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M. Stein and J.G. Wright

Bureaucrats in Crisis

Behind the Fall of Malenkov

(Spring 1955)

From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.2, Spring 1955, pp.44-48.

SOVIET developments are followed closely by the entire world, the international bourgeoisie especially. Fearful of the 1917 Revolution, of its vitality as expressed in the economic successes at home, and above all of its spread to other countries, they have kept vigilant watch on Soviet internal struggles ever since their 1917-23 failure to crush the first workers’ state through intervention and blockade. To this day Churchill, speaking for the most farsighted section of the imperialists, laments this failure.

They speculate on a personal struggle for power within the bureaucracy, their hopes aroused by the admitted Soviet economic difficulties, and by the shift in regimes from Malenkov-Beria-Molotov to Khrushchev-Bulganin-Zhukov in the 25 months since Stalin’s death. But they dread the real struggle of the Soviet masses against bureaucratic rule which finds a distorted reflection in the conflicts at the summits.

With the ruling caste they can reach agreements, and from time to time cohabit. But they can glean neither comfort nor profit from a regime of workers’ democracy. This would tumble the existing barriers between the Soviet masses and the Western working class, including that of the USA.; fuse the delayed workers’ revolution with the surge of the colonial people. The overthrow of Stalinism by the Soviet workers would signal the doom of US and world capitalism, just as the extension of the 1917 Revolution to the West would spell the end of Stalinism.

To follow Soviet events without an analysis of Soviet economic life, its history, its singular set of social relations and antagonisms is as false as it would be with regard to capitalist or colonial countries. For Marxists this is the ABC of political science.

The difficulties and convulsions of the post-Stalin days, just as the purges under Stalin, are rooted in the economic contradictions that have faced the USSR since the 1917 Revolution. They have become more complicated, have multiplied and compounded because of the false policies of the bureaucracy, because of the country’s heritage of backwardness, and the prolonged isolation of Soviet economy from the reserves of the world economy.

A brief review of the past will shed light on the present. The first workers’ state inherited a backward Czarst industry and agriculture, a backwardness that was the product of peculiar Russian development and beyond anyone’s power to have altered. In world economy, Czarist Russia played a subordinate role, that of a semi-colony of Western capitalism. Economically, she was closer to China than to the advanced countries of her times, such as Germany, the USA or Britain. Consequently the antithesis between the city and the village; and the antagonism between mental and manual labor were drawn to their extremes in the Czarist empire.

But the 1917 Revolution could not avail itself of the full resources of this economy, retarded as it was. It was left with an industry and agriculture ravaged by the First World War, by the years of Civil War, imperialist intervention and blockade, and the resulting famines and epidemics. Moreover, capitalist Russia had access to the reserves of world economy in the shape of financial “aid,” i.e., foreign loans and investments and the help of trade treaties, so decisive for the development of backward countries. Lenin and Trotsky’s government was cut off from the world market by the imperialists.

With the stabilization of the revolutionary government in 1923 attention was turned to economic tasks, the first of which was—to reconstruct. For the backward, war-ruined industry and agriculture had been geared to supply live million Red soldiers who defended the revolution.

The year 1923, when Soviet construction started, also marked the opening of the historic debate among the Soviet leadership. It first broke out over the issue of workers’ democracy and the struggle against the spread of bureaucratism through the party, state and administrative machines. This was an anticipation of the conflict that was later to develop over domestic economic policy, over the tasks of the revolution at home and abroad.

Stalinism vs. Trotskyism

Two warring tendencies crystallized in the course of this struggle. On the one side stood the proletarian tendency, headed by Leon Trotsky, the internationalist tendency. On the opposing side rallied the machine politicians and careerists, the nationalist tendency.

The internationalists stressed that there was no way out for Soviet economy and the workers’ state except on the world arena, except through the extension of the revolution. The platform of the nationalists was summed up in Stalin’s infamous theory of “socialism in one country.”

