Stalin and Stalinism illuminated and demonstrated again and again by the main chapters of the post-Lenin period of the Russian Revolution.

The Bureaucrats’ Alliance With the Peasantry

The bureaucracy could not simply usurp the state power after Lenin’s death, nor could it find sufficient support for this coup d’etat among the Russian workers, most of whom stood athwart its path in revolutionary hostility. It had to turn for aid to that class which had been the chief beneficiary of the democratic phase of the Russian Revolution, and which, as a capitalist formation, ran the risk of being the chief loser in its socialist phase. Lenin and Trotsky were deeply conscious that the Russian peasantry, like the peasantry in all previous revolutions, could very likely turn against their own revolution and become the tool of the new reaction. For that reason they constantly reiterated that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended on the alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry – and upon a struggle of the poor elements within the peasantry against its more capitalist sections. But they did not envisage the alliance of anti-revolutionary bureaucracy with the peasants, and particularly with its richer members. Stalin’s alliance with Bukharin and Rykov was in its own indirect way the political consummation of that alliance. Within a few years the social force of this alliance proved powerful enough not only to overwhelm the revolutionary sections of the proletariat but to bring the peasantry to the very threshold of power. In 1928-29, the Soviet Union stood on the brink of capitalist restoration.

It was then that the revolution re-asserted itself, forcing Stalin to turn on his former allies, to make war on the very class that had brought him’ to power, to appeal to the proletariat for its aid in saving the revolution and to borrow bag and baggage from the program of the revolutionary representatives of the proletariat, the Left Opposition, whom he had just liquidated in the factional civil war in the party. The revolution turned to the left again. True there was a coincidence of interest between a section of the bureaucracy (which stood to lose all by a defeat of the revolution) and of the Russian working class. But more important was what the events indicated of the power of the revolution: it was not the peasantry which triumphed over the bureaucracy but the proletariat which imposed its historic interests on this bureaucracy, even after its most legitimate representatives had been crushed and defeated.

Superiority Over French Revolution

In this decisive crisis was revealed the immense superiority, historically and socially, of the Russian proletarian revolution over the French bourgeois revolution of the 18th cemtury. After the destruction of the plebeian base of Jacobin power by Robespierre, which opened the gates to the Thermidorean reaction, the French revolution never again moved left. The Thermidor was followed by the Napoleonic Empire which in turn was supplanted by a new rule of the Bourbons, ruling this time to be sure for the bourgeoisie and not for the shattered feudal nobility. The bourgeoisie, through the Thermidor, had definitively triumphed over all the plebeian forces – it no longer needed the revolution.

But the Thermidorean forces of the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy, were compelled in the interests of self-preservation to again arouse the plebeians of the 20th century, i.e., the disciplined, cohesive and socialist-conscious proletariat. It was the working class which was summoned to carry the major brunt of toil and sacrifice in the execution of the Five Year Plans; it was the most hardy and courageous elements of this class which poured into the countryside to implement the vast project of collectivization of agriculture.

The Bureaucracy’s Stolen Privileges

Now having destroyed the peasant base, on which the Bonapartist regime in the Kremlin balanced itself against the working class, the bureaucracy sought once again to achieve its independence from the class it could neither live with nor live without. Once again it struck at the proletariat in the monster purges of the Thirties. In the process; there was created a kind of aristocracy of labor and a managerial and governmental caste enjoying exceptional privileges and a living standard incomparably higher than that of the masses. The caste had gained a certain stability, but it was a transient, crisis-ridden stability.

The new privileges, considerable as they were, could not be converted into property in land or the means of production; they could not be converted into capital, the prime source of wealth and power for a ruling class in the modern world. On the contrary, these privileges derived from a system of property relations, nationalized in form, socialist in essence and inexorably striving toward a greater egalitarianism, from a system, in short, that was the antithesis of the stolen privileges of the ruling caste. In fact, the bureaucracy, except for a few brazen indiscretions from time to time, has sought to conceal its favored position. To this day there are no statistics in the Soviet Union on comparative incomes. Unlike the nouveaux riches of the capitalist world, it dare not indulge in conspicuous waste; it must ever lie about its real situation, it must constantly explains that the inequalities are merely a phase of the transitional epoch, with the inevitable citations from Marx and Lenin.

