Pierre Frank 1977

The Stalin Phenomenon

Source: International, Volume 4, no 1, Autumn 1977. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

At last we can say, without being accused of anti-Sovietism, that in Moscow they imprison people because of their political opinions. At last we can say that The Confession is not an anti-communist film. At last we can protest against the foul blow dealt at Wolf Biermann by the government of the GDR. All this is possible today, now that Marchais has given the go-ahead. But why is it that what was yesterday still anti-communism and anti-Sovietism is no longer so today? From Marchais and the French Communist Party (PCF) leadership, today as yesterday, we get only peremptory statements, not explanations. Today as yesterday, we have to take their word for it.

If we want to know more about Stalinism, we have to turn to the man who is today the accredited historian of the PCF, Jean Elleinstein, Assistant Director of the CERM (Centre for Marxist Studies and Research – an institution officially sponsored by the PCF), one of whose tasks is the training of PCF cadres on the question of the USSR. Moreover, he was recently the PCF candidate in the by-election in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, symbolising particularly the ‘line of the Twenty-Second Congress’ of the party. Armed with so many titles, he recently gave an account, The Limits and Significance of the Khrushchev Report. About a year ago he published a book entitled The Stalin Phenomenon [1] which enables us to understand the limits and significance of the ‘anti-Stalinism’, if not of its author, at least of the PCF. For Elleinstein did not publish this book on such a delicate subject without having previously obtained the imprimatur of Place du Colonel Fabien. [2]

This book contains many facts which make it very useful for convincing a Communist Party member who is incredulous with regard to the innumerable crimes of Stalin, the place occupied by Trotsky in the October Revolution and the creation of the Red Army, the lies emanating from Moscow concerning the situation in the Soviet Union, and so on. What an enormous difference from the literature of the past! Unquestionably it would produce a shock effect on anyone who has for years swallowed totally apologetic prose, and has been dazzled by brightly-lit scenarios devoid of the slightest shadow.

With this objective, it is necessary to make extensive use of this book, as was recommended by an article that appeared in the magazine Quatrième Internationale. [3] We are going to deal with this book too, to show not what it can be useful for, but what in it must be rejected. Because, for anyone who did not wait for Elleinstein to come along to find out many of these things, his book is still not a truthful history of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. Just as a bottle which is half-full is also half-empty, a book dealing with history which contains even a few half-truths is still a book which lies. We shall not go through The Stalin Phenomenon page by page in order to pick out all the points which require clarification or correction (there would be too many), nor shall we discuss the distinction that Elleinstein makes between the terms ‘Stalin phenomenon’ and ‘Stalinism’. We are not concerned with questions of semantics, but with his use of these terms in explaining what happened yesterday and what is happening today in the Soviet Union.

What He Has Retained of Stalinism

One point should be noted from the start: while Elleinstein recognises the role of Trotsky in the October Revolution, he is as dishonestly anti-Trotskyist now as in the past: ‘We must realise that the Trotskyism of 1931 was not that of 1975, which is distinguished by anti-Sovietism and a dogmatic, backward-looking strategy.’ (p 94) He provides no proof for such statements, especially not the charge of anti-Sovietism. For him ‘outdatedness’ is simply our revolutionary strategy as opposed to the reformist road to socialism.

But anti-Trotskyism is not all that Elleinstein has retained of Stalinism. To that must be added the method of choosing the opponents who suit him, in the style of those ‘weeks of Marxist thought’ where the Stalinists are fond of discussing with all sorts of philosophical, historical and economic currents, while systematically ignoring those Marxists who do not align themselves politically on the current line of the PCF. He is just a little more skilful: he chooses what suits him in, for example, Trotsky or Deutscher, in order to shatter a Bettelheim. Nor does he hesitate to resort to amalgams to combat Trotskyism, talking, for example, about ‘an Italian Trotskyite, Rizzi’ (p 178), when it is common knowledge that the latter fought against Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, and that Trotsky refuted at length Rizzi’s theories, later taken up by Burnham, on ‘bureaucratic collectivism’. Starting from an erroneous sentence of Rakovsky’s concerning the Soviet Union, he falsely states that ‘in The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky did not seem sure’ about the characterisation of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state (p 178).

As regards the person of Stalin, he does his best to promote him: ‘Stalin, on the eve of the Revolution, was charged with all sorts of tasks, including in the realm of international relations...’ (French edition, p 46) [4] This last suggestion is simply not true! Stalin only left Russia for two or three short stays abroad, on the occasion of Russian congresses, and to write a pamphlet on the national question. Not exactly ‘international relations’. He also makes of Stalin ‘a talented populariser’ of Marxism (p 65). By contrast, he states that Trotsky ‘was capable of greatness in troubled waters, in calm waters he was always mediocre’ (p 54).

Elleinstein, rather like Alice in Wonderland, has some upside-down criteria of talent and mediocrity – and of the nature of historical periods, too. For our author, the period of the Revolution from 1917 to 1923 is one of ‘troubled waters’, while that of Stalinism, when all the old Bolsheviks and millions of Soviet citizens (he admits the figure) were liquidated, is one of ‘calm waters’.

A Distorted History

At a stretch, let us concede Elleinstein the right to be mistaken about people and historical periods; he has the right not to like revolutionary storms and to prefer stagnant waters. But is it possible to distort the events which marked the rise of Stalinism more grossly than by writing ‘it is very significant that not one of the party leaders – despite the disagreements they may have had in the 1923-27 period – questioned the political institutions set up in 1922’ (p 53)?

