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New International, March–April 1953


Abe Stein

Dissension and Friction in the Russian Ruling Class

The Russian Bureaucracy Before and After Stalin


From New International, Vol. XIII No. 2, March–April 1953, pp. 65–89.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SINCE THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE GOVERNS the internal politics of Stalinist Russia, the lifespan of a responsible party or state official is a calculated risk. The higher a man stands on the hierarchical ladder, the less likely is he to end his days naturally. Either he is struck down by the lightning of a purge or else he falls in the savage struggle to maintain or extend his power and prestige.

Applying this rule – that a natural death is almost excluded for those who are part of the ruling clique, some imaginative political writers have raised the question of Stalin’s death. How is it possible, they ask, that the supreme organizer of intrigue and assassination escaped a similar fate at the hands of one or more of his ambitious would-be heirs? Some writers have presented “evidence” to sustain this speculation.

By far the most ambitious and remarkable is the line of reasoning taken by Franz Borkenau after the arrest of the Kremlin doctors on January 13, 1953. Writing in the Rheinischer Merkur on January 23, 1953, six weeks before Stalin’s death, Borkenau noted that whoever gained control of the Kremlin medical staff disposed of a powerful political weapon. Borkenau commented:

“We do not say that the assassination of Stalin is imminent, but if someone or other has taken over control of the Kremlin doctors, this signifies on the political plane the acquisition of a formidable means of pressure on the dictator.”

At a later point we shall consider Borkenau’s speculations, among others, on the factional struggles in the Kremlin. But we present his views on Stalin’s death at the outset because it is a typical example of much of the writing devoted to Russian affairs. And it raises an interesting question. Is it worth while speculating on past and present factional struggles in the Kremlin?

As Marxists we are primarily concerned with the evolution and clash of those social forces that will decide the fate of the system as a whole, i.e., the conflict between the masses and the bureaucracy. After all, where power is the monopoly of one man or a few, palace intrigues and even palace revolutions are inevitable. But so long as the system of totalitarian dictatorship remains, what does it really matter whether Beria triumphs over Malenkov, Malenkov over Beria or they compromise and rule together?

To which it might first be answered that the various historians of the Russian counter-revolution, Trotsky, Souvarine and Deutscher, to name a few, were compelled to write their narrative in the form of Stalin’s biography. Where political power is concentrated in the hands of an autocrat or an oligarchy, personal relationships, personal antagonisms, sooner or later begin to reflect the pressure of conflicting social forces. Stalin’s hatred of talent, not to say genius (Bukharin, Trotsky) and his gift for intrigue were personal characteristics. Under certain historical conditions, they acquired tremendous force.

Even if we accept the above reasoning as valid, a serious obstacle remains. Our sources of information are few and the facts meager. As we shall show, on the basis of the same set of facts it is possible to build three or four theories (informed speculation) of factional struggle, each in direct contradiction to the others. There is, for example, the slightly comic wrangle among “Russian experts” on the meaning of the decline and fall of the former Minister of State Security, more recently a member of the new Presidium of the party, S.D. Ignatiev, who prepared the case against the Kremlin doctors.

One school argues that Ignatiev was a Malenkov supporter, who was preparing a blow at Beria, Malenkov’s rival for power. The criticism of the laxness of the intelligence agencies which followed immediately on the arrest of the doctors is taken to mean that the affair of the doctors was only the stage-setting for a bigger drama – the downfall of Beria. Accordingly, the release of the doctors and the denunciation of Ignatiev represent a counter-blow by Beria.

Another school argues that Malenkov and Beria are not rivals but allies; that Ignatiev was not Malenkov’s agent at all. It is argued by Boris Nicolaevsky that Ignatiev was a link in the direct chain of command that led through Stalin’s personal secretariat to the autocrat himself. Stalin, says Nicolaevsky, was planning to purge not only Beria but Malenkov as well. Where, Nicolaevsky wants to know, is Poskrebyshev, the head of Stalin’s personal secretariat? Why has he disappeared from the public stage?

We will never know who is right in this dispute until either Malenkov or Beria succeeds in doing the other in or Poskrebyshev stands in the prisoner’s dock and confesses. In the feverish search to establish factional membership and order of rank in the Kremlin clique, some writers engage in the scientific absurdity of counting the number of times a Presidium member’s name is mentioned in the press in the course of a week or month and the frequency with which his photograph appears.

Since Malenkov had been named chairman of both the Party and Soviet Presidiums on March 6th and since it was presumed he was still first Party Secretary, Harry Schwartz of the New York Times immediately took this as fair proof that Malenkov was truly Stalin’s heir and had succeeded him to the throne. Unfortunately for the New York Times expert, events soon refuted this notion.

The examples just cited illustrate a plain truth – that all reasoning about what is going on inside the Kremlin walls contains a high percentage of guesswork. Nevertheless, the question still remains. Can any one of Stalin’s heirs, now ruling jointly, come to absolute power along the same road of intrigue, and manipulation of the apparatus? Or will events take a different turn?

History teaches us that a collective dictatorship is one of the most unstable forms of rule. The French Directorate, for example, expired under Napoleon’s coup after four brief years of existence. If history provides us with a basis for prediction then the future of the present regime is bleak indeed. A study of the factional struggles which are said to have occurred in the Politburo in the course of the last 13 years may help us anticipate the form the inevitable struggle for power will take and the effect it will have on Russia as we know it today. And it is for this reason that we review the work of a small group of political writers who have attempted to fill in the picture of factional struggle with specific detail.

The Emergence of Factions

IT IS THE VIEW OF BORIS MEISSNER [1] that two factions began to take shape in Stalin’s immediate entourage at the end of the ’30s, after the great purges had been brought to a bloody close. Zhdanov, Shcherbakov, Andreyev and Voznesensky formed the nucleus of one group. Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov and Mikoyan, with Kaganovitch in the lead formed the other. Stalin and Molotov stood outside the factional groupings.

The first group was Great Russian in national composition and based itself on the party organization in the Russian Federated Republic, resting primarily on the Leningrad organization. Zhdanov had been appointed proconsul of that city after Kirov had been assassinated on Stalin’s orders.

The second group was of mixed nationality and drew its strength from the party organizations in White Russia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Turkestan.

The fundamental question, Meissner asserts, that divided these two groups was foreign policy. Both groups agreed that the ultimate goal was an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific – the disagreement revolved around the question: Which way to turn first?

What had been a debating point in 1939 became a practical problem of great urgency by 1946 and deepened the split between the two groups. There was no dispute in filling the vacuum in Eastern Europe, but it was necessary to decide on whether to advance into Western Europe.

Zhdanov believed that the industrialized countries in Western Europe had to be conquered not by military means primarily but by using the West European Communist Parties as shock troops. The conquest of political power by the Stalinist parties would be reinforced and consolidated by the arrival of the Russian army.

The other faction, which had crystallized around the triumvirate of Malenkov-Beria-Khrushchev advocated the consolidation of the satellite empire in East Europe, coming to terms with the West and expanding into Asia.

The debate was won by the Zhdanov group and a sign of this was the fact that Malenkov fell from favor in late 1946 when he was ousted from position of first party secretary and his place taken by Zhdanov.

In their outline the views expressed by Meissner on the existence of a split on foreign policy in the post-war period are shared by almost all other close observers of Russian affairs. They point to the fact that certain changes in policy can be linked with the rise and fall of this or that political luminary in the Politburo. In addition, there is the substantial although indirect evidence in the debate that arose around Eugene Varga’s book, Changes in the Economy of Capitalism as a Result of the Second World War.

On October 30, 1946, Culture and Life, the newspaper of the Central Committee of the party published a sharp attack on the Institute of World Economy and World Politics which Varga headed. It demanded that the Institute “concentrate its attention on a deeper theoretical analysis of problems of the present stage of imperialism and the general crisis of imperialism.” The warning signal was clear and in May 1947 the blow fell. A conference of economists was called to discuss Varga’s book.

