5. From War to ‘De-Stalinisation’
Once again: The advantages of the planned economy
The Second World War was a continuation of the first imperialist war. German imperialism needed to carry through a redivision of the world. In the dictum of Clausewitz: war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means. As early as 1931, Trotsky had predicted that if Hitler came to power, then Germany would declare war against the Soviet Union. Despite joining the League of Nations (the ‘thieves’ kitchen’ to use Lenin’s words), the diplomatic efforts of Stalin to reach an agreement with the Western ‘democracies’ came to nothing. After the Munich accord in 1938, and with the minimum of force, Hitler carried through Anschluss with Austria, annexed the Sudetenland and then occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. In a desperate bid to avoid war with Germany, Stalin undertook a complete volte face and signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler on the 23rd August 1939. The commissar of foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov (who was Jewish) was replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov.
“In point of fact,” declared Trotsky, “the signing of the treaty with Hitler supplies only one extra gauge with which to measure the degree of degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy, and its contempt for the international working class, including the Comintern.” (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 4-5, New York, 1970.) In addition to the Pact was an ‘Additional Secret Protocol’ whereby Poland was divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence and ceased to exist as a unified country. This policy would obviously have been embarrassing for the Polish Communist Party. Fortunately for Stalin, the Polish CP had been dissolved in 1938 on the pretext that it had been penetrated by fascists! Nearly all its leaders, in exile in Moscow, were shot. On the 9th September 1939, the Soviet foreign minister sent the following message to the Nazi ambassador in Moscow: “I have received your communication regarding the entry of German troops into Warsaw. Please convey my congratulations and greetings to the German Reich Government. Molotov.” Britain and France were prepared to accept German aggression as long as German imperialism’s interests lay eastwards. The attack on Poland, however, provoked war with these imperialist powers.
Trotsky had predicted that the Second World War would decide the fate of the Soviet Union: it would either lead to a successful political revolution against the Stalin regime, or the victory of capitalist counter-revolution. The former variant would flow from the revolutionary upheavals arising from the war – as took place in 1917. The latter was likely if the capitalist powers succeeded in conquering Russia. This prognosis was falsified by the unforeseen developments of the war, which resulted in the victory of the Red Army. The process of the revolution had been far more complicated than even Trotsky’s genius had foreseen. The revolutionary tide that followed the war was derailed by the Stalinist and reformists leaders.
Despite the slanders against Trotsky by the Stalinist press, which accused him and his followers of being fascist agents, Trotsky was far from holding a neutral position in the imperialist war. While standing for a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy, he raised the need for the unconditional defence of the USSR in face of imperialist attack. Some leaders of the American Trotskyists, most notably the advocates of the theory of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, came out against defence of the Soviet Union. They reflected the pressures of petty bourgeois public opinion, which had swung against Stalinism after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Burnham was shortly to abandon the Trotskyist movement completely, proclaiming in his book The Managerial Revolution, that the world was moving towards a new form of society ruled by a managerial elite, of which Stalinism, Nazism, and New Dealism were simply “different stages of growth” of “managerial ideologies”.
On the 25th September 1939, a month after the signing of the Pact and the opening of the Second World War, Trotsky made his position absolutely clear:
Let us suppose that Hitler turns his weapons against the east and invades territories occupied by the Red Army. Under these conditions, partisans of the Fourth International, without changing in any way their attitude towards the Kremlin oligarchy, will advance to the forefront, as the most urgent task of the hour, the military resistance against Hitler. The workers will say: ‘We cannot cede to Hitler the overthrowing of Stalin; that is our own task.’ During the military struggle against Hitler, the revolutionary workers will strive to enter into the closest possible comradely relations with the rank and file fighters of the Red Army. While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct propaganda against Stalin preparing his overthrow at the next and perhaps very near stage… We must formulate our slogans in such a way that the workers see clearly just what we are defending in the USSR (state property and planned economy), and against whom we are conducting a ruthless struggle (the parasitic bureaucracy and its Comintern). We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR. (Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, pp. 20-1, emphasis in original.)