The Balance Sheet: Promise and Fulfillment

We can now better assess Stalin’s role and place in the post-revolution era. We are led unerringly to one conclusion: despite his physical association with the great works of the revolution, he must go down in history as a usurper, a hangman, hated and despised:

  1. Stalin came to power promising an end to the rigor’s of civil war that marked the Lenin-Trotsky era, promising a slowing down of the revolution, the most gradual transition to socialism (wich would be built “at a snail’s pace”) and the harmonious collaboration of all classes with exceptional favors to the peasantry (this was the meaning of the endless refrain in the early days that Trotsky was “underestimating the peasantry”).

    Within four-five years, Stalin turned into the direct opposite, converting the Soviet Union into a vast battlefield of civil war for the collectivization of agriculture. More lives were lost in its panicky bureaucratic execution (of a correct program) through violence, economic dislocation, famine than in all the earlier years of revolution, counter-revolution, civil war against the White Guards and against foreign intervention. Thus Stalin’s role in the monumental transformation of Russia, agriculturally and industrially, is characterized first by the betrayal of the promise on which he rose to power and second, for its barbarousness and total callousness for human life.
  2. To create the socialist economic foundations that would save the regime from capitalist restoration, Stalin turned to the proletariat demanding tremendous sacrifices from it for industrial construction which were made with the greatest heroism, devotion and self-abnegation. Again Stalin had borrowed from Trotsky’s program of “permanent revolution” but again it was applied in panic entailing the most frightful waste, incompetence and the consequent unnecessary suffering on the part of the people.

    In the end, however, the proletariat discovered that the sacrifices had not been equally made by all sections of Soviet society, that a bureaucracy was battening off the new wealth created by economic growth, and finally that it had been shorn of all means of self-defense against the arbitrary power, the arrogance of this uncontrolled bureaucracy.
  3. Stalin rose to power promising peace to a war-weary, revolution-weary Russian people. There would be “socialism” for them in “one country,” there would be an end to Trotsky’s “world revolution adventurism.” This was all to be achieved by avoiding any revolutionary clashes with capitalism by making a state polity of international collaboration or “cohabitation” with world capitalism.

In the interim between the two wars, he succeeded in averting, damming up and even contributing to the suppression of the revolutionary clashes with capitalism on a national scale (in Germany, France, Spain). But he could not avoid the most fatal of all the clashes, that which involved the Soviet Union itself on an international scale in World War II, and which was made possible in part by Stalin’s “peace” policy itself. Far from the bringing of an era of durable “peace” and indefinite cohabitation of the two systems, as Stalin again promised, the war gave new and unprecedented impetus to the revolutionary encounters of proletarians and colonial peoples on two continents, and then once again came the ever impending danger of a far bigger conflict with world imperialism on a global scale.

In brief:


The Most Consummate Opportunist

Stalin cannot receive credit for being forced to do the very opposite of what he intended and promised. He can only earn eternal ignominy for using barbaric methods directly at variance with the aims to be achieved, and used for privilege-seeking, power-seeking purposes. He goes down in history as the most consummate, ruthless opportunist of all times. All suffered from this opportunism – the left and the right, the peasantry and the proletariat, various sections of the bureaucracy itself at different times, important battalions of the world proletariat. Stalin’s role was fundamentally a barrier to the progress of the Russian Revolution in the post-Lenin era. Its achievements are consequently a victory over his opportunism – it was not he who led the revolution, but the revolution which impressed him unwillingly into its service, at tremendous cost to itself. The honor for the achievements will one day be accorded to the men Stalin liquidated because it was their program, their prescience which made these achievements possible.