We need only summarize Varga’s theses to see what was involved. Varga maintained (1) that capitalist governments could plan, not only in times of war, but, to a degree, in times of peace as well. The implication which was drawn by his critics, and correctly, was that there need not be immediate depression in the United States. (2) The United States would help reconstruct Europe and that this would take approximately ten years. That this reconstruction would be on a capitalist basis. This meant – no revolutionary upheaval in Europe. (3) That the relationships between the imperial motherlands and the colonies had undergone a substantial change during the war (witness the relationships between India and England). It was no longer simply a question of creditor and debtor, exploiter and exploited. England was now in debt to India. This meant, no colonial revolutions. (4) The changes taking place in the East European countries were not fundamental, they were still capitalist in nature and would maintain their links with the capitalist world market. [2]

In itself the attack on Varga was not especially significant since it was merely part of the general change in line which Stalin had set in motion soon after the end of the war. Other scholars, who had developed their ideas in accordance with the party’s war-time line, were subjected to similar humiliation. For example, G. Alexandrov, whom Zhdanov had installed as head of the Central Committee’s administration for propaganda and agitation denounced an economist by the name of Zazonov for writing in 1943 that the economic laws prevailing in the USSR were similar to those that governed in capitalist countries. He also accused Zazonov of advocating freedom of trade on the basis of a free market. Similarly a Soviet legalist by the name of Kechekyan had written an article in which he explained that the essence of social relations in bourgeois society consisted not in exploitation, but in “non-interference” by the state in the economic sphere. As a back-handed commentary on Russian state control of industry the remark is illuminating.

Virtually all of those reproved for having “deviated” from the party-line accepted their humiliation in silence if not with grace. But Varga resisted and defended his point of view vigorously, even stubbornly. And that was indeed surprising, in view of the known facts about Varga’s past. There are many jokes about Varga’s supple spine. At one time during a heated debate in the Politburo on what course to take in Germany in 1923, Varga is said to have sent Stalin a telegram which read: “Send political line, economic prognosis will follow.” Trotsky characterized him as the theoretical Polonius of the Comintern who is “always ready to prove the clouds in the sky look like a camel’s back, or if you prefer like a fish, so long as they bear witness to ‘Socialism in one country’.” The conclusion has been drawn, among others, by Boris Nicolaevsky, who emphasises the political significance of Varga’s unusual display of courage, that behind Varga stood the Beria-Malenkov-Khrushchev faction. Unable to convince Stalin of the correctness of its line, it was still strong enough to protect its theoretical mouthpiece.

Nicolaevsky and the others may be right in stressing Varga’s link with Malenkov, but in doing so they overlook another aspect of the Varga affair which provides a key to the nature and scope of the factional struggle among Stalin’s subalternatives. Varga could defend his point of view only if he had Stalin’s permission to do so.

Just as significant as the virulent attack on Varga was the loud official acclaim which greeted the publication of Nikolai Voznesensky’s book, The Economy of the USSR During World War II, in 1947. Voznesensky’s book is a direct answer to Varga. On page 17 of the English translation (Foreign Affairs Press) we read:

“The discussion of certain theoreticians who consider themselves Marxists about ‘the decisive role of the [capitalist] state in the war economy are nonsense, not worthy of attention ... Just as naive are the discussions about planning of the war economy by the state in the U.S.A. ... The pitiful attempts to ‘plan’ the economy of the U.S.A. collapse as soon as they step outside the limits of aiding monopolies in the earning of profits.”

Again Voznesensky answers Varga by saying:

“Imperialist expansion of the U.S.A. is moving toward a new war as a means of seizing world domination and as a means of crushing democracy, preventing an economic crisis and opposing the working class within the country.”

Finally, Voznesensky contended that the combined industrial (and therefore military) potential of the USSR and the “poeple’s democracies” of Eastern Europe far outweighed that of the capitalist countries.

Voznesensky’s book refutes Varga in toto and what gives weight to his words is the fact that he was no mere professor of economics forced to comply with the current line but presumably one of its originators and executors, a leading member of the regime. A Deputy Prime Minister and chief of the State Planning Commission, Voznesensky became a full member of the Politburo in the same year his book was published, 1947.

The implications of this line for the Stalinist parties throughout the world and particularly in Western Europe were foreshadowed by Duclos’ open attack on Browderism which appeared in Cahiers du Communisme in April 1945. Of course, this new militancy had not prevented Stalin from ordering the French partisans to give up their arms and the French and Italian leaders to collaborate in the post-war governments in France and Italy.

The coordinating center and executive organ for the new line was to be the Cominform which was finally set up in September, 1947, with Belgrade as its center and Zhdanov as its head. But it is interesting to note that 1947 was rather late in the day to set up the Cominform. Why hadn’t Stalin created the Cominform in 1945 when Tito first had suggested it, according to the latter’s biographer, Vladimer Dedijer?

We raise this point because some of the writers who have propounded the theory of a struggle over foreign policy between Zhdanov and Malenkov have succumbed to the power of their own imagination and described the former as a “revolutionary of the Leninist type.”

According to Meissner, Zhdanov was oriented toward a policy of West European expansion as early as 1939. Why then did he fail to carry the day with Stalin in 1945 when Europe was in revolutionary ferment? State power like an over-ripe fruit was ready to drop into the outstretched hands of the first claimant.

The answer is that Stalin and his subordinates were not in the least interested in seeing a revolution made by the working-class arms in hand, and free of the control of the secret police and the Russian army. The Czech coup of February 1948, which is held up as the model of a “Zhdanovite insurrection”, was the last stage in a process that began when the Czech Stalinist party entered the coalition government after the war. By 1948 the Stalinists already had the real state power, control over the “organized means of violence,” the police and the army.

The creation of the Cominform, originally suggested by Tito and supported presumably (and logically) by Zhdanov proved the undoing of the latter and his faction. The events which occurred in 1947 and 1948 are well known to the readers of The New International and need only a cursory review: the “insurrectionary” strikes in Italy and France in 1947, the coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the beginning of the Berlin blockade in June 1948, and the public declaration of Tito’s heresy by the Cominform gathered in Bucharest the latter part of that same month.

Zhdanov’s policy had ended in failure and worst of all damaged the mystique of Stalin’s infallibility in a serious way. What happened in late 1948, 1949 and 1950 is worth studying in some detail for the light it throws on the existence of the Zhdanov group and the line of expansion to the West.

Zhdanov died, conveniently enough, on August 31, 1948. Did Stalin punish his failures by liquidating him? This is the feeling of many of the writers on the matter. Both Nicolaevsky and Borkenau feel that Zhdanov came into conflict with Stalin, when, with the aid of a section of the Red Army leadership, he advocated the use of the Russian army to save the day in Berlin.

Failure, as such, Stalin could forgive so long as it was not identified with his own person. The miscreant might be penalized by a severe jail sentence, or by mere disgrace or even be forgiven. Khrushchev, for instance, did not suffer as a result of his failure to reorganize the Kolkhozes. The project of joining together many small and not so small collective farms into large “agricultural cities,” announced with great fanfare in the spring of 1950, ground to a slow halt by the spring of 1951. Yet Khrushchev remained a member of the Politburo.

Zhdanov, however, had committed the unpardonable. He had damaged Stalin’s prestige, created a crisis in the satellite empire, and perhaps had challenged Stalin’s authority. Just as dangerous, from Stalin’s point of view, he had a faction and a policy. Using the language of scientific caution, we can conjecture that the probability is great that Zhdanov suffered the fate of Kirov and Ordjonikidze, that is, Stalin “organized” his death.

The Purge Begins

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER ZHDANOV’S DEATH is not a matter of speculation but fact. First Stalin began a merciless reorganization of the Politburo. The house-cleaning of a newly-married bride could not have been more vigorous. Zhdanov died and his theoretician Zoznessensky was read out of the party in mid-summer 1948, and vanished into thin air. To this day his fate remains unknown. Among other members of the Polit- and Org-Buro who were purged were: Radionov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federated Republic; Shikin, head of the political administration in the army; Popkov, head of the Leningrad organization and member of the Organizational Bureau; Popov, secretary of the Central Committee and leader of the Moscow party organization, member of the Organization Buro, and Bolyakov, head of the Soviet Supreme Court.

The second step was a purge of the Stalinist party leadership in the satellite countries. The systematic and violent nature of the purge is revealed by merely setting the different stages of the process in chronological sequence: Lt. General Koci Xoxe, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and organizational secretary of the Albanian Stalinist Party, was arrested in October 1948 and shot on June 11, 1949; Gomulka, Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the Polish Workers (Stalinist) Party, who had argued against reading Tito out of the Cominform, was ousted from office in January 1949; the Greek partisan leader Markos vanished into thin air in late 1948, a fact which was announced by the Greek Partisan radio in February 1949; Ladislos Rajk, Hungarian Minister of Internal Affairs, was shifted from that position to Foreign Affairs (an invariable danger signal), and in June 1949 shifted again, this time to jail. He was hanged on October 15, 1949. Finally, to speak only of the satellite countries, Kostov of Bulgaria was expelled from the Politburo on March 26, 1949, from the Central Committee and the party in June 1949, arrested and hanged in December 1949.