The Hitler-Stalin Pact, which Trotsky had predicted as early as 1934, was undoubtedly a betrayal of the international working class. But the outrage of the governments of London and Paris was entirely hypocritical. Anyone who studies the diplomatic papers of this period will see at a glance that the policy of British and French imperialism was to isolate the Soviet Union and make concessions to Hitler in the East (Czechoslovakia) in the hope that he would forget about them and attack Russia instead. They dreamed of a position where Germany and the USSR would exhaust themselves, whereupon they could step in and mop them both up. Stalin merely pre-empted them by signing a deal with Berlin, thus freeing Hitler to turn west instead.
As a general rule, even a healthy workers’ state would have to engage in manoeuvres with capitalist regimes, making skilful use of the contradictions between them. In order to avoid a war, it might be necessary to sign an agreement even with the most reactionary regime, while continuing to support and encourage the movement to overthrow it. That was the case, for example, with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. But in the first place, it was the policies of Stalin which allowed Hitler to come to power and placed the USSR in grave danger. In the second place, the way in which Stalin carried out this policy had absolutely nothing in common with the internationalist methods of Lenin. Yet again, the international working class was sacrificed to the narrow national interests of the Russian bureaucracy. Moreover, as we shall see, this tactic did not save the Soviet Union, but only placed it in still greater danger.
Ilya Ehrenburg in his memoirs recalls his shock when, on returning to Moscow from France, he discovered that any critical reference to the Nazis was censured and that he was expected to deliver lectures on the premises of the German embassy. Nothing was said about Nazi atrocities. Trade with Germany was booming and everyone was given to understand that relations with Berlin were good and friendly. (See A. Nove, Stalinism and After, p. 81.) From the autumn of 1939 there was a complete halt to anti-fascist propaganda by the USSR. France and Britain now became the enemy. As Molotov put it:
During the last few months such concepts as ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressor’ have acquired a new concrete content, have taken on another meaning… Now… it is Germany that is striving for a quick end to the war, for peace, while England and France, who only yesterday were campaigning against aggression, are for continuation of the war and against concluding a peace. Roles, as you see, change… Thus it is not only senseless, it is criminal to wage such a war as a war for ‘the destruction of Hitlerism,’ under the false flag of a struggle for democracy. (Quoted in Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 730.)
Stalin and his clique went to the most incredible extremes to ingratiate themselves with Berlin. The following extract from the diary of a German diplomat describing the banquet which celebrated the signing of the Pact shows the lengths to which Stalin was prepared to go to conciliate Hitler:
Toasts: In the course of the conversation, Herr Stalin spontaneously proposed to the Führer, as follows: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” Herr Molotov drank to the health of the Reich Foreign Minister and of the Ambassador, Count von der Schulenburg. Herr Molotov raised his glass to Stalin, remarking that it had been Stalin who – through his speech of March of this year, which had been well understood in Germany – had brought about the reversal in political relations. Herren Molotov and Stalin drank repeatedly to the Non-Aggression Pact, the new era of German-Russian relations, and to the German nation. The Reich Foreign Minister (Ribbentrop) in turn proposed a toast to Herr Stalin, toasts to the Soviet government, and to a favourable development of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union… Moscow, 24th August, 1939. Hencke. (A Nazi diplomat) (Nazi-Soviet Relations, pp. 75-6, reproduced in Robert Black, Stalinism in Britain, p. 130.)
This goes far beyond what would be permissible for a genuine Leninist government in its dealings with a reactionary foreign regime for the purpose of self-defence. Far worse was to follow. To show his ‘good will’ Stalin obligingly handed over German anti-fascist fighters, Jews and Communists to the tender mercies of the Gestapo. At least one of them, Margarete Buber-Neumann, survived by some miracle, to write books comparing the concentration camps of Stalin with those of Hitler. Lavrenty Beria, head of Internal Affairs, even gave a secret order to the Gulag administration forbidding camp guards to call political prisoners fascists! This was only rescinded after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. All this was no way to prepare the Soviet people and the workers of the world for the terrible conflict that was to come.
In what was clearly a defensive move to secure its Western borders, the Soviet Union swiftly moved to incorporate Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina. But it failed to take Finland in a disastrous campaign, which revealed to the whole world how the Red Army had been weakened by the Purges. Hitler took due note of this fact, which he commented on to his generals. He was already preparing to attack Russia. But Stalin refused to admit this even as a possibility and continued to collude with Germany. When Hitler marched into Yugoslavia, Stalin closed the embassies of Yugoslavia, Greece, and Belgium, which signalled his approval to the German authorities.
