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George Breitman

New Purge Is Stalin’s Answer to
Economic Crisis in Soviet Union

Kremlin Offers Scapegoats to
Cover Up Its Own Crimes

(6 July 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. X No. 27, 6 July 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The purges in the Soviet Union have invariably expressed a grave internal economic situation which threatened to grow into a political and social crisis. Today the country is passing through an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, which is producing profound political convulsions. That is the significance of the current purges.

But to understand both the political crisis and the purges, one must first understand the origin and nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy conducting the purge.

The Soviet Union was created by a workers’ revolution. The government led by Lenin and Trotsky was something new – a government frankly basing itself on and acting in the interests of the workers and poor farmers. Through the Soviets democratically expressing the desires of the masses, the rule of the capitalists and landowners was ended. Industry was nationalized. The land was distributed among the peasants. All special privilege was abolished. The first steps were taken toward the free and plentiful society of socialism.

But the young workers’ state remained blockaded and encircled by the imperialist powers. Under the conditions of a backward and war devastated country, the social and cultural transformation inaugurated by the revolution could not fully unfold.

Despotic Clique

Degeneration set in. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a clique of bureaucrats headed by Stalin usurped power. The despotic rule of this bureaucracy replaced the regime of workers’ democracy through the Soviets and other mass organizations. Lenin’s program of world revolution was abandoned, and most of the progressive gains won by the Russian revolution were undone.

With the years, the gap between the mass of the people and the bureaucrats grew wider and wider. As the privileged grouping intrenched itself, the workers were stripped of all their political rights. The bureaucracy, established new social privileges for itself, raising its own living standards – at the expense of the people.

Industrially, Russia was always a backward country. Nationalization of industry and planned economy, introduced by the revolution, gave a great boost to production and industrialization. But even so, living standards in the Soviet Union remained lower than in the advanced capitalist countries.

A factor contributing to this was the bureaucratic domination of the economy, which discouraged the initiative of the masses, preventing them from correcting errors, eliminating waste, etc. The living standards of the masses remained pitifully low because of the ever-growing proportion of the national income devoured by the bureaucratic caste.

Totalitarian rule does not prevent mass discontent – it only suppresses its free expression. In times of economic crisis, when this discontent threatened to break out into the open, purges would take place. They followed this general pattern:

Pattern of Purges

To explain away the economic catastrophes for which they alone were responsible, the bureaucrats in the Kremlin selected scapegoats and charged them with all kinds of crimes – sabotage, diversion, etc. The scapegoats were usually lesser bureaucrats, or those who had ventured to express critical views in the past. Trials were staged to give publicity to these “explanations” for the economic crisis. The defendants were each time duly found guilty and were then either executed or disappeared.

But that was only the beginning, the propaganda appetizer so to speak. These trials provided Stalin with the pretext for exterminating everyone in the country who represented a threat to the continued privileges and power of the bureaucracy – either from the right (those who wanted a restoration of capitalism), or from the left (those who wanted a restoration of the communist policies of Leninism).

For every man tried, there were tens of thousands purged without trial. The Red Army leadership was decimated. The whole generation of Bolsheviks that made the revolution was destroyed. Millions of workers and peasants were dragged from their homes and flung into forced-labor camps. The leading government and industrial bodies were purged, then purged again and again.

Such is the background and pattern of the present purge.

Today, a great part of the country’s industrial apparatus lies in ruins. The new Five-Year Plan will be considered a great success if it restores the economy tos prewar levels. But this will not restore even prewar living standards. Because, as Stalin’s speeches show, a large portion of production will go to the armed forces or into heavy industry and not to the masses in the form of consumers’ goods.

Foreign trade remains virtually at a standstill; the countries producing machinery required by the USSR – the U. S. and England primarily – are using it themselves or supplying governments they are trying to weld into an alliance against the USSR. The prospect of a loan from Washington is admittedly slim.

Crisis Today

Famine has not spared the Soviet Union; UNRRA officials estimated last week that the Ukraine winter wheat crop will not be half of the normal pre-war crop.

The commodities on display in the stores of the big cities are “slightly” out of reach of the average citizen, the press reports. That means they go into the hands of bureaucrats.

The masses who were fed all kinds of promises – about “advancing from socialism to communism,” for example – find on the one hand that it was never so hard for them to make both ends meet; and on the other, they see the bureaucrats living the life of Riley. They see that despite the acute shortages the gulf was never so great between the living standards of the worker and the manager, of the collective farmer and the collective farm director.

Making Protests

And they are undoubtedly making their sentiments known, as even the Soviet press occasionally indicates in its super-cautious way. The report several months ago, of the woman who asked Kalinin at a mass meeting why he was able to wear excellent shoes while the masses were lucky to get tree-bark sandals, is probably not unique.

In any case, the Kremlin knows that resentment exists deep down and is boiling there. It is not for nothing, as merchant seamen reported on returning from Soviet ports this spring, that Odessa is still under martial law and that other cities bristle like armed camps with troops and police.

Hence the need for new scapegoats. In order to save its own face, the Kremlin throws the masses a few unpopular bureaucrats (even though these victims were promoted only a few years ago solely on the basis of their “reliability” and fidelity to Stalinism). And what could be more appropriate for the occasion – or more popular with the masses – than charges of “embezzlement” and “mismanagement of industry”?

Hence trials and widespread publicity, which pursue a dual aim: To refurbish the Kremlin’s prestige. And to serve as a shield behind which will be launched a new wave of terror to liquidate or intimidate all sorts of opposition – both from the growing pro-capitalist elements, encouraged by Stalin during the war, and from the revolutionary opponents of Stalinism.

Proving Ground

But the pitcher can go to the well too often. The war was a proving ground for the masses. As the recent Conference of the Fourth International pointed out:

“The war ... has roused broad layers of' the population and lifted them from the rut of conservatism and passivity toward the bureaucracy and its regime, acquainting them with other ways of life and other ideas (Red Army fighters, war prisoners, soldiers in the armies of occupation in the different European countries), thus sharpening their critical faculties and stimulating tendencies toward self-assertion.”

Stalin will not forever be able to foist his own crimes on scapegoats, for with each successive purge it becomes clearer that they are his own underlings.

It is not at all precluded that the purge begun by the summits of the bureaucracy and directed fundamentally against the masses may end as a purge of the bureaucracy by the masses.

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