The history of the purge is written in large and bloody letters for all to read; and the internal connection with the liquidation of the Zhdanov faction is unmistakable. Nevertheless, there are several puzzling aspects of the purge which deserve our attention. For one thing, the purge was accompanied by a scarcely-veiled anti- Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union and the satellites. Officially the campaign took the form of an attack on Zionism. Secondly, the purge engulfed not only Titoists but anti-Titoists as well; and thirdly, the purge was not completed; the wave of executions in the satellite countries lost their urgency and diminished to a minor key during 1950.

In seeking a key to these riddles, different political observers have come up with varying solutions. In the light of the renewed wave of anti-Semitism and the arrest of the Kremlin doctors on January 13, 1953, Franz Borkenau came to the conclusion that anti-Semitism was a weapon which Malenkov used in his struggle against the Zhdanov faction. Borkenau shares Nicolaevsky’s and Meissner’s view that Zhdanov was an internationalist of the “Leninist” type (!). In attempting to carry out his “revolutionary” line against the West he relied greatly on Jewish leaders in the satellite countries, particularly in Czechoslovakia, where the February putsch represented a victory of the Slansky group over the late Klement Gottwald.

A blow against the Titoists and the Jews in the satellites, concludes Borkenau, was part of Malenkov’s offensive against the “left bloc” in the Kremlin. Inside the Soviet Union, Borkenau points out, a liquidation of Jews in the cultural field took place. (See article in Jan.-Feb. issue of The New International.) And also, what has not been generally noted, General Antonov, Jewish chief of Staff, was supplanted by General Shtemenko, a Gentile, in October or November 1948. It is Borkenau’s belief that the anti-Semitic campaign which accompanied the purges in the satellites in 1948-49 and early 1950 was an attempt on the part of Malenkov to win the support of the army leadership, which was primarily Great Russian in composition, and to win the support in particular of that faction which opposed the adventuristic policies of Zhdanov. This faction is represented for Borkenau by Marshall Zhukov.

Borkenau attempts to meet the objection that (1) anti-Titoists were eliminated in the course of the purge, Rajk in Hungary and Kostov in Bulgaria, and (2) that the purge was not carried out to its logical end. That is, if Malenkov were intent on purging Jews and advocates of aggressive action in Western Europe why were Ana Pauker and Slansky permitted to remain in power?

His answer is quite ingenious. Somebody got hold of the anti-Titoist operation and turned it on the anti- Titoists themselves! That is, several of Malenkov’s allies in the struggle against Zhdanov joined together to render Malenkov impotent and maintain a balance of power in the Politburo. Lapsing into the error of being categorical in these matters Borkenau names the new faction opposing Malenkov as being composed of Molotov, who had sided with Zhdanov while the latter was alive, Bulganin and Beria.

Boris Nicolaevsky, writing in the New Leader of April 30, 1953, and also attempting to decipher the mystery of what happened after Zhdanov’s death, comes to the conclusion that it was Stalin himself – acting through the chief of his personal secretariat, Poskrebyshev – who began to stir the waters of factional strife against Malenkov.

To be sure, in offering this solution, Nicolaevsky is compelled to revise an earlier opinion (New Leader of October 6, 23, 1952 and March 30, 1953). In October he wrote:

“This struggle [with Zhdanov] was not an easy one for Malenkov, even though, as is now apparent, he enjoyed Stalin’s surreptitious support. Now the fight is concluded, Zhdanov and the Zhdanovites have been mercilessly annihilated and Malenkov comes to the 19th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party the undisputed victor.”

Nothing, it would seem, could be clearer. But on April 30, 1953, in attempting to explain the Ignatiev case, Nicolaevsky says the exact opposite.

“Only naturally, after the Zhdanovites had been crushed, Poskrebyshev attempted to organize forces to counter-balance the victorious Malenkovites, who were powerful, aggressive and skillfully led. Of course [of course!] Poskrebyshev was merely executing the orders of Stalin, who throughout his career was careful to see that no single subordinate achieved too much influence.”

Boris Meissner believes that after Zhdanov’s death, the evolution of factions took the shape of a struggle for power between the generations, with Molotov as the leader of the “older” group and the “troika” Beria-Khrustchev-Malenkov as representative of the “middle-aged” group. Complicating the situation was the silent pressure of the younger generation which had no representatives in the high places of power.

According to Meissner the “troika” controlled the state-economic police and party-propaganda apparatus while the Molotov group based itself on the ministries of foreign affairs, foreign trade and the army through Bulganin. Meissner makes the interesting claim, that because of the deadlock between the two groups, Bulganin – having the confidence of the army and state-industrial bureaucracies – had been able to come forward and play a leading role. Continuing along this line, Meissner concludes that a struggle for control of the “mass organizations” and the navy, which “follows a line independent of the army” was inevitable.

While the three theories we have just outlined consider the struggle that began after Zhdanov’s death in late 1948 as a naked power struggle, Richard Lowenthal, writing in the London Observer of January 18, 1953, follows a slightly different course. He attempts to unriddle the mystery of the unfinished purges in 1948, 1949 and early 1950 with the following explanation: Although there was full unity in the Politburo on the need to carry out a purge against Titoist tendencies in the satellite countries, there still remained differences on the question of foreign policy. The Zhdanovites may have been purged out of the Politburo, Lowenthal points out, but the Zhdanovite line of continuing an aggressive line in Western Europe must have found new supporters, and it was to their interest to protect people like Ana Pauker and Slansky who were loyal to Stalin and at the same time for a “militant” line in West Europe. The unending series of political strikes and demonstrations in Western Europe against the Marshall Plan, the Schuman Plan and NATO (although conducted on a less ambitious scale than those of 1947), continued. At the same time, the Kremlin began turning its energies and interests to the East, the most striking proof being the invasion of South Korea in 1950.

Lowenthal’s theory of a continuing difference in foreign policy as the reason for calling off the purges toward the end of 1949 receives independent support in an article that appeared in the November 1951 issue of the Russian émigré magazine published in Paris, Na Rubezhe. The author of the article declares that the relative inactivity of the Cominform is explained by a conflict rending its Political Secretariat. The differences on policy became so tense that it was necessary to call a plenum of the Cominform in November 1950. On one side stood those who believed that the Schuman Plan represented a weakening of the European bourgeoisie and the fascistization of Europe, with the help of the right-wing socialists. A militant policy by the Stalinist parties in Western Europe would topple the weakened bourgeoisie (already demoralized by the Korean war) from power. The author, who remains anonymous, declares that Malenkov, Beria, Longo, Duclos, Gottwald and Chervenkov (Bulgaria) supported this point of view.

The other point of view (reminiscent of Varga’s thesis) insisted that the Schuman Plan was not a road to Fascism, that it did not mean an immediate economic crisis for Europe and could even strengthen the continent, while at the same time transforming it into an American colony. The political conclusions this group drew from its thesis, according to our anonymous author was that it would be foolish to push the masses into action on a large scale at that time. It would result in isolation for the parties. Among those adhering to the second point of view were said to be Zapatocky of Czechoslovakia; Leopold, secretary of the Hungarian trade unions; the Russian political generals, Sviridov and Marshal Bulganin.

According to our informant the bitter and unresolved debate lasted fourteen days and it was finally decided to leave the resolution of the differences to Stalin. At the end of November 1950, Yudin, chief editor of the Cominform paper, was called to Moscow and returned three days later with Malenkov, who delivered the following message from Stalin: the Cominform was not to engage in any specific line of action until the Politburo decided the question. In February of 1952, the Russian Politburo (Stalin) handed down its decree – to adopt the second line of “work with the masses” as Cominform policy. And as always happened with a change of line, a purge of “alien class elements” was ordered.

For the purposes of clarification, let us sum up the four theories of what was happening in the Kremlin during the post-Zhdanov period which extends from the late Fall of 1948 until October 1952, when the 19th Congress of the Russian Stalinist Party was held.