When Germany invaded France in 1940, Stalin was convinced that his manoeuvring had induced Hitler to turn West instead of attacking the Soviet Union. Molotov even sent the Führer a message of congratulations! All sections of the Comintern were ordered to follow the same line. This policy led the French Communist Party leaders to hope for a legal existence and the publication of L’Humanité in occupied France. This was only dispelled when rank and file Communist Party members were rounded up and shot en masse. Meanwhile, Pravda quoted statements from the Nazi press saying that the accord with Russia had allowed the German “offensive in the West to develop successfully”. (Pravda, 26/8/1940.)
The masters of the Kremlin really thought that they were going to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Germany and Britain slugging it out. Having abandoned every trace of a revolutionary internationalist perspective, they were drunk with illusions, while Hitler was preparing a devastating blow against them. This is what disarmed the Soviet Union in the face of its most terrible foe. From the outbreak of the Second World War right up until June 1941 when Hitler attacked Russia, Nazi Germany received a large increase in exports from the USSR. Between 1938 and 1940, exports to Germany rose from Rbs85.9 million to Rbs736.5 million, which greatly assisted Hitler’s war efforts.
Consequences of the Purges
By contrast, in 1941, the USSR was in a very poor state for war. The Purge trials had exterminated the bulk of the general staff, including its most talented officers. Nor was the damage done by Stalin’s Purges limited to the military potential of the USSR. It dealt a terrible blow against the economy also. This is now recognised even by those who yesterday justified the Purges and everything else Stalin did. In a study published by Yale University about the same time, attention was drawn to the damaging effects of the Purges on the Soviet economy. This was reported without comment in the daily paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1980s:
“Moreover, in the Purges of 1937-38 many of the most able administrators and scientists in the chemical industry were imprisoned or executed,” writes Robert Amann. “For those who did not suffer directly the Purges had a numbing effect. The penalties for failure were so extreme that decisions involving risk, novelty and personal initiative were avoided at all costs.”
“It would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which these lingering attitudes have exerted a detrimental effect on the long-term development of the chemical industry, and on other Soviet industries.” Nor were defence industries immune: “For all that Stalin’s policies had built up Soviet military and industrial power, the Purges and repression of the 1930s greatly weakened the Soviet Union’s ability to defend itself,” writes David Holloway. (Morning Star, 5/8/82, my emphasis.)
The main factor that undermined the Red Army’s capacity to fight at the start of the war was the destruction of its finest generals and cadres in the Purges. The October Revolution had thrown up a whole layer of talented young officers, some of whom, like Tukhachevsky, Yakir and Gamir were brilliantly original military thinkers. It is not generally known that the theory of the Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) was not a German invention. The Wehrmacht copied it from the Russians. Long before the war, when the British and French army chiefs were still convinced that the next war would be a war of position, like the First World War, Tukhachevsky’s genius led him to conclude that the Second World War would be fought with tanks and aeroplanes. When Tukhachevsky and his comrades were murdered in the Purges, their places were taken by Stalin’s cronies like Voroshilov, Timoshenko and Budyonny, who thought that the coming war would be fought with cavalry! The second-rate and inept Voroshilov was put in charge of the Defence Commissariat, surrounded by others of the same ilk. These creatures of Stalin were promoted to key positions, not for their personal abilities, but for their servile loyalty to the ruling clique.
Former General Grigorenko, who served at the time as a lecturer in the central Soviet military academy, recalls the disastrous effects of the Purges on the quality of military training:
No sooner had the academy taken its first halting steps than the trumped-up trial of Tukhachevsky, Uborevich, Yakir, and others cast suspicion on all things planned by Tukhachevsky. Stalin saw the academy as an ‘anti-Stalinist military centre,’ and the pogroms commenced. Arrests began in winter 1936 and intensified in 1937. The highly-qualified teaching staff assembled by Tukhachevsky was almost totally annihilated.
