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International Socialist Review, Winter 1958



The Balance Sheet


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.1, Winter 1958, pp.3-7.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


IT WAS singularly appropriate that Sputnik and Mutnik, the first man-made earth satellites, were launched into outer space in connection with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. The two events, separated by the span of four decades, represent radical new departures. The October Revolution marked the beginning of a new social era, the socialist era. The whirling artificial “moons” have placed man on the threshold of new physical worlds. Henceforth, the two momentous events will be inseparably linked in the minds of thinking men and women.

When the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, established the Soviet power, the capitalist world expressed its feelings in terms of skepticism and undisguised hostility. The wise men of the bourgeoisie began by giving the Soviets a maximum life of two weeks – then two months – then six months – then two years. After that they gave up. But the Soviet government has lived for forty years. It represents the world’s second industrial and military power, now fast forging ahead to first place. To the Soviet Union now belongs the honor of having made the first successful invasion of outer space.

Why were the capitalist estimators of Soviet longevity so wide of the mark? Bourgeois thinking is manifestly circumscribed by property interests. A capitalist cannot imagine a society in which he is not top dog, much less non-existent. Capitalism makes him the director and the principal beneficiary of mankind’s collective labor, giving him easy access to all the good things of life. Just as it is the well-spring of his life, so also it appears as the fountainhead of all progress.

Socialism with its “regimentation” – what of value could issue from such an inferior society? But Sputnik and Mutnik – they’re really hard to explain away. The babel of voices in government, in science, in education, in military affairs, reveals the alarm bordering on panic that has seized the capitalist world.

Panic is not a good atmosphere in which to review soberly and objectively the forty-year accomplishments of the Russian Revolution. It is confined, however, to the capitalist camp. Socialists can draw the balance sheet calmly and derive from it valuable political lessons. The achievements of the Russian October should be appraised on two levels: the national, what they have meant for the peoples of the Soviet Union; and the international, what they mean for mankind as a whole.

The October Revolution radically transformed the life and character of the Russian people. It elevated them from the most backward nation in Europe to the second industrial and military power of the world. The Revolution broke the shackles that bound the Soviet peoples to a barbarous past. It cleared away the deadwood of feudalism. It tore up capitalism by its roots. A new class came to the head of the nation, the working men and women and their peasant allies. Together they laid the foundations of the first working-class republic in history. They built the Red Army and defended the new regime through four hard years against its powerful internal and external enemies.

The workers proceeded to reconstruct the economic foundations of the former Czarist empire. Through successive five-year plans they created a heavy industry, now second in the world. Though brutally and with needless sacrifice (thanks to the Stalin regime), agriculture was transformed from small peasant holdings to collectivized and state farms. Technology attained great heights in many fields, helped by drastic changes in the educational system which brought literacy to the masses and opened avenues of knowledge to the sons and daughters of workers and peasants, while encouraging and organizing the study of engineering and the natural sciences.

In the social sphere, public health service was extended to much of the population. Discrimination against women, although they are, under the bureaucratic regime, the most abused section of the working population, came to an end. By cleaning out the propertied parasites, new careers were opened up to workers and peasants, as well as bureaucrats. All this, plus the planful application of scientific effort, has raised the Soviet Union to the place of SECOND WORLD POWER.

These achievements alone more than justify the revolution against Czarism and capitalism – if, as Trotsky said, you think it needs justification. But of greater importance are the international repercussions of the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik party in its triumph revived the morale of the world socialist movement after it had been shattered by the surrender of the European Social-Democratic leaderships to the imperialist warmakers in 1914. The victory of the Bolshevik party was an event of transcendent international importance. For the first time, a section of the international working class decisively defeated capitalist reaction, installed itself as the supreme power, proceeded to govern through workers councils and a democratically controlled party, and started reorganizing society in the interests of the toiling people. Moscow became the Mecca of all the oppressed, the seat of the world revolution against oppression and poverty everywhere.

