Why the Soviet Bureaucracy Is in Crisis

by George Breitman


The Militant, Volume 17, No. 25, June 22, 1953

What has been happening in the Soviet Union since Stalin died? Why? What lies ahead? Isaac Deutscher’s new book (Russia: What Next? Oxford University Press, 1953, 230 pp., $3) provides a convenient framework for examining the answers to these vital questions.

We have many profound differences with Deutscher, some of which were expressed in this paper’s review of his Stalin biography in 1949. But it must be recognized that he stands out conspicuously among the writers who are able to get books about the Soviet Union printed by capitalist publishers.

For one thing, Deutscher, who was expelled from the Polish Communist Party as an oppositionist in 1932, generally knows what he is writing about. He has a good grasp of Soviet history, fortified by a careful study of Leon Trotsky’s writings. His conclusions and interpretations are sometimes in conflict with the facts he presents, but he does not consciously hide or distort the facts. That alone makes him superior to most of the mob of present-day commentators on the Soviet Union.

Moreover, he does not pander to the prejudices of capitalist opinion, often expressing views regarded as “subversive” in Washington, and he deals with serious questions, including some of Marxist theory. These positive qualities are displayed in his latest book, even though it was written hastily in the first few weeks after Stalin’s death.

Changes caused crisis

Deutscher believes that Stalinism has ended or is in the process of being liquidated in the Soviet Union. Not merely because of Stalin’s death, but because of the severe crisis of Stalinism which had been latent for some time and was only brought into the open by his death. This will not come as a new idea to readers of The Militant and the magazine Fourth International, which have regularly called attention to the deep-going crisis of Stalinism and the causes for it. But they will be interested in Deutscher’s analysis of this crisis.

It arose, he shows, because of changes in economic, social and political conditions inside and outside the Soviet Union. The conditions that made it possible for Stalin to come to power have altered decisively; that is why his successors cannot play the same role he did. Stalin tried to his last breath to maintain the Stalinist system, but it was beginning to break up under and around him. Ironically, as Deutscher notes, Stalin himself contributed to the changes that spelled the doom of Stalinism.

Stalin came to power because of two important factors: (1) the economic and cultural backwardness of the Soviet Union, aggravated by ruinous years of war and civil war; (2) the isolation of the first workers state as a result of the delays and defeats of the revolution in Europe, which the Bolshevik leaders had expected to link up with and strengthen the revolution in Russia. Trotsky explained many times how and why these conditions led to the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and its eventual destruction by the privileged bureaucratic caste which opposed the revolutionary-internationalist, proletarian-democratic policies of Lenin.

But the Stalinist bureaucracy was beset by many contradictions. Russia’s poverty enabled Stalinism to come to power, but to remain in power and to preserve its privileges, which were threatened on one side by imperialism and on the other by the possibilities of revolt by the Soviet masses, it needed a strong economy. This meant industrialization.

Although a section of the bureaucracy tended toward the restoration of capitalism in the 20’s, Stalin knew that the Soviet people would never tolerate it, and after some wavering he set out to industrialize the country through the extension of nationalization and planning, the economic foundations of the workers state created under Lenin.

Deutscher realizes that Stalin’s methods were brutal and costly, and vitiated part of the results (he wrongly attributes the over all results to Stalin’s “historical function”). It evidently does not occur to him that Stalin’s methods delayed rather than promoted the process as a whole. Deutscher does not appreciate the decisive part played by the firm social foundations of the Russian revolution, but he is correct in noting that under Stalin’s regime great transformations took place.

From an industrially backward country the Soviet Union became the second industrial power in the world. Soviet Chicagos, Pittsburghs and Detroits sprouted into all corners of a vast land. Tens of millions of peasants were turned into industrial workers. Small farms were broken up, and more tens of millions became collective farmers, torn out of conservative self-sufficiency and thrust into awareness of their dependence on government policy. A large part of the population was urbanized, practically all of it was made literate. New habits were formed, new patterns of culture evolved. The superiority of planned economy was proved in practice (and Deutscher correctly emphasizes that planning rather than Stalin’s forced-labor system was the dominant factor in industrial progress).

What effects did all this have on the social and political consciousness of the Soviet people? Obviously, big ones. The soil out of which Stalinism grew was being destroyed. “Technology, planning, urbanization, and industrial expansion are the deadliest enemies” of Stalinism. A nation of 160 to 200 million was driven, in 25 years time, “to jump the chasm which separated the epoch of the wooden plow from that of the atomic pile. The jump is not yet completed... All we know is that the process is in a very advanced stage. Russia may still be mired up to her ankles or to her knees in the epoch of primitive magic; but she is not plunged in it up to her neck and ears, as she was a quarter of a century ago.”


During the same time that the backwardness of Russia, in which Stalinism had its roots, was being overcome, drastic changes on the international scene were further altering the relations between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Soviet masses.

