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Fourth International, March-April 1953


George Clarke

Shake-up in the Kremlin


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.2, March-April 1953, pp.59-61.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Writing about events since Stalin’s death a scant four months ago is almost like describing a scene from a fast-moving train. Change has been heaped on change with such rapidity as to allow little time to assimilate all the details or the full importance of any one development. But what cannot be mistaken, even viewing history-in-the-making from within, so to speak, is the direction it is taking. In a speech delivered some three months ago we stated that the film of history in the USSR “is now unwinding toward socialist democracy in the USSR. Not at once, to be sure, and not rapidly. There will probably 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 inevitable – not the restoration of capitalism, but the return of socialist democracy on a far higher level.’’ (See F.I., Vol.XIV, No.11, p.12)

Elsewhere in this issue Michel Pablo chronicles the amazing series of measures initiated by the new Soviet rulers in the USSR and the border states which constituted the first steps in this direction and which, as we pointed out, have had “the effect of loosening the bonds of the Stalinist monolith ...” For the first few months, the impression was created that a reform administration was in the saddle, that it would peacefully liberalize the regime from the top. Isaac Deutscher came to the quick conclusion in an otherwise intelligent, topical book on post-Staliin Russia that a kind of bureaucratic Fabianism was developing which would take the USSR through gradual change and transition to socialist democracy. In his search for the most comforting solutions, Deutscher overlooked the most important factor – the intervention of the masses into this process, he underestimated the other significant factor – the conflict within the bureaucracy itself, and he failed to see the connection between the two. There was to be no long argument over this question. Wlithin a few weeks history rushed in to make the needed correction.

The first corrective came in Berlin and in all of Eastern Germany when an industrial working class asserted its place in the process by massive strikes and demonstrations that forced a tottering regime to grant unprecedented concessions. The second was the arrest of Lavrenti Beria, the gathering purge of his henchmen throughout the territories of the USSR, and the sudden prominence of the high army command openly throwing its full weight in support of the purge.

The two developments are internally connected, like one link of chain to another. Let us briefly retrace this swift train of events. Cognizant of the vast discontent prevalent in the USSR even before the death of Stalin, who had repressed it with an iron hand, his successors could find no other means to cope with this discontent than a series of reform measures, which by a certain liberalization of the regime, would more firmly ensconce them in power. The limits of this reform program were set at the borders of Great Russia. Sweeping changes were promised in the funeral orations of the three main figures of the new directorate, but beyond renewed declarations of “friendship” the status quo would remain in the satellite countries.

Once set into motion, however, the new trend began to develop a momentum of its own and quickly swept beyond the prescribed borders. Georgia, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and other Russian republics with their explosive national problems, came within the scope of the “new course.” The long-established Stalinist policy of Russification was vehemently denounced, the top administrations of the states were thoroughly shaken up. On July 10th the “new course” was proclaimed for Eastern Germany, and after the big struggles of the following week it made its appearance in Hungary, and partially in Czechoslovakia and Rumania.

Was this new policy the common decision of the entire directorate or was it an attempt by Beria, partly in response to pressure from below, to strengthen his personal machine in the struggle for power in the top circles? It is too early yet to answer this question. But most likely it was a combination of both factors. What is clear is that the new regime, regardless of its apprehensions could not proceed to a policy of concessions without also attempting to appease the explosive discontent among the non-Russian peoples. It knew it was playing with fire but it could not inaugurate the new reign with a contradictory policy of “liberalism” for the Great Russians and undiminished repression for the Ukranians and the other nationalities. Is it too extreme to believe that the attempt to pursue such a policy would have produced events similar to those in Germany and Czechoslovakia? Is it unreasonable to assume that the masses in these areas, unalterably hostile to the Great-Russian rulers in the Kremlin, encouraged by the weaknesses revealed in the central power after Stalin’s death, goaded by the failure to receive any concessions would have found their way to some form of action?