Here was something qualitatively new in history. The Russian Revolution proved that workers power was not just a dream fantasy of vengeful social underdogs and self-intoxicated thinkers, but a realizable, progressive possibility. It proved that socialism was no Utopia, but a realistic prospect within the reach of living people. It demonstrated once and for all that the socialist objective can be reached through the action of the workers guided by a Marxist vanguard party.

Since 1917, because of Russia’s October, we have been living in an entirely new era: the post-capitalist era, even though this fact has not yet registered with the masterminds of America. B.C. no longer means Before Christ, but Before Capitalism. C equals Capitalism, a diminishing quality and quantity on this planet. A.C. signifies After Capitalism. These three time-periods are actually embodied in different parts of contemporary society. The backward colonial countries live under or are just emerging from pre-capitalist conditions; the United States is the center of the constellation of capitalist states; the Soviet Union, with China coming forward, stands at the head of the post-capitalist countries.

By contrast with Stalin and the usurping bureaucracy at whose head he stood, the authentic Marxists who led the October Revolution to victory never regarded it as a complete, self-sufficient and nationally limited whole. Lenin and Trotsky viewed the national efforts and accomplishments of Russia, however great, as part of a world-historical process of permanent revolution which would not cease until class society was totally abolished. It was in the spirit of this universal concept that they led in the formation of the Communist International, to help the exploited everywhere in their struggles for liberation. Lenin and Trotsky and their colleagues were internationalists through and through. They never taught that socialism could be built in one country or that the workers in other lands should subordinate their struggles to the real or fancied interests of the Soviet state power. On the contrary, they believed and they proclaimed that Russia’s own problems could be solved, and its progress toward socialism assured, only through the extension of the workers revolution to the advanced countries of the West. What a far cry this is from the opportunist, class-collaborationist policies pursued by the American Communist party, and all other Communist parties, at the behest of the Stalinist rulers in the Kremlin!

What happened to cause the gears of the Russian Communist party, and with them the gears of the entire international Communist movement, to go into reverse? Why was the forward movement of the world revolution arrested?. Why was the democratic workers state of Lenin’s time transformed into the hideous bureaucratic despotism of the Stalin regime? Communists the world around are asking these questions. They will find no better answers than in Trotsky’s book of twenty years ago The Revolution Betrayed. It is the only scientific, Marxist treatise on the subject.

Trotsky explained that the causes for the rise of Stalinism and its totalitarian, anti-socialist rule were not inherent in the socialist workers movement or in Communism. Rather they resulted from the extremely unfavorable historical conditions in which the first proletarian revolution occurred. The Bolshevik overturn took place in a country with a low level of culture and a backward, broken economy. The Soviet Union was isolated in a hostile capitalist environment for almost thirty years. Imperialist blockade and other pressures held back the development of the most progressive forces and encouraged the more conservative elements in the country.

Even though industry made rapid strides and agriculture was modernized, the productive forces were not great enough to afford an abundant life to the masses. But they were sufficient to furnish privileges to a few million of the more fortunate in the government, industry, armed forces and other institutions. Out of these economic inequalities emerged a ruling caste of bureaucrats. Elevating themselves above the worker-peasant masses, the new rulers trampled on democratic rights and, while clothing themselves in the authority of the revolution, violated all its principles. A system of bureaucratic command was substituted for the Soviet democracy of Lenin and Trotsky. The crowning pinnacle of this system was the one-man dictatorship of Stalin, euphemistically referred to by Khrushchev as the “cult of the personality.”

Where did the disgraceful, humiliating, harmful deification of Stalin come from? The phenomenon is all the more startling because it emerged, not from the least enlightened strata of the population still under the influence of religion, but from the heights of the Communist party, which was avowedly guided by the materialist philosophy of Marxism. The myth of Stalin’s infallibility, like that of the Pope, was sedulously propagated both in the Soviet Union and abroad and swallowed whole by Stalinist leaders everywhere. The explanation for this phenomenon lies not in the personal qualities of Stalin as an individual (although they were, contrary to the official mythology, almost all bad), but in the exceptional service Stalin performed for the bureaucratic caste that raised him to supremacy and kept him there because he served their interests.

