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Ernest Erber, Emanuel Garrett & Henry Judd

On the Czechoslovakian Coup

Theses on the Nature of the Stalinist Revolution

(July 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 5, July 1948, pp. 147–149.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The following is an interpretation of the Czechoslovakian coup of the Stalinists, submitted in resolution form by the three undersigned comrades, which should be read in conjunction with the discussion material on the same subject published last month. The point of view of the Editors was expressed under Notes of the Month in that issue (The Czech Coup As Test of Theory). Aspects of the question not covered in that editorial are the particular themes of the present discussion. In addition to longer contributions, which as usual will be published depending on space availability and quality, short letters of comment are also invited for our correspondence columns. The Workers Party Bulletin, which is a discussion organ on sale to the public, is also open to longer articles not used in the NI. – ED.


(1) The events in Czechoslovakia are of great importance for the additional light they throw on the role of Stalinism as a social revolutionary (or, in another sense, counter-revolutionary) force in destroying capitalism and instituting bureaucratic collectivism. The evidence presented by the Czech events strengthens the view that under favorable international conditions, the Stalinists are capable of overthrowing a capitalist state (as Italy or France) and establishing their party dictatorship by means of an insurrection that bases itself upon the proletarian masses, in the same manner as fascism based itself upon the petty-bourgeois masses.

(2) Czechoslovakia was the arena of struggle between three social forces in the period since its liberation: the bourgeoisie, striving to maintain capitalism; the proletariat, striving to achieve socialism; and the Stalinist bureaucracy, striving to achieve bureaucratic collectivism. As in every decisive struggle for class domination, the central objective of each social force was the control of the means of production. For the bourgeoisie this meant private ownership. For the Stalinists this meant nationalization with bureaucratic control. For the proletariat, this meant nationalization with democratic control by the workers. The Stalinists’ struggle for nationalization clashed directly and immediately with the bourgeoisie. The proletariat supported the Stalinists in this struggle, accepting the Communist Patty as a workers’ party and seeing in its nationalization measures the beginnings of socialism. Clashes between the new bureaucratic-collectivist managers of the economy and the organs of workers’ democracy, like the Works Councils, were confined to isolated enterprises and, in the absence of an anti-Stalinist revolutionary movement, remained subordinated to the struggle against the bourgeoisie.

(3) In the February events in Czechoslovakia the state power was not overthrown and replaced by a new one since the essentials of state power were already in the hands of the Stalinists. The February action represented the final step on the Stalinist road to total state power by means of eliminating the opposition parties and establishing the dictatorship of the Communist Party. In its purely political aspects it is similar to the coup of Hitler in 1933, carried out with the support of Hindenburg and the Reichswehr generals and supported by the petty-bourgeois masses, or the coup of Louis Bonaparte on the 18th of Brumaire basing itself upon the army and state bureaucracy and supported by the peasantry. In its social aspects ihe Stalinist coup is, of course, decisively different. Unlike the coups carried out in Bonapartist and fascist regimes, which left the social basis of the old regime intact, the Stalinist coup served as ihe last stage in the destruction of the social power of the old ruling class.

(4) The real Stalinist revolution took place during the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the advancing Russian army and the uprising of the resistance in Prague. These events placed the Stalinists in control of the police and the army – the essence of state power.

Stalinists and the Masses

(5) The ability of the Stalinists to dominate the state apparatus after the Russian armies were withdrawn was made possible by their considerable mass base, predominantly composed of the industrial proletariat.

(6) The Stalinist coup, carried out by police measures, became an easy unopposed victory due to its support by the bulk of the proletariat and large sections of the poor peasantry. The Stalinists brought the pressure of these masses to bear through techniques traditionally associated with the proletarian struggle for power – street demonstrations, work stoppages, workers’ militia, and extra-legal seizure of key points by the Action Committees.

(7) The fact that the masses participated in the events in a restrained, orderly and disciplined manner was the result, not of their disinterest or apathy but of the absence of serious opposition. The minority of the workers who were apathetic or even hostile could play no role in the absence of an organized means of showing their feelings. In the absence of an anti-Stalinist, revolutionary socialist party, the Stalinists experienced little difficulty in controlling the working class. To see a “fear of the masses” on the part of the Stalinists in the Czech events is to conceive of the revolutionary action of the proletariat in terms of spontaneity and to discard our traditional view on the role of the party. Especially is this true where the Stalinists lead the masses in a struggle against the bourgeoisie.

