Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3


The Khrushchev Era

Donald Filtzer
The Khrushchev Era: De-Stalinisation and the Limits of Reform in the USSR, 1953–1964
MacMillan, Basingstoke 1993, pp. 92, £5.95

THIS book is in MacMillan’s Studies in European History series, and is the third dealing with the Soviet Union (the others are Robert Service’s The Russian Revolution 1900–1927, and Graeme Gill’s Stalinism). These books are intended for sixth form and BA students, and consist of around 80 pages of text which give a general outline of the subject, plus references to a range of books and articles, to which the reader is pointed for further study. Donald Filtzer has written two pioneering studies of the Soviet working class (Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialisation and Soviet Workers and De-Stalinisation), edited a selection of Preobrazhensky’s writings, and published an excellent article on him in Critique (no. 9, 1978).

The Khrushchev Era gives a succinct but comprehensive account of Khrushchev’s years in power. Filtzer looks at the changes that occurred in the Communist Party, government, industry, agriculture, social policies and foreign policy, describing why they were introduced, and what they actually achieved. Stalin’s successors were obliged to set about reforming a society in a state of deep crisis. They recognised, however, that there were limits to that process, and that going too far would put the system and therefore their rule in jeopardy. This was shown in the limitations of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956, which was due to the need to criticise Stalin but not the Stalinist system: ‘The monarch had to be discredited, but without discrediting the line of succession.’ (p. 20)

Filtzer explains why Khrushchev’s measures were largely unsuccessful, and often proved unpopular. Many of his attempts to improve ministerial efficiency led to a form of decentralisation that merely replicated the bureaucratic system at a regional level, and did not lead to an improvement in industrial and agricultural efficiency. Soviet bureaucrats resented the disruption caused by the ministerial reforms. Industry could not provide sufficient machinery to implement the expansion of agriculture, and food shortages led to price rises and working-class resistance, which, in the case of Novocherkassk, was brutally suppressed. The intelligentsia resented the expansion of further education, which was seen as a threat to its privileges. The immediate results of de-Stalinisation in Eastern Europe, most vividly expressed in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, made the Soviet bureaucracy as a whole very wary, and explains why Khrushchev himself veered between liberalisation and repression.

Filtzer sees two factors behind Khrushchev’s downfall. Firstly, Soviet bureaucrats as individuals and as a social group resented the disruptive consequences of his reforms. Secondly, they recognised that the reforms had in fact led to more difficulties in industry and agriculture. This leads Filtzer on to a more profound question – the basically irreformable nature of the Soviet socio-economic system. He shows that disorganisation, material and labour shortages, waste, defective produce and poor distribution were essential features of Soviet-style ‘planning’. Furthermore, because ‘ordinary people in both town and countryside were excluded from any say in how society was to be run’, workers ‘played a large part in causing, or at least perpetuating, such disruptions’ (pp. 70–1). The perpetual labour shortage led to workers being able to defend themselves by forcing enterprise managements to accept poor discipline and shoddy work. Khrushchev was unable to overcome these problems (indeed, his reforms often exacerbated them) because they were immanent to the socio-economic formation constructed under Stalin from the late 1920s, and could not be overcome short of overturning that system, a step Khrushchev was not willing to take.

That being the case, it is strange that Filtzer, in framing his discussion of Khrushchev within a comparison with the final Soviet reformer, Gorbachev, does not investigate why, if Khrushchev and his ‘hare-brained’ schemes were thrown out, Gorbachev was allowed to carry on, despite the fact that his reforms, once they assumed a market orientation, would evidently lead to the demise of the Soviet system. Despite the problems which Khrushchev was trying to address, the Soviet economy was still expanding at the time of his dismissal by around six per cent per annum, and the Soviet bureaucracy could afford to adopt less risky policies. The bureaucracy did not have this luxury by the 1980s, when growth had practically stopped. Gorbachev’s reforms had to continue, whatever the results. The bureaucracy knew that its system had reached the end of the road, and by the late 1980s it recognised that its only hope for survival was through a return to capitalism.

Nevertheless, despite this omission, readers of this journal who are studying Soviet history, or who are teaching such courses, will find this book a good introductory and guide for further study for themselves or their students.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011