George Breitman

How Stalinism Will Be Ended

(29 June 1953)

From The Militant, Vol. 17 No. 26, June 29, 1953.

In his funeral speech over Stalin, Premier Malenkov pledged that he would continue Stalin’s policies. But Isaac Deutscher (in his new book, Russia: What Next?) does not believe this is likely, except with regard to economic-social policy (planning, nationalization, etc.).

As evidence that the new regime has struck out on a non-Stalinist path, Deutscher points to step it took in its first weeks – re-organization of the party and government machinery, the amnesty, the promise to reform the penal cone, reversal of the doctors’ frame-up, price cuts, criticism of one-man autocracy, appeals for collective leadership, etc.

Now these acts do represent departures from some of the rigid bureaucratic practices associated with Stalin, and they are so viewed by the Soviet people. But do they mean that the Malenkov regime has instituted a decisive break with Stalinism?

Deutscher seems to think so although he states this view cautiously. He recognizes that the government was more or less forced, after Stalin’s death – for reasons explained in our article last week – to conciliate the Soviet people with measures to satisfy some of their aspirations and to keep them hoping for more concessions. He even writes:

“As one analyzes Malenkov’s first moves, one can almost hear him pleading in the inner circle of the Kremlin: Better to abolish the worst features of Stalinism from above than to wait until they are abolished from below.”

In other words, one of the basic motivations for the new measures is a fear that the Soviet people may move to overthrow the dictatorship, and a desire to head it off. But when these measures are viewed in this light, doesn’t it become clear that they are designed not to weaken the dictatorship but to strengthen it?

A dictatorship cleansed of some of its more repressive and irrational features might secure a broader base of support or tolerance than it did under Stalin, especially during the first stages, when the people are hopeful of change and the regime has a desperate need to consolidate its position. But it would remain a dictatorship just the same, wouldn’t it?

Deutscher, however, tends to stress only one side of the reasons for the new measures. That is because it is convenient for his theory, which amounts roughly to something like this:

Sees tug of war

A tug of war has been going on inside the bureaucracy for some years. One section wants to “liberalize” and “rationalize” Stalinism; at home it wants to offer some concessions to the people to keep them from getting out of hand; abroad, it wants to offer some limited concessions to the imperialists in order to avert war, which it thinks can be postponed for a relatively long time.

Their opponents, Deutscher continues, are the die-hard Stalinists; who draw their strength from the political police (bitterly against any changes in the status quo at home) and from the army (whose leaders think war is inevitable and refuse to yield any concessions that might be of strategic value to the imperialists in the coming war). He views the doctor’s frame-up as a plot by the police, perhaps in collusion with the army, to weaken the reform forces.

Deutscher thinks the “liberalizers,” in the form of the Malenkov regime, now have the upper hand. He admits that Malenkov, because of his Stalinist training, may not want to go too far; that he does not want to destroy the police, but only to tame and control them; that he may reverse his path, or be overthrown by the die-hards, if the masses get out of hand or if there is a war; etc. But on the whole he suggests that the Malenkov regime represents the beginning of the reform of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Three variants

In his view, there are three variants:

1. A “relapse into Stalinism,” with the police back in the saddle. If this happens, he doesn’t think it would last long because the same factors that have been working to undermine Stalinism in recent years would operate to end its revival. Even if the police should unite with the generals to take over power, he believes this would mean a military dictatorship rather than the traditional form of Stalinism.

2. Military dictatorship. Deutscher thinks this is possible because of the generals’ demand for a tough policy in foreign affairs. He does not consider it probable unless the Malenkov regime proves unable to keep the people in line, and does not believe it would mean the restoration of capitalism.

3. “Democratic regeneration.” He sees this, on balance, as the most likely variant. He assumes that Malenkov wants to go at least part of the way in this direction, and that the masses would support his moves and give his regime the necessary stability within which it could initiate a return to proletarian democracy

How will it end?

Some of Deutscher’s arguments in support of this view are based on speculation pure and simple, which we can neither accept nor reject at this time. But we must reject his major conclusion, which flows from fatal defects in his analysis of Stalinism.