This is manifestly untrue: on the one hand, Trotsky and, on the other, 46 other Bolshevik leaders demanded democratisation of the party as early as 1923; this demand was reformulated in 1926 and 1927 by the Joint Opposition in a platform which also envisaged a substantial reduction in the state apparatus. Of this essential document Elleinstein has not a word to say. Nor does he tell the reader that, as far back as 1923 (in the case of Trotsky, as early as his 1922 report to the Twelfth Congress of the CPSU), the Opposition had been demanding industrialisation and planning. About this period he emphasises only the fact that Bukharin, unlike Stalin, wanted to proceed slowly with industrialisation of the country, and expresses his astonishment that Stalin should have launched into it at full speed. Short of referring to Trotsky, or even to Deutscher, whom he must consider too favourable to Trotsky, he could have based himself on Professor EH Carr (whose works he mentions only when they fit in with his theses) – a non-Marxist historian, but one who has both very conscientiously gathered an enormous amount of documentation and very skilfully utilised it to write the history of the Soviet Union. He would have seen: (a) that planning and industrialisation were accepted only after a five-year struggle by the Opposition against Stalin and Bukharin – the latter claiming to be building socialism even ‘at a snail’s pace’ (Fifteenth Conference of the CPSU); (b) that both Stalin and Bukharin denied the kulak danger until the end of 1927; (c) that like the short-sighted bureaucrat he was, Stalin only began to make a turn about that time when he actually ran up against the obstacle, and then he embarked on a policy apparently close to that of the Opposition but with methods and rhythms which the latter had not at all advocated. Further on we will give still more examples of Elleinstein’s manner of writing history.

It is true, on the other hand, that he correctly stresses the inadequate realisation of democracy, which did not take long to leave its mark on the progress of the Russian Revolution, ‘... insufficient democracy lies at the origin of the growth and triumph of the Stalin phenomenon’ (p 101). He says, also very correctly, that the conditions of the Civil War, added to the historical backwardness of Tsarist Russia, acted strongly against democratic development in the country. But he insists on pushing the demonstration too far, thereby proceeding, whether intentionally or not, to an old argument of Social Democratic origin which has been taken up by all the enemies of Bolshevism.

It Was Lenin’s Fault Too!

Besides the objective conditions, Elleinstein argues, a certain responsibility for this absence of democracy, and hence for the ‘Stalin phenomenon’, devolves upon Lenin:

The Russian and Soviet... experiment did not proceed via political democracy... Even Lenin, whose approach to this problem was, however, based on a sound theoretical understanding, always underestimated its importance because he started from his own experience in Russia and only assimilated democratic experiences from the outside... [He]... can only visualise them through the distorted and distorting prism of his own experience... (p 122)

In 1918, and even in 1923, Lenin could not possibly know that, whilst socialism was a period of transition from capitalism to communism, it would last for decades and decades and that the state would take on an even greater role. (p 123)

What monstrous errors there are in these few lines. Thus Lenin, who wanted every cook to be able to fill governmental functions, always (that is what Elleinstein writes) underestimated the importance of democracy because he wore Russian spectacles which deformed his own experience! Not like those good French democrats, in the style of Marchais, who have good eyesight and distinguish things clearly in the limpid atmosphere of democracy and bourgeois parliamentarianism. Poor Rosa Luxemburg too, who, while polemicising at length against Lenin, on, among other questions, workers’ democracy, ridiculed those who considered ‘the farmyard of bourgeois democracy as the agency called upon to realise the most formidable social transformation in history’.

The second quotation from Elleinstein contains a whole Stalinist revision of Marxism. Neither Marx nor Lenin (in The State and Revolution) said that ‘socialism was a period of transition from capitalism to communism in which the state would play a more and more substantial role’. They talked about two stages of communist society – a lower one which they qualified as socialist, and another, higher, which they called communist society proper. They differentiated these two stages by the fact that: (a) in the lower stage, the principle of distribution is ‘for equal work, an equal quantity of products’, which still implies ‘the narrow horizon of bourgeois right'; whereas the higher stage will be characterised by the maxim ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs'; (b) in the higher stage of communism, in fact in the realm of abundance, the state will totally disappear, while in the lower stage, as early as the taking of power by the proletariat, the state will only begin to disappear:

The current, widespread, mass, if one may say so, conception of the ‘withering away’ of the state undoubtedly means toning down, if not repudiating, revolution. Such an ‘interpretation’, however, is the crudest distortion of Marxism... Engels speaks here of the proletarian revolution ‘abolishing’ the bourgeois state, while the words about the state withering away refer to the remnants of the proletarian state after the socialist revolution. According to Engels the bourgeois state does not ‘wither away’ but is ‘abolished’ by the proletariat in the course of the revolution. What withers away after this revolution is the proletarian state or semi-state... This ‘withering away'... is referred to by Engels quite clearly and definitely as belonging to the period after ‘the state has taken possession of the means of production in the name of the whole of society’, that is, after the socialist revolution... The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution. The abolition of the proletarian state, that is, of the state in general, is impossible except through the process of ‘withering away’. [5]

The theory of Marx and Engels on the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the period immediately following the taking of power, started, it is true, from the notion that revolution would come about in a developed capitalist society. The problem was complicated by the fact that neither Russia nor the other countries where capitalism has been abolished were developed capitalist countries (excepting Czechoslovakia and East Germany, where the overthrow was accomplished essentially by outside military intervention). Because of this, these societies, where it was necessary first of all to carry out the task of ‘primitive accumulation’ that the preceding regime had not fulfilled, are today still societies in transition to socialism (the lower stage of communism), rather than socialist societies proper.

Most important of all, neither Marx nor Lenin envisaged that, after the taking of power, social inequalities would be accentuated and the state would play a more and more substantial role – as was the case under Stalin, who tried to justify his policies theoretically. It was he who maintained as early as 1935 that ‘socialism’ had been achieved in the Soviet Union, and that it was going to proceed to the next phase, that of communism. It was also he who invented the ‘theory’ that the further one advances in building socialism, the more the class struggle sharpens, leading not to the ‘withering away’ of the state, but to its strengthening as a repressive apparatus, through, among other things, the Moscow Trials. On this plane, Elleinstein has retained virtually all of Stalinist ‘theory’, but he does not want the repression: it’s illogical on his part. We may be mistaken, but we do not think we came across a single reference in his book to the withering away of the state.

To Afford the Luxury of a Revolution...

According to Elleinstein, the circumstances which led Lenin to underestimate democracy and to regard its violation as a norm of the socialist revolution also produced the strategic error of the Comintern for the advanced capitalist countries. In fact...