Stalin’s policy was based on building a self-sufficient industry within Soviet borders. The internationalists fought for an economic policy which stressed a balanced interrelation between the city and the village. More than a quarter century ago, Trotsky summarized it as follows:

“Between industry and agriculture, based on individual peasant households, there is a dialectic interaction. But industry, by far the more dynamic element, constitutes the motor force. In exchange for grain the peasant needs and wants manufactured goods. The democratic revolution, under the Bolshevik leadership, gave land to the peasants. The socialist revolution, under the same leadership, still supplies fewer goods and at higher prices than capitalism used, to offer in its day. This is exactly why a threat hangs over the socialist revolution as distinct from its democratic base. To the scarcity of manufactured goods, the peasant replies by a passive, slow-down strike in agriculture.

“He withholds his own grain from the market and refuses to plant more. The Right-Wingers propose to give more elbow-room to the capitalist tendencies in the village, to take less from the village, and to lower the tempo of industrial expansion.

“But, after all, this means that the volume of agricultural products would increase while the supply of manufactured goods would be further decreased. The disproportion between the two, which is at the bottom of the present economic crisis, would become more pronounced ...

“The platform of the [Trotskyist] Opposition excludes, first and foremost, the line of a shut-in, an isolated economy. It is senseless to try to disengage the Soviet economy from the world market by a wall of stone. Soviet economy’s fate will be decided by the over-all tempo of its development (including agriculture) and not at all by the degree to which it gains ‘independence’ from the world division of labor.” (Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, Nos.1-2, July 1929, page 22.)

Recent Soviet developments, the admitted economic crisis in particular, bring into sharp focus the original dispute. The Kremlin oligarchs are more aware of it than all of the capitalist publicists, Russian “specialists,” foreign correspondents, historians, biographers and assorted would-be sociologists. The post-Stalin era is marked by repeated references to the old conflict. Thus, Malenkov, when making his bid to don Stalin’s mantle, made pointed reference to the “Bukharinite Right Wing” and to the “Trotskyites.” When Malenkov was selected Scapegoat No.1 for the farm crisis and other troubles, his fall was accompanied by a barrage against the “Bukharinites,” against the “Trotskyites.”

Why do the echoes of the dispute of the Twenties reverberate in 1955? Because there is a close connection between the old, supposedly outlived struggle and living Soviet reality.

Stalin, leading the decisive cohorts of the bureaucracy, was allied in the Twenties with the Right Wing (Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky) against the proletarian tendency. The line of this bloc was to “give more elbow-room to the capitalist elements in the village, to take less from the village, and lower the tempo of industrial expansion.” Their thesis was that “in this manner the kulak would ‘grow over peacefully into socialism’,” and, as a result, socialism would be built, even if “at a tortoise pace.” The concessions to the capitalist elements in agriculture not only failed to solve the farm crisis of the Twenties, but aggravated it. Each concession only whetted the restorationist appetite; meanwhile the industry was unable to provide any more manufactured goods to the well-to-do peasants who were profiteering.

The clash between the kulak and the state came to a head by the end of 1929, when the kulaks cut off supplies of grain to the cities, and seized control of the rural Soviets. In panic, Stalin broke with the Right Wing. From the policy of economic opportunism, he turned to adventurism. From the building of “socialism in one country” at a tortoise pace came the switch to a forced march to build socialism, by the end of the First Five-Year Plan. Yesterday’s slogan of “Kulak Grow Rich!” was replaced overnight by the call to “destroy the kulak as a class.” By naked force the peasants were driven into collectives, without any mechanized equipment. A protracted civil war gripped the countryside. Millions of peasants died while other multitudes were uprooted and deported to Siberia and Central Asia. To this day Soviet agriculture suffers from the slaughter of livestock during the “wholesale collectivization.” Many scarcities that the workers endured in the Thirties, and have to endure in 1955, can be traced to the same period.

The Problem Persists

Much has changed since then. Twenty-five million individual peasant holdings have given way to collectivized, mechanized agriculture of “94,000 amalgamated collectives” (Khrushchev). Soviet industry has become the second largest in the world, showing the power lodged in nationalized property and planning. The bureaucracy has extended its rule and privileges over the Eastern half of Europe. The Soviet Union has gained an ally in revolutionary China. But none of these changes have solved the domestic problem: the interrelation between industry and agriculture, between the city and the village.

