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International Socialist Review, Summer 1956


Daniel Roberts

Developments in the Soviet Union

Since the Twentieth Congress


From International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.3, Summer 1956, pp.84-88.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


WITH the death of Stalin March 4, 1953, there opened a period of concessions to the Soviet masses. Stalin’s heirs, in the first days following his death, cancelled a new blood purge the tyrant had prepared. They released the intended sacrificial victims – the Jewish doctors – and announced that subordinate MVD officials had prepared the frame-up. Following that the powers of the MVD were reduced, regimentation of artists and scientists relaxed and promises made to the masses of more consumer goods.

The “new course” came to a climax at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union last February, registering a new stage in the relations between the Soviet bureaucracy and the Soviet masses. At that gathering, sweeping changes were promised. On the economic plane these consisted of reduced hours of work, 30% wage increases “on an average” in the next five years, increase in old-age and disability pensions favoring especially the lower brackets, and planned increases in construction of housing, of furnishings and electrical appliances.

More meat, more butter, more fish, better service in the stores, better food and services in public dining rooms and catering services and more of these institutions were projected. To the last measures – of direct benefit to working women – were added extension of maternity leave from 88 to 112 days. Last December, abortions were once more legalized.

Tuition fees in the senior classes of secondary schools and in specialized secondary schools of higher educational establishments were decreed abolished. The offspring of the Soviet aristocracy – the “gilded youth” – have become notorious for debauchery and idleness. It has therefore become imperative for the regime to recruit new engineers, scientists and technicians from the lower strata of the population.

The directives of the Twentieth Congress for the Sixth Five-Year Plan also call for “Work to be continued on further perfection and reduction of the administrative apparatus and its maintenance cost, on elimination of superfluous sections of the apparatus, and on cutting down superfluous staff.” In short, a pruning of the bureaucracy.

However, these promises, a number of which were enacted right after the Congress, were only the prelude to the most significant concession of all – the end of the Stalin cult. Many of the other concessions were compatible with reforms inaugurated prior to the Congress. Surrendering the Stalin cult meant something new. It registered an end to the arbitrary, one-man dictatorship exercised under Stalin.

All official proclamations of “collective leadership” notwithstanding, the very nature of the bureaucracy’s domination of the country calls for re-creation of one-man rule. That is why the Kremlin gave up the Stalin cult last of all and only under tremendous pressure from the masses in the Soviet Union and East European countries. As Mark Gayn points out in the April 28 Nation, last December, on the occasion of the seventy-sixth anniversary of Stalin’s birth, the top bureaucrats still glorified Stalin in the accustomed Byzantine manner. Editorials in Pravda hailed him as “the faithful pupil and continuer of Lenin” and sang hymns to his “masterly exposition of Leninism.” So far were Khrushchev and Co. from their own denunciations a bare 60 days later of Stalin as a mass murderer, despot, madman, traducer of Leninism and wrecker of Soviet development.

Partial Nature of Concessions

If the whole trouble were really with the super-devil Stalin, as Khrushchev pleaded in his secret-session speech at the Twentieth Congress, the days after the Congress – if not indeed right after Stalin’s death – should have produced a swirling rush of reforms. Instead the regime gives way only grudgingly, trying to yield as little as possible at a time. The impulse for the changes comes not from them but from below, from the Soviet masses now beginning to assert themselves again as an independent force. Confronted by their mounting pressure, the bureaucracy wants to “dole out” its retreat, seeking all the time to preserve the essentials of its position as a ruling privileged caste. Hence the extremely partial nature of any of its concessions.

For instance, the public liquidation of the Stalin cult in the USSR has proceeded by zigzags in which exposures of Stalin’s crimes and his past have alternated with statements praising the “positive” side of his life’s work. Thus the June issue of Kommunist, main theoretical organ of the Soviet CP still praises Stalin in the following terms:

“Generally known is the positive role of I.V. Stalin in preparation and carrying out of the socialist revolution, in the civil war, in the fight of the party and of its central committee against the ‘perverts’ and enemies of Leninism – Trotskyites, Zinovievites, right-wing opportunists, and bourgeois nationalists – in the struggle for the building of socialism in our country.”

Only a few days after this appeared, the Khrushchev closed-session speech was published throughout the world – by the US State Department.