What appeared to be the norm in 1919 was to be revealed as exceptional over the following years, and as a result the overall strategy (originally) adopted by the Communist International proved not to correspond to the facts of the real situation in the capitalist countries. On the other hand, it was to correspond much more closely with the situation in the colonial countries, where the national liberation movement was capable of pushing people towards the socialist revolution along paths which were historically different from those of the Russian Revolution, but resembled it in as much as democratic processes played a small part. (p 124)

The strategic schema, that is, speaking clearly, the revolutionary road, is supposedly the exception; but has the other solution, the parliamentary road of gradual development of bourgeois democracy, which is meant to be not the exception but the rule, ever given victory to socialism? That is a question that Elleinstein does not ask himself. Should the revolutionary road have been followed in France and Italy after the Second World War? Let us listen to our strategist of socialism:

These two countries had been liberated by the Anglo-Saxons, and even if their peoples had so wished, which was not the case, they could not afford the luxury of a revolution which the Americans and British would have drowned in blood without the USSR being able to intervene... (p 141)

‘The luxury of a revolution’ – to allow yourself that, you have to be Vietnamese, faced by half-a-million GIs, after having fought Japanese and French troops. Good Europeans, whose ancestors won them some rather fragile democratic rights which do not please the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis of all stripes, cannot reach socialism via the revolution. Instead, they will have luxury coaches to take them there.

What, too, can one say about the ‘slight importance of democratic processes’ for the countries which were colonised before overthrowing capitalism? They can put up with a cut-price socialism. It’s not exactly a racist statement, but it stinks all the same.


We come now to another example where Elleinstein, speaking as an historian, tries to pass off Stalinism as the strengthening of the socialist revolution, which Trotsky supposedly didn’t understand:

Trotsky had not grasped the fact that Thermidor was the prolongation of the bourgeois revolution with other forms, other methods, and even with other men. Bonaparte consolidated the bourgeois revolution just as Stalin was carrying on the socialist revolution. (p 87)

The notion of Thermidor was employed in the Soviet Union in a way that was often confused during the years of the rise of Stalinism. In February 1935, Trotsky admitted this and wrote a self-critical pamphlet to give his definitive opinion on the question. We can read there the following:

Thermidor in 1794 produced a shift of power from certain groups in the Convention to other groups, from one section of the victorious ‘people’ to other strata. Was Thermidor counter-revolutionary? The answer to this question depends upon how wide a significance we attach, in a given case, to the concept of ‘counter-revolution’. The social overturn of 1789 to 1793 was bourgeois in character. In essence it reduced itself to the replacement of fixed feudal property by ‘free’ bourgeois property. The counter-revolution ‘corresponding’ to this revolution would have had to attain the re-establishment of feudal property. But Thermidor did not even make an attempt in this direction. Robespierre sought his support among the artisans, the Directory among the middle bourgeoisie. Bonaparte allied himself with the banks. All these shifts – which had, of course, not only a political, but also a social significance – occurred, however, on the basis of the new bourgeois society and state. Thermidor was reaction in operation on the social foundation of the revolution... The present-day Kremlin Bonapartism we juxtapose, of course, to the Bonapartism of bourgeois rise and not decay... From the standpoint that interests us, the difference in the social basis of the two Bonapartisms, of Jacobin and of Soviet origin, is much more important. In the former case, the question involved was the consolidation of the bourgeois revolution through the liquidation of its principles and political institutions. In the latter case, the question involved is the consolidation of the worker-peasant revolution through the smashing of its international programme, its leading party, its soviets... Napoleon waged a struggle not only against the feudal world but also against the ‘rabble’ and the democratic circles of the petty and middle bourgeoisie... Stalin guards the conquests of the October Revolution not only against the feudal-bourgeois counter-revolution but also against the claims of the toilers, their impatience and their dissatisfaction; he crushes the left wing that expresses the ordered historical and progressive tendencies of the unprivileged working masses; he creates a new aristocracy by means of an extreme differentiation in wages, privileges, ranks, etc. [6]

We can see that Trotsky really had not ‘grasped’ the significance of the bourgeois Thermidor and that of the Stalinist Thermidor! He would have needed the illumination of an Elleinstein to do that. ‘Under other forms, with other methods, indeed with other men’, the latter tells us. Then how? Stalin ‘continued’ the socialist revolution by eliminating every atom of democracy in the Soviet Union and by executing the overwhelming majority of the leaders of and participants in the October Revolution. Everyone consolidates the revolution in their own way.

The Nature of the ‘Stalin Phenomenon’

But what then is at the bottom of this ‘Stalin phenomenon’, according to our historian? He has a sentence which deserves to be passed on to posterity: ‘It was a phenomenon restricted in terms of time and place and not an historical necessity universally true of socialism, whether past, present or future.’ (p 60)

A phenomenon ‘limited in time and place'? In this earthly world of ours, what is there, apart from the Holy Ghost, phantoms, ectoplasms and suchlike, which is not ‘limited in time and place’. Socialism and communism will be too. Certainly, Stalinism was not an inevitable, fatal, necessity, even in the Soviet Union – the Trotskyists said so a long time ago and that is precisely why Trotsky and the Opposition fought against Stalinism from the moment that it took its first steps. What then is the social nature of this phenomenon ‘limited in time and place'? Elleinstein calls into question the party and state bureaucracy, but he does so in terms that have to be closely studied:

* The number of civil servants increased to a significant and unproductive extent. Often party full-time workers and functionaries in the state machine enjoyed material, political and intellectual advantages which gave them certain privileges compared to other people. However, since it is contrary to the facts, one may hardly talk of a new class of ‘privileged’ bureaucrats, as did some Trotskyites in the 1930s and later. (p 83)

It may be conceded that a – minimal – part of the product of labour which was not shared out among wage-earners (in the form of wages) and which the state took was monopolised to a disproportional extent by the state and party functionaries. Indeed, this is a consequence of the phenomenon of bureaucracy, but the difference between this and talk of surplus-value and a bureaucratic class is huge. These benefits... enable some people to live better than the other Soviet citizens... but for all that, this does not constitute the creation of a bureaucratic class. Social injustice does exist under socialism, that is true, but how utopian it was to have thought it could not. (pp 179-80)

It’s true that the Stalin phenomenon was bureaucratic, but that means that the role played by offices was more important than that of the masses and that administrative decisions outweighed economic stimuli. This meant that the economy could be mismanaged, the towns badly administered, and the kolkhozes badly run, because decisions were taken by civil servants who were incompetent, irresponsible, or who either did not face up to their responsibilities, or who were corrupt... This evil is not specifically socialist ... It is observed in all the capitalist countries. (p 180)

In the first place, what is ‘contrary to the truth’ is to attribute to Trotsky and the Trotskyists, including those of today, the opinion that the Soviet bureaucracy is a class. How many disputes and how many splits has the Fourth International known on this question of whether the bureaucracy is a new class or a privileged social category of the workers’ state! The army and the church constitute not classes, but social categories. But that does not prevent them, in certain circumstances, from running a society based, for example, on capitalist property relations. In the Soviet Union, property relations are of a socialist character; nevertheless it is not the proletariat but the bureaucracy which, since Stalin, has despotically run this society.