Positions were taken by untalented or inexperienced people. In turn, some of the new teachers were arrested, which frightened the rest and left them with little enthusiasm for their new jobs. Texts that had been written by ‘enemies of the people,’ the first teachers, now could not be used. The new teachers wrote a hasty conspectus of each of their lectures, but fearful of being accused of proffering views hostile to Stalin, they filled their lectures with faddish dogmas. The theory of battle in depth worked out by Tukhachevsky, Yegorov, Uborevich and Yakir was cast aside. (Grigorenko, op. cit., pp. 91-2.)
All this was admitted by Khrushchev in 1956:
Very grievous consequences, especially in reference to the beginning of the war, followed Stalin’s annihilation of many military commanders and political workers during 1937-1941 because of his suspiciousness and through slanderous accusations. During these years, repressions were instituted against certain parts of military cadres, beginning literally at the company and battalion commander level and extending to the higher military centres; during this time the cadre of leaders who had gained military experience in Spain and in the Far East was almost completely liquidated.
The policy of large-scale repression against the military cadres led also to undermined military discipline, because for several years officers of all ranks and even soldiers in the party and Komsomol cells were taught to ‘unmask’ their superiors as hidden enemies. (Movement in the hall.) It is natural that this caused a negative influence on the state of military discipline in the first war period.
And, as you know, we had before the war excellent military cadres which were unquestionably loyal to the party and to the Fatherland. Suffice it to say that those of them who managed to survive, despite severe tortures to which they were subjected in the prisons, have from the first war days shown themselves real patriots and heroically fought for the glory of the Fatherland; I have here in mind such comrades as Rokossovsky (who, as you know, had been jailed), Gorbatov, Meretskov (who is a delegate at the present Congress), Podlas (he was an excellent commander who perished at the front), and many, many others. However, many such commanders perished in camps and jails and the army saw them no more. All this brought about the situation which existed at the beginning of the war and which was the great threat to our Fatherland. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)
There are still many misconceptions about the Second World War, especially concerning the role of Stalin. According to Alec Nove (normally quite an astute commentator on Russia):
Germany’s colossal power was greater than Russia’s and she had at her disposal the industries of occupied Europe. Her armies were well equipped, and the equipment had been tested in the battlefield. Despite the very greatest efforts and sacrifices in the preceding decade, the Soviet Union found itself economically as well as militarily at a disadvantage. (A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 273.)
As a matter of fact, at the time of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the combined fire-power of the Red Army was greater than that of the Wehrmacht. Yet the Soviet forces were rapidly encircled and decimated. This unprecedented catastrophe was not the result of objective weakness, but of bad leadership. Having destroyed the best cadres of the Red Army, Stalin placed such blind confidence in his ‘clever’ manoeuvre with Hitler, that he ignored numerous reports that the Germans were preparing to attack. The Minsk fortified area, a mighty defensive line which had been built on the western border of the USSR in anticipation of a German attack was actually demolished on Stalin’s orders, presumably as a gesture of good faith to Berlin. Grigorenko, who had worked before the war on the building of these fortifications, describes his feelings of indignation when they were demolished:
[These] fortifications were to have reliably shielded the deployment of assault groups and repelled any attempts by the enemy to break up the deployment. When the army attacked, the fortified areas were to have supported the troops with fire-power. Instead, our western fortified areas did not fulfil any of these tasks. They were blown up without having fired once at the enemy.
I do not know how future historians will explain this crime against our people. Contemporary historians ignore it. I cannot offer an explanation myself. The Soviet government squeezed billions of roubles (by my calculations not less than 120 billion) out of the people to construct impregnable fortifications along the entire western boundary from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Then, right before the war in the spring of 1941, powerful explosions thundered along the entire 1,200-kilometre length of these fortifications. On Stalin’s personal orders reinforced concrete caponiers and semi-caponiers, fortifications with one, two, or three embrasures, command and observation posts – tens of thousands of permanent fortifications – were blown into the air. No better gift could have been given to Hitler’s Barbarossa plan. (Grigorenko, op. cit., pp. 46-7, emphasis in original.)