Criminal Code Softened

Similarly, provisions of the criminal code freezing workers to the job and compelling their presence at work have now been abolished. It is true that the laws in question were largely inoperative during the last five years, anyway. Still, repeal of the provisions encourages competition among various trusts, factories and areas for the services of the workers. Plant management will thereby have to pay attention to such questions as housing for workers, catering services, etc. At the same time, a May 8 Pravda editorial urged a “good wrangle” between trade unions and industrial management, and the secretary of the Central Committee of the Young Communist League demanded abolition of the labor draft for young workers.

But a number of stringent restrictions on quitting a job remain. These include sanctions – such as loss for six months of temporary disability benefits. Strikes continue to be rigidly prohibited and would incur the most severe punishment. And the permanent “labor record” book, which the worker must show every time he applies for a job at a new place, has been retained. Union militants the world over know this as a device for keeping tab on “trouble makers,” “malcontents” – in short militants who stand up for the rights of the working class. Again, salaries in certain of the highest brackets have been reduced. This is a sop to the burning indignation of the Soviet masses over the monstrous inequalities prevailing in Soviet society. However, the Soviet aristocracy continues to live off the fat of the land, enjoying swank automobiles, apartments, country homes, abundance of food and personal servants.

Cultural “Thaw”

In the arts and sciences, a “thaw” has been in process since shortly after Stalin died. The bureaucratic tops began allowing somewhat greater scope for artistic self-expression and scientific objectivity. At the 20th Congress, Mikoyan even ordered artists and scientists – especially economists and historians – to “really get down to creative ... activity.” As if they could “really” create by bureaucratic edict!

Lysenko – the charlatan, who proclaimed a theory of genetics decreed by Stalin to be the only one compatible with “Marxism” and who faked evidence to “substantiate” the theory – has now been publicly denounced in the Soviet Union. Other instances of quackery by “scientific leaders” were also exposed. However, while ordering artists and scientists to engage in greater “creative activity,” the Stalinist tops, speaking in the latest issue of Party Life warned: “Freedom of discussing scientific problems does not at all mean freedom of preaching bourgeois ideology, freedom of anti-Marxist views in this or that branch of science.”

In Lenin’s time, a party position on what is good or bad in art and true or untrue in natural sciences was considered by the Bolshevik leaders as anathema. But in imposing a totalitarian strait jacket on the country to serve the interests of the privilege-seekers, Stalin could not allow freedom in cultural activity any more than other phases of Soviet life. The “thaw” instituted since Stalin’s death serves a practical purpose as far as Stalin’s heirs are concerned. Spelled out, the order to engage in “creative activity” means: write histories and novels glorifying the present Kremlin masters.

Turning to the field of Soviet justice, we find powers of the special arm of the secret police to hand out prison, concentration-camp, deportation and even death sentences in star-chamber proceedings abolished even prior to the Twentieth Congress. All “political crimes” must now be prosecuted in open court. The whole set of decrees under which the Moscow Frame-Up Trials were conducted in the 1930s have been repealed. The right to representation by attorney is extended to all cases and begins – theoretically, at least – from the moment of arrest. The magazine, Kommunist, has informed jurists that they can now convict a defendant only after absolute proof is established. Doubt must be resolved in favor of the defendant, who is under no obligation to prove his innocence. Hitting at the procedure of the Moscow Trials, the magazine declared that confession alone can never be the basis for conviction. It strongly condemned Vishinsky – the Trials’ prosecutor – for having violated the rule at that time.

Procedural Reforms

The new code was given a workout in the case of 20 Soviet Jews, who according to the May 7 Christian Science Monitor, were tried for possessing and distributing “illegal” Zionist literature. They were given the chance to plead not guilty – a departure from the old judicial procedure. “This relatively fair trial and the correctly conducted searches which preceded the arrest of the defendants did not prevent the authorities from imposing prison terms as severe as in the past, but there was an outward appearance of regularity,” says the Monitor.

Thus frame-ups and political persecution continue, but with the Kremlin now showing greater concern with the propriety of the juridical forms. The crude amalgams of the Moscow Trials have been replaced with slicker models.

For the Soviet masses, the significance of the juridical reforms lies in the legality they provide the Soviet population in organizing for its rights against the dictatorship. Besides, each one of the reforms in this or any other sphere constitutes a damning self-indictment by the bureaucracy and spurs the determination of the masses to achieve its political overturn.

In addition to procedural reforms, the Kremlin has announced a forthcoming end to concentration camps (whose population numbers nearly 15 million) – and their replacement with “corrective labor” camps. The advantage to the inmates is supposed to be incarceration at locations closer to their homes.

