What is Stalinism?

by Mordecai Levi, Cambridge Marxists

What is now my principal task? To reveal the truth.” – Leon Trotsky speaking in Mexico, January 30th 1937.

The events of October 1917 are the greatest in all of human history. For the first time since 1871 – when the Paris Commune was put down in blood – working people had seized power for themselves. The capitalist and landlord classes and the state superstructure were swept aside. In place of the capitalist system of exploitation was erected a socialised economy under the ownership of all; in place of the thieves kitchen of bourgeois democracy stood a workers’ government, the representatives of which were directly elected through the soviets or workers’ councils.

The mood on the street was of jubilation. But within less than a decade, many of the political gains of October had been cruelly reversed, and even the concrete economic advance of a socialised economy was under threat. That the Russian Revolution degenerated is a historical fact, and it would be irresponsible to ignore it. We must study the concrete reasons for the degeneration that took place, and the processes of this degeneration, in order to learn from history. To borrow a phrase from Spinoza, ‘Our task is neither to cry, nor to laugh, but to understand.’

It is doubtless true that without the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky the October Revolution would never have succeeded. Whilst other key figures such as Kamenev and Zinoviev wished to hold back from the conquest of power, Lenin and Trotsky pushed forwards, confident in the strength of the masses.

Marxists do not deny the role of the individual in history. Marx said that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Lenin and Trotsky, even with their immense skill and dedication as revolutionaries, could not have conjured up a revolution from nothing, without the objective prerequisites being in place. Were this possible, the revolution would have taken place far earlier.

Human beings are unable to act above historical processes. The revolution in Russia had taken place in incredibly backward conditions. In 1917, Russia was still a semi-feudal nation, with an embryonic working class and a tiny industrial sector. In a formalistic sense, it was ‘not ready’ for socialism. But Lenin and Trotsky recognised that capitalism was breaking at its ‘weakest link’. The survival of the Russian Revolution was inextricably linked to the success of the World Revolution.

A Backward Economy

The Russian economy was scarcely fit to feed the population. To make matters worse, the civil war that followed the revolution saw the destruction of the Russian countryside by 21 foreign armies of intervention – a major player of which was Britain. The famine that resulted choked off the enthusiasm and morale of the masses, whilst many of the best elements fell victim to the terrorism of the imperialist armies.

To build up the economy in order to fight the famine, Lenin was forced to reintroduce an element of free trade. The New Economic Policy, as it was known, allowed peasants who produced a surplus to keep and trade it, rather than having it simply requisitioned by the government. Lenin was very clear that this policy was a retreat, albeit a necessary one. It was successful in its immediate aims – production rose by 40% – but as an inevitable side-effect, there was a tremendous growth of the town bourgeoisie and the rural kulaks (rich peasants), also known as the NEPmen. These elements were instinctively hostile to the revolution, which threatened their bourgeois class interests.

Due to the underdeveloped level of the productive forces and the small size of the proletariat (which consisted largely of unskilled and uneducated workers), the government was forced to employ specialists, largely from the old Tsarist regime. Though a necessary evil, they had no loyalty to the revolution and no sense of self-sacrifice or working-class interest. In order to secure their services, the Communists were forced to offer them attractive rates of pay and other privileges. This is in stark contrast to the bitter hardship endured by the Communist officials, who subsisted on no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. In one extraordinary case of revolutionary sacrifice, Victor Serge reported that ‘The eldest son of my friend Yonov, Zinoviev’s brother-in-law, an Executive member of the Soviet and founder and director of the State Library, died of hunger before our very eyes.’

In 1920 alone, the number of state officials, bureaucrats and specialists grew from little more than 100,000 to an astonishing 5,880,000, outnumbering the industrial workers by 5 to 1. By August, there were nearly 50,000 former Tsarist officers serving as military specialists in the Red Army.

Lenin told the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922:

“We took over the old machinery of state and that was our misfortune. We have a vast army of government employees, but lack the educated forces to exercise real control over them. At the top we have, I don’t know how many, but at all events no more than a few thousand. Down below there are hundreds of thousands of old officials we got from the Tsar and from bourgeois society.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 430)

This was a tremendous retreat. But there was simply no alternative. In return for their services the bureaucracy demanded greater and greater privileges. This cancerous growth soon began to exercise state control, acting as a group to maintain and increase their privileged position.