Had it not been for the criminal actions of Stalin, the USSR would not have been caught unawares by the German onslaught, as Khrushchev explained:
Did we have time and the capabilities for such preparations? Yes, we had the time and the capabilities. Our industry was already so developed that it was capable of supplying fully the Soviet army with everything that it needed. This is proven by the fact that, although during the war we lost almost half of our industry and important industrial and food-production areas as the result of enemy occupation of the Ukraine, Northern Caucasus and other western parts of the country, the Soviet nation was still able to organise the production of military equipment in the eastern parts of the country, install there equipment taken from the western industrial areas, and to supply our armed forces with everything which was necessary to destroy the enemy.
Had our industry been mobilised properly and in time to supply the army with the necessary material, our wartime losses would have been decidedly smaller. Such mobilisation had not been, however, started in time. And already in the first days of the war it became evident that our army was badly armed, that we did not have enough artillery, tanks and planes to throw the enemy back.
Soviet science and technology produced excellent models of tanks and artillery pieces before the war. But mass production of all this was not organised, and, as a matter of fact, we started to modernise our military equipment only on the eve of the war. As a result, at the time of the enemy’s invasion of the Soviet land we did not have sufficient quantities either of old machinery which was no longer used for armament production or of new machinery which we had planned to introduce into armament production.
The situation with anti-aircraft artillery was especially bad; we did not organise the production of anti-tank ammunition. Many fortified regions had proven to be indefensible as soon as they were attacked, because the old arms had been withdrawn and new ones were not yet available there. This pertained, alas, not only to tanks, artillery and planes. At the outbreak of the war we did not have sufficient numbers of rifles to arm the mobilised manpower. I recall that in those days I telephoned Comrade Malenkov from Kiev and told him, “People have volunteered for the new army and demand arms. You must send us arms.”
Malenkov answered me. “We cannot send you arms. We are sending all our rifles to Leningrad and you have to arm yourselves.” (Movement in the hall.)
Such was the armament situation. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)
Despite the fact that the combined fire power of the Red Army was greater than that of the Germans, the Purges had effectively crippled it. This was the decisive element which persuaded Hitler to attack in 1941. At the Nuremberg trial, Marshal Keitel testified that many German generals had warned Hitler not to attack Russia, arguing that the Red Army was a formidable opponent. Rejecting these Hitler gave Keitel his main reason – “The first-class high-ranking officers were wiped out by Stalin in 1937, and the new generation cannot yet provide the brains they need.” On the 9th January 1941, Hitler told a meeting of generals planning the attack on Russia: “They do not have good generals.” ( Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 214.)
“Our initial defeat,” writes Grigorenko, “was caused by those in the very highest positions. Thousands of capable army commanders had been purged, our border air-dromes were poorly developed, we had inadequate anti-aircraft defence, our tank units and anti-tank defence had been sharply reduced (at Stalin’s whim) immediately before the war, our fortified areas had been blown up, and our troops had been trained on a peacetime basis. We were not prepared. We paid for this criminal unpreparedness both during and after the war. I pointed to Stalin as the chief culprit, but I also mentioned Voroshilov, Timoshenko, Golokov, and Zhukov. Our failures could not be blamed on the fascists but on ourselves.” (Grigorenko, op. cit., p. 332.)
‘For the archives’
By the middle of June 1941, Hitler had moved enormous military resources to the Soviet border. Four million German troops were amassed on the border ready to invade. There were also 3,500 tanks, around 4,000 planes, and 50,000 guns and mortars. Attempts were made to keep this mobilisation secret, but given its size, numerous reports from border units, the Soviet intelligence service, even officials of the British and US governments, were passed on to the Soviet government. Stalin refused to act on these reports, instead wrote on them “For the archives”, and “To be filed”. This was all confirmed by General Zhukov in his Reminiscences and Reflections. When the Soviet military command asked for permission to put the Soviet troops on alert, Stalin refused. He refused to believe Hitler would invade. “German planes increasingly broke into Soviet airspace,” reports Air Marshal A. Novikov, “but we weren’t allowed to stop them.” (Quoted in Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 332.)
In his speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev pointed out that on the 3rd April 1941, Churchill, through his ambassador to the USSR, the British minister Stafford Cripps personally warned Stalin that the Germans had begun regrouping their armed units with the intent of attacking the Soviet Union. Churchill affirmed in his writings that he sought to “warn Stalin and call his attention to the danger which threatened him”. Churchill stressed this repeatedly in his dispatches of the 18th April and on the following days.