Borkenau interprets the purges in the satellite countries (and the anti- Semitic campaign) in terms of a struggle for power inside the Politburo. Meissner, restricting himself to the constellation of forces in the Kremlin comes to the same conclusion. Nicolaevsky sees Stalin as the instigator of the struggle. Lowenthal believes that there was agreement on the purge but not on foreign policy. None agree on the precise number in these factions, and there is certainly no way of substantiating the specific lists they draw of factional membership.

Whatever the nature of the factional line-up and the issues involved, that there were differences can be confirmed by referring to a curious outburst in the controlled press during December of last year. Just as in 1947 it was Varga, who had to submit to a violent assault, now it was the turn of Voznessensky (in absentia) and his supporters. Writing in the Pravda of December 24, Suslov, secretary of the party’s central committee, denounced Dmitri Shepilov (just named to the Central Committee at the 19th party congress and editorship of Pravda) and P. Fedoseyev (officially chosen to expound Stalin’s latest economic theories in Izvestia).

In the course of abusing Shepilov and Fedoseyev for their “insincere” repudiation of Voznessensky’s theories, Suslov quoted from a hitherto unpublished Central Committee resolution dated July 13, 1949. The resolution had ordered the removal of Fedoseyev as editor of the magazine Bolshevik and of Shepilov as head of the party’s propaganda apparatus and cited as the reason their praise of Voznessensky’s book.

We can then take for granted that factions arose in the post-war period and continued after Zhdanov’s death. But what, precisely, was Stalin’s relation to this factional struggle? Meissner notes in his book that the tension generated by the struggle between the two factions (based on conflict of generations) permitted an expansion of Stalin’s power. Nicolaevsky goes a step further and operates on the premise that after Zhdanov’s death it was Stalin who fomented the factional struggle.

That Stalin exploited these differences can be shown by some rather interesting facts. Stalin not only liquidated the Zhdanovite faction in late 1948 and early 1949, he also struck out against other important members of the Politburo. On March 4, 1949, the regime announced that Molotov had stepped down as Minister of Foreign Affairs. On March 24 Marshal Bulganin yielded the Ministry of the Armed Forces to Vasilevsky. The same fate befell Beria. He had to give up the Ministry of the Interior.

To understand what Stalin was doing let us turn our attention to the much discussed abolition of the Politburo at the October 1952 party congress. In attempting to explain the significance of the new enlarged Presidium, all sorts of “deep” sociological interpretations were given at the time. Nicolaevsky, still a victim of his early theory, declared that Malenkov was Stalin’s chosen heir, and that the liquidation of the Politburo heralded the end of party rule and the triumph of the state. The New Soviet Man (Malenkov) had come into his own.

The change from the 10-man Politburo to the 25-man Presidium has in part a simpler explanation. It represented a further stage in the degradation of Stalin’s subalternates. In 1949 they were separated officially from their vested spheres of interest; in 1952 they were degraded one step further. As members of the Politburo they had been Stalin’s equals, in the formal sense. But now they were lost in the crowd. This interpretation is borne out by the behavior of Stalin’s heirs the day after he died – they cut the Presidium down to the size of the old Politburo, and resumed their original posts and powers in the various ministries – the very things Stalin had taken from them.

The whole evolution of Stalin’s rule was in one direction only, toward greater concentration of power in his own hands. This not only corresponded to certain personal traits, but to certain imperatives dictated by internal conditions in the country. In the postwar period this was concretized by the triple burden Stalin imposed on the country – to reconstruct and expand the industrial base and simultaneously to equip the armed forces. The silent resistance not only of the masses, but of the bureaucracy as well, demanded the tightening of the dictatorial vise.

The failures in the West and the deadlock in Korea imposed certain objective necessities on Stalin’s foreign policy. Either to make peace or prepare for war in earnest. There is no doubt that Stalin was preparing for a peace settlement of sorts, but without relaxing the stringencies of the dictatorship. The attitude toward Germany is the best proof that Stalin was preparing a shift in tactics. The note of March 10, 1952 completely reversed the Kremlin on Germany. The Zhdanov line of “militant” conquest had been abandoned by Stalin.

The shift in tactics on Germany was accompanied by stealthy preparation of purges in the satellite countries as far back as the Fall of 1951. For although Slansky was brought to trial finally in late 1952, his decline began in September 1951, when he was removed from his post of party secretary. Ana Pauker’s fall from grace came in May 1952. And in the Stalinist parties of Western Europe, the preparations for a purge of the “militants” was well under way by midsummer of 1952. In France, the policy of the National Front was adopted as official policy in September 1952. In the United States, the Stalinist party issued a draft resolution on the change of line on December, 28, 1952.

From the Slansky Trial to Stalin’s Death

THE TRIAL OF RUDOLF SLANSKY and thirteen co-defendants began on November 20, 1952, and ended with the hanging of eleven of the defendants on December 13, 1952. The arrest of the 15 Kremlin doctors took place on January 13, 1953. The convulsions which had begun at the outer circle of the Stalinist empire travelled swiftly toward the center.

It is at this point that the explanations of the political writers under review take on the aspects of sensationalism. In itself, this is no objection, since the history of Stalinism is incredible in the scope of its criminality, intrigue and violence. However, even in Russia, some deaths must be natural and not every action of the regime is a product of intrigue and the struggle for personal power.

Actually, there are only two theories offered for the events which begin with the Slansky trial and end in the release of the Kremlin doctors. The authors of these two exceedingly ingenious accounts are Borkenau and Nicolaevsky. We will begin with Nicolaevsky.

Exactly one month after the formal announcement of Stalin’s death Pravda printed the incredible editorial exonerating the fifteen Kremlin doctors of the charges of conspiracy to murder leaders of the government and army. On the next day came the inevitable consequences – the discharge and humiliation of Ignatiev, former head of the MGB, and secretary of the party’s Central Committee.

Taking Ignatiev’s dismissal as his point of departure, Nicolaevsky asks: Who was his sponsor? That is, in whose name was he acting when he prepared the case against the doctors? According to Nicolaevsky, who goes into considerable detail in the matter, Ignatiev could not have been linked with Malenkov because he was on the way up the bureaucratic ladder of success in the period of Malenkov’s greatest humiliation, 1946-47. It was in this period that Ignatiev became a part of the Central Committee secretariat as a deputy in the Administration for Cadres. From this post he went on to become a member of the Council on Collective-Farm Affairs, a committee presided over by a known opponent of Malenkov’s, Andreyev.

Having proved to his own satisfaction that Ignatiev was not a protégé of Malenkov’s, Nicolaevsky then asks, who could have appointed him as head of the MGB? Nicolaevsky, as always, answers his own questions forthrightly – Poskrebyshev, chief of Stalin’s personal secretariat was the only person powerful enough to disregard Beria and appoint Ignatiev – in preparation for a purge against the too powerful head of the MVD.

Our author attempts to prove his case by pointing out that the January 13 public indictment of the doctors and ensuing editorials in the official newspapers were in essence attacks on the intelligence agencies (Beria) for laxness and “negligence.” Furthermore, the inclusion of Mikhoel in the “Jewish conspiracy” was another warning signal, since it was Beria who had authorized the Jewish actor’s trip to the United States in wartime. The connection between Beria and the “terrorists” could be easily enough established. Finally, there was the fact that Ignatiev had purged the state and party apparatus the previous summer in Beria’s own native Georgia.

In addition to annihilating Beria, the purge in the making had broader “social” purposes. It was aimed at the Soviet industrial administrators and the non-party intelligentsia who had gained too much influence in top party circles to please Stalin. Since Nicolaevsky believes that Malenkov had identified himself with the new industrial aristocracy, it was only natural that he should have resisted the coming purge. As a result of his resistance, Malenkov fell into disfavor with Stalin. And at this point, Nicolaevsky turns to the time-honored practice of the Russian expert. He points out that Malenkov’s name appeared in the official papers practically every day in the first weeks after the Nineteenth Congress, “stabilized” in November and December, being mentioned fifty per cent of the time, and had his name mentioned not more than once a week in January. In the second half of February, and Nicolaevsky underscores this point, Malenkov’s name ominously disappears completely from Pravda’s lead articles.

The next link in Nicolaevsky’s finely woven chain of circumstantial evidence is the complete disappearance of Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s confidential secretary, after the death of the autocrat. If Stalin had died from natural causes, Nicolaevsky argues, Poskrebyshev would most likely have been one of his pallbearers and been mentioned prominently in the press.