International Isolation

Internationally, the situation was no more favourable. As Ted Grant put it, ‘Social democracy saved capitalism. The powerful trade-union bureaucracies placed themselves at the head of the upsurge of the masses and diverted it into harmless channels’. The working class created many revolutions in Europe, but these were betrayed by reformist leaderships. The Bolsheviks resolved, therefore, to create a new organisation to unite the revolutionary forces across the world. The 3rd (Communist) International was born in 1919.

The Russian section of the International understandably had a large amount of prestige, and for this reason was able in the most part to dictate policy to the other national groups. But this direction was not always correct, especially when left in the hands of incompetents such as Joseph Stalin. This man understood very little of the situation, addressing each event as it arose in the manner of a bureaucratic administrator rather than a revolutionary cadre. His advice to the German workers in 1923 was disastrous. By warning them to hold back and refrain from taking power, a crucial opportunity was missed. Had the revolution succeeded in the industrial powerhouse of Germany, it would surely have been spread across Europe and across the globe, but this was not to be the case.

“Inevitably, the strain of war, of revolution, of four years of bloody civil war, of famine in which millions perished, all served to undermine the working class in terms of both numbers and morale. The disintegration of the working class, the loss of many of the most advanced elements in the civil war, the influx of backward elements from the countryside, and the demoralisation and exhaustion of the masses was one side of the picture. On the other side, the forces of reaction, those petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements who had been temporarily demoralised and driven underground by the success of the revolution in Russia and internationally, everywhere began to recover their nerve, thrust themselves to the fore, taking advantage of the situation to insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of the ruling bodies of industry, of the state and even of the Party.” (Ted Grant, Russia: From Revolution to Counter-revolution)

Stalin and the Bureaucracy

This bureaucracy began to crystallise around a central figure. This was Stalin. Due to his organisational ability, Stalin had been placed in command of the People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasant’s Inspection (Rabkrin), the organ in charge of weeding out careerists and bureaucrats from the state and party apparatus. The Comrades had not, however, reckoned with Stalin’s ruthless ambition. Very soon he had built up a bloc of bureaucratic support, transforming the Rabkrin into an instrument for enhancing his own position and prestige, which was now symbiotically linked to that of the bureaucracy.

This bureaucracy, under the leadership of Stalin, now began to cautiously feel its way and consolidate its position. “If we take Moscow”, said Lenin in 1922, “with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can truthfully be said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed.” This process was given an important boost when Lenin suffered a third stroke in 1923, leaving him unable to speak and so incapable of decisive intervention.

The rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy was further aided by the foolish behaviour of Kamenev and Zinoviev, leading Bolsheviks who had been on the Central Committee during the revolution. Lacking sufficient character to withstand the immense pressure of the bureaucracy, they sided at first with Stalin. In their role as his lap dogs, they invented the myth of ‘Trotskyism’ (as opposed to Leninism) in order to drive a wedge between Lenin and Trotsky in the eyes of the masses.

Lenin’s death in 1924 was another heavy blow. Without Lenin, Stalin grew increasingly free to act as he wished. Lenin’s Testament, which called for the removal of Stalin, was supressed, and the party was opened to a flood of new recruits. Those now able to join were members of the bureaucracy, or those who aspired to use the party to build a career for themselves. Their numbers overwhelmed that of the Old Bolsheviks – the party was now an organ of the bureaucracy rather than the working classes.

World Revolution

Events in Russia were of course inextricably linked to those on a world scale. A revolution external to Russia would have rekindled the optimism and energy of the Russian masses. Lenin had always stressed the importance of internationalism, going so far as to write lengthy advice to the German Communist party (in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder) during the height of the civil war. It was clear to him that the success of the Russian revolution was dependent on the success of the revolution internationally. But the bureaucracy had no interest in revolutions. They were in fact terrified that a world revolution would see their privileges swept away.