Stalin began his regime by announcing the doctrine of “socialism in one country.” Among other things this signaled the abandonment of Lenin’s internationalism and in the course of time the adoption of an actively counter-revolutionary policy in which Stalin sought to ward off imperialist attack by striving to prevent revolution abroad. Using current formulations, Deutscher calls Stalin’s foreign policy “self-containment” as opposed to Lenin’s policy of stimulating “liberation” of other countries from capitalism.

Stalin tried to maintain the international status quo. The world Stalinist movement served as border guards to promote the Kremlin’s foreign policy and diplomatic maneuvers, regardless of their disastrous s pus effects on the interests of the workers in the capitalist countries.

The great saboteur

Deutscher knows and reviews all this. He is definitely not a Stalinist and would think it unjust to be called an apologist for Stalinism, but objectively that is what he shows himself to be when he discusses this phase of history. “Was Stalin then the great saboteur and betrayer of world revolution, as Trotsky saw him?” he asks. And his answer is:

“Yes and no. He certainly did his best to destroy the potentialities for revolution abroad – in the name of the sacred egoism of the Russian revolution. But how real and important were those potentialities between the two world wars? Trotsky saw that period as one sequence of great but missed revolutionary opportunities. The historian of the period cannot be so sure about its latent possibilities. He can gauge only its actuality, not its potentiality. Stalin worked on the assumption that there was no chance of a communist victory in the West or in the East. If that was so, then he was sacrificing to the selfishness of Bolshevik Russia the shadow, not the substance, of world revolution. He believed that by building up the Soviet `citadel of socialism’ he was making the only contribution toward world revolution that could be made at the time. This conviction allowed him to treat the labor movements of the world with boundless cynicism and contempt.”

But a historian who declines to examine and pass judgment on the potentialities is not gauging the full actuality. Were the revolutionary possibilities real and important in Germany in 1923 and 1932, in China in the 1920’s, in Spain in 1936, etc.? Trotsky not only saw but showed the possibilities. Stalin saw them too, in his own way, and he sabotaged them.

Wasn’t Stalin’s intervention – actively against these revolutions – a major part of the actuality? Wasn’t his counter-revolutionary intervention more real than Deutscher’s hypotheses about what Stalin was thinking? Elsewhere Deutscher has praised Stalin for leading the war against Hitler to victory, but isn’t it just as important that Stalin’s policies helped Hitler to come to power and later to launch the war?

However, this basic flaw in Deutscher’s historical method does not prevent him from making a generally correct evaluation of the reasons why “in the last decade of his life Stalin struggled desperately and unavailingly to save his policy of self - containment, or what remained of it, from the tempest of the time.”

Stalin wanted and expected to keep Eastern Europe capitalist after the war. His policy of reparations and pillage in those countries during the first postwar years was certainly inconsistent with their later incorporation into the Soviet social system. But the imperialists offered him no choice, and after the Truman Doctrine of 1947 he was driven to take over Eastern Europe definitively to prevent it from being used as a base for war against the Soviet Union.

Elsewhere in the world, “Stalin gravely underrated the revolutionary ferment which was to engulf Europe and Asia toward the end of the war and after.”. He thought he could control it through the Communist Parties, and he did in some countries. But in others, his “pawns” began to move on their own – in Yugoslavia, in China – and he was in no position to stop them. He tried to restrain Mao Tse-tung and Tito, but they were under pressure from the masses in their own countries as well as the Kremlin, and they went ahead to lead revolutions against regimes Stalin had directed them to collaborate with.

“He stared with incredulity and fear at the rising tides of revolution which threatened to wash away the rock of `socialism in one country’ on which he had built his temple. This so-called prophet of Marxism and Leninism appears at this moment as the most conservative statesman in the world... Stalinist self-containment was subsequently wrecked, partly by forces beyond Stalin’s control and partly by Stalin himself.”

These revolutions changed the international relationship of forces. The Soviet Union’s isolation, a cause of Stalinism and a pretext for its continuation, was ended. The threat of imperialist attack, while still real, appeared in a different light when the Soviet bloc encompassed one-third of the world’s population.

Discontent grew

All this stored new dynamite under the Kremlin, and new discontent spread among the Soviet masses, who could see that the reasons which led them to tolerate the rigors of the Stalinist dictatorship before the war no longer-obtained after the war.

This discontent could not be expressed in clear political terms while Stalin was alive, but Deutscher shows that it was expressed indirectly during the last two or three years in the debates over the alleged imminent “transition from socialism to communism” and the theory of the withering away of the state. Stalin didn’t intend these debates for that purpose, but they were utilized widely to express the desire of the masses and a part of the bureaucracy for an end or relaxation of the dictatorship, for an improvement of living standards, protection against the political police, etc. Deutscher sees these disguised forms in which the masses raised their demands as signs that an explosion was brewing before Stalin died.

Deutscher’s explanation of the background of the present situation are the best parts of his book. Next week we will discuss other parts, especially his reasons for thinking that the Soviet Union is headed toward “an orderly winding up of Stalinism anti a gradual democratic evolution” under the leadership of the Soviet bureaucracy.

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Last updated 2 August 2, 2012