Stalinism – Doctrine of Reactionary Epoch

The death of Stalin prefigures the end of Stalinism. This applies uniquely to the Georgian tyrant and not at all to the great revolutionary figures to whose succession he forcibly, falsely laid claim and which he forced an entire state and people to recognize. Marxism did not die with Marx; nor Leninism with Lenin, nor Trotskyism with Trotsky. In their cases, the mortal man was only the physical frame for immortal doctrine and works. But if the ideas of these towering figures became more powerful, more acceptable after their death it is because their genius consisted in being able to divine the future through analysing the past and understanding the present. They were, so to speak, ahead of their times, which means they were in tune with human progress.

Stalinism, on the other hand, was already dying before the demise of its foremost spokesman. That was because it was not a doctrine, not a system of ideas, not a universal world-outlook, above all, not a science. If the world philosophy can be sufficiently distorted, Stalinism might be called a philosophy of conservatism and defeatism. Like Stalin himself, it was the product of a specific epoch, the rationalization of a temporary phenomenon, the making of a virtue out of necessity. Far from foreseeing the future, it tried to enclose the past into the present, and to perpetuate the present into the future. It was out of tune with human progress, standpat, regressive, reactionary.

Defeats, the backwardness of Russia, its isolation and encirclement by a still powerful capitalist world brought Stalinism into being. It gradually came to the conclusion, then made it a state doctrine, that the victory of the socialist revolution was impossible anywhere else in the world. Any attempt at revolution, they believed and decreed, would lead only to defeat and then to war against the Soviet Union. The duty of the Communist parties was therefore restricted to placating or pressuring their bourgeoisie, and to wait – to wait until after socialism was completely built in the USSR, to wait until the end of that historic period when socialism wou’ld prove so attractive, so superior a system that capitalism would fall of its own weight. But since the USSR was encircled by mortal enemies, endangered all the time, there, had to be an iron discipline in the country, ther.e had to be a bureaucracy for this function, to protect and supervise the masses and thus to shepherd them into socialism (and naturally, it expected to be properly rewarded).

That was the epoch of crushing defeats from China to Spain: It was crowned with the triumph of Hitler and the Nazi conquest of Europe. It was the epoch when the Soviet Union was stained with the blood of revolutionists as the night of Stalinist terror descended over the bureaucrats’ Socialism in One Country. That epoch lasting almost twenty years came to an end with World War II.

The War Changes Everything

Surprised by the war, and particularly by the attack of his erstwhile ally, Adolf Hitler, Stalin wanted no more than the defeat of Germany and Japan – these were his total war-aims, all McCarthyite raving to the contrary notwithstanding – and the resumption of the pre-war collaboration with “peace-loving,” “democratic” capitalism. The goal was attained, but it proved more than Stalin had bargained for.

The defeat of the two main bastions of reaction in Europe and Asia, the exhaustion of British and French capitalism, the disruption of their colonial systems opened the floodgates to the greatest revolutionary torrent in history. It passed through the very channels the Kremlin had so laboriously, so villainously constructed to divert the tide – that is, through Communist parties themselves. The Kremlin denounced, exhorted, pleaded, sabotaged, made secret deals with the enemies of the revolution, but there was no damming the tide; it came on irresistibly. The contrast with the pre-war epoch is overwhelming.

In 1924, shortly after Stalin’s ascent to power, there was a revolutionary crisis in Germany induced by the effects of the Kaiser’s defeat in World War I, the depredations of the victorious Versailles powers, by raging inflation, by economic stagnation. At this juncture, Stalin sent a discouraging communication to the young, inexperienced German Communist Party seeking to dissuade it from bold, revolutionary action. Such, he admonished, could only lead to defeat, and, in any case, the Russians were too weak to come to their aid if their successful action should be subject to military intervention from the imperialist states. The effects of the letter were to create confusion, uneasiness and restraint in a situation where clarity and audacity were prerequisites. The opportunity was missed – and eventually became one of the causes that paved the way for Hitler.