Nicolaevsky measures the seriousness of the conflict which raged in the Kremlin (and must have led to Stalin’s death as the result of a political defeat) by the extraordinary content of the communiqué which announced the release of the Kremlin doctors. Just as Malenkov’s resistance to the coming purge transcended the narrow bounds of a personal conflict and represented a struggle between the representatives of the industrial bureaucracy (Malenkov) and the dictatorial regime (Poskrebyshev-Stalin), so, too, Nicolaevsky believes that in trying to save his own skin, Beria transcended his immediate interests as head of the secret police. For in admitting that the MVD and the MGB could make “mistakes,” i.e., extort false confessions by inadmissible means, and violate “the inviolable rights of Soviet citizens guaranteed under the Constitution,” Beria was officially sanctioning the right of Soviet citizens to doubt. His purpose was to appeal to broad social groups outside the narrow ruling circle and gain their support in the struggle of Beria-Malenkov against those who wanted to initiate a purge – Stalin-Poskrebyshev and Co.

Borkenau’s dramatic tableau is reminiscent of the last scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – all the chief actors are slain or poisoned. His point of departure is the following chronological sequence: The Party Congress and dissolution of the Politburo in October, the Slansky trial in November, the discovery of the “Jewish plot” of the Kremlin doctors against the army chiefs and the arrest of Stalin’s personal physicians in January, the sudden death in February of the Jewish former head of the army’s political administration, Mekhlis, the equally sudden demise of the chief of the Kremlin guard on February 15 and the death of Stalin, himself, on March 5.

In these events Borkenau claims to see an internal and consistent logic. For one thing, the deaths of Mekhlis and the conspiracy of the doctors have a common content – anti-Semitism. Why, asks Borkenau, were the supposed victims of the doctors predominantly the military? Because the conspirators in the Kremlin were appealing to the armed forces to support them in a struggle against the secret police, against Beria. This gives the clue to the death of Mekhlis. From 1926 to 1936, says Borkenau, the army was the only place where an ambitious man could have a career without being molested by the secret police or the internal wrangles in the party. But when Stalin began his bloody purges in ’36 he restored the system of political commissars which had been abolished in 1926. In May 1936, the Jew, Mekhlis, became head of the political administration in the Red Army and Stalin’s direct agent in carrying out purges in its ranks. (Borkenau notes in passing, that Stalin always chose members of minority groups as political commissars and secret police to prevent any feeling of solidarity between victim and victimized.) Hence Mekhlis’ death and the arrest of the doctors (natural or otherwise) was seized upon by the conspirators as a signal to the army that they were ready to annihilate the political (secret) police. It was an open bid to the army to crush the MVD and MGB (Beria).

The conspirator was Malenkov, says Borkenau, and traces the crisis back to the 19th congress when Malenkov achieved a political victory by the liquidation of the Politburo. Power had passed to the Secretariat. But Malenkov not only had to reckon with the hostility of Beria, but that of Stalin as well. Every time a forceful personality had emerged in the Politburo the autocrat had encouraged him and then carefully organized his liquidation. Such had been the fate of Kirov, such had been the fate of Zhdanov. Malenkov had every reason to fear for his life.

The announcement of the untimely death of Major-General Kosinkin, head of the Kremlin Guard, provides Borkenau with his next clue. The arrest of the doctors had been necessary as the first step in gaining control over Stalin. The next step was to gain control of his personal bodyguard and this explains Kosinkin’s death.

This is Borkenau’s reading of the events that led up to Stalin’s death. Attempting to fit the exoneration of the doctors into his pattern, he comes to the conclusion that the opposition, consisting of Beria-Molotov-Bulganin, was able to snatch the fruits of victory from Malenkov and compel his retreat because the army failed to respond to the latter’s overtures. As a result we see the present collective regime, resting at present on a razor’s edge. The slightest shift in power will upset the precarious equilibrium that prevails.

In broad outline these are the constructions raised by Nicolaevsky and Borkenau to expalin the circumstances surrounding Stalin’s death. An informed reader will question the credibility of both, but such an analysis is beyond the scope and intent of this article.

In speculation of this type fantasy is as good as fact, since nothing can be proved or disproved. Hegel was fond of shocking those who spoke of God as being everything by saying that God was therefore nothing, since being as such is equal to non-being. And indeed, the only limit to determining who schemed against whom in the Kremlin lies in the law of permutations and combinations ...

Factional Struggles Before Stalin’s Death

IN APPEARANCE, THE STRUGGLE among Stalin’s subalternates took the form of a conflict over foreign policy. But this was only form. The substance was a permanent intrigue to settle the question of succession to the throne. The intrigue took the form of a clash on foreign policy, because that was the ONLY FORM STALIN WOULD PERMIT IT TO TAKE.

Being an empricist in such affairs, Stalin was quite willing to try now this tactic, now another in the field of foreign policy. When a particular move or tactic failed, a subalternate would suffer the stigma of failure while Stalin maintained his god like reputation for infallibility. When Stalin signed the pact with Hitler, Litvinov disappeared and Molotov became foreign minister. Did this mean that Litvinov had first convinced and forced Stalin to follow the line of alliance with the democracies, or that later Molotov (and his faction) exerted sufficient pressure to force Stalin to change his tactic? To speak of the weight of a faction, its pressure on the autocrat is sheer delusion. The entire apparatus of power rested in Stalin’s hands, and his decisions were arbitrary and final.

Most of the political writers under review never raise the question of a factional struggle on internal policies. Are we then to assume that all the members of the Politburo agreed with Stalin on this point? What happened the day after Stalin’s death proves otherwise. The truth is Stalin never permitted any differences to arise on the question of maintaining the rigors of the dictatorship, even after the war when there was a great yearning in the country for a relaxation of the terror. For anyone of his hirelings to have done so would have been to court instant death. The fate of Kirov and Ordjonokidze hung like a Medusa’s head in their memories. Nicolaevsky’s notion that Malenkov rose up to defend the state and industrial bureaucracy against the approaching purge is as believable as the notion that Zhdanov was a revolutionary of the “Leninist type.” It meant that Malenkov was consciously signing his own death warrant.

Factional Struggle After Stalin’s Death

let us assume for a moment with Borkenau and Nicolaevsky that Stalin was assassinated and that the differing factions have arrived at a momentary compromise. What course will the future struggle take?

In the April 1953 issue of Preuve, Borkenau writes:

“It is precisely terror – in the Hegelian sense – which is the dominant law of the Stalinist regime.”

Since only one organized force can overthrow another, Borkenau was compelled to organize his theory of factional struggle around the clash of army and secret police.

He is explicit on this point in his Commentary article dealing with Stalin’s death, where he says:

“... organized physical force counts for more in a totalitarian society than in most other kinds – as we already saw with Hitler Germany. In the USSR, the secret police monopolizes it on the ‘party side,’ the army on the ‘non-party side.’ Though party crises in the Soviet Union have usually looked from the outside like struggles between purely party factions, actually antagonisms between the army and the secret police have almost always played some role. And what has always been at issue underneath is who was to have the upper hand in terms of physical force.”

(Borkenau outrageously distorts the history of the struggle inside the Bolshevik Party, and reverses the relationship between the “instruments of violence” and social forces (party factions), as if classes only serve as means for “organized force” to seize power. Did Tukhachevsky and his generals submit to the GPU because Stalin’s secret police were stronger than the army or because the GPU represented a class which had already conquered state power?)

Less conscious than Borkenau, Nicolaevsky drives in a totally opposite direction. He declares that the

“... Moscow battle now in progress has been extended from the top ruling clique to broad social groups in the country, contact with which seems vital to the participants in the top level struggle.”

And again:

“In the bitter struggle raging behind the Kremlin walls, the contesting group to which Beria belongs deemed it necessary to inform Soviet society that everything [Nicolaevsky’s emphasis] is at stake in the struggle.”

But to involve “broad social groups” in the struggle is to consciously accept the perspective of shattering the totalitarian dictatorship and means nothing else than a call to civil war.

In search of sensationalism, Borkenau and Nicolaevsky ask “how did Stalin die?” But the crucial question is, “how does Stalin’s death affect the nature of the totalitarian regime?” Any perspective on the form the factional struggle in the Kremlin will take must be predicated on the answer to this question. And both these writers, as we have seen, give their views without having tested them on the touchstone of this problem.