The “bossmen” who had concentrated all power in their hands could no more practice democracy within their own circle than they could permit it to the masses of the people. They had to find other means of solving the problems and settling the differences that rose up among themselves. The method had necessarily to be in consonance with their own type of rule: autocratic, arbitrary, violent and deceitful. In short, they needed an all-powerful arbiter, ruthless and omniscient, to guard the power monolith against threats from within. Stalin was raised to this position and held it unchallenged for so long because he personified the bureaucracy and best expressed its collective interests. Just as the bureaucracy settled everything within the country (and in the Communist parties abroad), so the “man of steel” decided everything within the ruling group and for it. There was no higher authority to check his acts or bridle his caprice, no constitutional power to which any appeal from his edicts might have been taken.

The power of the gods, and even their very existence, was at bottom derived from the powerlessness of the people before nature and society. So likewise the limitless authority of Stalin connoted the total usurpation of power from the masses. The cult of the personality, so persistently practiced for decades, was its end product. The elevation of Stalin to superhuman heights was the other side of the bureaucratic coin – the political degradation of the workers through the destruction of Soviet democracy. The autocratic power of the bureaucracy went up as the rights of the people, won by revolution, went down.

Expressed here is one of the most conspicuous contradictions of Soviet society. They abound, of course, in all spheres of Soviet life and activity. The repugnant face of Stalinism was exposed by the Trotskyists many years before Khrushchev made his “revelations” at the Twentieth Congress. Stalin’s horrendous crimes were explained as the evil fruit of deep-seated conflicts within Soviet society. The latter, it was pointed out, is a transitional social order. Having emerged from capitalism and barbarism and being subjected to their still potent influence, it at the same time nourishes the forces of oncoming socialism. It has been and it remains a battlefield and a testing ground for these antagonistic influences and tendencies, the first pulling it backward toward the old class relations, the latter impelling it toward the new.

The launching of the first man-made earth satellites brings into focus one more of the current contradictions of contemporary Soviet society – the disparity in the development of the physical and social sciences – and brings to mind others.

The space biorocket and its orbiting represent a superlative feat of modern science and technology. It could be accomplished only by a country with first-class personnel and facilities over a wide range of scientific and technical fields, especially mathematics, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, electronics and engineering. Yet in the field of the social sciences, what a poverty of achievement over the past thirty years! There is not even a reliable history of the Russian Revolution available to Soviet readers. Stalin’s handbook of historical falsehoods was scrapped after the Twentieth Congress and Trotsky’s monumental History is still under ban. Political economy and philosophy have fared no better than history.

The immense strides in heavy industry are not matched by corresponding advances in consumers industry or in agriculture. There has been some recent improvement, but there is a continuing serious lack of consumer goods for the bulk of the people, a scarcity of housing and a chronic crisis in agriculture.

In the sphere of transportation, huge jet passenger planes speed above the trackless wilderness and over dirt roads where peasant carts creak along in well-worn ruts as they have for centuries. In these planes sit wizards of modern science and bemedaled generals looking down upon the huts of poor uncultured country people.

The government ruling over this vast land of the great October Revolution is supposed to be a government of, by and for the workers. Yet until recently the workers have been forbidden to leave or change their jobs. They have been denied free speech and the right to strike. In their land, they and the world have been told, socialism has been established. Yet in the Soviet Union the inequality of incomes and of living conditions is greater than in many capitalists countries.

Examples like these could be multiplied. We cite them in order to establish our main point, namely, that in order to understand the forty-year history of the Soviet Union and properly appraise its present nature, it is essential to grasp its highly contradictory features and the dual character of its institutions, hallmarks of a transitional regime. The unreconstructed Stalinists see only the favorable aspects of the Soviet reality, or prefer to see nothing but them. To such, the faults and imperfections, no matter how serious, are insignificant and episodic: they can safely be left to the all-knowing leader, whoever he happens to be at the moment. Of course, there are some disillusioned ex-Stalinists who have swung to the opposite extreme. Having previously considered the state of affairs in the Soviet Union as the purest Socialism, they now can see nothing in the Soviet Union that IS socialist in character. Both the attitudes described here, being one-sided, and therefore dialectically false, lead to reactionary conclusions in politics. Marxists must examine the Soviet reality critically and objectively, separating the progressive from the reactionary features and supporting the one against the other.