Twenty years later, in an interview in Moscow, Stalin gave the same type of advice to Tito whose partisan forces were fighting a civil war in Yugoslavia. A year or two later, and then again in 1948 he gave the Chinese Communists the benefit of the same wisdom. (The pertinent facts of these incidents have now been made public by Tito. They are quoted elsewhere in this issue in a review of Vladimir Dedijer’s biography of the Yugoslav leader.) The Yugoslavs listened intently to Stalin’s advice, and the Chinese even agreed. Then they went back home and ... did the opposite – led their armed forces in victorious struggle against reactionary enemies and conquered state power.

In the interim there developed another unexpected turn of events, particularly for Stalin, in Eastern Europe. He began, at the termination of the Second World War, by attempting to maintain the entire area as a military buffer zone of friendly states, occupied or protected by Soviet troops; and also as an area that could be utilized for political bargaining and commercial transactions with western capitalism. He was obliged, only a few years later, to reverse this policy completely and thus to uproot capitalism root and branch in one-third of Europe. Next to the Chinese Revolution, the creation of these new, deformed workers’ states became a chief cause of imperialist preparations for World War III, which Stalin’s entire anti-revolutionary policy had sought to avert.

China Shakes the World and ... Stalinism

Sic transit gloria mundi! Thus ended two myths – as unquestionable for two decades as Papal Bulls!

  1. Stalin’s infallibility: If communists fought for power, they couldn’t win, among other reasons because he wouldn’t help them, and certainly because he’d help them lose. He tried to help them lose in Yugoslavia and China – but they fought anyway, and won.
  2. Socialism in One Country: This was the theory that there could not and should not be revolutions anywhere else in the world until the USSR had entered the realm of communism; and that therefore the working class and colonial peoples of the world were merely accessories to the Kremlin.

Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe called the theory into question.

China! China shook the world, and put an end to the theory forever. Without Stalin’s help, against his advice, despite his sabotage and secret deals with Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Tse-tung overthrew capitalist rule over one-fifth of the world’s population, undermining imperialism beyond repair.

When Stalin signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1950 binding him to the defense of the Chinese Revolution against any attack – the first time he had ever agreed to defend anything but the Soviet Union and the bureaucracy – he officially signed the death warrant of his most precious theory. Not only was another revolution given equal footing with that in the Soviet Union, but added to the treaty either as a secret clause or a separate understanding was the agreement that henceforth Mao Tse-tung would be empowered with the right of CODIRECTION OF THE WORLD STALINIST MOVEMENT.

Stalin’s speech at the 19th Congress of the Russian Communist Party last October, which received little attention in the capitalist press, was in effect a last testament and a public admission of the bankruptcy of his theory and practice of Socialism in One Country. He went to considerable pains to prove that the Soviet Union (meaning his Bonapartist clique) had aided the struggle for socialism by defeating Germany and Japan in the war. He admitted that the Soviet Union was dependent on the workers of the world. His plea for their help in the event of war was motivated on the grounds that by so doing they would in reality be aiding their own struggle for socialism.

So universally recognized was the demise of Stalin’s theory that the new Soviet rulers cast it into the grave as much a cadaver as their dead leader. Not one of the three funeral orators even made passing reference to the theory that ‘had once been called an earthshaking contribution to Marxism. But all three gave Stalin credit for “proletarian internationalism,” which he had fought like an enraged beast during his lifetime.

Changes in the Soviet Union

Since the end of the war, the world has changed as much inside the Soviet Union as outside. Stalin had seized power over the Soviet state in a backward country with an illiterate ‘people, only a small minority of whom were industrial workers. Today the Soviet Union properly boasts of one of the largest working classes in the world, of a comparatively cultured people, an educated youth, technicians, scientists, (despite all the artists still in uniform). The foundations and raison d’etre of the bureaucratic regime are being steadily undermined by the constant creation of an abundance of the very qualities which the bureaucracy had once enjoyed as a tiny minority and for which it commanded such a high price for its services. Thus, if for the sake of argument, we were to grant that Stalin had made this world, then it was unmaking him and Stalinism before his death.