In any case this is precisely what occurred in Eastern Germany. The shift of Soviet occupation command from General Chuikov to the civilian Semionov aroused considerable speculation as to weakness and differences in the Kremlin; the restriction of the June 10th “new course” to the middle class, the church and the peasantry while intensifying the speed-up in the factories spurred the working class to its stirring, heroic struggles of June 16-17.

Two questions, fraught with the greatest dangers for the top bureaucracy, remained unanswered after the East German revolt whose suppression was complemented by the granting of substantial concessions to the workers, and then extending some of them to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. First, would the German events become an example for all Eastern Europe and eventually for the disaffected areas in the Soviet Union. Second, was Beria committing the most unpardonable of sins in the bureaucratic world, that of arousing the masses in order to build his own personal machine?

We do not intend here to discuss the far-reaching ramifications of the clique struggle in the Kremlin. The cliques, however are not arbitrary formations of personal followers of contending aspirants for power but represent distinct segments of the bureaucracy each with its own specialized interests. The conflict among them was temporarily halted, or at least muted, to prevent “panic” and “disarray,” as the official announcement put it after Stalin’s death. It broke out again as a reaction to the German events and the dangers of playing too fast and loose with the tinder box which is the national question in the USSR. That is the meaning of the principal charge levelled against Beria, that he was “stirring up hostility” among the various peoples of the USSR and of fosterling “bourgeois nationalism.” It also explains the promotion of the notorious Hilde Benjamin to the post of Minister of Justice in Eastern Germany, an action that symbolizes the mailed fist under the silk glove.

In their recoil at the brink of the disastrous possibilities created by the reform policy, the other quarrelling members of the directorate seem to have momentarily consolidated their forces. They appear to be attempting to rigorously limit, concessions so as to alleviate living conditions but to prevent any direct, independent intervention of the masses in the process; and to regain some of Stalin’s monolithic control by dealing more decisively with officials who have shown “weakness” in the face of popular opposition.

They cannot go too far or for too long along this road – not without provoking the greatest convulsions. That is indicated by the eclecticism of the present zig-zag where new slogans and policies still mingle with old ones, and when it is still not clear whether the emphasis is to be on concessions or repressions, or how the balance lis to be struck between them. The revolutionary climate, however, in the world at large militates against the simple re-establishment of the Stalin autocracy. The new confidence, and in all likelihood, the new independent organization gained by the workers of Eastern Germany from their battles and – yes! – from their partial victory, encouraging similar movements in other countries militates against it. No matter how sweeping the new purges, if the bureaucracy now dares venture on such a perilous road, it cannot create a new Stalin, that is, a recognized empire who alone could bring, “order” out of the ensuing chaos. On the contrary, such a purge would have the oposite effect from that of the Thirties when the Kremlin carried out its bloody work amidst reaction in the world and passivity at home. Today the bureaucracy could not go through such a crucible without weakening itself fatally.

The political revolution that will eventually bring into being not a capitalist restoration but a revival of socialist democracy is already foreshadowed by two major trends now observable: conflicts within the bureaucracy and the intervention of the masses. The attempt of the bureaucracy to appease the masses with concessions has brought the masses onto the arena with their own demands whose logic is the death of bureaucracy. The intervention of the masses is provoking a struggle in the bureaucracy, when stripped down to its essentials, it will be revealed as a conflict between those determined to continue the policy of reform, and those who want to return to the policy of repression. The conflict cannot any longer be decided within the bureaucracy itself. There is now a “third man” to be reckoned with – the masses, whose presence is ever more keenly felt, whose demands become ever more articulate and insistent. This is the new force that will prevent the post-Stalin rulers from reconsolidating the monolith, that will sow the deepest divisions among them.

One section of the bureaucracy, because of its training, its attachments, because it is therefore more susceptible to pressure from below and to the needs of Soviet society – and, in the interest of sheer self-preservation – may attempt in the ensuing struggles to mobilize the masses for their own bureaucratic aims. In the course of that struggle the masses will devise their own program which will signify the end of all bureaucratic rule. More likely is the possibility that goaded by their discontents, encouraged by the more apparent weaknesses of the regime, the masses will utilize the divisions on the top and the consequent greater freedom of action to launch their own independent struggles. They will find spokesmen reflecting their needs and aspirations and draw a section of the bureaucracy behind them in the struggle to re-establish workers’ democracy.