A. Weissberg, physicist and socialist, author of the famous book The Accused, who spent many years in Russia (some of them in a concentration camp), comes to direct grips with this question. In an article entitled The Chances for Freedom which appears in the May 1953 issue of Preuve, Weissberg declares:

“The cerebral hemmorhage which seized Joseph Vissarionovitch Stalin on the evening of March 1, 1953, has put an end to the totalitarian dictatorship in the Soviet Union.”

To justify this striking affirmation, Weissberg outlines the nature of the totalitarian dictatorship. It possesses two basic characteristics: (1) ideological control; (2) the absolute and arbitrary concentration of power in the hands of the dictator.

Under Stalin, declares Weissberg, ideological control became a means of enforcing complete conformity of language and feeling. Every word published or spoken publicly in the last few years was examined by the secret police who either passed or rejected it from one point of view only – whether it was good or bad for Stalin.

But now each phrase will have to be judged as to whether it is favorable or detrimental to Malenkov, Beria or Bulganin. As a consequence, the former ideological control exercized over the country, and above all, over the leading strata of the Party becomes a permanent object of struggle among the new masters.

But what is even more important is the disintegration of the dictatorial power. Stalin ruled the country through the secret police, the MGB-MVD, which controlled the Party, administrative, army and Cominform apparatus. And in order to protect himself against a palace revolution by the secret police (Beria), he created a small, very secret apparatus of people who functioned in all the branches of the secret police. They were formally subordinated to their official superiors, but their real ties were with Stalin. (As Nicolaevsky has noted, the head of this apparatus was Poskrebyshev.)

The moment Stalin died this apparatus disintegrated. But since the centralized control of all the different instruments of power exercised by a single man constitute the essence of the totalitarian dictatorship, this dictatorship was wiped out. All the separate reins of power which were held in Stalin’s hands have now been seized by the different members of the new Politburo-Presidium. Beria was the entire police apparatus, Bulganin, the army, Malenkov-Kruschtchev, the state-Party apparatus. This disintegration of power means the disintegration of authority. Beria must reckon with the power of Bulganin just as much as Bulganin with the power of Beria. And this deadlock must filter down to the lower ranks of the apparatus.

With Stalin’s death not only was there a disintegration of the apparatus ensuring ideological uniformity, and the parcelling out of the heretofore unified “instruments of organized violence” (the army, the secret police) but there is no longer a “line.”

After the great purges of the middle Thirties, there was no more discussion in the Soviet Union. There was not even discussion in the Politburo. When a new problem arose, Stalin would call together the government ministers involved and specialists personally chosen by his Secretariat. After discussing the question with them and arriving at a solution, he would put the question on the agenda of the Politburo; first having privately and separately informed the members of the Politburo of his decision.

For the first time in twenty years, the members of the Politburo are compelled to express their own opinions in discussion. If such discussion takes place, and minorities and majorities are formed, what will happen when a strong-willed minority refuses to submit to the will of the majority? The only recourse, outside of on appeal to arms, is to turn for a decision to the Central Committee of the Party.

Although Weissberg does not exclude a recourse to naked violence to settle the question of succession, he rejects the metaphysics of a Borkenau who sees only one means of resolution: a naked struggle for power between the two decisive forces in the country, the secret police and the army.

The rulers in the Kremlin are too prudent, says Weissberg, to choose this means because they understand its explosive content – it can lead to a popular uprising. And they are not only Stalin’s heirs, they are as criminally guilty as he of all the crimes committed against the Russian people by the regime.

Furthermore, Stalin’s rise to power took place during the period of the NEP when the country was calm, even satisfied. It was possible in such a period for those at the commanding heights of society to consolidate their power. But Stalin’s heirs are struggling for power in an entirely different period.

Below them seethes a submerged nation which has experienced the forced collectivizations and the famines they produce, the purges with their millions of victims, the war with its terrible losses, and the sacrifices and deprivations of the post-war period. But even more than they fear the people, those of Stalin’s heirs who would lose in the struggle for power fear the would-be dictator. His victory would signify their death. Under such conditions, there is nothing else to do but to submit conflicts to arbitration by the Party’s Central Committee.

Should this be the choice of the new ruling clique it would mean the redemocratization of the Party. The 200 and more members of the Central Committee and their alternates come from all parts of the country. The discussions of its plenums would have to be published in the press, and since the members of the Central Committee would not know who the strongest man in the new Presidium-Politburo was, each one would say what he truly thinks.

The revival of democracy poses new dangers for the contestants in the Politburo; to win the supports of the Party ranks, each member of the Politburo may propose measures that taken collectively are dangerous for the bureaucratic ruling class as a whole. Let us assume the peasantry wishes to dissolve the collectives, the urban masses demand an amnesty for political prisoner. What is to prevent a Bulganin or a Mikoyan from throwing out this or that demand in the struggle against Beria or Malenkov?

Those who expect a sudden change in the situation will be disappointed, Weissberg declares. The interest of a large stratum of the privileged bureaucracy demands the maintenance of the existing state of things. And yet, since a collective regime (directory or triumvirate) is an inherently unstable form, and the conflicts will continue to multiply and create unbearable tensions, the ruling clique will, in the end, have to settle the issue either through a call to arms or by appealing to the masses. It is even possible to conceive of a combination of the two methods. But in any case, the anonymous masses will be drawn into the arena of struggle. “The people,” says Weissberg, “have a possibility of liberating themselves.”

Collective Dictatorship in Action

IF WE EXCLUDE THE PROBABILITY of an armed overthrow in the immediate future because of the explosive social forces it can unleash from below, of which the ruling class is quite conscious, then Weissberg’s analysis of the dilemma of the new regime seems reasonable. There is no other means of peacefully resolving the conflicts which will arise in the next period than by submitting all issues to the party. And this solution seems all the more inviting since the party is the exclusive property of the ruling-class. It contains few genuine workers or peasants. Those enrolled under that heading in the party are part of the ruling-class. They are the aristocrats of labor, the Stakhanovites, the shock- workers, the winners of awards and medals who live quite apart from the ordinary worker or peasant chained to the factories and collective farms.

On April 16, Pravda devoted a lead article to the question of collective leadership in the party. As if Stalin and his autocratic rule, which reflected itself on all levels of the apparatus, had never existed, the article severely criticizes party leaders who decide problems on their own and take critical statements aimed at them as personal offenses.

Pravda declares that

“The principle of collectivity in work means, first of all, that decisions on all important questions of principle adopted by party committees are the fruit of collective discussion ... Leaders must know how to meet criticism courageously, to manifest readiness to subordinate their will to the will of the collective. Without such courage, without the ability to overcome their pride and to subordinate their will to the will of the collective, there is no collective leadership. There is no collective.”

How are we to interpret such statements which are beginning to appear more and more frequently in the Russian press? Without falling into the trap of the categorical, it would seem that the party ranks (the apparatus as well as the ordinary member) are being informed that the party is entering a new phase where open discussion is not a crime which will invite a visit from the secret police but is obligatory. The bureaucracy, trained and terrorized into complete submission by Stalin will not lift its head to assert any opinion until it receives guarantees from the regime. And this indeed seems to be the sense of the measures decreed by the regime since it took power. The new rulers are seeking to restore the faith of the bureaucracy in the regime and are prepared to give and are giving guarantees against the irresponsible use of power within certain limits. Such a promise is necessary if a struggle for power is to evolve peacefully in the party.

In his usual melodramatic way, Boris Nicolaevsky speaks of the statement which accompanied the release of the Kremlin doctors as a factional means of informing “Soviet society that everything is at stake in the struggle.” [Nicolaevsky’s emphasis] But where everything is at stake, a civil war is the consequence.

The release of the Kremlin doctors and the statement issued on it by Beria’s Ministry are something else. With the aid of hindsight we can reconstruct the chain of events which forced this drastic step on the regime. In the first place it was necessary to reverse the whole machinery which had been set in motion in early December to carry through a purge. And since the ordinary factory director or party functionary has as much knowledge of what is going on in the Kremlin as “Russian experts” in Paris or New York, it was necessary to demonstrate publicly to the country that the purge was being called off. The need was doubly urgent in view of the fear that a struggle for power ending in defeat for one side might convulse the country with a purge whose scope would be comparable to if not greater than that of 1936–38.