Already at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in Malenkov’s report and in Stalin’s booklet on the problems of the Soviet economy there was a sharp reflection of these changes in the Soviet Union which took the form of a subdued clash between the new proletarian and intellectual critics and their bureaucratic overlords. Basically, despite the utmost care to disguise this criticism in language that would pass the censors in a police regime, the criticism revolved around three primary questions: the standard of living; the privileges of the bureaucracy and inequalities in income; the iron dictatorship – a theme obviously discussed as is apparent from the constant attacks against those expounding Marx’s conception of “the withering away of the state.” (For more extended treatment of these questions, the reader is referred to studies by Ernest Germain and Michel Pablo on the Congress in the last issue of Fourth International.)

At the Congress, the Kremlin seemed prepared to make some concessions to the masses and its critics by the fiercest verbal assaults against bureaucracy heard in many a year, by an attempt to renovate the Communist Party as an instrument of control against certain sections of the bureaucracy, and by granting certain rights to the rank and file – within very strict limits, naturally – against some of their more arbitrary, arrogant masters. Although the cause and intent were clear, the proposals were more than somewhat vague. But before the new program could even begin to go into operation, the Kremlin seemed suddenly to change its mind, and the stage was being set for a new vast purge initiated by the arrest of the nine doctors, followed by the typical screaming denunciations of “bourgeois nationalists,” “swindlers,” “deviationists,” “the scum of old oppositions,” and with the Jews beginning to figure as major scapegoats. It appeared that a policy df concessions was an untracked wilderness for the bureaucracy while the purge was a well-trodden path.

Into the midst of this impending purge, there broke Stalin’s death. At once all bets were off, all signals changed or changing. The problems remained the same as before his death: the conflict between the parasitism of the bureaucracy with the needs of the nationalized economy; the conflict of the masses and the new intellectual strata with the bureaucracy; the pressure from all strata of Soviet society for greater democracy and freedom. But the relationships had now altered within the bureaucracy, and thereby, to a certain extent, between the bureaucracy and the people.

Position and Problems of the New Regime

The new rulers, none of them inheriting Stalin’s position of unquestioned power, none viewed by each other and the bureaucracy as a whole as a court of last resort, each fearing the other and all fearing the masses – they drew back from the purge as from a plague. Obviously none would entrust the execution of the purge to the other, as it might very well mean his own execution; and none was strong enough to force it without the agreement of the others. The more compelling motive that decided the course of the Stalin succession was its relationship to the Soviet masses. The new regime had first to consolidate its position, to win a measure of support for itself among the people. Above all, it had to pacify discontent, else all the oppositional forces gathering before Stalin’s death but then restrained by the apparent strength of the regime might now break loose because of its apparent weakness.

Malenkov had apparently been bestowed with the high title, but it was also apparent that he could not play the role of Stalin. For if the conditions, internally and internationally, that made it possible for Stalin to continue as the supreme arbiter were being undermined before his death, then the circumstances were even more unfavorable to attempt to build up a successor for that position. Consequently, the new regime was obliged to recognize that the monolith no longer gives the same appearance of omnipotent power, that it can no longer act in the same way as in the past. The “iron unity” of the bureaucracy under a single head, has now been supplanted by a coalition of representatives of the various sections of the bureaucracy: party, state, army, secret police, economy. The new talk in the Soviet press about “collective leadership,” the diatribes against the evils of “one-man leadership” are a reflection of the existence and needs of this coalition.