* * *

Since the death of Stalin the Russian Revolution has entered a new stage. The long period of reaction and degeneration is now being succeeded by one of regeneration. The objective conditions for this revival of Bolshevism were already being created before Stalin died. There were three basic factors responsible for the rise of Soviet bureaucratism. First, there was the backwardness of Russian society, even after the abolition of capitalist rule. Second, was the prolonged isolation of the new workers state because of the failure of the socialist revolution to conquer in the West. Third, was the awful poverty in the most elementary necessities and comforts of life.

The first two of these constraints on socialist development have been largely broken down in the period since World War II. In addition to enormous advances in industry, the expansion of Soviet power into Eastern Europe, together with the victory of the Chinese and Yugoslav revolutions, broke the imperialist encirclement. The unrivaled pace of industrial growth has not only converted the Soviet Union into the world’s second economic and military power; it has also brought to the fore a literate, skilled and dynamic working class, fifty million strong, along with a live-minded younger generation of students and intellectuals. All these developments, far from strengthening the rule of the bureaucracy, are actually shaking it to its foundations. New fissures are constantly opening in the Stalinist monolith. The latest appeared when Sputnik went up and Zhukov went down. Even before the Soviet space satellite circled the earth, the political satellites in Eastern Europe had tried to wrench themselves away from Moscow’s orbit.

What is the inner connection between these events, which have both excited and puzzled observers of Soviet life? We have here another example of the contradictory character and opposing trends of this transitional society. In Sputnik and Mutnik are concentrated and crystallized the finest, most dynamic features of the new society. In the convulsions of the Moscow hierarchy we can discern the approaching death agony of the bureaucratic despoilers. The clash of these antagonistic forces is the key to an understanding of the present stage of the Russian Revolution.

The propulsive forces behind Sputnik are, first of all, the nationalized property and planned economy of the Soviet Union which enabled the necessary resources to be mobilized and concentrated on the attainment of a single great objective. The parallel project in the United States has been impeded not only by rivalry between the different branches of the military organization, but by the very nature of the system in which contracts are let to private firms, each with its own carefully kept business secrets and profit motives.

Secondly, Sputnik is the product of an educational system and organization of science for social uses. The Soviet Union graduates twice as many engineers as the United States this year. Its scientific institutions are among the world’s best. One such institution is devoted entirely to gathering and speedily translating new scientific documents from other countries and placing them at the disposal of Soviet scientists. Add to all this a vast and up-to-date industrial complex utilizing the most modern techniques and instruments, an economic system that can readily assimilate every fresh technological advance, and an increasingly cultured and skilled body of workers associated with engineers and scientists. There you have the basic reasons why the Soviet Union has moved out front in the field of astronautics. To be sure, there are obvious military implications in the Soviet achievement. But here we see, not the inherent nature of the new society, but inescapable defense measures against a belligerent imperialism.

* * *

Let us now turn our attention from the rocketeers to the highly placed racketeers of the revolution. At Stalin’s funeral, his heirs called upon the people to rally around the “collective leadership.” Since then the world has watched one after the other go down to death or disgrace. Of the Big Three at the funeral, Beria was the first to go. He was executed in secret without any pretense of a public trial, showing that the police-state methods of the dead dictator lived on and were being practiced by his successors. Malenkov was next disgraced and demoted. Then Molotov. Recently it was Marshal Zhukov’s turn. Khrushchev alone remains. For how long?