In the second place, Elleinstein deliberately minimises the advantages and privileges enjoyed by the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. He says, moreover, that you have to be a utopian to think that social injustices could not exist under socialism. That is true, but it is not the point. Under Stalin, the regime did not struggle, as it should have done, against social injustices in the construction of socialism; it increased them. Its whole policy went in that direction, at the expense of the workers. Here again Elleinstein revises Marx and Lenin, forgetting that they enthusiastically approved of the decision of the Paris Commune to pay its elected representatives and functionaries a salary not exceeding that of a skilled worker, as a means of struggle against bureaucracy. The young Soviet regime, despite itself, was not able to do as much. Because of scarcity and the defection of cadres of the state and the economy, it was able, in the first few years, to respect this norm only in the case of members of the Communist Party. Even this rule was revoked when Stalin became master of the party.

In the last analysis, Elleinstein sees in the bureaucracy not a privileged social category, but only bad methods, incompetent and irresponsible people – just like in a capitalist society. But, under a capitalist regime as well as in the Soviet Union, there is no shortage of competent, responsible, uncorrupted bureaucrats. You cannot explain a social regime or political structures by means of individual blemishes. Elleinstein differs totally from the Trotskyist conception of the regime in the Soviet Union as one based on a privileged bureaucracy, which, to maintain itself and extend its privileges, struck ruthlessly and executed those who took up the defence of working-class demands. Unable to find a stable social position corresponding to the new relations of production, this bureaucracy found itself forced to try to set up a supreme arbiter in the person of an individual around whom it celebrated a cult.

Socialism in One Country

Elleinstein takes up the defence of the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’:

The opposition, in 1923 or in 1925-26, was greatly at fault not to grasp the necessity of this slogan, which the rural masses could understand because it implied the renunciation of offensive revolutionary war and adventurism. (p 57)

Socialism in one country was the only possible path just after the defeat of the revolution in Europe. (p 187)

He invokes, not the sophisms that Bukharin came up with to justify ‘socialism in one country’, but more prosaic themes. Basically, for him, to be a partisan of the international revolution is to be an adventurer who advocates an offensive revolutionary war – which is a dishonest distortion of the opinions of the Opposition. For him, it was necessary to manufacture an ideology for the peasants and more generally for the exhausted masses – an ideology which clearly suited bureaucrats who felt that the revolution had lasted long enough and that it was time to rescue the privileges and other advantages necessary for a better life.

Elleinstein recognises that Hitler’s coming to power ‘was a field in which Stalin bore a heavy responsibility’ (p 91). But he fails to see that the Stalinist policy of the so-called ‘Third Period’, which furthered Hitler’s victory by opposing the workers’ united front against Nazism, was one of the most harmful fruits of the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’. Stalin considered that in order to build this socialism in peace within the frontiers of the Soviet Union, the coming to power of Nazism (which, it seemed to him, would create an unstable regime) was preferable to the existence of a government including the Social Democratic adjunct of world imperialism.

On this subject, let us add that Elleinstein presents Bukharin as having recognised, in contrast to Stalin, the danger that Nazism represented for the Soviet Union. In support of this argument he invokes a few lines of a speech made at the Seventeenth Congress of the CPSU in 1934 (thus after the coming to power of Hitler) – lines which are, moreover, drowned in a eulogy of Stalin, and which advance no alternative policy to his. On the other hand, Elleinstein devotes not a line, not one word of his book to the very numerous and remarkable texts of Trotsky between 1929 and 1933, warning against the danger of Hitlerism and advocating a United Front of the Communist and Social Democratic parties to combat it, [7] texts which earned him the most infamous Stalinist calumnies, paving the way for the future ‘Moscow Trials’. [8]

Still in the realm of Stalin’s foreign policy, let us mention, to finish with, another lie – there is no other word for it – from our historian of the ‘Stalin phenomenon’. After the coming to power of Hitler, it was necessary, according to him, to turn to another policy: ‘The only strategy likely to bar the way to Nazism and the other kinds of Fascism: “Democracy or Fascism.”’ (p 92) The policy which resulted from this was the Popular Front. But, he adds: ‘The Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 confirmed this approach [the Popular Front]. Unfortunately the Stalin phenomenon hindered the application of this new policy and largely prevented its being given the required theoretical dimension.’ (p 204)

This is quite untrue: the policy of the Popular Front, particularly in France and Spain, was never hindered by Stalin. We have found no reference in Elleinstein’s book to the Spanish Revolution, where the Popular Front strategy of ‘democracy or fascism’ was applied, with the results that we know. Those who argued at the time, in a more or less developed fashion, that to defeat fascism it was necessary not to rely on bourgeois democracy, since fascism fed on precisely the inability of bourgeois democracy to shore up the capitalist system; those who said that fascism could only be defeated by carrying through a socialist revolution, were accused then of being ‘Hitlero-Trotskyists’. The Moscow Trials, the first one of which practically coincided with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, were in fact so many dagger-blows dealt by Stalin against the Spanish Revolution, just as much as against the Soviet Union itself.