The key to this problem remains the overcoming of the consumer goods famine, which has persisted from one Five-Year Plan to the next. The growth of Soviet industry bears the indelible imprint of Stalinist misrule and mismanagement. Industry has been expanded without regard to mass consumers; heavy industry disproportionately developed at the expense of agriculture and the light industrial sector. As a result Soviet economy just as that of the buffer countries suffers from acute scarcities in precisely those commodities of which there is a periodic glut in the advanced capitalist countries.

The solution eludes the bureaucracy because along the nationalist course there is no solution. The zigzags in economic policy—from economic opportunism to adventurism, and back again—underscore the blind alley in which the bureaucracy finds itself; and, concurrently, the paroxysms at the top express the growing mass pressure of workers and peasants, demanding the solution the bureaucracy cannot supply.

The liquidation of individual peasant holdings, by bureaucratic terror, has transformed Soviet agriculture, but has not supplied the population, increasing annually by three millions, and the cities, whose population has grown by 17 millions in recent years, with any more food per capita. After more than a quarter century of Stalinist “collectivization” Soviet agriculture is in a crisis whose “solution” has now been postponed officially to 1960!

The stormy growth of industry, at the cost of mass privations and under the bureaucratic lash, has supplied neither the villages nor the cities with more manufactured goods per capita. In fact, the scarcities of foodstuffs and of consumer goods have become more acute in 1955. The farm crisis is becoming converted in 1955 into a crisis of the current Five-Year Plan and of Soviet economy as a whole.

Stalin’s nationalist course, required, above all, that the status quo be maintained. To this end the bureaucracy sabotaged and betrayed the revolution in the West as in the East. It was confident that thereby it could curry favor with the world bourgeoisie and “neutralize” it. And indeed, the world bourgeoisie regarded the Stalinist policy, in economics as in politics, as the acme of realism. With true class instinct they feared and hated the program of the internationalists. As the struggle between the internationalists and the nationalists deepened in the USSR, the bourgeoisie saw its main enemy, as did the bureaucracy, in the Trotskyists.



Stalin’s theory of “neutralizing” the world imperialists is a component part of his theory of “building socialism in one country.” They stand and fall together. The hoax that the Soviet Union and the capitalist environment could peacefully co-exist thus became substituted for the struggle for world socialism.

The bureaucracy, in return for diplomatic deals, prevented the extension of the revolution to the advanced countries which alone could have integrated Soviet industry with that of the developed countries, and in this way fully opened the reserves of world economy to the Soviet people. Meanwhile the growth of Soviet industry has not lessened Soviet dependence on the world market but has greatly increased it.

This dependence has been aggravated by the emergence of revolutionary China. The rise of this new world power, despite and against Stalin’s policy and “advice,” has imposed on the Kremlin an alliance with the most populous agricultural nation on our planet, which urgently needs capital goods, heavy equipment for industry, for transportation, mining and agriculture plus—equipment to modernize her armed forces. After decades of Stalinist efforts to compress Soviet productive forces within narrow national limits, the bureaucracy is suddenly confronted with the need to plan in accordance with its new inter-state obligations, in the first instance, to China! Such is history’s unexpected vengeance upon the architects of “socialism in one country”!

One of the chief products of the nationalist course has been the rise at home of a machine of coercion and parasitism, of vested power and privilege, which implants inequality and requires constant reinforcement, on a scale hitherto unknown. The multi-millioned caste devours and wastes a huge portion of the annual national income. Its methods of rule and of management dislocate the economy not only of the Soviet Union but of the East European countries. Its methods kill mass incentives and initiative, sow not only discontent and hatred but also cynicism and demoralization.

One of the pre-conditions for the bureaucracy’s rise—the scarcity of necessities and consumer goods—has turned into a permanent feature of its rule and continues to determine its despotic nature and methods. The dominant contradiction governing Soviet life, as that of East European countries, is the irrepressible conflict between this caste, its needs and interests, and the masses, their wants and aspirations.