It is for this reason that in 1924 Stalin announced the ‘theory’ of ‘Socialism in One Country’. This claimed that it was possible and indeed desirable to build socialism in a single country before spreading the revolution at a later date (although the latter was added really as an afterthought to please the masses). In actual fact, this was no genuine theory. It had nothing to do with advancing the interests of the working class, and indeed Stalin did not really believe that it would help achieve this goal. Stalin had long since ceased to struggle for socialism. ‘Socialism in One Country’ was in actual fact the expression of a bureaucracy that were afraid to spread the revolution. In 1943, the Comintern was quietly dissolved.

The advancement of this theory made Stalin’s interests clear to Kamenev and Zinoviev. In 1925, they broke with Stalin and formed the United Opposition with Trotsky, even admitting that they had in fact invented ‘Trotskyism’ to discredit their Comrade. This Opposition campaigned for collectivisation and industrialisation through national planning, as well as an internationalist revolutionary policy and the restoration of party democracy.

In order to attack the Opposition, Stalin began to lean on the right wing of the party. These men – figures like Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky – wanted to give still greater concessions to the Kulaks and NEPmen. In 1925 Stalin even went so far as to prepare the denationalisation of the land. This insane policy would have led to the restoration of capitalism in Russia. Whilst it was true that industry needed to be built up, this had to be carried out by the state, not by the capitalists. This was a key point in the programme of the Opposition.

Indeed, the danger of capitalist restoration was becoming very real. By 1926, 6% of the Kulaks owned 60% of the grain for sale in Russia. By 1928, the grain blockade threatened a return to the dark days of famine. Both the famine and the Kulaks constituted a threat to the bureaucracy, who adopted a caricatured version of the Left Opposition’s policy of collectivisation and national planning in the form of five year plans. This was imposed violently, unlike Trotsky’s policy which would have seen peasants given subsidies and incentives to encourage them to collectivise.

At the same time, the Russian workers were witnessing time and time again the defeat of their only allies – thanks to Stalin’s opportunist policy for the communist movement worldwide, the Chinese revolution and the British general strike were defeated in the mid 20s. As Russia’s isolation increased, so too did the demoralisation of the Russian workers. However, on the 7th November 1927, the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the United Opposition marched into Leningrad with banners high, calling for the removal of the bureaucracy, Stalin and the restoration of party democracy. The tremendous reception they received was such that the impressionistic Zinoviev believed they were ready for another revolution. But this was not the case. As Trotsky explained, the masses may have been sympathetic but they were too exhausted and demoralised to take action.

Trotsky’s Exile

The demonstration did prompt action from the bureaucracy. Keen to consolidate their position, they went on the offensive. Within a week, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, Smilyn and Yevdokimov were expelled from the Central Committee. In December, the entire Opposition was liquidated from within the ranks of the party.

Zinoviev and Kamenev took fright and capitulated to Stalin’s command. But Trotsky would not abandon his principles. He was exiled to Alma-Ata, then deported to Turkey. He took with him a few members of his family. His followers, and those family members that remained, were subject to vicious persecution and many of those who were not murdered were driven to suicide by the increasingly paranoid bureaucracy.

Deporting Trotsky was a tremendous mistake. From Turkey, he travelled to Paris and then Mexico, where he helped to establish the International Left Opposition. Despite constant attacks by Stalinist gangsters, the Opposition helped to spawn a new generation of genuine Bolsheviks. Trotsky was murdered by the Stalinist fanatic Ramón Mercader in 1940.

Internationally, the Stalinist counter-revolution was playing an increasingly malignant role. Their tactics in the 1930’s are referred to as ‘Third Period’ Stalinism. The Comintern adopted an ultra-left policy; that is to say they took the best elements of the working class and alienated them from the mass of the workers by violently denouncing supporters of social democracy.

Betrayals and Purges

One example of this is the policy towards the German Social Democratic Party in the early 1930’s. Stalin denounced these mass workers’ organisations as ‘Social-Fascist’. These, according to the Comintern, were the real enemy of the working classes. The German communists numbered 6,000,000; the Social Democrats 8,000,000. Together they were the mightiest force in Germany, on condition they united to defeat the smaller Nazis. But due to the scandalous sectarian policy of the Comintern, Hitler was allowed to achieve an electoral victory. Without Stalin, the Nazis could never have taken power.