Survivals of Stalinism... In the Psychiatric Hospitals

Before we turn to investigate Stalinism nearer home, we may ask: what has become of the Soviet Union today? Here is what Elleinstein says:

The manifestations of ‘new Stalinism’ which are to be found there [in the Soviet Union] are survivals from the past, manifestations which recur as a result of habits, established administrative structures and of mental attitudes which, as is well known, are hard to change. (p 217)

The publications banned by the censorship, the deportations to the camps, the expulsions from the country, the internment of oppositionists in psychiatric hospitals, the military intervention in Czechoslovakia to impose a new Central Committee on the Communist Party, etc... all these are only survivals from the past, due, like the whole of the ‘Stalin phenomenon’, to the habits of Russians who have never known democracy. Besides, it’s so difficult to change people’s mentality... I could be listening to my grocer: in these words of Elleinstein his petty-bourgeois mentality is revealed in all its nakedness.

Is the aim of the workers’ movement not to change society, and thus habits, attitudes of mind, morals? If the leaders of the Soviet Union are particularly inert in this field, what should the working masses of that country do? What programme does Elleinstein propose to them? On that point you will find nothing in his book. We presume that this is done in the name of non-interference in the affairs of a fraternal party, that hypocritical formula which has permitted the Western Communist Parties to sing the praises of the Soviet Union on every subject, no matter how irrelevant, but to say nothing about the crimes that have been committed: at the very most today, several decades later, they can manage to say rather unconvincingly that they no longer approve of certain actions of the Kremlin leaders; no more than that.

It’s the Fault of the Comintern and Others!

Let us leave the internal and external policies of Stalin on the governmental level, because there is more to the ‘Stalin phenomenon’ than that. In spite of the ‘theory’ of socialism in one country, Stalinism did not remain confined within the borders of the Soviet Union and did not refrain from interference in fraternal parties; on the contrary, it affected every Communist Party in the world. What Elleinstein writes on this subject is, let us say, at least as inexact as what he writes on the Soviet Union. Why did the Communist Parties faithfully follow Stalin in all his lies and crimes? For Elleinstein, it was quite simply the fault of the Comintern:

The foreign Communist Parties claimed that they were lies and bourgeois propaganda... information mainly filtered through via Soviet turncoats who had fled to the West (Krivitsky, Orlov, Kravchenko), via Trotsky and Trotskyites, and via university study centres in the imperialist countries... The Communist Parties and their leaders had all been trained by the Comintern. The Communist International had made the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union one of the pillars of its policy... (p 152)

It was also a little the fault of Stalin’s victims:

How could people have any doubts about the plot when they heard Zinoviev or Kamenev declare that they were agents of the Gestapo and had plotted the assassination of members of the Politburo... (p 109)

Add the ‘Cold War’ and you will understand how ‘so many people of good will, especially abroad’ could have been taken in for so long by Stalin (pp 86-87). It is true that a very large number of workers believed all the lies, believed all the Stalinist infamies. But what can one say of those ‘well-meaning’ leaders of the Communist Parties who, even well after the Comintern had been dissolved, did not know, did not know a thing! As we check these pages, the Political Bureau of the PCF has just said that it kept silent about the Khrushchev Report because its delegation to the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU was asked to say nothing. Today, it is their turn to confess, to make ‘confessions’ that no one and no terror has extracted from them; they knew, but they said nothing, and that did not start in 1956. Certainly all the members of the Central Committee ‘did not know’ in quite the same way. Perhaps some particularly unintelligent ones even understood nothing of what was going on. But the real leaders, the ones on the Political Bureau, knew; they knew very well what was happening in the Soviet Union and they approved – these fine people, who claim to be highly qualified, indeed the only qualified, leaders of the workers’ movement, were nevertheless incapable of seeing that in the Soviet Union the Kremlin was committing crimes against socialism. They knew – we would like to give a proof which has probably escaped the person who provided it. During the recent discussion which followed the showing of the film The Confession on French television, Arthur London, the author of the book, [9] was asked by a viewer why he had not proclaimed his innocence before the tribunal which judged him, why he had not repudiated the statements which had been forced out of him under torture. His reply was, in essence: such an action would have been of no use. I remembered that when Krestinsky – the former Soviet Ambassador to Berlin and former Secretary of the Bolshevik Party – had tried to retract his statements, they had cut off the microphone and taken him out of the court; and at the following session he confessed to everything they had made him say. This happened at the third ‘Moscow Trial’ in 1938, where Krestinsky was a defendant along with Bukharin and others. Thus London had noticed this incident and still remembered it 20 years later, thereby showing that in his heart of hearts he knew the essence of what had happened in Moscow during those years of the apogee of Stalinism. Like other Communist leaders, he probably did not understand the motives behind Stalin’s policies – his book illustrates that he has grasped the mechanism of the regime but not what Stalinism is; but it was a situation in the face of which he considered himself powerless and which he thought he would be able to get through with the hope that nothing would happen to him personally.

They Knew and They Used the Same Methods

Not only did top leaders like Thorez know, but they applied similar methods, and policies identical to those of Stalin, minus state power. Elleinstein tries to tone down as much as possible the PCF’s policies and methods, to the point of changing their basic features:

Even the Western Communist Parties practised it [the Stalin cult] in a modified form. (p 199)

There was undoubtedly a certain sliding in the attitude of the PCF towards Stalin, whose cult it had been induced to celebrate on several occasions... On the theoretical level it had not been spared from Stalinist dogmatism, but it would be contrary to the truth to derive from that an argument against the policies followed by the PCF, which in fact had a profoundly democratic practice. (French edition, p 245)

It is all rather like the case of the unfortunate virgin who gave birth to a child, but only such a little one... Elleinstein’s formulas are so convoluted that the reader may imagine the PCF to have practised only the cult of Stalin and not that of Thorez. Only he has forgotten the bulletins and campaigns of recruitment to ‘the party of Maurice Thorez’, the domestic servants, the villas and other little gifts for the ‘first Stalinist of France’.

Rouge has already recalled the methods employed against Marty and Tillon, described by the latter in a book quite appropriately entitled A Moscow Trial in Paris. Tillon made ‘confessions’ after having been forced to write text after text until he produced one that suited the leadership. He thus with difficulty secured for himself a paltry pardon. Later, when in May 1968 he plucked up courage again, defended the ‘Marcellin-Leftists’ [10] and denounced the treatment to which he had been subjected, he was expelled. As for Marty, who consistently refused to yield to this treatment, to real moral torture, he was witch-hunted out of the party as a ‘policeman'; today, they will tell you, mezzo-voce, that he was a bad character. Policeman or bad character, such a minor distinction! The ‘cases’ of Marty and Tillon had nothing to do with the ‘defence of the USSR’. All the same, it is Elleinstein who tells us that the PCF always respected democracy...