With the economic successes the chasm has widened between the Stalinist rulers and the masses. Caste privileges have multiplied, as have the stratifications within the caste itself. The war and post-war years have seen the rise of a military caste, exceeding the Czarist or Prussian militarists in size, influence and privileges. Their specific weight in the ruling circles increased following the Beria purge, particularly with the latest shift in regimes and the elevation of Marshal Zhukov.

These same economic successes have spurred the growth, numerically and culturally, of the Soviet working class. Their spontaneous urge is to resume their rightful place on the political arena. This is irrefutably proved by the millions in forced labor camps, political prisoners in their overwhelming majority; by the rise of the Leninist Youth in the intellectual centers of the country (Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa): the mass sympathy and support for the political prisoners who, under the leadership of the Young Leninists, organized the Vorkuta strike. [1]

The bureaucracy, universally hated, feels itself beleaguered. Over the decades its giant propaganda machine tried to deify Stalin. But who mourned when the despot died? And who grieved over Malenkov’s disgrace or cheered Khrushchev to power? Within their own ranks, conditions of perpetual martial law prevail. A semblance of freedom of thought and criticism is a luxury they cannot afford even to .their most pampered layer: the artists, writers and scientists.

Among the latter-day converts to Stalinist “realism” as against the “fatal admixture of illusion” in Trotsky’s internationalist line, was Isaac Deutscher, British journalist and biographer. He became overawed by the “successes” of the bureaucracy just at the moment it found itself in straits. He promised the “self-reform” of the bureaucracy at a time when mass revulsion against bureaucratic rule reached the point of explosions—the East German uprising, the ferment in the buffer countries, the Vorkuta general strike of forced laborers in the Arctic region. Amid a succession of purges, he prognosticated no more purges “along the old Stalinist models” and with “the old Stalinist routines.” The Deutscher school, which was riding high after Stalin’s death, fell on its face with “liberalizer” Malenkov’s downfall.

Events have repudiated “socialism in one country” as an Utopia in the service of the counter-revolution. The international struggle for socialism, on the contrary, has been confirmed as the living reality.

The dominant fact of the international situation today, as it has been since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, is the death agony of capitalism. The year 1914 gave the signal that capitalist rule was obsolete because private ownership of the means of production had turned into an absolute brake upon a development of productive forces adequate to meet global mass needs and wants.

The Betrayals

The 1917 Revolution came as the first successful attempt of the world working class, on the soil of Russia, to rationalize the world productive forces on the only foundation possible, that of collective productive relations and institutions. It opened the first stage of the world revolution. By 1919 the German, Italian and other European workers, spurred by the victory of the Russian workers and peasants, made their bid for socialist power. They were beaten back because they were betrayed by parties that called themselves socialist but sided with the counter-revolution. The Social Democracy saved bourgeois rule in Europe after World War I.

The way was thus opened for the emergence of fascism in the West. But even this unleashing of reaction caused the first wave of the world revolution to recede only temporarily. There was no lack thereafter of revolutionary situations either in Europe or in the East (Hungary, the Balkans, Germany in 1923 and again in 1931-33, China in 1925-27, the Spanish Revolution 1931-36, the revolutionary situation in France 1937-38, and finally the Civil War in Spain 1936-39).

But by the end of 1923, a new counter-revolutionary force began to enter the world arena—the Stalinist bureaucracy. It exploited the temporary reflux of the revolution to expropriate the workers politically at home, and then to become itself the main force inside the world labor movement for the temporary stabilization of capitalism. Like the Social Democracy, it saved bourgeois rule in Europe and the colonies, and paved the way for World War II.

European capitalism, rotted to the core, with the mass of the people turned against capitalism, as post-war elections were to show repeatedly, survived only because of Stalinism. In return for a power deal (Yalta and Potsdam) which gave the Kremlin Eastern Europe as its sphere of influence, Stalinism guaranteed the resuscitation of capitalism in Western Europe. Upon orders from the Kremlin, the armed workers of France and Italy, the only armed forces of any consequence in these countries at the time, were disarmed and disbanded. The Greek revolution was betrayed. Stalin sought to crush the Yugoslav revolution. This by no means exhausts the list, but it suffices to illustrate how the crimes of the Social Democracy following World War I were repeated and compounded by Stalinism following World War II.