Tens of thousands have also been released from prison camps outright. These barbaric institutions were first created under Stalin to take care of working class political opponents. Their population was then enlarged to take care of criminals, nationalities victimized by Stalin, German prisoners of war, bureaucrats in bad grace with the dictator, workers who quit their job without permission, etc. Those reported released fall in all categories but one. No political prisoners have been reported freed.


A commission on rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s terror has been created. It functions with the aid of old Bolsheviks still living. None of the victims of the Moscow trials have yet been rehabilitated officially. But the reputation of a number of oppositionists purged prior to the monster show trials has been restored. All in all, Khrushchev revealed at the Twentieth Congress that 7,679 purge victims had been rehabili-

tated, “many ... posthumously.” In the official Soviet press the Moscow Frame-Up Trials have been exposed piecemeal through Mikoyan’s admissions at the Twentieth Congress that there had been frame-ups and “violations of socialist justice” in Stalin’s time, through repudiation of the Rajk Trial confessions in Hungary, and through attacks on Vishinsky’s methods of conviction-by-confession. Nor is Trotsky referred to any longer as a “traitor” to the Soviet Union.

But Silence on Trotsky

However, the Kremlin maintains its rude and bureaucratic silence to the request of Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s widow, that his name and that of their son, Leon Sedov, be officially cleared of the Moscow trial charges. Nor have Khrushchev and Co. answered her request for information about the fate of her younger son, Serge, who disappeared over 20 years ago. Serge, an engineer, was non-political; Stalin victimized him purely for the sake of vengeance against Trotsky.

Several of Stalin’s falsifications of Soviet history have been rectified in piecemeal fashion. His role as a supporter of the capitalist Provisional Government in March 1917 and as an opponent of Lenin’s policy of steering for the seizure of power have been exposed. The Military Revolutionary Committee – whose chairman was Trotsky and of which Stalin was not a member – has been restored in official history to its true role as the practical organizer of the October 1917 Revolution. Lenin’s denunciation of Stalin as rude, disloyal and given to abuse of power has been publicized, although Lenin’s injunction in his Last Testament to remove Stalin from his post as party General Secretary – cited by Khrushchev in the secret-session speech – has not yet been published.

Again, in the sphere of the rights of nationalities, Khrushchev denounced Stalin in the same terms used by Lenin in 1924 – namely, as a Great Russian chauvinist. Lenin applied this label at the time Stalin and his henchman Ordjonikidze (a present-day hero of Khrushchev and Co.) were ruthlessly suppressing a movement in their native Georgia for the right of national independence on Soviet foundations. The national-rights movement was led by prominent Georgian Bolsheviks. Lenin sent a letter to these Georgian party members declaring himself for them “with all my heart.” He sought Trotsky’s collaboration in waging the struggle against Stalin’s machine. Lenin realized that Stalin’s high-handed conduct in Georgia was a symptom of the rise of the bureaucracy and mortally endangered Soviet democracy. He prepared to come out openly against Stalin when the second stroke, then sudden death, removed him from political life.


In reviving Lenin’s characterization of Stalin, however, Khrushchev and Co. did not proclaim the right of national independence for any of the numerous national groupings within the Soviet bloc. On the contrary, the Kremlin chiefs continue to rage against “bourgeois-nationalism,” especially in Georgia, which designation they apply to any authentic strivings of the masses in the different national entities to redefine their relations with Moscow. In March, they conducted a bloody repression of demonstrations in Tiflis – where the population was accused of a “bourgeois nationalist” uprising. The Kremlin itself admits that at least 100 people were killed by Soviet troops. The full facts of the demonstration are still rigidly suppressed.

Khrushchev and Co. have remained silent about the revelations of the Polish Stalinist newspaper Folksstimme concerning Stalin’s persecutions against the Jewish cultural movement and his massacre of leading Jewish writers. Indeed, a softened form

of anti-Semitism is official policy in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev himself told the French Socialist delegation, visiting Moscow in May, that Jews were confined in obtaining administrative jobs to their proportion in the population as a whole. According to the June 10 New York Times, he justified this restriction in the same way as do upholders of the notorious quota system in capitalist countries.

National Policy

However, the first reform moves in the field of national policy were undertaken shortly after Stalin’s death. These concerned relations with China and Yugoslavia. China is too powerful to deal with as a satrapy as Stalin intended. And Yugoslavia, having successfully defied the Kremlin, has become valuable as an ally in Soviet diplomacy. There are also moves to ease the stranglehold of the Kremlin in Eastern Europe. But the crushing of the June 1953 uprising of East German workers, who wanted independence from Kremlin domination for the sake of promoting a united Socialist Germany, typifies basic policy towards Eastern Europe, Georgia and the Ukraine to this day.