Let us take another example. In his book Elleinstein writes: ‘In biology, Lysenko became the high priest of an anti-scientific “church” which criticised Mendel’s theses, which were considered to be idealistic.’ (p 149)

Lysenko ‘criticised’ Mendel’s theses. What a euphemism! A ‘criticism’ which consisted of driving from the laboratories, and even having imprisoned, a whole top layer of Soviet scientists! But is the PCF white as the driven snow on this question? In default of knowing what happened in the Soviet Union, the ‘historian’ Elleinstein ought at least to know the history of his own party. When Lysenko’s star appeared in the Moscow firmament, there was, among the members of the Central Committee of the PCF, a scholar, biologist and Sorbonne professor, who had furthermore belonged to the general staff of the Francs-Tireurs during the Resistance: his name was Marcel Prenant. He stood up against Lysenko’s theses, saying that they were not scientifically grounded. Another member of the Central Committee, Aragon, whose qualifications in the realm of biology are still unknown to the world, published a special number of the magazine Europe in support of Lysenko’s theses. It was Prenant who was excluded from the Central Committee, the first step towards his departure from the party. But Aragon is still there, and no one has yet heard the slightest ‘self-criticism’ from him or from the party on the Lysenko question.

We could easily write page after page on various subjects, with plenty of quotations in support, to illustrate to what degree the PCF followed Stalin – this party which, even among other Communist Parties, was considered for a long time (at the least, until two or three years ago) as the Kremlin’s favourite son, just as France was the favourite son of the Catholic Church. We will limit ourselves to a single example of substance.

‘Laissez-les Vivre’

Because there are better and worse examples, it is very much a matter of taste. In his ‘construction’ and ‘consolidation’ of socialism, Stalin made the Soviet Union take a big step back in the spheres of women, the family and children, abandoning the bold attempts of the young revolutionary regime and, among other things, banning abortion in a most scandalous fashion. Trotsky, in The Revolution Betrayed, expressed his indignation in vigorous terms, ‘the philosophy of a priest endowed also with the power of a gendarme’, to condemn the remarks of the Stalinist jurist Soltz, who explained that since there were no unemployed in socialist society, a woman had no right to reject ‘the joys of motherhood’. [11] And what did the leaders of the PCF do on these questions, under the impetus of Maurice Thorez and Jeannette Vermeersch? They unhesitatingly followed in Stalin’s footsteps, condemning abortion and contraceptive methods in terms which – minus the reference to socialism – would have done credit to the publicists of Laissez-les Vivre (the French equivalent of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child).

In the 1950s, Jeannette Vermeersch denounced abortion and contraception in the following terms: ‘Working-class women do not seek right of access to the vices of the bourgeoisie.’ François Billoux, in an article in France Nouvelle entitled ‘The Right to Motherhood’, expressed himself thus: ‘We explain to mothers and prospective mothers that the solution to their difficulties does not lie in the clandestine abortion of today, any more than in legal abortion tomorrow, nor in the use of methods of contraception.’ Maurice Thorez carried the question on to a ‘theoretical’ plane: ‘The party cannot adopt an anarchistic theory at the moment when it is making big steps forward as the guide of the nation, bearing the hope of our people.’

At the Fourteenth Congress of the PCF (Le Havre, 1956) he had persuaded the party to adopt theses in which we can read:

... the ruling classes prefer to propagate the inhuman doctrines of neo-Malthusianism, degrading for the individual, brutal for the country. Neo-Malthusianism, an ultra-reactionary concept, brought back into fashion by the ideologues of American imperialism, is a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie, to divert the workers from the struggle for immediate demands, for bread, for socialism.

Neo-Malthusian concepts are one thing, abortion and contraception something else entirely. One can defend the latter without in the slightest sharing neo-Malthusian ideas. In any case, doctors and journalists who were members of the PCF had enormous difficulties with the leadership at this period. There were even expulsions from the party over the question. Today, the PCF is taking up new positions so as not to be left behind the majority of the public opinion. But we have never heard of any ‘self-criticism’ whatsoever by the party. So where were the democratic policies of the PCF? Moreover, despite changes in these fields, the PCF is still today only at the level of the dullest petty-bourgeois morality.

Thorez... Anti-Stalinist

In his zeal to embellish his party and its leaders, Elleinstein pushes things a bit far. Mentioning Thorez’s statement to The Times of 19 November 1946, in which he envisaged the march towards socialism taking other roads than the one followed by the Russian Communists, Elleinstein writes: ‘This statement... nevertheless marked a crucial date in the rejection of Stalinist theory by the General Secretary of one of the most powerful Communist Parties in the capitalist world.’ (p 205)

Thorez, champion of the struggle on the theoretical level against Stalinism – now we've seen and heard everything. This statement did not reject Stalinism either theoretically or politically; it simply stated for the first time, after many years of practice, that the policy followed by the PCF was not a revolutionary policy like that of the Russians in 1917, but a reformist policy. As was the case with Social Democracy, this theorisation came several years later, as a confirmation of day-to-day practice.

It seems to us that we have illustrated sufficiently the political limits of the PCF’s ‘anti-Stalinism’, without forgetting that Elleinstein is still the one who so far has advanced the furthest in this domain. All the same, we are going to deal with a typical aspect of the ‘changes’ of the PCF leaders before passing on to an examination of the political significance of their new statements on the subject of Stalin.

No Moral Crisis

Reading Elleinstein’s book, and following the often gross explanations and distortions of someone who has read a lot, probably even more than he would really like to let on, one is tempted to think that he is playing the fool in order to hide opinions that he doesn’t want to express, or doesn’t yet want to express publicly, so as to help the PCF. On the other hand, he has been subjected to criticism by certain elements in the PCF itself. Both Elleinstein and his critics, however, are acting under the aegis of the leadership, for reasons which are not precisely known. At the top of the PCF, disagreements probably exist – which are evidently not explicable in terms of a search for scientific truth – concerning what can and must be said on the subject of the Soviet Union. If Elleinstein is at the moment committing himself heavily and the party only a little, the leadership must be uncertain of the consequences that these revelations could have for the party.