Its first need was to gain support for the coalition as a whole, while each section of the bureaucracy secretly is seeking to gain support for itself as against the other’s, and for this purpose it was essential that the new regime present an appearance of benevolence to the masses. In this, the new rulers have not been averse to casting off the “Stalin tradition” as if it were an old rag. This began immediately at the funeral. All three pretenders for power promised an improvement of living conditions – there was not even the vaguest hint of such a promise at the 19th Congress. Beria went one step further and promised the safeguarding of the rights of Soviet citizens – the keynote at the 19th Congress was vigilance and more vigilance (i.e. coercion and repression). No sooner was the corpse disposed of than began the series of measures which some journalists compared to “the 10 days that shook the world.” This is undoubtedly a tremendous exaggeration, but they were correct in an intuitive feeling that the new measures were pregnant with the most significant change.

Four Steps That Startled the World

Stalin had enlarged, extended and diffused the dominant organisms of the regime apparently to permit his heir-apparent, Malenkov, better possibilities of single-handed control. The first act of the new regime was to combine and reduce the size of these leading committees so as to thwart Malenkov and divide the power among several. This was followed by Malenkov’s resignation from the powerful party secretariat, and then by the return of Marshal Zhukov, “the hero of Berlin,” whom Stalin had sent into obscurity – thus further diffusing the power by bringing the army into a more prominent position.

The second act of the regime was to fulfill its promise for an amelioration of living conditions by a drastic reduction in prices. The burden of Stalin’s economic “masterpiece,” which only a few weeks before had been advertised as the greatest contribution to socialist thought since Marx, was that any real improvement in the standard of living had to wait until the advent of communism.

The third act was to reverse the direction toward a new purge, taken after the 19th Congress under Stalin’s guidance, by the proclamation of a general amnesty. True, the amnesty measure stopped short of those sentenced for “counter-revolutionary” crimes (which naturally includes the genuine revolutionary opponents and critics of the regime), and the newspapers immediately issued the usual warnings against “Trotskyists and Bukharinists.” But it must be remembered that the new regime was seeking support to protect itself, not committing suicide.

The fourth act and most startling of all the measures was the release of the imprisoned doctors who had been given a one-way ticket to “liquidation.” More important even than their exoneration was the accompanying official admission that a frame-up had been perpetrated, that confessions had been extorted by coercion, that anti-semitism had been used as an official method. It was an unprecedented action, a direct blow at the very foundations of Stalinist rule – at the infallibility of the regime, at its barbaric method of settling differences with political opponent’s and of maintaining power. It raised doubts about the Moscow Trials and about the Rostov, Rajk and Slansky trials in Eastern European countries; it raised doubts about Stalin’s methods of dealing with the national question which Malenkov, Beria and Molotov had sworn to uphold and continue in their speeches at Stalin’s funeral. Finally, the indictment of high police officials for persecuting the doctors, regardless of the maneuvers it served in the clique struggle at the top, reversed the process begun after the 19th Congress which took the form of a police hunt of “dissolute intellectuals.”

Masses Observe Cracks in the Monolith

Undoubtedly the masses – who have developed that acute sensitivity of change of all peoples living in a dictatorship – saw in these measures the first crack in the monolith, its essential weakness, the differences, antagonisms and clique struggle for power. They probably speculated that the amnesty decree was a blow against Beria who had been responsible for the imprisonments over the last five years covered by the decree. They probably reckoned that the vindication of the doctors was a blow against Malenkov (and Stalin) who had charged Beria and the security organs with “lack of vigilance” at the time of the doctors’ arrest. These signs prefigure the end of the Stalinist dictatorship. They announce the coming entry of the Soviet masses onto the political arena. When the top bureaucrats, to settle the conflicts in their own ranks, are compelled to appeal to the masses for support, then its inevitable counterpart must be an attempt by these masses to utilize the conflict among the bureaucrats to put an end to all bureaucratic rule.

