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George Breitman

Deutscher’s False Evaluation of Stalinism

(7 November 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 8 No. 45, 7 November 1949.
Transcribed & marked up by Martin Falgren and David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

After recording the major crimes of Stalinism, Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin: A Political Biography comes to the conclusion that it is fundamentally revolutionary and progressive, despite its ruinous policies. despite the tyrannical and repressive methods it uses against the workers at home and abroad. Last week we discussed the fallaciousness of Deutscher’s evaluation of the role of Stalinism inside the Soviet Union: here we continue with an examination of ’his interpretation of the events in Eastern Europe since 1945.

To meet the economic crisis in the Soviet Union after the war, Deutscher says, Stalin resorted to two methods. One was the “nationalist” method, which consisted in plundering the defeated countries, dismantling and transferring factories, instituting slave labor on a mass scale, etc. The other he calls the “revolutionary” method, which consisted “in the broadening of the economic base on which planned economy was to operate, in an economic link-up between Russia and the countries within her orbit.” To achieve this, the Stalinists had to take power in those countries, although at the same time they helped to preserve the capitalist system intact in the more advanced countries of Western Europe.)

Stalin’s new concept

In employing the second method, Deutscher continues, Stalin tacitly admitted that “socialism in one country” was impossible and vindicated Trotsky’s condemnation of it. But Deutscher does not completely endorse the vulgar distortion, now widely current, that Stalinist expansion proves Stalin has returned to Leninism. For although Stalin was forced in effect to repudiate his basic theory, he did not go “back to his starting point, to the conception of world revolution he had once shared with Lenin and Trotsky [before 1924]. He now replaced his socialism in one country by something that might be termed ‘socialism in one zone’.“ (Like its predecessor, this new Stalinist concept accepts and will even strengthen the capitalist order in the rest of the world in return for being allowed to strengthen its own position.)

From this Deutscher passes to a discussion of the Stalinist “revolutions.” “The old Bolshevism ... believed that the Socialist order would result from the original experience and struggle of the working classes abroad, that it would be the most authentic act of their social and political self-determination. The old Bolshevism, in other words, believed in revolution from below, such as the upheaval of 1917 had been. The revolution which Stalin now carried into eastern and central Europe was primarily a revolution from above,” which was “decreed, inspired and managed” by Stalin’s political and military agencies, although the workers also participated to one degree or another. “What took place within the Russian orbit was, therefore, semi-conquest and semi-revolution ... it is the blending of conquest and revolution that makes the essence of ‘socialism in one zone.’”

Anti-socialist acts

Now, the statification of property in Eastern Europe has certain progressive features, even though it is incomplete and is achieved by military-bureaucratic means. But simultaneously with these measures, the bureaucracy moved against the masses, preventing them from taking power into their own hands and carrying through a genuine proletarian revolution. The bureaucracy, eventually drove out the old ruling classes, with whom it saw no reason to keep on sharing the privileges of power. But from the very beginning it struck most brutally at any independent action by the masses, whom it feared more than the old ruling classes and whom it was determined to keep in a subordinate position.

The attitude of revolutionary socialists to such measures was clearly expressed by Trotsky at the very beginning of the war, when Stalin’s troops had invaded eastern Poland: “The primary political criterion for us is not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, and the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, completely retains its reactionary character and remains the chief obstacle on the road to the world revolution.”

Decisive standpoint

The decisive standpoint, Trotsky termed it, because the can be no socialist transformation of society unless the masses understand the need for it and carry it through themselves. The emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves; no one else can do it for them–that is the unique thing about the socialist revolution. It is a task they can carry through only when they are organized in a revolutionary party and in Soviets or their equivalent, democratically expressing their will–and all such organizations are prohibited and suppressed by the Stalinist policemen-bureaucrats.

The expression “revolution from above” is self-contradictory. We can conceive and have already witnessed, as the result of the continuing degeneration of the first workers state, the transformation of property relations by bureaucratic measures. But since these measures are directed as much against the revolutionary classes as against the old ruling classes, a more exact name would be “counter-revolution from above.” Even when they entail new property relations, changes that do not put power in the hands of the working class, changes in which the masses are relegated to a subsidiary if not a wholly passive role, are a grotesque abortion rather than a living expression of socialist transformation.

Historic parallel?

Stalinism strangles the socialist revolution even when it is compelled to transform property relations; its over-all character, therefore, is counter-revolutionary. That is why it must be fought and smashed, and that is why Deutscher is wrong when he attempts to establish historic parallels between Cromwell and Robespierre and the dictator in the Kremlin.

Stalin is like them, he says, in being despotic and in being “revolutionary, not in the sense that he has remained true to all the original ideas of the revolution, but because he has put into practice a fundamentally new principle of social organization, which, no matter what happens to him personally or even to the regime associated with his name is certain to survive, to fertilize human experience, and to turn it in new directions.”

We have already shown that the credit for the “new principle of social organization” belongs to the 1917 revolution and not to Stalinism; that what Stalin did was not to put it into practice but to alter and distort it, to weaken and undermine it, to pervert it and exploit. it. But this is only the beginning of Deutscher’s misinterpretation ...

Cromwell and Robespierre were petty bourgeois leaders of the bourgeois revolution in their respective countries. They represented the historically progressive tendencies of the capitalist system, which was then coming to power. They sought to defend the interests of the new social order, by violent means and dictatorship, on the one hand against the former ruling class, the aristocrats, and on the other hand against the plebeian elements who had been the best fighters for the bourgeois revolution and who attempted to go beyond the bounds of capitalist society.

The difference

Stalin, like Cromwell and Robespierre, crushed the revolutionary mass movement on the left; in that sense, a certain limited analogy can be constructed. But when we examine the social content of their respective acts against the masses we can see that it refutes rather than confirms Deutscher’s attempt at a historic parallel. For Cromwell and Robespierre could crush the plebeians who were seeking to push the revolution beyond the bounds of capitalist inequality, without decisively impairing the new revolutionary (capitalist) structure.

But the social revolution of the 20th century differs from the bourgeois revolutions in this fundamental respect: It is impossible without the leadership, initiative and creative direction of the working class. When Stalin suppresses these, he undermines the degenerated workers state in the Soviet Union and prepares the way for the restoration of capitalism; much more important, he prevents the world socialist revolution.

Stalin cannot be compared with Cromwell and Robespierre, therefore, because on the whole they helped to build a new and progressive society (although they weakened it by suppressing the masses) while Stalinism on the whole blocks, impedes and opposes the construction of a new and progressive society; because they served the interests of the revolutionary capitalist class while he subverts the interests of the revolutionary working class for the benefit of a parasitic bureaucratic caste.

It is necessary to stress the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism over and over again because many people, seeking a way out of the present world crisis and seeing no other alternative as yet, are impelled to turn in the direction of Stalinism. Books like Deutscher’s must be combatted relentlessly because they help to sustain the illusion that Stalinism, despite its “faults,” is a “lesser evil” to capitalism–the main illusion diverting people from the revolutionary socialist movement which alone offers a program for social progress.

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