However, Stalin took no heed of these warnings. What is more, Stalin ordered that no credence be given to information of this sort, in order not to provoke the initiation of military operations.
We must assert that information of this sort concerning the threat of German armed invasion of Soviet territory was coming in also from our own military and diplomatic sources; however, because the leadership was conditioned against such information, such data was dispatched with fear and assessed with reservation.
Thus, for instance, information sent from Berlin on May 6, 1941, by the Soviet military attaché, Captain Vorontsov, stated: “Soviet citizen Bozer … communicated to the deputy naval attaché that, according to a statement of a certain German officer from Hitler’s headquarters, Germany is preparing to invade the USSR on May 14 through Finland, the Baltic countries and Latvia. At the same time Moscow and Leningrad will be heavily raided and paratroopers landed in border cities…”
In his report of May 22, 1941, the deputy military attaché in Berlin, Khlopov, communicated that: “…the attack of the German army is reportedly scheduled for June 15, but it is possible that it may begin in the first days of June…”
A cable from London Embassy dated June 18, 1941, stated: “As of now Cripps is deeply convinced of the inevitability of armed conflict between Germany and the USSR, which will begin not later than the middle of June. According to Cripps, the Germans have presently concentrated 147 divisions (including air force and service units) along the Soviet borders…”
Despite these particularly grave warnings, the necessary steps were not taken to prepare the country properly for defence and to prevent it from being caught unawares. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)
In this connection, we cannot forget, for instance, the following fact: shortly before the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Hitlerite army, Kirponos, who was chief of the Kiev Special Military District (he was later killed at the front), wrote to Stalin that the German armies were at the Bug River, were preparing for an attack and in the very near future would probably start their offensive. In this connection, Kirponos proposed that a strong defence be organised, that 300,000 people be evacuated from the border areas and that several strong points be organised there: anti-tank ditches, trenches for the soldiers, etc.
Moscow answered this proposition with the assertion that this would be a provocation, that no preparatory defensive work should be undertaken at the borders, that the Germans were not to be given any pretext for the initiation of military action against us. Thus, our borders are insufficiently prepared to repel the enemy. When the fascist armies had actually invaded Soviet territory and military operations began, Moscow issued the order that the German fire was not to be returned. Why? It was because Stalin, despite evident facts, thought that the war had not yet started, that this was only a provocative action on the part of several undisciplined sections of the German army, and that reaction might serve as a reason for the Germans to begin the war.
The following fact is also known: on the eve of the invasion of the territory of the Soviet Union by the Hitlerite army, a certain German citizen crossed our border and stated that the German armies had received orders to start the offensive against the Soviet Union on the night of June 22 at 3 o’clock. Stalin was informed about this immediately, but even this warning was ignored.
As you see, everything was ignored: warnings of certain army commanders, declarations of deserters from the enemy army, and even the open hostility of the enemy. Is this an example of the alertness of the chief of the party and of the state at this particularly significant historical moment? And what were the results of this carefree attitude, this disregard of clear facts? The result was that already in the first hours and days the enemy had destroyed in our border regions a large part of our Air Force, artillery and other military equipment; he annihilated large numbers of our military cadres and disorganised our military leadership; consequently, we could not prevent the enemy from marching deep into the country. (Ibid.)
Incredibly, there were no defence plans prepared in the event of a German attack. Many Soviet tanks were without their crews. Even when Hitler actually launched his offensive, Stalin ordered the Red Army not to resist. Thus, the mighty Soviet armed forces were paralysed for the critical first 48 hours. The Red Air Force was destroyed on the ground. Due to this confusion and paralysis at the top, huge swathes of territory were lost in the first few weeks. Millions of Soviet soldiers were captured with little resistance. With proper leadership, there is no doubt that the German invaders could have been pushed back into Poland at the beginning of the war. A decisive defeat could have been inflicted on Hitler as early as 1941. The war could have been brought to an end far earlier, avoiding the horrific losses suffered by Belarus, western Russia and the Ukraine. The nightmare suffered by the peoples of the USSR were the direct result of the irresponsible policy pursued by Stalin and his clique.