Trotsky wrote in 1929, when it appeared that the wealthy peasantry was gaining the upper hand in the Thermidorean coalition, that the film of history was unwinding backwards toward a capitalist restoration in the USSR. Today, it can be said that its direction is reversed and is now unwinding toward socialist democracy in the USSR. Not at once, to be sure, and not rapidly. There will probably still be many ups and downs, many conflicts between the masses and the bureaucracy, new outbreaks of violence, coercion and probably even purges, and the entire process in all likelihood will pass through a Third World War. But its direction is indisputable, its outcome is inevitablenot the restoration of capitalism, but the return of socialist democracy on a far higher level.

Es schwindelt” (it makes one dizzy), Lenin said to Trotsky soon after October, in remarking about the enormous transformation that had brought them out of the obscurity of exile to the helm of the first workers’ state.

Es schwindelt” to contemplate the vast changes opening now which the generation of Marxists today shall still see in their lifetime.

New Relations in Anti-Imperialist Camp

What the Russian workers are beginning to see about the new regime, although they are not yet able to act upon their conclusions, can also be seen in other parts of the anti-imperialist camp, and this is beginning to determine a new attitude to the Kremlin. It was of considerable symbolic significance that Mao Tse-tung was the only leader of the bloc of workers’ states who did not go to Moscow to pay homage to the dead leader and directly establish his relationships with the new ones. He seemed to be saying that his debts were not so large that they could not be discharged by a subordinate; that there was no single leader powerful enough with whom to negotiate, that he would deal with all of them together and with each of them against the other.

But on the contrary, the new Kremlin rulers seemed to feel far more constrained to make public display of their friendship for revolutionary China and Mao than he to them. They were openly recognizing China’s position of co-direction that Stalin had already acknowledged in fact. All of the funeral orators singled out China for special, laudatory mention. Malenkov forged the photograph of the signing of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty to eliminate all other participants but he, Mao and Stalin.

Even more substantial in concessions to Mao was the new trade agreement with the Soviet Union which is extremely favorable to China. And finally – it was China that took the lead in the new peace offensive. Previously it was Malik who had made the peace offering on Korea; then it was Vishinsky who rejected the Indian proposal before the Chinese could speak. This time Chou En-lai made the proposals which were then seconded and supported by Molotov.

These are no isolated, episodic events. They are signs of a new relationship of forces in which the Kremlin no longer holds single, undisputed leadership; they are part of a process which must eventually and inevitably pass through the rest of the new anti-capitalist world, into Eastern Europe and that must “liberate,” as Pablo wrote (Militant, April 6) “the centrifugal tendencies ... in the leadership of the Communist parties in vassalage or tied to the Kremlin.”

The Coming Vindication of Trotskyism

Trotsky predicted that the victories of the revolution in other parts of the world would bring about the downfall of Stalinism. But because these victories have thus far occurred in backward countries and under the leadership of Stalinist-type parties, the process is taking different forms than Trotsky envisaged but the content is the same. The rise of new workers’ states, the spread of the colonial revolutions – joined to the modernization of the Soviet Union – is having the effect of loosening the bonds of the Stalinist monolith internally. And this must eventually react to loosen the bonds of the monolith on a world scale.

Will the process take the form of a violent upheaval against bureaucratic rule in the USSR? Or will concessions to the masses and sharing of power – as was the long course in the English bourgeois revolution in the political relationship between the rising bourgeoisie and the declining nobility – gradually undermine the base of the bureaucracy? Or will the evolution be a combination of both forms? That we cannot now foresee. But tbat this process means not the end of socialism, but its great renaissance – that is certain.

Now there can no longer be any doubt that history will provide a supreme vindication for the long, indomitable struggle for the ideas and program of Trotskyism, the science of working class victory. Whatever its form, whatever its direction, whatever the unforeseen twists and complications of the reality – it will come.

This is to be affirmed not only in revolutionary optimism – for which there was never more reason in the hundred-year history of Marxism. It is affirmed as an incontrovertible verity, a scientific truth beyond argument.

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Last updated on: 29 March 2009