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Irving Howe

World Politics

(4 March 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 9, 4 March 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What will be the character of the Stalinist regime in Russia, now that the war is over? This question, which has interested the world for many reasons, may now be partly answered on the basis of Stalin’s “election speech” and his Order of the Day to the Red Army,” Leaving aside the rhetorical pap, what Stalin said was this:

Contrary to the expectations of the weak-brained Stalin sympathizers in other countries, there will be no relaxation in the Russian totalitarian regime. Those who fooled themselves with the idea that once the war was over and the danger of Nazi invasion removed there would be a gradual “democratization” of the Stalin regime, must now face the reality. The elections just held followed the same “Vote Ja” pattern as previous Stalin elections: no toleration of opposition; the unanimity which comes only with terror and a paralyzing spy system; in short, a farcical mockery of democratic processes. And this pattern will continue.

Stalin said that the war machine, which had been built up by driving millions to the verge of hunger and by depriving the masses of consumer goods, would be continued. In fact, it “is obliged not only to keep up with progress in the art of war but to advance it.” The militarism which had pervaded every arena of Russian life will also be perpetuated: “Firm discipline and strict military order” are the needs that Stalin emphasizes.

One Imperialist versus Another

Not a word from Stalin about democratization of internal life – something, by the way, which only the most naive ever expected from him! He does have a word in his speech about “raising the standard of living,” but it is completely subordinated to the perspective of constructing a gigantic military machine.

Why this perspective of continued and increased militarization? The orthodox Stalinist explanation is that Russia fears the capitalist powers, but that is an explanation we cannot accept. At the moment Russia stands in no particular danger of attack from the capitalist powers. The conflicts that exist between them are not based on ideological issues; the Western powers know that Russia is not, and has not been for a long time, the source of working class revolution. On the contrary, Anglo- American capitalism remembers how efficiently the Stalin bureaucracy has helped them to stifle and destroy working class revolutions in various countries. The basic source of conflict between Russia, on the one hand, and America and Britain, on the other, is imperialist ON BOTH SIDES!

The British are fighting desperately to maintain their empire; and at the moment Russia is making what are for the British “ominous” moves to muscle into the Near East, “the lifeline of Empire.” The United States, whose imperialist domination inclines toward financial control rather than territorial rule (though the latter is by no means unusual) is also interested in getting Russia out of the places into which she is at present moving.

But the Russian imperialist expansion becomes increasingly compulsive in its nature: the low level and poor organization of Russian economy are among the factors which prod the Stalin, bureaucracy into further imperialist adventures. At the moment, Russian troops are propping up puppet regimes in a number of Balkan countries; Russian troops persist in Manchuria long enough, at least, to filch every movable piece of capital goods; Russian puppets grab a piece of Northern Iran rich in oil; and Russian imperialism even reaches out to grab a piece of Africa, Tripolitania.

(In passing, we wish to ask those people who deny the imperialist character of the Stalin regime: Just what is the nature of its African ambitions? Are they also “merely an attempt to protect its borders by supporting friendly countries”?)

The Russian economy has been thrown back considerably by the war; whole industries have been destroyed. But it is not these factors which are basic. What is basic is that Russia is not a working class state but rather a bureaucratic collectivist dictatorship in which there is no motive for genuine working class effort for productive efficiency and expansion (other than the fear of the NKVD, the secret police). Russia is a country in which the paralyzing grip of bureaucracy, of dictatorship, makes impossible that working class initiative which a socialist regime would stimulate. Terror and efficiency don’t go well together – not, at least, for very long. Bureaucracy and democratic workers’ initiative don’t go well together – not, at least, for very long.

The economic exploitation within Russia is not based – as is, for instance, capitalist exploitation in America – on a highly developed and technologically advanced and efficient economy. On the contrary, the exploitation is, so to speak, extensive rather than intensive. A very striking example of this is seen in the “Russian use of the oil wells it has grabbed in Hungary and Austria. The Stalinist press gleefully announces that “under the guidance of the Beloved Leader” (who is, of course, also an expert on drilling wells ...) new records in oil acquisition have been set in Hungary and Austria. But these records, somewhat similarly to Stakhanovism, the Stalinist equivalent of the speed-up, are set by means of incredibly wasteful exploitation of natural resources, of working the wells so ruthlessly today that their value will be lost tomorrow. This is the economic method of the Stalinist bureaucracy: extensive, wasteful, primitive exploitation.

And it is a method which forces intermittent attempts at EXTERNAL expansion. The Stalinist armies have looted half of Europe and half of China, too. They have sent back to Russia – without the slightest regard for the, peoples of the occupied countries, even those who were “allies” – entire industries. This is not the classical kind of capitalist imperialism in which the capitalist country tries to sink its surplus capital into the backward country. It is rather a kind of “primitive accumulation” by bureaucratic collectivism spurred on by its internal economic backwardness and its greed for acquisition. To achieve this end Stalin needs tremendous military forces; nobody will submit to his plunder willingly. Result: his call for increased war production, his emphasis on “firm discipline,” his statement that consumer goods production will remain subordinate to war production.

This is not the picture of a state moving toward socialism; it is not the picture of a workers’ state. It is rather the picture of a totalitarian dictatorship, driven to more and more reckless adventures by its internal contradictions. The bureaucracy doesn’t give a damn about the internal standard of living, other than having it high enough for the Russian workers to continue as efficient slaves. Concretely, that probably means a certain increase in the standard of living, for the near-starvation level of the war years cannot be maintained indefinitely. But too sharp an increase is not entirely to the interest of the Stalin bureaucracy. For an increase of considerable proportions in the standard of living means an increase in leisure and culture among the masses; that means a “chance to breathe and think”; and THAT is a danger to the bureaucracy. Terror, bureaucracy, low living standards, primitive economy, imperialist expansion – all of these characteristics of the Stalin regime are intimately related. They are its trademarks. They will continue to be so in the post-war period.

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