Stalin feared war with Germany because he was afraid that this could lead to his overthrow. He was particularly afraid of the military. After the disastrous Finnish campaign of 1939-40, he ordered the release of thousands of officers who had been imprisoned in the Purges, but Medvedev points out that as late as “1942, Stalin ordered a large group of leading Red Army officers to be shot in the camps; he considered them a threat to himself in the event of unfavourable developments on the Soviet-German Front”. (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 312.)
After the war, strenuous attempts were made by the Kremlin to spread the myth of Stalin as a ‘great war Leader’. This does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. We have already seen how Stalin’s policies left the Soviet Union at the mercy of Hitler. When Hitler invaded, the Soviet leaders were in disarray. Stalin initially panicked and went into hiding. His actions amounted to total capitulation. Despite this he gave himself the title of ‘Generalissimo’ and embellished his role in the Great Patriotic War. The true position was expressed by Khrushchev in the following terms:
It would be incorrect to forget that, after the first severe disaster and defeat at the front, Stalin thought that this was the end. In one of his speeches in those days he said: “All that which Lenin created we have lost for ever”. After this Stalin for a long time actually did not direct the military operations and ceased to do anything whatever. He returned to active leadership only when some members of the Political Bureau visited him and told him that it was necessary to take certain steps immediately in order to improve the situation at the front.
Therefore, the threatening danger which hung over our Fatherland in the first period of the war was largely due to the faulty methods of directing the nation and the party by Stalin himself. However, we speak not only about the moment when the war began, which led to serious disorganisation of our army and brought us severe losses. Even after the war began, the nervousness and hysteria which Stalin demonstrated, interfering with actual military operations, caused our army serious damage.
Stalin was very far from an understanding of the real situation which was developing at the front. This was natural because, during the whole Patriotic War, he never visited any section of the front or any liberated city except for one short ride on the Mozhaisk highway during a stabilised situation at the front. To this incident were dedicated many literary works full of fantasies of all sorts and so many paintings. Simultaneously, Stalin was interfering with operations and issuing orders which did not take into consideration the real situation at a given section of the front and which could not help but result in huge personnel losses.
I will allow myself in this connection to bring out one characteristic fact which illustrates how Stalin directed operations at the front. There is present at this Congress Marshal Bagramyan, who was once the chief of operations in the headquarters of the south-western front and who can corroborate what I will tell you.
When there developed an exceptionally serious situation for our army in 1942 in the Kharkov region, we had correctly decided to drop an operation whose objective was to encircle Kharkov, because the real situation at that time would have threatened our army with fatal consequences if this operation was continued. We communicated this to Stalin, stating that the situation demanded changes in operational plans so that the enemy would be prevented from liquidating a sizeable concentration of our army. Contrary to common sense, Stalin rejected our suggestion and issued the order to continue the operation aimed at the encirclement of Kharkov, despite the fact that at this time many army concentrations were themselves actually threatened with encirclement and liquidation.
I telephoned to Vasilevsky and begged him: “Alexander Mikhailovich, take a map” – Vasilevsky is present here – “and show Comrade Stalin the situation which has developed.” We should note that Stalin planned operations on a globe. (Animation in the hall.) Yes, comrades, he used to take the globe and trace the front line on it. (Special Report on the 20th Congress of the CPSU by N.S. Khrushchev, 24-25 February 1956.)
Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were captured in the first days of the war. The losses later suffered by the Red Army were made far worse by Stalin’s insistence on frontal attacks, irrespective of the cost in lives. When the Red Army counter-attacked at the end of 1941 instead of trying to outflank the enemy with tactical manoeuvres, Stalin demanded the capture of one village after another. “Because of this,” Khrushchev explained, “we paid with great losses – until our generals, on whose shoulders rested the whole weight of conducting the war, succeeded in changing the situation and shifting to flexible-manoeuvre operations, which immediately brought serious changes at the front favourable to us.” (Ibid.)