In any case, and irrespective of his own future, Elleinstein is trying at present to serve the PCF well, with all that it retains of methods inherited from Stalinism. Just like PCF leader Kanapa, who, when asked in the television debate on The Confession mentioned earlier if he had ever written a somewhat outrageous Stalinist sentence, replied: probably, I couldn’t be certain and I'm not ashamed of it, so Elleinstein states: ‘In 1975 it is easier to arrive at a calm evaluation of these matters... Unlike some people, I do not feel that I ruined my youth and sacrificed it for an empty ideal.’ (p 152)

By remarks like these, the Kanapas and Elleinsteins of the PCF show that no moral crisis has touched them. They carried on for years like counterfeiters, buying and selling Stalinism as socialist gold, and now they come along and say, in substance: we did it and we don’t feel any remorse, we were right to do it. In the PCF, moral crises were all very well for a few Central Committee members after they had read the Khrushchev Report. Of course, we do not share Robrieux’s eulogies of Servin, Casanova, Pronteau, etc... or think that they could have succeeded in transforming their party. But it is clear that they really did seek some changes in the behaviour of the PCF, for which Thorez, with the support of the Kanapas of various kinds, broke or expelled them. Moral crises are also fine for those ‘fellow-travellers’, those intellectuals and artists, devoid of any pretensions to political leadership, who only wanted, by giving of their talents and themselves, to support the struggle of the workers for the emancipation of humanity. Grievously duped by the Stalinists, these people, whose crisis is very movingly depicted in Simone Signoret’s book La nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était (Nostalgia Is No Longer What It Used To Be), and who had nothing to reproach themselves with personally – these people suffered a great deal. But the men who were really guilty, because they knew that they were lying, today say without shame: we lied, but we were right to lie, because it was for the party.

This ‘Party’ becomes transformed into an entity standing above those who constitute it and above society. Such an attitude reveals that, despite certain shifts in the day-to-day politics of the PCF, its methods remain fundamentally those of Stalinism, even if they are more hypocritical. The recent declaration of the Political Bureau of the PCF on the ‘Khrushchev Report’, stating that the French delegation to the Twentieth Congress was aware of this report but had not spoken about it at the request of the Russians, is of an unheard-of impudence. By this statement they confess that they were under the orders of the Kremlin, keeping quiet about the crimes that had been committed in the Soviet Union, because it had been asked of them. Who is going to believe them when they say they did not know? Had they not kept quiet before at the Russians’ request? And who can believe them when they say: we won’t do it again?

The ‘Aggiornamento’ of the PCF

This enables us to grasp in its deepest sense the present ‘anti-Stalinism’ of the PCF. Just as Pope John XXIII embarked on the Second Vatican Council to check the crisis of the Catholic Church by an ‘aggiornamento’, just as Khrushchev tried to do the same for the Soviet Union at the Twentieth Congress, so it is also an aggiornamento, not a regeneration, that the PCF is undertaking at present, with a fairly noteworthy difference in Khrushchev’s favour, in comparison to Marchais and his Kanapas and Elleinsteins. Because, far from denouncing the unreserved participation of Thorez in all the misdeeds and political crimes of Stalin, they try either to reduce it or to conceal it by silence. In this respect, they are much closer to a Brezhnev than to a Khrushchev.

The argument of the PCF leadership, according to which the party has recognised its error and should no longer have it held against it, is simply laughable. (Let us note in passing the invocation of ‘the party’ in general – which spreads the burden of the leadership among the entire membership which had no direct responsibility.) Can the leadership of a party reject, not one or other of its particular political positions, but the whole of its politics and methods in the course of several decades, as one might throw away a pair of worn-out socks? Even more, can it do this while reproaching the Socialist Party for its past? It cannot at the same time accuse the PS of retaining the heritage of Blum and refuse for itself the heritage of Stalin. Neither of the two mass workers’ parties will ever shake off all the betrayals of the cause of socialism that they have perpetrated. Up to now, their history is the history of these betrayals and these crimes.

Without claiming to have exhausted the subject of the present ‘anti-Stalinism’ of the PCF, we must still examine why this aggiornamento is taking place now. Many people have noted that the PCF leadership, for so long the most obstinate of Communist Party leaderships in aligning itself with Moscow, is today one of those who are seeking to mark their divergences on some points with surprising rapidity. As far as it is possible, Marchais today appears even more sharp towards Moscow than Berlinguer. What has made him take the bit between his teeth? The ‘qualities’ of Marchais – his vulgarity, his inability to appreciate nuances, a brutality that he controls with difficulty – certainly count for something as to the form, but they do not explain the core of the matter. He does not have a Political Bureau at his beck and call in the style of Thorez; decisions on the question of ‘Stalinism’ are probably among those which are most discussed on that body. It is above all reasons specific to the political situation in France that explain the present attitude of the PCF leadership. It has only been behaving like this for two to three years. Why?

A Nail In Its Shoe

When the Common Programme of the Union of the Left was signed, the PCF shouted victory; was this not the outcome of 15 years of efforts to obtain such an agreement with the Socialist Party? Only a greater expansion of the party seemed possible as a result. The PCF had managed for the third time, following the Popular Front of 1935 and the Tripartism of the immediate postwar period, to ally itself with the PS. Each of the preceding operations had resulted in a strengthening or consolidation of the PCF, while the PS had receded, especially within the working class. The PCF had become the ‘first workers’ party’ of France, and even went so far as to claim to be the only workers’ party. The Union of the Left, or so the party leadership thought, was going to have the same effect.

But the result they had been counting on did not materialise. Shortly after the signing of the Common Programme, the opposite happened. From the by-elections of September 1974 onwards, the PS demonstrated that it was regaining strength and winning votes, while the PCF stagnated, and in fact receded a little. These tendencies have been reinforced since then, and the PS has become, on the electoral plane, ‘the first party of France’. Certainly, the PCF is still hegemonic in the factories. But for a party which has not been revolutionary for a long time now, which looks forward to accession to government by electoral and parliamentary means, and even sees this perspective as realisable in the near future, it is a misfortune to lose votes and be left standing by its political ally. For such things affect the number and distribution of ministerial portfolios. The PCF has no alternative policy to that of the Union of the Left. Both the PCF and the PS are stuck with it; and whichever took the initiative of a break would be faced with disaster.