We agree that even while Stalin was alive the base of Stalinism was being undermined by Soviet economic and cultural progress and the spread of revolution throughout the world. We agree that the new regime, whatever its wishes, cannot rule in the same way that Stalin did. We agree that the end of Stalinism has begun (but not, as Deutscher implies in some places, that Stalinism is now a thing of the past). We also agree that the only real alternative to Stalinism in the Soviet Union is workers’ democracy. But we emphatically disagree with the contention that the end of Stalinism is going to come about as a result of a self-reform of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Nature of bureaucracy

What Deutscher doesn’t understand and slurs over is the nature of the Soviet bureaucracy as a special social stratum, a caste, whose interests clash with those of the workers and peasants. The bureaucracy did not usurp its privileges merely to enhance its prestige: it has material interests at stake which it will fight to the death to preserve against the workers and peasants who want a reduction of inequality in the sphere of consumption.

Consequently a harmonious reconciliation between the bureaucracy and the masses is not the easy possibility, even probability, that Deutscher airily assumes it to be. The bureaucrats are not going to relinquish their caste privileges until they have been defeated decisively by the working class.

This is not to deny that the downfall of the Soviet bureaucracy may be preceded by a split in its ranks, with one section perhaps going over to the people. But that is not the same thing as expecting a reform of the bureaucracy to lead to “an orderly winding up of Stalinism and a gradual democratic evolution.”

Another thing Deutscher doesn’t understand or accept is the Marxist analysis of the present state form in the Soviet Union as a Bonapartist dictatorship. Although Deutscher is acquainted with this analysis, first worked out by Trotsky, he acts as if he isn’t, and he doesn’t counterpose any other analysis. But he shows that he rejects it by defining Bonapartism almost exclusively as a purely military dictatorship, and talks about it only as a future danger.

This makes it easier for him to spin his theory about the approaching metamorphosis of the dictatorship into its opposite. But the Malenkov regime’s concessions to the people don’t change its character as a Bonapartist dictatorship; they only indicate that the dictatorship has been weakened. A weakened Bonapartist dictatorship, even when it waves the banner of “liberalization,” is still a Bonapartist dictatorship. And Bonapartist dictatorships generally have to be overthrown.

What Trotsky sought

Deutscher’s illusions and runaway speculations even lead him to write:

“In the 1930’s Trotsky advocated a ‘limited political revolution’ against Stalinism. He saw it not as a full-fledged social upheaval but as an ‘administrative operation’ directed against the chiefs of the political police and a small clique terrorizing the nation. As so often, Trotsky was tragically ahead of his time and prophetic in his vision of the future, although he could not imagine that Stalin’s closest associates would act in accordance with his scheme. What Malenkov’s government is carrying out now is precisely the ‘limited revolution’ envisaged by Trotsky.”

This is a flagrant distortion of Trotsky’s views on the regeneration of the Soviet Union. We don’t know which article of Trotsky Deutscher is citing, or when it was written. The Stalin regime had not yet reached its fully totalitarian form in the early 30’s, when Trotsky thought it was still possible to reform the Comintern; it was not until the mid-30’s that Trotsky rounded out his analysis of Soviet Bonapartism and the measures required to get rid of it.

A political revolution

But Deutscher knows that toward the end of Trotsky’s life, and especially after the Moscow Trial purges, he never tired of advocating an “unlimited” political revolution against Stalinism. The revolution Trotsky advocated was of course not directed against the social system in the Soviet Union, which he defended to the end. What he worked for was a political revolution – against social inequality and political repression, for the regeneration of Soviet democracy and the legalization of Soviet parties.

In fact Trotsky went so far, in the 1938 Transitional Program, as to call on the workers “to drive the bureaucracy and the new aristocracy out of the Soviets” in the same sense that capitalist representatives were excluded from the original Soviets.

Anybody who equates such a revolution, which the bureaucracy would fight tooth and nail, with the “liberalization” measures taken by Malenkov and Co., is losing touch with reality or adapting himself to Soviet Bonapartism. In neither case can he render any service to the fight for Soviet democracy.

Socialist regeneration

The reality is this: The Soviet dictatorship is in the throes of a deep crisis. As a result, the bureaucracy has offered certain concessions to the workers to keep them from moving on their own. Instead of satisfying the workers for long, these concessions will encourage them to press for new demands (the East German political strike was a preview of what is going to happen in the Soviet bloc as a whole). The crisis will produce further divisions and conflicts among the bureaucracy which the workers will be able to use for their awn purposes. War may delay the process, but cannot abolish it. The Soviet Bonapartist dictatorship is doomed, as Trotsky predicted it would be doomed, by the spread of world revolution, and it will be replaced by the democratic power of the Soviet working class. The change will take place through a political revolution against the Kremlin regime, not through its reform. There is no other way to the socialist regeneration of the Soviet Union.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020