Barring the outbreak of war which would postpone the process and give it new forms, we believe these to be the most probable variants of the developing political revolution. This corresponds, in our opinion, to a scientific description of the bureaucracy. It is not a class but a caste. It owes its existence not to a special role it plays in the process of production, such as ownership of property or of capital, but rather to a historically episodic, transitory relationship of forces.

True, its privileges are considerable, but these consist purely of the objects of personal consumption and hence do not provide the cohesion that derives from ownership of the means of production. True, its power is enormous, as we know. But this power is based on the weakness of the proletariat which at a given moment lacks sufficient strength numerically, economically, culturally to prevent the usurping privilege-seekers from seizing control of the instruments of rule. In an epoch of revolutionary crisis the relationship of forces and strength becomes reversed. At such times it is the heterogeneity even of propertied ruling classes that becomes uppermost and manifests itself in indecision, in a proliferation of programs and parties. For a bureaucratic caste, this must be infinitely more true.

Naturally, we cannot yet speak with all the necessary concreteness of the laws of proletarian political revolutions which are a new phenomena in history and whose specific features will become fully clear in the unfoldment of the events themselves. Trotsky’s dialectic approach to the problem bears repetition. Writing in 1936 on the eve of the great purges, he said the following in answer to the Webbs whose views were not altogether dissimilar to Deutscher’s today:

“Will the bureaucracy itself, in whose hands the power and the wealth are concentrated, wish to grow peacefully into socialism? As to this doubts are certainly permissible. In any case, it would be imprudent to take the word of the bureaucracy for it. It is impossible at present to answer finally and irrevocably the question in what direction the economic contradictions and social antagonism of Soviet society will develop in the course of the next three, five or ten years. The outcome depends upon a struggle of living social forces – not on a national scale, either, but on an international scale. At every new stage, therefore, a concrete analysis is necessary of actual relations and tendencies in their connection and continual interaction.” (Revolution Betrayed, pp.48-49.)

The rise and fall of bureaucratic leaderships is not, however, a new phenomena in the workers’ movement, and something can be learned from studying some of these past experiences. While not exact, therefore, because they deal with castes in a workers’ movement and not in state power, analogies with such developments in trade unions and working class parties can throw an important light on the question.

There is, for example, the case of the powerful bureaucratic machines of the Social Democracy built up in the epoch before the 1917 Russian Revolution. Its retainers were united by considerable privileges acquired over a number of decades and deriving from a relatively unchallenged control of a vast workers’ movement. Their reaction to the upsurge sparked by the Bolshevik Revolution can be described in two stages. In the first, the German Social Democracy, under Noske and Scheidemann, met the workers’ uprising head-on and suppressed it. But as the upsurge continued for a number of years, a differentiation began to occur and the bureaucracy divided and broke up. Under the sustained pressure of the passes, sections and in some cases even entire groupings came over to the Russian Revolution and to the communist movement. For some of these elements, the revolutionary developments turned out to be a far stronger motive force than their personal privileges and power. For others, the entry into the revolutionary camp was considered the best maneuver for the moment to ultimately regain their past perquisites. And, indeed, when the upsurge subsided, many returned to the fleshpots of class collaboration. But the process as a whole caused the irrevocable decline of imperialist social democracy and the rise of the then revolutionary communist movement. What is important in this analogy is not any exact parallel to be drawn with the process of break-up and overthrow of a privileged bureaucracy in a workers’ state. It is rather the underlying social similarity in both cases of the dominant labor-based caste which makes it far more subject than any ruling class to internal corrosion and division under the tumultuous movements and pressures of the masses in a revolutionary period. The analogy thus permits a better insight into the dynamics of the political revolution. It indicates at least some of the channels the awakened masses will, by their very appearance on the political scene, create and then seek to exploit for larger aims. Above all it provides confidence in the certainty of their ultimate triumph in re-establishing socialist democracy.

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