Directly linked with the release of the Kremlin physicians and the pledge to respect the “inviolable rights” of each Soviet citizen is the amnesty decreed on March 28, 1953. The wide sweep of the amnesty is unmistakable in its provisions and it has been estimated that between one and four million people will be directly affected. It unconditionally sets free women over 50, men over 55, children under 18, mothers with children under ten years of age, pregnant women, and people suffering from incurable ailments.

It releases from prison and concentration camps those sentenced up to five years and cuts in half the term of those imprisoned for more than five who have not served at least half their sentence. It restores the “civil rights” of all those amnestied, which means that their internal passports will bear no damaging record of their stay in concentration camp or prison.

There is no doubt that the amnesty is in part a deliberate attempt on the part of the regime to purchase the support of workers and the peasants. Yet what is distinctive in it is the specific attention paid to categories of crimes which afflict only the different sections of the bureaucracy, military, state and economic. Point 2 of the decree reads:

“Those persons – independent of the punishment – are to be released from imprisonment for crimes incurred in the performance of state, economic and military duties.”

The range of such “state” or “economic” crimes is so broad that sooner or later a factory manager, administrator or office employee is trapped by his violation of the criminal code. A list of “economic” crimes would include, for example, “thriftlessness on the part of a factory director,” “abuse of authority,” “failure to use authority,” “non-fulfillment of contractual obligations.” Such crimes result in jail sentences or stays in corrective labor camps from six months up to three years.

Point 2 is specific in its reference to military crimes. These include being absent without leave for a short period, neglect of routine military duties, abuse by junior officers of their authority. That is, minor crimes, that do not basically affect the draconian discipline of the army.

Not only does the amnesty pardon these bureaucratic offenders, in the final section of the amnesty, paragraph 8, it promises to revise the criminal code, and here again, only the crimes peculiar to the bureaucracy are mentioned. It reads:

“Cognizance is taken of the need to revise the criminal code of the USSR and the Union Republics with the purpose of doing away with criminal responsibility for certain ‘office,’ and ‘economic’ crimes, minor offenses and other less dangerous crimes by administrative and disciplinary measures as well as to mitigate criminal responsibility for certain crimes.”

The class nature of the amnesty is emphasized by the categories of crimes it excludes, and by the silence it maintains on certain laws in speaking of the need to revise the criminal code. Paragraph 7 specifically excludes those prisoners condemned under article 58 for “counter-revolutionary activities,” under article 59 for “crimes against the state,” those condemned for theft of “socialist property,” that is, under the decree of August 7, 1932, and those convicted of murder or banditry. Excluded as well are military personnel sentenced for failing to carry out orders, showing resistance to commanders, insubordination, desertion, defeatism in wartime, surrendering as a prisoner, and for espionage and revealing military secrets.

In paragraph 8, dealing with the promise to revise the criminal code for the benefit of the bureaucracy, strict silence is maintained on the following laws: The infamous labor law of June 26, 1949, which makes it a crime for a worker to leave his job, come late, be absent, or perform his work poorly; the law of August 7, 1932, which was specifically directed against the peasantry, making it a serious crime to steal state or collective farm property. (That is, if a peasant was starving, as millions were at that time, it was a crime punishable even by death for a peasant to steal the products of his own labor.)

While maintaining its class whip over the workers and peasants, and without yielding in the slightest the basic and arbitrary powers of the dictatorship and the secret police as the exclusion of those condemned under paragraphs 58 and 59 shows, the amnesty demonstrates that the regime is nevertheless attempting to give the state, economic and military bureaucracy a greater feeling of freedom and security.

But it is not merely the need to create a framework within which conflict can be solved without resort to arms that seems to be pushing the regime in the direction of “collective leadership” and “party democracy.” There is another and independent force at work here which deserves some attention.

To put the matter as simply as possible – the bureaucracy wants freedom, freedom from the terrors of the secret police, freedom to express its opinion, freedom to enjoy life. This is a powerful magnet pulling the regime along the road of relaxing the dictatorship. The needs of the regime and the ruling class coincide at the present time, which was not always true of the relationship between Stalin and the bureaucracy.

Our conception of the bureaucratic class as authoritarian in character, trained to receive commands from above without questioning is true – but only half true. Stalin did not arrive at his position of complete and irresponsible power without a struggle with the bureaucracy – the Stalinist bureaucracy.

It is necessary to go back almost twenty years to Kirov’s murder for an understanding of this point. Kirov was not assassinated, with Stalin’s approval or at his instigation, merely because the despot feared his position threatened by the popularity of his heir- apparent. There was a more profound motive. Kirov’s popularity in the ranks of the Stalinist bureaucracy rested on the point of view which he advocated vigorously and which had wide support: A terrorist dictatorship had lost all justification after the defeat of the Opposition and the success of the industrialization.

The pistol shot that snuffed out Kirov’s life in December, 1934, put a period to the short interval in which the terror had been relatively eased after the horrors of the forced collectivization. And Stalin used Kirov’s murder as the very proof that not only was the terrorist dictatorship necessary but that it had to be intensified. Kirov’s assassination both eliminated the most forceful representative of this point of view and at the same time served as the pretext to begin the terrible purges which were to physically annihilate the defeated Opposition, the army leadership and an entire section of the Stalinist leadership, who it can be presumed disappeared because they shared Kirov’s point of view.

Among those who disappeared, either poisoned, shot or packed off to concentration camps, were such tried and true members of the Stalinist faction as Kuibyshev, Ordjonikidze, Petrovsky, Kossior, Chubar – all of these being members of the Politburo. And each of these was a symbol of thousands of other Stalinists of less outstanding rank who vanished as well.

Yenukidze, another of the Old Bolsheviks who had long ago gone over to Stalin’s camp, is quoted by Trotsky in his biography of Stalin as saying:

“I am doing everything he has asked me to do, but it is not enough for him. He wants me to admit that he is a genius.”

Behind this seemingly personal protest and refusal to take Stalin’s deification seriously lay a passive resistance within the ranks of the Stalinist bureaucracy to the total terror which the despot deemed necessary and which could not be achieved unless this resistance was also liquidated.

The monolithism, the tightening of the totalitarian dictatorship grew even more severe in the post-war period, and precisely because there seems to have been silent resistance to the road Stalin was taking not only from the old layers of the bureaucracy but from the younger generations as well. It is here that we can find the explanation in large part for the purge which Stalin was undoubtedly preparing. The arrest of the doctors was accompanied by wholesale denunciations of the state and economic bureaucracy which indicated just what groups would fall under the axe of the purge.

In the discussion revolving around Ignatiev, various political writers have turned their attention to the question of whom he represented – Stalin, Malenkov or Beria. But while this riddle cannot be resolved, it is interesting to note that Ignatiev was named to the Supreme Soviet as the representative of the MGB, the secret police. At the same time he had been promoted at the 19th Party Congress in October as fifth member of the secretariat. But the fifth secretary was responsible for the appointment of cadres. To grasp what is involved, it need only be pointed out that on March 1, 1948, Pravda informed its readers that the Secretariat’s administration of cadres had appointed 12,000 new functionaries in 1947 to posts in the party, state and economic apparatus in the Leningrad area alone. In the person of Ignatiev, the fusion of party and secret police had gone one step further. The specific purpose was plain. Whoever had control of the party apparatus, and we must presume it was Stalin, was preparing a new purge and a further tightening of the totalitarian terror.

The dismissal of Ignatiev, the release of the doctors, the amnesty, all fell into one and the same pattern: an undoing of Stalin’s handiwork. And while, we repeat, one must beware of falling into the trap of the categorical, we call the attention of our readers to an event which is saturated with symbolism. On May 14, 1953, the New York Times reported that Grigory Petrovsky had just been awarded the Red Banner of Labor on his 75th birthday, although, in fact, that event had occurred last year. But Petrovsky is one of the old Stalinists whom Stalin had purged in 1938 because he felt that he could not solidify his personal dictatorship while such people remained in positions of power. Petrovsky is no saint, having participated in all the crimes and dirty work which the Stalinist clique perpetrated against the Bolshevik party and the Soviet people. But his resurrection is, so to speak, a direct repudiation of Stalin’s autocratic dictatorship. And Petrovsky is the symbol of many thousands more in his reappearance just as he was in his fall from Stalin’s grace.