In Spain, the Comintern took the opposite strategy. Returning to the class collaborationist policy they had pursued in China, the Stalinists formed a ‘popular front’ with the liberal bourgeoisie. Those elements that stood for class independence, such as the heroic POUM militia, were liquidated in the name of ‘popular front’ with the liberal bourgeoisie. The hypocrisy and duplicity of the Comintern knew no bounds. “The Comintern played the main role in destroying the revolution that could have been accomplished”, explained Ted Grant. “Indeed, it revealed itself as the fighting vanguard of the counter-revolution.”

Stalin also acted to crush opposition on the internal front. The Great Purges of 1936-39 sent over a million dissenters to their deaths. Amongst the dead were the victims of the Moscow Trials. In these show trials, the Old Bolsheviks were one by one humiliated and blackmailed into confessing to all sorts of counter-revolutionary slanders. A broken Kamenev and Zinoviev capitulated in order to save their families. Many of the heroes of 1917 met their deaths that way, and some were even tortured into betraying their comrades. By the time Trotsky had been assassinated in 1940, more than half of the members of the 1917 Central Committee had been executed or driven to suicide by Stalin’s gangsterism.

In 1938, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with the German fascist leader Adolf Hitler. Trotsky had predicted this in 1933:

“The fundamental trait of Stalin’s international policy in recent years has been this: that he trades in the working-class movements just as he trades in oil, manganese and other goods. In this statement there is not an iota of exaggeration. Stalin looks upon the sections of the Comintern in various countries and upon the liberating struggle of the oppressed nations as so much small change in deals with imperialist powers. When he requires the aid of France, he subjects the French proletariat to the radical bourgeoisie. When he has to support China against Japan, he subjects the Chinese proletariat to the Kuomintang. What would he do in the event of an agreement with Hitler? Hitler, to be sure, does not particularly require Stalin’s assistance to strangle the German Communist Party. The insignificant state in which the latter finds itself has moreover been assured by its entire preceding policy. But it is very likely that Stalin would agree to cut off all subsidies for illegal work in Germany. This is one of the most minor concessions that he would have to make and he would be quite willing to make it. One should also assume that the noisy, hysterical and hollow campaign against fascism which the Comintern has been conducting for the last few years will be slyly squelched.”

World War II

Stalin should have known better than to rely on treaties with a mad dog like Hitler. In the summer of 1941, Hitler’s armies swept eastwards into Russia, raping and pillaging as they went. By 1942, the major Russian cities of Leningrad and Stalingrad were both under siege. But the collectivisation and industrialisation of the last decade had put the Soviet economy on a very strong footing. Trotsky’s programme of five year plans, even in the bastardised form adopted by the Stalinists, had transformed the situation completely. The USSR was able to pack up and transport its industry eastwards as the German armies advanced, preventing these from falling into the hands of the aggressor. The counter-attack was swift and decisive. Within the space of a year, the fascist threat had been put down, even despite the dead weight of the bureaucracy and the boundless incompetence of the generals. Some of these generals even believed that cavalry charges were still an effective military strategy. The geniuses of the Russian civil war, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, had long since been purged.

Contrary to the predictions of Trotsky, Stalinism emerged strengthened from the war both internationally and internally. The USSR now began to establish itself as a major world power. Repression ensured internal stability. The victory of the bureaucracy was complete.

Furthermore, capitalism had once again been saved by Social Democracy. Labour governments like that of Attlee and Bevan in Britain sprang up all over Europe. After six years of blood and sweat fighting fascism abroad, the working class demanded change at home. The post-war boom enabled the reformists to grant these concessions and the world revolution was circumvented once more.

Trotsky and Stalin

Some historians have seen the degeneration in Russia as simply a power struggle between good-guy Trotsky and bad-guy Stalin. This analysis is both superficial and naïve. Whilst Stalin’s skill as an organiser doubtless aided him in carrying out his programme, this programme could not have been implemented or even concieved outside of the concrete material conditions in which it developed. Stalin could not have represented the bureaucracy if there was no powerful bureaucracy to represent.

Indeed, Stalin could only have exercised power within very definite limits. Whilst it is true that his personal traits helped to shape the exact form in which the counter-revolution manifested itself, this was secondary to the overall process. Had he suddenly rediscovered his conscience and attempted to liquidate the bureaucracy, Stalin would quickly have found himself removed from power and dissapeared into a gulag with the rest of the genuine revolutionaries. Indeed, it has been suggested that Stalin’s death was in fact the result of poison rather than natural causes. The delay taken between his collapse and his treatment may also have been a deliberate attempt to deny him crucial emergency care. It is very possible that leading elements of the same bureaucracy that propelled Stalin into power sought to terminate him before they themselves were liquidated in one of the purges of this increasingly paranoid monster.