(8) A majority of the industrial workers of Czechoslovakia have followed the Communist Party almost continuously since 1920. The only other party they have known is the Social-Democracy, which has stood at the extreme right wing of European reformism since the First World War, and has often participated in coalition governments with the usual disappointment of its working-class followers. Out of a population of 14 million, more than a million Czechs and Slovaks (overwhelmingly the former) belonged to the Communist Party before the coup. This is a higher percentage of the population than composes the membership of the Russian CP. In the 1946 elections to the National Constituent Assembly the CP polled some 2,702,452 votes and won 38 per cent of the seats in the Assembly, while the Social-Democracy won 13 per cent of the seats. The trade-union movement was almost totally under CP leadership, as were the factory committees.

Why Workers Supported CP

(9) Because of the tremendous lowering of socialist consciousness and understanding, which is a principal feature of our epoch, the Czech workers accept the Communist Party as a revolutionary and socialist movement. In the absence of a genuine Marxist party, the CP appears to the workers in this light mainly as a result of its anti-capitalist role: (a) The CP has waged a policy of destruction of capitalism and the political power of the bourgeoisie; (b) the CP policy of nationalization has given the workers a feeling of liberation from capitalist exploitation and, despite bureaucratic domination, a voice in economic control; (c) the CP has waged a struggle against all the old symbols of reactionary power – the Church, the landowners, the big banks, the newspaper syndicates, etc.; (d) the CP has taken the progressive and popular side in many secondary matters like education, cultural organisations, etc.; (e) the CP represents Russia, which, despite misgivings the workers may have (offset by references to Russia’s backwardness), appears to them as a progressive, pro-working-class, socialist force, while the enemies of the CP represent Anglo-American imperialism, long considered centers of world reaction by the socialist workers of Europe; (f) in the top leadership of the CP stand old labor veterans, like Zapotocky, who have appeared before the masses over several decades as leaders of workers’ struggles. As a consequence the bulk of the class-conscious workers see the program of the CP as a program of socialism. In addition to these reasons, many workers, and a large petty-bourgeois and peasant following, have been attracted to the CP as a result of its national chauvinism, expressed through Pan-Slavism, above all, since the expulsion of the German and Hungarian minorities gave the Stalinists billions of dollars worth of land and houses to distribute and many bureaucratic posts to dispense. The susceptibility of the Czech workers to racist propaganda is one of the terrible aftermaths of Munich and the Nazi occupation.

(10) The presence of the bulk of the proletariat in the Stalinist camp cannot afford a basis for our support to it, as both the Cannonite and Johnsonite brand of self-styled orthodox Trotskyism contend. The support of the Stalinist struggle for power cannot be put on the plane of “making a mistake along with the masses,” in the sense of the July Days of the Russian Revolution. Support of the Stalinists in such circumstances is to help the workers to commit mass suicide and to destroy all possibility of a free labor movement, the best soil for the re-education of the workers in revolutionary Marxism.

With the Anti-Stalinist Camp

(11) The Stalinist coup was aimed at achieving a totalitarian state and all opposition to it, short of that by avowed fascists, was progressive. The correct course of the Marxists in the Czech events therefore, was to support any democratic opposition to the Stalinists, especially such as the demonstration of the Prague students.

(12) In countries where the big bourgeoisie has been expropriated, as was the case in Czechoslovakia, there is a very favorable possibility of organizing a mass, popular, anti-Stalinist movement upon a democratic basis, and with less chances of its domination by bourgeois reaction. Marxists must not withdraw from such an anti-Stalinist camp merely because reactionary elements attach themselves to it. Wherever Stalinism becomes the immediate danger, as in Czechoslovakia, even the most conservative bourgeois democrats must be supported against it.

(13) It is false to describe such a popular, anti-Stalinist opposition as a “bourgeois restorationist movement.” The petty-bourgeois and peasant masses, plus the anti-Stalinist minority of the proletariat, will not struggle against the Stalinists in order to restore the Skoda and Bata families to their industrial properties. These elements of the population want freedom from police rule and from Stalinist domination of every aspect of their lives.

(14) The struggle between the Stalinists and the bourgeoisie in Czechoslovakia never reached the stage of mass struggles only because the domination of the Stalinists was so complete that the bourgeoisie considered it an irresponsible adventure to oppose them. Had the relation of forces been less one-sided and had a mass struggle broken out, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Stalinists would not have utilized measures associated with revolutionary proletarian warfare to achieve their victory. The complete domination of the mass movement by the Stalinists under conditions of military conflict does not become less but greater, as a consequence of military rule on both sides.