For all the limitations the list of reforms is impressive as a gauge of the energetic pressure of the Soviet and East European masses upon the bureaucracy. The determination of the population to throw off the stifling rule can be seen even more clearly in all the reports of activity below. And just as the bureaucracy seeks to sharply limit all reforms, so does it seek to choke off all growing manifestations of rebellion. Thus far, none too successfully.

Foreign correspondents in the Soviet bloc unanimously report that the secret police, although still functioning, is losing its ability to terrorize the population. Soviet and East European citizens discuss their grievances against the regime openly among themselves. This is a condition – as all previous experience with revolutionary struggle against tyranny proves – that permits the rather rapid build-up of underground revolutionary organizations.

“Rotten Elements” And “Demagogues”

The temper of the masses is reflected in the crackdown on “rotten elements” and “demagogues” conducted in the Stalinist press since the Twentieth Congress. These are people – according to Stalinist accounts – who are going beyond what the government considers permissible in the attack on the Stalin cult. They criticize present party leaders, party policy and the party and government apparatus. Thus four members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences made a demand that a second party be created in the Soviet Union. The call was promptly denounced by Khrushchev, and the four academicians were expelled from the party forthwith and deprived of all official functions. The four, according to the May 28 Christian Science Monitor argued that only a new party independent of the CP apparatus could avert the danger of a new Stalin-type dictatorship. (Compare the harsh treatment of the four with the leniency shown Lysenko, who continues as a member of the very same Academy of Sciences.)

An intimation of how widespread is the movement of “rotten elements” is indicated by Party Life, an organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU. “The party cannot reconcile itself with those who hinder our creative work,” ranted this magazine in a recent issue, “with those who try to use democracy and the weapon of criticism in order to sow a lack of confidence, discord and opposition among the masses to the leaders.” (Emphasis added.) What seriously worries the Kremlin chiefs is that local party leaders are passive in the face of “antiparty demagogic attacks.” The inability to get rid of the movement and the reference to sowing “discord ... among the masses,” testifies to the profound surge of rebelliousness throughout Soviet society.

In the armed forces, Marshals Zhukov and Timoshenko attack Young Communist League units in the armed forces for failing to bolster the authority of commanding officers. They demand that the Prussian-type discipline imposed in the army in 1935 be upheld. The top army brass taxes young officers with neglecting forceful methods of exacting obedience in favor of efforts to convince troops by talk. The young officers reject compulsion as a remnant of “bourgeois order.” Against them Timoshenko contended: “Our army does not need false democratism.”

In Poland, the tide is taking big sections of the Communist Party apparatus in tow. “Had Poland passed through an authentic anti-Stalinist revolution, people would not be expressing themselves any differently than they are now doing – at least as regards a number of problems,” writes K.A. Jelinski in the May 3 France Observateur, the leading French liberal weekly. The American liberal journalist, I.F. Stone, on the basis of his visit to the country, also finds Poland in the van of destruction of the Stalin cult. “Poland has begun to liberate itself,” he reports in the June 4 I.F. Stone Weekly. His findings about Poland sharply contrast with his evaluation of Moscow where he found the official atmosphere deadening in its conformity. “Stalinism is far from liquidated,” is his judgment on Moscow.

Voices in Revolt

The revolt against the totalitarian strait jacket has found voice in the newspapers, in the writings of intellectuals, in debates in parliament, in the injunction of party leaders that the trade-unions should begin functioning as instruments of defense of the workers, on proposals in the press to end the murderous speed-up and raise miserable wages. Some 90,000 persons have been released or are soon to be released from prisons or have had their sentence reduced. A number of top government officials associated with police terrorism have been removed from their posts.

National independence demands have been raised in both Poland and Czechoslovakia. In each case the demand envisages continued economic ties with the Soviet bloc. “A genuine independence would serve the interests of the USSR,” correctly wrote a Polish Stalinist journal recently.

“The Czechs await another future,” writes Flora Lewis in the June 3 New York Times Magazine. “... Nevertheless, all the indications permit a confident statement that they do not want to go back. Capitalism, if it means a magic reversal of the clock, is not attractive.”

