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International Socialism, Winter 1961


Notes of the Quarter

1. Khrushchev’s Congress


From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, pp.1-2.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The festive role for which the 22nd Congress of the Russian Communist Party was originally cast came badly unstuck in debate. Millennial talk played diminuendo to the Russo-Chinese conflict (the Russo-Albanian one in public) and to the struggle between the pro-Khrushchev bureaucracy and the Anti-Party Group. The heavy symbolism surrounding the conflicts – Chou En-lai’s wreath ‘To Stalin, the Great Marxist-Leninist’, his withdrawal in mid-Congress, Mao’s presence at the airport to welcome him, the constant attack on lilliputian Albania, the sustained public humiliation of a group that, from the speeches, counted no more than a handful – all this would be ludicrous were it not for the deep-going crises racking the eastern bloc.

Let us try to disentangle the elements of crisis once again, hoping that readers will forgive some repetition of our note on the subject in IS3 of last Winter.

First and most important is ‘peaceful coexistence’. The issue came to a head in 1957 after Russia’s successful launching of the sputnik when she had attained manifest parity in the ‘balance of terror’. For the Russian bureaucracy, parity meant a number of things. It meant an opportunity for a cool appraisal of western economic stability and for adopting a realism with regard to western capitalism’s perspective of growth. Khrushchev’s speech at the Congress showed an exceptionally level-headed analysis of these matters. Parity meant, further, that investment in Russian industry, or in industry within Comecon (of which China is not a member although the European satellites are) became established more firmly than ever as the guarantor of the Russian bureaucracy’s survival and strength. It meant that the bureaucracy could afford to relieve somewhat the harshness in working-class conditions and so increase productivity amongst the now non-expanding and scarce labour force by devoting more resources to the production of consumer goods. In Khrushchev’s words, ‘now we can consider our heavy industry as built. So we are not going to give it priority. Light industry and heavy industry will develop at the same pace’. (quoted in the New York Times, 31 July 1961) No doubt he was exaggerating (the occasion was a reception), but the fact remains that the pronounced stress laid on heavy industry since 1928 is absent from the 20-Year Plan unveiled at the Congress. No wonder Russia’s constant theme has been ‘peaceful coexistence’ or, as in Pravda’s reiterative columns: ‘disarmament (read bargaining and negotiating short of war) is not only necessary but possible’. (8 June 1960)

For the Chinese bureaucracy, however, ‘peaceful coexistence’ has a different meaning. Investment in the Comecon countries is of no advantage to their painful, prolonged emergence from backwardness. The gulf between China and the more developed parts of the bloc threatens to grow, and with every inch, especially with every increase in mass living standards in Russia, the difficulties in keeping the lid on popular resentment and upheaval in China must mount. Nor can China’s rulers afford the cool appraisal of western capitalism. American might is a chimera, a ‘paper tiger’ in Mao’s words or, as he told the meeting of Communist Parties in Moscow on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution, ‘we can swallow one chunk of capitalism after another’.

The conflict is thus fundamental. One need only contrast Russia’s refusal in 1958 to arm China with nuclear weapons with America’s openhandness towards Western Germany to see how fundamental.

A second element of the crisis revolves around Khrushchev’s managerial reforms. Until very recently Russia showed the typical symptoms of a siege economy: crash programs directed at particular bottlenecks in production; an arbitrary price system which allowed, for example, capital goods prices to be changed five times in the first five years of last decade; administrative intervention in any part of the economy without regard to consequences such as must follow the wholesale shifting of managers between factories every one, two or three years; an over-riding distrust of workers and peasants which, for example, prevented kolkhozes owning their own tractors until recently; and so on. That this method of running an economy is abundantly wasteful is obvious, the more so when it has reached a maturity and a high degree of complexity in the interrelation of its parts, when the variety of products each feeding the other is as great as in modern Russia. The need for rationalization, for decentralization, for excising crisis measures becomes imperative. And the stronger the thrust towards consumer goods production the more imperative will it become.

Khrushchev’s administrative reforms were undertaken to meet this need. His crash program in agriculture was designed to lend it material support. Were he overwhelmingly successful, opposition would have been silenced. But he has been no more than moderately so. Agricultural output has risen, but not remarkably. Decentralization into 105 economic councils has vitiated the more extravagant irrationalities of centralized bureaucratic planning, but has multiplied by that same number many of the lesser irrationalities. It is the partial character of his success that has fed opposition amongst the hundreds of thousands of managers and controllers trained in the old school, whose positions were gained through political loyalty rather than technical competence, whose vested interests lie in non-specialization and at whom Molotov aimed his letter addressed ostensibly to delegates to Congress. For Khrushchev this old guard is the soil from which the Anti-Party Group derives its nourishment and in which they might hope to find a natural ally.

It is understandable that the line-up should be conceived in terms of being pro-or anti-Stalin, or that the debate should be couched in symbolism such as die ‘cult of the individual’ or ‘collective leadership’. For the old guard as for the Chinese bureaucracy, Stalin’s mummy is the living memory of a golden age. Khrushchev and his new generation allies had to bury it finally and for good.

The crisis cannot fail to affect the West European labour movement. Mao’s frantic ‘revolutionism’ with its perspective of nuclear terror can hold no appeal for a western working class that, where it does support the Communist Party in large numbers, as in France or Italy, does so in a spirit of reformist expectation. The revelations about Moscow’s manipulations, that are even now being divulged in Peking and Tirana, cannot fail to tarnish whatever gloss remains on the Russian Communist Party after Hungary and the 50 megaton test explosion, while Khrushchev’s reliance on the bomb to regulate Cold War relations will reduce even more the already-weakened role of the Western CPs.

What with the decline of Social-Democracy as a political movement – a decline stressed repeatedly in this journal – and the parallel attrition of the Communist Parties, the demise of the labour movement as we have known it for a century or more seems assured. It is the task of revolutionary socialists to assist in new beginnings.

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Last updated on 25 February 2010