50 years since the death of Stalin - an assessment
The 50th anniversary of the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is an opportunity to remind ourselves of what really happened in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and to assess the significance of these events for today.
For there is no doubt that the revolution itself, where workers took state power into their own hands for the first time in history, literally did shake the rest of the world. So threatening was the achievement that imperialism assembled more than 20 armies in an attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik government of Lenin and Trotsky.
The rise of Stalinism after the death of Lenin can in no way detract from this. Nor can it erase the fact that in the early years of the revolution, despite the horrors of the civil war provoked by foreign armies, a real political, cultural and democratic flowering took place.
Those like the historian Robert Service who assert that Stalinism flowed naturally and inevitably from this period are wrong in a number of ways. Newly accessible archive material has confirmed that there was a bitter struggle against Stalin in the 1920s within the party and that the outcome was far from certain.
The Left Opposition led by Trotsky struggled to maintain the principles of the revolution in the face of a growing isolation. Revolutionary struggles in Germany were defeated, as was the General Strike in Britain. The Chinese Revolution of 1927 was drowned in blood as a result of Stalin's misleadership and this sealed the fate of the opposition. They were expelled from the party, while Trotsky himself was exiled in 1929.
Struggling to find a home, he applied for a visa to come to Britain but was denied one by the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald on the grounds that it would upset Stalin! Until he was assassinated in 1940 while living in Mexico, Trotsky continued the struggle against Stalin and the bureaucracy he represented.
Instructive to all those who study new political phenomena is the way Trotsky analysed what had happened. He did not seek the answers in Stalin's personality or Russian traditions but in the material conditions that existed in and outside the country. Chief among these were the backwardness of Russia itself, where 80% of the population in 1917 were peasants, the isolation of the revolution and weariness of the masses.
Stalin became the spokesman for a section of the conservative state bureaucracy that gradually began to merge with the party's own machinery. Its political line was "socialism in a single country", a policy borrowed from European reform parties.
Assessing 20 years of Stalinist degeneration in the wake of the Stalinist purges, Trotsky wrote in 1938 how the "the incumbent ruling clique has replaced Soviet, party, trade-union and cooperative democracy by the domineering of functionaries".
He added: "Twenty years after the revolution the Soviet state has become the most centralised, despotic and bloodthirsty apparatus of coercion and compulsion. The evolution of the Soviet state therefore proceeds in complete contradiction with the principles of the Bolshevik program. The reason for it is to be found in this, that society… is evolving not towards socialism but towards the regeneration of social contradictions."
What Trotsky analysed, therefore, was something new and contradictory. A counter-revolutionary bureaucracy had seized political power in the Soviet Union yet it relied for its legitimacy on the overthrow of capitalism in 1917 and the creation of a nationalised economy. Trotsky argued for this in the teeth of opposition by academics and many intellectuals who turned a blind eye to Stalin's crimes.
But he warned that should this process continue, it would lead to the rebirth of classes, the end of the planned economy and the restoration of capitalist property. This is what took place in 1991, when the Soviet Union was wound up and Yeltsin's capitalist government took over.
The contradiction between the October Revolution and the bureaucracy found its most dramatic expression in the annihilation of the old generation of the Bolsheviks in frame-up trials. All those who played a leading role in the revolution were killed. Many millions more were murdered or sent to labour camps. The Stalinist bureaucracy used anti-Semitism, imprisoned and exiled minorities and nationalities and repressed artists of all kinds.
Trotsky wrote: "What is at issue is to explain how and why the Kremlin clique could have risked undertaking so monstrous a frame-up. The answer to this flows from everything that has preceded. In its struggle for power and revenue the bureaucracy is compelled to lop-off and batter down those groups who are connected with the past, who know and remember the program of the October Revolution, who are sincerely devoted to the tasks of socialism. The slaying of old Bolsheviks and of Socialist elements among the middle-aged and youngest generation are the necessary links in the chain of anti-October reaction."
What had emerged in the USSR was a bureaucratic dictatorship which day by day undermined the country's revolutionary achievements. The most graphic example of this was the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, when the Stalinists put their faith in Hitler's regime. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, Stalin's policy, together with his purges of the military, allowed the German armies to reach the gates of Moscow. Only an immense sacrifice by the Soviet people allowed them to turn the tide in later years.
The Stalinist bureaucracy did tremendous damage to the cause of socialism internationally. Communist parties in other countries were reduced to carrying out Moscow's policies of peaceful co-existence with imperialism. Revolutionary politics were abandoned throughout the world by these parties, who justified everything that Stalin did, including the pact with Hitler.
It converted Marxism from a living philosophical approach to reality to a dogma based on repeating formulations from Lenin's writings, for example. This resulted in a crude determinism that repressed human creativity and scientific investigation. This approach blinded the bureaucracy to the real truth about the corruption and inefficiency in the economy and agriculture.
Trotsky warned repeatedly that without a successful political revolution to restore democracy, capitalist counter-revolution and restoration would occur. From 1987, Gorbachev denounced Stalinism more thoroughly than Khruschev had in 1956 and attempted to restore democracy and undermine the bureaucracy. But the political system was far more decayed than Gorbachev imagined. This, together with the crisis of the economy that accompanied the dismantling of the bureaucracy, proved more decisive. Trotsky's worst fears were proved correct. It was not "communism" that fell, not even socialism, but a rotten, bureaucratic regime that proved historically unsustainable.
There are a number of lessons we should take from this period of history. Even more so today than in 1917, it is not possible to think of a socialist society based in a single country. Capitalism has globalised the world economy to such an extent that the alternative has to base itself on an equivalent global outlook.
Stalinism's reliance on dogma for its "theory" was a key factor in its eventual demise. We have to resist any such tendency ourselves. To do so is to live in the past. That includes, for example, a reliance on old political forms like the discredited parliamentary system or parties like New Labour that now represent capital in the most direct sense.
Our view of a new state is one that Trotsky put forward in his 1938 article, when he wrote: "Socialist economy must by its very essence take as its guide the interests of the producers and the needs of the consumers. These interests and needs can find their expression only through the medium of a full-flowering democracy of producers and consumers. Democracy, in this particular case, is not some sort of abstract principle. It is the one and only conceivable mechanism for preparing the socialist system of economy, and realising it in life.
Capitalist restoration is going on in the countries that once formed parts of the Soviet Union. But the corrupt ruling groups have a tenuous grip on investment dominated by global corporations. Stalinist isolation and fear no longer dominate the masses of Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe. The history of 1917, a new understanding of the crimes of Stalinism, live on in different ways in the flesh and blood people of today. The new generations can join others all over the planet to build a truly global movement to replace capitalism with a more advanced social organisation.
Workers can make a revolution and overturn the status quo – 1917 proved that. The alternative to capitalism comes from the contradictions within the system and the struggle of working people for their existence. Capitalism has developed technologies and productive capacities that dominate rather than serve humanity and are causing the system to plunge into crisis and war. By seizing these resources we will have a much greater possibility of constructing a democratic socialist future and avoiding the bureaucratic degeneration that was Stalinism.
for a Socialist Future
Stalin: the horror behind the image