New Relationship of Forces

The voice of the Soviet working class is not heard in the reports of even the most conscientious of foreign correspondents, whose conversations and interviews are restricted to the upper circles of Soviet society. But it must be clear that if the intellectuals are sounding off against the dictatorship with impunity, it is because they know the regime has its hands full coping with a far more powerful force – namely, the proletariat. The ferment among the intellectuals thus reflects the new relationship of forces between the working class and the bureaucracy.

What we have portrayed represents the start of the disintegration of the monolithic rule of the bureaucratic caste under the energetic pressure of the Soviet masses. It is impossible to view it in any other manner despite all the movesy the bureaucracy makes to hold the line, to keep its grip, to give out as little and as grudgingly as possible and to buy political stability with economic reforms. Somewhere along the line, the bureaucracy, alarmed by the growing rebelliousness, will turn to repressions. And this action can trigger the revolutionary explosion.

What we have witnessed in the Soviet Union at and since the Twentieth Congress is analogous to what has been seen on the eve of all popular revolutions against tyranny. The whole edifice shakes, later cracks up. The dictatorship, determined up to the last moment to preserve itself intact, is suddenly compelled to yield, and this sets off a chain reaction.

Just the same, for a genuinely new course to be launched, the old order must first be overthrown and the masses must create their own organs of popular rule.

“All indications agree.” wrote Leon Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed (1937), “that the further course of [Soviet] development must inevitably lead to a clash between the culturally developed forces of the people and the bureaucratic oligarchy. There is no peaceful outcome for this crisis. No devil ever yet voluntarily eut off his own claws. The Soviet bureaucracy will not give up its positions without a fight. The development leads obviously to the road of revolution.”

The fact that the Soviet revolution will be a political and not a social revolution does not change the essential process. The fact that the Soviet bureaucracy is a caste and not a class only means that in the face of the popular mass it has far less resistance to offer.

Political Revolution

When Trotsky wrote The Revolution Betrayed he set forth the program of the political revolution in the following terms:

“It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy. A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings – palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways – will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. ‘Bourgeois norms of distribution’ [that is, inequality of income] will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. Ranks will be immediately abolished. The tinsel of decorations will go into the melting pot. The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”

All the reform measures from on top are concessions in the direction of the above-cited program. And the masses constantly seek by their pressure on the bureaucratic rulers to push Soviet society further along this road. In only one sphere has there been no motion away from Stalinism and that is in the field of foreign policy.

The Struggle Beginning

The Soviet masses are only in the first stages of their struggle against the parasitic bureaucracy. Their demands center on the immediate issues at home – improving their living conditions, controlling social inequality, restoring freedom. They are not yet-pressing on the lever of international revolutionary politics. This for the time being gives Khrushchev and Co. room to maneuver with imperialism for a world status-quo deal in order to cope with the mounting revolutionary threat at home. The so-called new theoretical “discoveries” announced at the Twentieth Congress were really the crassest expressions yet of the long-established Stalinist policy of international class collaboration.

But while the formulas went further than anything said in Stalin’s time, the deeds have been of the same nature: The Kremlin offers to barter the colonial revolution and the working-class movement in the West for a “peaceful coexistence” deal. In France, for instance, the CP delegates in the National Assembly support “Socialist” Mollet in his bloody, repressive course in Algeria. In the United States, the Stalinist chiefs have stepped up their turn to the Democratic Party and are snuggling up to the Reuther bureaucracy in the AFL-CIO.

In each case, however, the CP leaders had been there before in Stalin’s time. Voting for French imperialism against the national independence aspirations in the French colonies featured Stalinist policy during the Popular Front period of 1936-1938, and again during and after World War II, when the French Stalinist leaders were allied with French imperialism. Similarly, the Stalinist leaders were deep in the Democratic Party and formed an integral section of the CIO bureaucracy from 1936 until 1947.

In order to begin reviving revolutionary internationalism, the working-class CP members must apply energetic pressure on their own Stalinist party bosses. The break up of Stalinist monolithism brought about by the Soviet masses has introduced a deep-going crisis in every one of the CPs outside the Soviet bloc. The most severely affected are such mass organizations as the French and Italian parties. Under the impact of the discussions that are opening up in these organizations, a revolutionary wing will have the opportunity to crystallize. It will merge with the ever more powerful tide of the Soviet working class in rebellion against the Soviet bureaucracy. In this manner the coming political revolution in the USSR will provide the point of departure for creating mass revolutionary parties throughout the world and for the extension of the October 1917 revolution on a worldwide basis.

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