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Irving Howe

Seizure of Hungary is Russia’s
Reply to the Truman Doctrine

(16 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 24, 16 June 1947, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

President Truman is apparently excited about the situation in Hungary: he seems to feel that the Hungarian Stalinists count ballots in about as fair a manner as do his political cronies of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City.

Yet we think that for the time being none of his moral indignation and tub-thumping will very much help the cause of U.S. imperialism in Hungary. The Stalinists have turned a coup; they have in effect seized power and are determined to consolidate that power. The sharpening tension between U.S. imperialism and Russian imperialism, which is stringing Europe with political and diplomatic barbed wire, Is the immediate cause for the Stalinist coup in Hungary. It is the Kremlin’s answer to the Truman Doctrine: “You can move into Greece with dollars; we can move into Hungary with bayonets. At the moment we can’t drive you out of Greece, but you can’t drive us out of Hungary.” That, we think, is an undiplomatic version of the meaning of the Hungarian coup.

So Truman is screaming a little too late. Just as U.S. imperialism waved its dollar signs and got the Stalinists driven out of the Italian and French cabinets, so the Russian waved bayonets and its stereotyped confession formulae and drove Nagy and his crowd out of Hungary.

Inside Hungary

But what is now happening inside of Hungary? That is a really interesting matter. For one thing, there is panic in financial and industrial circles. Hungary is largely an agrarian country, and a backward one at that; its small industry is owned by three major banks. To be exact, 62 per cent of Hungarian industry is owned by these three banks. Now the new regime announces its intention to nationalize these banks and thereby the industries they control. This has been the pattern of the Stalinists in all the countries they have dominated: a gradual, piecemeal trend toward nationalization of industry along the lines of the bureaucratic dictatorial society in Russia. In some countries, the Stalinists moved quickly, in others slowly; in some instances they allowed minor sectors of private industry to remain, in others not. But the trend in all of these countries, the pattern, has been toward a facsimile of the Russian set-up.

Not only economically; politically as well. In all the countries under Stalinist domination, there has been a gradual tendency toward totalitarianization. Opposition parties have been destroyed, demoralized, persecuted, eaten up from within by Stalinist-organized groups. That has been the pattern in Poland, where the petty-bourgeois Peasants Party has suffered this treatment and where the Social Democrats have largely been absorbed within the Stalinist orbit as political stooges – willingly or not, it makes slight difference. It has been the pattern in Yugoslavia and in Rumania; in the latter country, the small group of Independent Socialists (we don’t know the complexion of their politics except that they are unwilling to knuckle under to the Stalinists) is vigorously persecuted by the Stalinist government.

And that is now the pattern in Hungary. The majority Small Landowners Party has been successively chopped up; its leaders arrested or expelled or accused of the fantastic charge of plotting against a government in which they presumably had power because they were a majority. The Social Democrats have played – as in so many other places in eastern Europe – the wretched role of stooging the Stalinists. But even they are now going to get if in the neck, to use an inelegant but in this case all too accurate expression. Reports from Budapest indicate that the Stalinist leaders are beginning to make speeches about certain Social Democrats who are “enemies of the people.” That’s a sure sign of the axe. The Stalinists are consolidating.

But what sort of regime is this which they are consolidating? There is a highly interesting problem for the revolutionary socialist movement. Let us examine it in terms of the variant analyses offered of the nature of the Stalinist regime and of the Stalinist parties.

Nature of Regime

Some revolutionary socialists still cling to the by-now thoroughly destroyed theory that Stalinist totalitarian Russia is “a workers’ state” – a “degenerated workers’ state” to be sure, but “a workers’ state” nonetheless. They hold this opinion because industry in Russia is nationalized and because there are no private capitalists. As everyone knows and agrees, nationalization of industry is an indispensable step for a genuine workers state on the road to socialism. But, as those of us who reject the “workers’ state” theory have pointed out, the mere fact of nationalization – that is of state ownership of the means of production – is not yet enough to establish the class nature of a regime. For then what is crucial is: who controls this state which in turn controls the nationalized industries? Since, it is obvious that the workers in Russia don’t control the state, that on the contrary they are at the mercy of the bureaucrats who control the state, we conclude that Stalinist Russia is not a workers’ state.