The bureaucracy in its mass wants a measure of freedom, and the consequences of Stalin’s death – in its way the equivalent of a political revolution – seems to be pushing the regime in this direction as well. But freedom is incompatible with the rule of the bureaucratic class – for the bureaucracy as well as the exploited classes. The only political form which is consistent with the concentration of social and economic power in the hands of a state controlled by an exploiting class is a personal totalitarian dictatorship. Given his cruel and vicious nature combined with an inordinate lust for power, Stalin raised this form of dictatorship to its utmost pitch. But he only refined, he did not invent the basic ingredients. The bureaucracy, party and non-party, the officer caste and the industrial managers find the whip of the party and the torture chambers of the secret police unbearable. Yet the regime could not survive a single date, and with it the class in whose name it rules, if it were to abandon these cruel instruments of compulsion. For just as Stalin ruled arbitrarily over the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy as a class rules arbitrarily over the vast mass of workers and peasants.

Furthermore, the state must enforce compulsion not only against those at the bottom but against those at the top if the system is to work. Besides keeping the masses in complete subjection, the secret police, and the purge are the stimulants that drive the lagging blood through the channels of the economic and social body.

Under capitalism, the ruling class can tolerate various types of political regimes so long as these forms do not infringe on its basic social and economic power which it holds in the distinct form of private property. But even the bourgeoisie has been known to sacrifice its political freedom when it felt the “hot breath of expropriation” on its neck. After the fall of Napoleon, the French bourgeoisie conducted – or more exactly – permitted other classes to conduct a vigorous struggle for political freedom – the right to manage its affairs. But having gone through two revolutions – in 1830 and 1848 – it became aware of a new force in society – the working class – that threatened its control of the state and its property. It promptly abdicated and yielded political power to the mediocre imitation of his namesake – Napoleon III. In our own days, a decadent bourgeoisie threatened by the same social force gladly yielded its freedom to the fascist dictators in Italy and Germany with all its horrible consequences.

The unique characteristic of bureaucratic society – that the state owns the property and the ruling class owns the state – places a severe limit even on “Stalinist democracy.” An amnesty for bureaucratic offenders immediately raises the demand for an amnesty for political offenders, Trotskyists, “kulaks,” etc. The proposal to revise certain laws which give more elbow room to the industrial and state functionaries immediately raises the question of revising the draconian laws which bind the workers, the peasants and ordinary soldiers in virtual slavery. The right to discuss on top encourages the right to discuss on the bottom. If the ruling-class permits itself the luxury of collective discussion in the party and “Soviets” what is to prevent the workers from appropriating this same right for themselves in the “trade unions?” But these political demands mask an economic content – nothing less than the demand that a different distribution of the national income take place in favor of the workers and peasants. And should the workers and peasants take this elementary right to themselves at a later stage and attempt to enforce them – in ways we cannot foresee – this would bring them into direct collision with the state, the property of the ruling class. Under such conditions, the longing of the bureaucracy for freedom must give way to its exact opposite, a need to end discussion and open the road to a new dictator, another Stalin.

In the struggle for power within the new ruling clique, a struggle which we can assume will be postponed for a certain period of time, the issue at stake will and must be the character of the domestic regime – how far to go in relaxing the dictatorship.

But to say more than this about the factional groupings is frankly to enter the realm of speculation – but with a difference. Under Stalin, factional struggle among his subordinates was a shadow play encouraged by the despot himself as a means of preventing any single would-be heir apparent or group from accumulating too much power. Now the commanding posts are within the grasp of each of the contenders, and it is possible for each rival to strengthen his position by seeking the support of different social layers of the ruling class.

This means that whoever seeks absolute power must seize control of the party either by force or by intrigue. And none of Stalin’s heirs will yield to any other in the art of duplicity and double-dealing. They did not travel the bloody road to power with Stalin in vain. We can therefore assume, granting beforehand that it is only speculation, that Malenkov was ousted from the party secretariat by the other members of the new regime who know the strategic value of this post and placed in the hands of a neutral – Khruschev – under the joint supervision of the new Politburo.

Again we can speculate on the possibility that we will witness a struggle between the generations. If we assume that Malenkov represents the “middle” generation of party bureaucrats and that his only allies in the Politburo are Peruvkhin and Saburov, who belong to the same generation, then this group is outnumbered by the “older” generation of Molotov, Voroshilov, Kaganovitch and Beria. If this is the manner in which the groups are shaping themselves, then it was the “older” generation which forced the reduction of size in the new Presidium from 25 members to 10 in the existing Politburo. For such a change would work to their benefit. Again, it would be the latter group which would intervene in behalf of such people as Petrovsky, with whom they have personal ties of many years standing. But such interpretations cannot be taken as final. Events will unfold differences and in the nature of the struggle they will have a semi-public form.

Foreign Policy After Stalin’s Death

THE DOMESTIC CHANGES WROUGHT by Stalin’s death are deep and foreshadow a period of transition. The bureaucracy has entered new territory and is not at all certain of its way. To speak, therefore, as Washington and American political writers do of the peace offers of the Kremlin as a mere change of line is to reveal a stupidity which borders on the criminal. This does not mean that we need have any illusions as to the motives which compel the new regime to beat a retreat in the realm of foreign policy, but it does mean that these new moves cannot be dismissed as another variant on the old shell game.

There is no doubt that Stalin was preparing to shift to a peace policy, but he intended, as we have seen, to maintain the old tensions, the severity of the dictatorship at home by means of a purge and to justify it by the creation of a new danger, “a Jewish international conspiracy.” In the case of his heirs, the changes which are taking place domestically must have their effect on the foreign policy of the regime. It needs peace abroad while it resolves its problems at home.

It is curious to see on what shifty foundations some writers base their judgment of Russian foreign policy. Because he was convinced that Malenkov was Stalin’s appointed successor, Boris Nicolaevsky could write in the New Leader of March 10 that:

“He [Malenkov] is heading for war but he will act only after he has carefully weighed his chances. One must undoubtedly expect an intensification of the cold war in the near future.

But writing in the same magazine on April 20, Nicolaevsky introduced a slight revision into his predictions of Russian foreign policy precisely because events had forced him to change his views on the nature of the factional struggle in the Kremlin. He wrote at that time:

“Having come to power, Stalin’s successors remain the same exponents of foreign aggression. All that has been altered is their potential. Their policy, therefore, has to be one of shrewd maneuver, designed to in time and consolidate their on ranks while splitting those of the enemy.”

Only one all-important phrase has vanished from this prediction which was present in the March 30 article: “one must undoubtedly expect an intensification of the cold war in the near future.”

While even a Nicolaevsky is compelled by events to admit in a back-handed way that something new is happening in Stalinist Russia, the Eisenhower administration in Washington persists in the dim view that basically nothing has changed.

The strategy of Eisenhower and Dulles is not simply due to native stupidity, although this factor ought not to be underestimated. These people represent the American ruling-class (how old-fashioned some people will say this phrase is and yet how true it is), a class which in its dominant majority firmly believes there is but one solution to the differences between Russia and the United States – war. They will not, and do not want to comprehend what is going on inside Russia. As far as they are concerned, it is still the same old shell-game.

There can be no doubt that the course of internal developments in Russia will be shaped in part by the international situation. And it is one of the ironies of fate that the continued intransigence of the Eisenhower regime will play into the hands of that faction in the Kremlin which will argue for a “hard” domestic policy. Using as their justification the “war danger,” they will strive to cut short the whole present trend of “liberalization.”

It is an irony of fate, particularly for those who abandoned the socialist concept of an independent struggle against both imperialist camps. They embraced Truman and Eisenhower not because they believe in the “lesser evil.” They know only too well the evil forces which are transforming American capitalist democracy into a garrison state. They sought salvation in Washington’s program of military struggle because they saw no other way, because they saw no sign of life within Russia.

Stalin’s death has catapulted Russia into a new stage whose outcome is yet to be decided. The illusion of invincibility is gone and gone with it the implacable and massive monolith- ism, if we read the signs carefully. If the measures enacted by the new Russian regime have any meaning, then there is life, a stirring not only in the ranks of a restless bureaucracy, but down beneath the visible surface as well, among the workers and peasants. This many-millioned force will, if the opportunity arises, makes itself heard.

* * *


1. In his book, Russland im Umbruch (Russia in Transition), Frankfurt 1951.

2. The vicious attacks to which Varga was subjected and which are peculiar to discussions of “theory” in Stalin’s Russia do not make pleasant reading, but those interested will find it in an English translation issued by the Public Affairs Press under the title, Soviet Views On the Post-War World Economy.

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Last updated on 21 February 2019