The specific reasons for Zhukov’s removal are not known outside the Kremlin. There are grounds for believing that it was in the nature of a preventive action, to curb the growing power of the army high command and remove from the scene a popular figure, the “Hero of Stalingrad,” who could have become the rallying point, if not the actual inspirer, of oppositional movements.

More important, however, than the rise and fall of individuals at the top, and the rivalry of contending factions within the bureaucracy, are the underlying social and political processes that these reflect. Together with the post-mortem downgrading of Stalin and the shattering of the “cult of the personality,” these rifts in the Kremlin mark the beginnings of a reversal of the very processes which originally brought the bureaucracy to power.

Postwar developments in the Soviet Union, cited above, have vastly increased the strength and confidence of the working people in relation to the bureaucracy, thereby weakening the very base of the pedestal upon which the ruling group and its leading representatives stood. Stalin was toppled to appease an angry people demanding long-overdue reforms. His successors are now attempting to substitute a more impersonal “cult of the bureaucracy” for the police-enforced adulation of Stalin, calling it “the collective leadership.” The main tenet of the new creed enjoins the masses: “Leave everything to us, the reformed scalawags. Don’t think of interfering on your own account in the affairs of state. This is bureaucratic business exclusively. All others keep out.”

The new cult, we can confidently predict, won’t last very long. Indeed, the antagonisms visible in the top leadership have already exposed it as a pernicious sham. The difficulty for the bureaucracy is that any policy expressing their determination to preserve their power and privileges runs up against the imperious demands of the new stage of Soviet development and the insistent needs of the resurgent people. It is a difficulty that only a political revolution can solve – a political revolution that will dethrone the bureaucratic usurpers and restore genuine Soviet democracy.

When the ground shakes, the topmost branches of the trees tremble. Conflicts among the Kremlin tops are generated by tremors from below as various elements in the ruling group respond, each in its characteristic manner, to the increasing pressure of the people. What we are observing is nothing less than a reawakening of the Russian Revolution, driving forward to new and higher levels. The thrust comes from an accumulation of forces that must find an outlet. The demands of the toiling masses are the visible evidence of the thrust. The masses begin by exerting pressure upon the institutions of the regime in order to exact concessions. Whether these are given or denied, at the next stage they pass over to direct action in the form of meetings, demonstrations and strikes and the election of factory committees and workers councils. The crowning point of the movement is the armed uprising against the regime.

In Hungary, all these stages came in a rush. In Poland, the movement stopped short before the climactic point of insurrection. In the Soviet Union, the political revolution is developing more slowly but no less surely. The first signs were revolts in the concentration camps, open criticism of the authorities voiced by artists, writers and intellectuals, protests of the student youth in Moscow and Leningrad, the concessions demanded by and given to the workers. Whatever the further pace of events, forces are now on the march that the bureaucracy will be unable to control or subdue, as they could in the past. The will of the people to be done with the nightmare horror of Stalinism, even with its much-vaunted “new look,” will prove stronger than a general secretary or a covey of marshals.

* * *

In the foregoing paragraphs we have covered the essential features of the continuing “problem” of the Russian Revolution. Bolshevism has survived every assault the malice of its class enemies could contrive. It has survived the Stalin regime. It has lived to confound all the Philistines, doubters and turncoats by its impressive socialist achievements. It stands now on the threshold of new brilliant accomplishments. From this enormous historical experience the American workers can learn the following:

  1. Even in backward lands the workers are the sole creative force, the rightful successors to the capitalists as leaders and organizers of society. The capitalists are not needed to govern society or to administer the economy.
  2. Nationalized property in the means of production, distribution and exchange, together with planned economy, can increase the productive capacity at a faster rate than capitalist ownership and operation.
  3. Capitalism as a world system is on the downgrade, on its way out, even though it maintains a stronghold in the United States and a stranglehold on the Western world.

On this fortieth anniversary of the first victorious proletarian revolution, American workers should ask themselves this question: If backward Russia, surrounded by hostile forces, could forge ahead in four decades to the position of the world’s second greatest power, what could not be accomplished in a single decade in an America liberated from the parasitic control of monopoly capital?

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