Some historians have criticised Trotsky’s ‘idealism’ in failing to use the Red Army against Stalin and his clique. This demonstrates a complete lack of understanding as to the processes in play. Had Trotsky chosen to mobilise the army, he would have been subject to the interests of the generals and the military bureaucracy. A refusal to serve these interests would have led to his rapid deposition and replacement by someone who would. A military coup could only have ended in a dictatorship of the military bureaucracy, rapidly accelerating the process of degeneration.

It is absolutely crucial to understand that without the spreading of the revolution internationally, the degeneration of the gains of October was a historical necessity. Only external support, invigorating the masses and drastically increasing the level of the productive forces, could have thrown off the layer of bureaucratic fat that was developing. Different factors may have influenced the specific development of events, but the general trend could only have been the same.

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there are little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 5)

The Collapse of Stalinism

In spite of the degeneration of the revolution and the crimes of Stalinism, the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990’s constituted a massive step backwards for Russia and the world. A socialised and nationally planned economy is more progressive than the anarchy of capitalism. This is true regardless of the political superstructure. Indeed the heroic workers who tore down the Berlin wall were not marching for the restoration of capitalism but for the restoration of democracy. In contrast to the ideology of ‘Socialism in One Country’, the crowd sang the Internationale, the anthem of global socialist struggle. Their victory was stolen by the bureaucracy who took advantage of the movement to appropriat the property of the state into their own private hands, becoming the oligarchs that continue to rule Russia today.

But once again we find ourselves at a standstill. The history of the 20th century is one of a recurring capitalist crisis that has not gone away. Every time the bourgeoisie feel they can relax, the crisis returns to haunt them again. Each time they become confident that the invisible hand will solve all their problems, and that the market will balance itself out, this is shown to be an idealist myth. Gordon Brown declared ‘the end of boom and bust’ and Francis Fukuyama declared ‘the end of history’. The economic crisis of 2008 has conclusively demonstrated the absolute falsehood of both of these statements.

Capitalism is no longer able to develop the productive forces. It has ceased to serve a progressive role in the development of society and is now in fact acting as a fetter on this development.

The world that Marx and Engels predicted in 1848 is very real today. But the level of productive forces is far greater than that of 1917. Even in the most economically backward areas of the world, the level of development is still significantly higher than that of Tsarist Russia.

Furthermore, the isolation suffered by the Russian masses is most definitely a thing of the past. 100 years ago, it would have taken weeks for the news of revolution to cross the globe. Today, we can watch revolutions live. Globalisation is reflected in the global nature of the crisis of capitalism, and this in the global nature of the revolutionary movement.

The traumatic memory of Stalinism is dragged up by the bourgeoisie in order to attack the left wing of the labour movement. The spectre of Stalin’s crimes is used against any suggestion of a break with capitalism. Every excuse is jumped at with glee. Even moderate policies are attacked with this stick – in Greece, the ruling New Democracy party accused the policy of SYRIZA, a reformist party with mass left-wing support, of being ‘Stalinist’ after it called for the separation of church and state!

The fact is that should a socialist revolution succeed, the objective prerequisites for bureaucratic degeneration simply do not exist. The development of the means of the production; the massive advances in global communication and social media; the increase in proletarian education – these factors will act to drastically reduce the scarcity and isolation that led to the development of the bureaucratic cancer in Russia.

Stalinism must be discussed, studied, and understood by class-conscious workers and students. But given the concrete conditions in which we find ourselves today, it should in no way be seen as a deterrent against joining the struggle for socialism. It is imperative that we strive to build the revolutionary leadership that will take the correct programme to workers and youth across the world. We must fight tooth and nail for the genuine ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Another world is possible but only if we build for it now.

“Whatever may be the circumstances of my death I shall die with unshaken faith in the communist future. This faith in man and in his future gives me even now such power of resistance as cannot be given by any religion.” – Trotsky’s Testament and last written words