(15) The further the country in which the Stalinists struggle for power is removed from the pressure of the Russian military power, the more must the Stalinists rely upon the forces of the proletariat to achieve the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Stalinist policy is therefore carefully attuned to keeping its proletarian mass base in countries like Czechoslovakia (and many more times so in countries like France and Italy) until the Stalinist dictatorship is firmly established. Stalinism, however, does not appear openly as a separate force, apart from the working class, as long as the bourgeoisie remains the main obstacle to Stalinist power. Though there was considerable friction between the aims of the Stalinists and the desires of the workers in Czechoslovakia, due to the dominant role of the CP in the government and the economy, this friction was overshadowed by and subordinated to the dominant struggle between the Stalinists and the bourgeoisie. This experience once more underscores the fact that wherever Stalinism is a mass movement that is waging a struggle against capitalism, the proletariat, as such, is incapable of playing an independent role, except where there is a sizable anti-Stalinist, revolutionary socialist party to give the workers a program. In the absence of the latter, opposition to the Stalinists from the workers’ ranks can only be incidental, local and isolated, and easily eliminated by the Stalinists through control of the trade-union apparatus, levers of information (press and radio) and, in the last analysis, armed detachments.

(16) Marxists must frankly recognize the terrible consequences of supporting a camp which opposes itself to a Stalinist-led proletariat, especially where the struggle reaches the stage of a civil war. This cannot be minimized by saying that we have often opposed movements that had the support of the bulk of the workers. The crucial difference is that in the past all of these movements (Roosevelt, People’s Front, etc.) were of a reformist character or of a social patriotic character and sought to preserve capitalism rather than destroy it. Under conditions of a Stalinist struggle for power, the proletariat in the Stalinist camp does wage an anti-capitalist struggle, but as part of a deadly anti-socialist and anti-democratic movement. To oppose ourselves to such a Stalinist-led proletariat by supporting a camp that contains bourgeois elements and yet seek to break the workers away from the Stalinist illusions requires that we work out tactical problems such as we have not confronted in the past.

Role of Marxist Party

(17) The role of a tiny revolutionary Marxist propaganda group in conditions like those of the February events becomes extremely difficult. Its policy must, however, be guided by these two main lines: (1) support to all anti-capitalist economic measures, with constant emphasis upon workers’ democratic controls in economy, and (2) support to all pro-democratic political measures, without regard to their past bourgeois-democratic associations, like freedom of the press, assembly, organization and speech for all classes and for all parties, except avowed fascists.

(18) The socialist ideal toward which we strive was placed upon a scientific basis by Marx, especially through linking its achievement to the struggle of the proletariat against wage slavery. The proletariat remains for us the only class which can overturn the rule of the bourgeoisie. The fact that under given historical circumstances the proletariat has in some countries fallen victim to illusions about the nature of the Stalinist parties and that a Stalinist-led proletariat can overturn capitalist rule to institute not socialism, or even a step toward it, but totalitarian bureaucratic collectivism, does not afford a basis for rejecting the proletariat as the bearer of the socialist struggle. However, where the proletariat does enter the Stalinist camp, our prime loyalty is not to the class as it is but to our socialist aims and to the kind of proletarian movement that must be created if our aims are to be realized. Given the terrible consequences of social retrogression, in both its capitalist and Stalinist forms, the Marxists in the countries under the Stalinist heel and in the countries torn by a civil war between the Stalinists and the semi-fascist bourgeoisie as in Greece and China, must be prepared to devote themselves to preserving the program and lessons of the socialist struggle and teaching it to necessarily small circles, especially the youth, to again re-establish the revolutionary cadres. However, even though a small group, the Marxists will enter every struggle that promises to defend or enlarge those freedoms necessary for the rebirth of a free labor movement and a new mass revolutionary party.

(19) The fate of the proletariat, and of the people as a whole, in the countries that have fallen victim to Stalinist rule cannot but penetrate to increasing numbers of workers and intellectuals in the rest of the world, especially to those in closest proximity to the Iron Curtain. This knowledge will contribute greatly to clarifying the terrible illusions that still persist among the masses as to the nature of Russia and the Stalinist parties. Such a growing clarity on Stalinism will greatly facilitate a counter-offensive against the influence of the Stalinists among the masses in countries like Italy and France. Such a counter-offensive can be successful only if (a) Western Europe experiences a period of economic revival which eases the most pressing problems of the masses; and (b) a socialist regroupment takes place which produces strong anti-Stalinist, anti-reformist parties.

(20) The extent to which Stalinism can make further inroads upon the masses of Western Europe depends in an increasingly decisive manner upon the future development of the American working class. The emergence of an independent labor party with a firm anti-Stalinist and anti-capitalist orientation would have a resounding effect upon the masses of Europe, including those behind the Iron Curtain. The developments in the American labor movement in the next years will be crucial for the future of European labor and, consequently, of Europe itself.

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