But what about those countries in which the Stalinist armies have set up puppet regimes and in which economies constantly more like that in Russia are being established? If it is the fact of nationalized economy in Russia which makes it a “workers’ state,” why does not the nationalization of economy in Poland or Yugoslavia make the regimes in those countries workers’ states? And if and when the Stalinists nationalize, the basic industries in Hungary, why, won’t there be a workers’ state, there? For it follows with logical inexorability: the one condition which the defenders of this theory give as sufficient to establish the presence of a workers’ state in Russia is the existence of nationalized property. If that one condition exists elsewhere, then there must be in that country a workers’ state as well.

But surely no revolutionary socialist can stomach the idea that there is a workers’ state being established in Hungary today, or that there is some sort of genuine proletarian revolution taking place there! Surely every revolutionary socialist, every Trotskyist must gag at that! Yet such a conclusion is the only logical and consistent possible result of the “workers’ state” theory. It is a result which indicates once more the political insufficiency and invalidity of the theory.

It indicates as well the impossibly contradictory nature of the idea that the Stalinist parties are “working class parties.” If one believes, as some do, that Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state” and the Stalinist parties “degenerate working class parties,” then one must conclude that some sort of “degenerate working class revolution” has been accomplished in eastern Europe. On the other hand, if one believes, as some do, that there is a capitalist society in Russia and that the Stalinist parties are nonetheless still “working class parties,” then one must conclude that the traditional bourgeoisie is being expropriated in eastern Europe by “working class parties” in order to establish ... totalitarian state capitalism. In which case, when do these Stalinist parties cease being “working class parties” and when do they become parties of totalitarian state capitalism? This theory too is an impossible muddle.

Testing Theories

What, however, of the theory put forward in the revolutionary movement that Stalinist Russia is a state capitalist society? Since it is apparent that the regimes being established in eastern Europe are moving closer in character to that established in Russia, we must conclude that there too state capitalism is being established. But on the basis of this theory, we see state capitalism, presumably the most advanced and concentrated stage of capitalism, established by the ... expropriation of the traditional capitalist class. On the basis of this theory, we must come to the impossible conclusion that state capitalist society ... is anti-capitalist. In which case, why call it capitalist to begin with?

Traditionally in the Marxist movement, those who have posited the possibility of state capitalism – that is, a society where the state rules and owns industry as direct depository for the capitalist class as a whole, rather than allowing private individuals to own industry – have, thought of it as part of the organic development of capitalist society. They have thought of it as a late stage of capitalist concentration. Whether or not one believes such a stage possible; whether or not one believes that the realization of such a stage would mean the continued existence of capitalist society as we know it; still the theory makes a certain amount of sense because it posits state capitalism in terms of the continuity of capitalist society, that is, the continuity of the capitalist class. But here we are asked to believe that this stage of capitalism is being introduced against the wishes of the bourgeoisie and by the expropriation of the entire bourgeoisie.

We think the events in Hungary demonstrate, in terms of practical political confirmation,. the validity of the theory advanced by the Workers Party on the Russian question: Russian society is neither capitalist nor proletarian; it is a bastard form, the product of a unique historical configuration – the degeneration of an isolated proletarian revolution in a backward country. This form we call bureaucratic collectivism, a label which has at least the virtue of accurate description if not of full historical explanation. In our opinion, bureaucratic collectivism is a society both anti-proletarian and anti-capitalist. This analysis is confirmed in the events in Hungary and all of eastern Europe: in’ hose countries where the Stalinists seize power, they destroy the power of both the native working class and the native bourgeoisie. They establish an extension of the Russian state power.

We are aware that these remarks do not at all exhaust a most complex problem, but we think that they at least point the road to a proper analysis of what is happening today in eastern Europe.

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