What could the PCF do under such circumstances? As will be remembered, the leadership’s first reaction was to attack the PS vigorously and directly on a whole number of questions; but that gave no results at all. The leadership claimed in the course of its polemics that it did not have to take lessons in democracy from anyone. It was then that it realised its lack of credibility on this question and began to feel its ties with Moscow like a nail in the shoe causing considerable pain every time it took a step. Starting from that moment it has formulated, somewhat noisily, its differences with Moscow, and Elleinstein has been able to write books ‘on the line of the Twenty-Second Congress of the PCF’. For indeed, this line consists of proclaiming urbi et orbi its criticism of Stalinism in the name of the most vulgar bourgeois democracy. To check stagnation and electoral decline, slight though they may be – such is the political objective of the PCF leadership. But what it wants to achieve is one thing; the consequences of its line towards Moscow will be quite another.

Who Benefits From the PCF’s ‘Anti-Stalinism'?

For many a long year the PCF has managed to keep several irons in the fire, and it is still doing so. Communist to one person, it was and is democratic to a second, internationalist to a third, revolutionary to a fourth, reformist to a fifth, etc... But that cannot last for ever. As events unfold, irksome setbacks are inevitable. In the field of patriotism, de Gaulle appeared much more credible in the eyes of many voters who had previously supported the PCF – as is well known, the party lost nearly a million votes in 1958. Today the pendulum is swinging to the left, and, whether we like it or not, Mitterrand appears, despite his unhappy political past, to be more credible than Marchais on the issues of democracy and parliamentarism. Furthermore, the ‘anti-Stalinist’ campaign of the PCF, far from serving to strengthen it, will above all help the Socialist Party.

When Elleinstein writes that Lenin was mistaken on the question of democracy, that after 1923 the revolutionary perspectives of the PCF became incorrect, that the Comintern should have been dissolved as early as 1935, he is providing, in the shape of ideological arguments, grist for the mill of those who want to ‘reverse the verdict of Tours’ [12] – he is fostering a tendency within the PCF to rejoin the PS one of these days. It is very likely that, in the leadership of the PCF, there are those who see the danger in this ‘line of the Twenty-Second Congress’, and who are trying to tone down or efface altogether some of Elleinstein’s arguments – which explains some of the criticisms which have been addressed to him from within the party.

In any case, in the framework of the reformist politics of the Union of the Left – and the PCF cannot get out of it – it is above all the PS which will reap the profit, especially among the broad masses. These masses will certainly not be moved by Elleinstein’s arguments, of which they are unaware, but by much more striking themes. They now find themselves in the presence of two reformist parties, whose political lines on the main problems are close if not identical and whose differences, in any case, do not really justify the existence of two distinct parties. Both of these parties have quite murky pasts, but the PS’s seems to them to be less so than the PCF’s, which includes both the sinister name of Stalin and the ill deeds of his successors. Besides, in electoral terms, it is the Socialist Party which has the greater chance of taking votes from the bourgeois parties and thus benefits from the ‘vote usefully’ approach: Mitterrand, President of the Republic, perhaps; Marchais, definitely not.

But ‘anti-Stalinism’ will not help only the Socialist Party: the PCF has also been losing ground on its left ever since 1968, and things are only beginning. History, that old lady with such a capricious gait, so unexpected, so hesitant, who too often limps along, goes up blind alleys or sinks into quicksand, finally makes at certain moments lightning revolutionary strides that carry her forward. We can predict with certainty, in the light of June 1936 and the great crisis of May 1968, that when she takes such strides again, even if the PCF wanted to manoeuvre by means of some ‘revolutionary’ proposals – which would not be an easy thing for it to do – it will not be able to profit from them. Just as was the case with de Gaulle and patriotism, or Mitterrand and democracy, its manoeuvres will have the opposite effect. It will be those whom the party and Elleinstein qualify today as dogmatic and outdated, having formerly treated them as ‘Hitlero-Trotskyists’, who will find the ear of the working masses.


1. Published in France in 1975 and in London by Lawrence and Wishart in 1976. All page references are to the English edition except in two instances where the passage cited has been omitted in translation (see note 4).

2. Place du Colonel Fabien – the PCF’s headquarters.

3. See the criticism of this book by JF Godchau in Quatrième Internationale, no 22, Autumn 1975.

4. The Lawrence and Wishart translator must have been aware of the enormity of Elleinstein’s assertion here, since this last phrase, ‘including in the realm of international relations’, is omitted from the English edition – without any indication to the reader that this alteration has been made. Perhaps Elleinstein would now like to make clear whether or not he approves the intentions of his English translator.

5. VI Lenin, The State and Revolution (Peking, 1970), pp 19-20. [Available on the MIA at < https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch01.htm > – MIA.]

6. LD Trotsky, ‘The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism’, Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1934-35 (New York, 1974), pp 168, 181. [Available on the MIA at < http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1935/02/ws-therm-bon.htm > – MIA.]

7. See LD Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Penguin, London, 1975).

8. In his book, Elleinstein also makes, with regard to Nazism, an incursion into another realm than that of Stalinism. He writes: ‘The great democratic capitalist states of the West had not grasped the novel character of Nazism and the threat to civilisation that it represented...’ (p 120) Ignorant wretches that we are, we thought that there existed capitalist imperialist democracies, concerned with surplus value, and not ‘democratic capitalist states’, interested in civilisation. It’s probably ‘Trotskyist dogmatism’ to say that Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle made war to defend the positions of their own imperialisms against the claims of German imperialism.

9. For an English translation, see Arthur London, On Trial (London, 1970).

10. This was the slanderous amalgam employed by the PCF leadership to characterise the far left in 1968. Marcellin was then the Gaullist Minister of the Interior.

11. LD Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (Pathfinder edition), p 150. [Available on the MIA at < http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch07.htm > – MIA.]

12. The congress of the French Socialist Party at Tours in December 1920 voted by a two-to-one majority to adopt the name ‘Communist’ and affiliate to the Comintern. A small right-wing minority split off, retaining the name of the Socialist Party.