Stalinism saved capitalist rule in decayed Europe. It could not save imperialist rule over all of the colonies. Not that they did not try. In India and Ceylon the Stalinist parties sided with the British colonial despots; they helped bring back the French occupation troops to Indo-China; and in China Stalin “advised,” as late as 1948, that Mao continue to cohabit with Chiang Kai-shek. The colonial revolution nonetheless erupted over the heads of the imperialists and of the Kremlin. It could not be contained on the one hand because of the explosive nature of the agrarian problem, and on the either, the refusal of colonial people to submit any longer to the foreign oppressors.

The reward for these and other betrayals has come in the shape of the “cold war,” the arms race, the nuclear weapons race and the war threat to the USSR and to all of mankind. Such is the price paid for Stalinist “realism” by the Soviet and world working class.



After more than four decades of capitalist death agony, and over three decades of Stalinist rule, mankind in the meantime has arrived at the nuclear age. The destructiveness of the new weapons points up the urgency of the socialist solution; and, at the same time, illuminates the meaning, necessity and power of liberating ideas.

The world bourgeoisie, with the US monopolists in the van, are ideological bankrupts. Barren of ideas as against socialism since 1914, they have had in their arsenal only the weapons first of the Social Democracy and then of Stalinist despotism. Today their main weapon, apart from naked force, is to smear the liberating socialist struggle by identifying it with Stalinism, promoting the myth of the omnipotence of the bureaucracy, and misrepresenting the choice before mankind as that between their rule and that of Stalinism.

Humanity’s problems can be solved only as a world whole, to which all of the national or regional parts are subordinate. In 1923 the platform of the internationalists was based on the world socialist revolution as the sole way out for the USSR. This applies with even greater force in 1955. The only theory that has withstood the test of events is Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.

Trotsky’s Theory

This theory embraces three basic propositions unified in a single line of thought.

The most fundamental proposition from which the other two derive, deals with the world character of the socialist revolution. This results from the condition of modern economic life and mankind’s social structure.

“Internationalism is no abstract principle, it truly mirrors, in theory and in politics, the global nature of present-day economy, the international development of the productive forces, the international sweep of the class struggle. The socialist revolution begins on national soil. But it cannot be completed there. The preservation of the socialist revolution within a national framework can lead only to a provisional regime, even though one, as Soviet experience shows, of long duration ... Its way out lies exclusively in the victory of the working class of the advanced countries. From our standpoint a national revolution is not a self-sufficient whole; it is simply a single link of the international chain. The world revolution is a permanent process, notwithstanding temporary ups and downs” (Trotsky).

The second basic proposition deals with the transition into socialism of colonial and semi-colonial, and generally backward countries whose democratic revolutions have been historically delayed. They cannot belatedly solve their democratic tasks, in the first instance their agrarian problem, in any other way except through the methods of the proletarian revolution, except by transgressing the framework of capitalist relations. The dynamics of a belated bourgeois revolution, Trotsky said, inexorably leads to the proletarian dictatorship. Historically this is determined by the correlation of class forces in such countries.

Finally, Trotsky characterizes the Socialist revolution as such:

“For an indefinitely extended interval, and through constant internal conflict all social relations are overhauled. Society uninterruptedly undergoes a moulting process. One stage of transformation flows directly from the one before. This process retains, of necessity, a political character, that is, unwinds through collisions among various groups of the society that is being overhauled. Explosions of civil war and foreign wars alternate with periods of ‘peaceful’ reform. Revolutions in economic life, in technology, the sciences, the family, everyday life, and in morality unwind in complex interaction, without allowing society to reach an equilibrium. Herein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such.”

The only theory that truly expresses the reality of our times, and points the way out of the crisis of mankind, is the theory of the permanent revolution.



1. See the series of articles by Brigitte Gerland in the Militant, Jan. 17 to March 7, 1955.

Last updated: 5 April 2009