By the end of November 1941, the Soviet retreat had lost ground that contained 63 per cent of all coal production, 68 per cent of pig iron, 58 per cent of steel, 60 per cent of aluminium, 41 per cent of railway lines, 84 per cent of sugar, 38 per cent of grain, and 60 per cent of pigs. Some major centres, notably Leningrad, were effectively isolated. Huge supplies of basic materials and equipment were suddenly cut off, and much more was put at risk by the swift German advance. Faced with the prospect of imminent defeat and overthrow, Stalin reluctantly replaced his talentless and incompetent stooges with other more able commanders, some of them having been released from jail for the purpose:
After fearing for his life and being threatened by a total loss of power, he understood that he needed specialists to conduct the war successfully, and in his search for them he even turned to those he had arrested. Men were freed from prison and sent to high command posts – Rokossovsky and Gorbatov, among others; but this did not, of course, solve the entire problem. It was impossible to fill with individual bricks the enormous gaping hole that Stalin’s insane terrorist activity had made in the leadership of the armed forces. ( Grigorenko, op. cit., p. 211.)
The tide turns
Under war conditions, a new general staff was rapidly developed. The new generation of Soviet officers was trained under fire. These were drawn from the junior officers who had been brought up in the traditions of the October Revolution and the civil war. The Voroshilovs and Budyonnys were quietly shunted into the side-lines. Men who had been arrested during the Purges were released from prison to take over the leadership of the Red Army. These talented officers were the product of the revolutionary school of the military genius Tukhachevsky. They led the Red Army in the most spectacular advance in the entire history of warfare. Thus, not only in the economic sphere, but in the field of military talent, the Revolution showed what it was capable of. It is sufficient to compare the performance of the Red Army with that of the tsarist forces in 1914-17 to see the difference. The brilliant victory of Russia in the war was, in itself, the most outstanding confirmation of the superiority of a nationalised planned economy over capitalist anarchy.
After initially dragging its feet, the Soviet government evacuated human and material resources on a gigantic scale. From July to November 1941, no fewer than 1,523 industrial enterprises, of which 1,360 were described as large-scale, were uprooted and physically removed from threatened areas. This was an incredible feat, unequalled in the history of war. With the German advance, tens of millions of people were moved eastwards. The Soviet economy, however, suffered heavy blows. By November 1941, over three hundred armament factories were captured by the Germans. In the same year, industrial production totalled only 51.7 per cent of the output of November 1940. Between 1940 and 1942, there was a massive fall in production. The production of pig iron fell from (in million tons) 14.9 to 4.8; steel from 18.3 to 8.1; rolling mill products from 13.1 to 5.4; coal from 165.9 to 75.5; oil from 31.1 to 22.0; and electricity (milliard kWhs) from 48.3 to 29.1. In 1942, the Germans had occupied the north Caucasus and the Don basin, which cost the USSR the best of its remaining grain areas and the Maikop oilfield, and for a period the crucial oil from Baku was stopped. Harvests were devastated. Only by March 1942 – despite continuing defeats and retreats – did production show a steady upward trend.
Engels once pointed out that in a siege economy, the laws of capitalism no longer apply. Faced with a life-or-death dilemma, the bourgeoisie will resort to measures of planning, centralisation and nationalisation. This fact in itself is a crushing answer to all those who trumpet the supposed superiority of the market. Incidentally, during the Second World War, living standards actually rose in Britain and the United States, despite the fact that a huge amount of production went on the war effort. Thus, even in the West, the advantages of central planning (partial, of course, since real planning is not possible in a capitalist economy) were not seriously disputed during the war. But in the case of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming superiority of a nationalised planned economy was crushingly demonstrated, especially when subjected to the most serious test of all, the bloody equation of war.
A spectacular turnaround was effected which was the key to victory. The war industry was reorganised and put on a more effective footing. Specialists were released from Stalin’s labour camps to work in the war industries. In 1940, 15 per cent of the national income was devoted to military purposes. In 1942 this had increased to 55 per cent. According to Nove, “perhaps the highest ever reached anywhere”. The nationalised economy made all the difference. As Nove further explained: “No doubt the experience of centralised planning in the previous ten years was a great help. In the process of tightening control over resources the government resorted to quarterly and even monthly plans, in far greater detail than in peacetime.
The practice of material balances was used successfully to allocate the materials and fuel available between alternative uses in accordance with the decisions of the all-powerful State Committee on Defence. An emergency war plan was adopted in August 1941, covering the rest of that year and 1942. There were annual economic-military plans thereafter, as well as some longer-term plans, including one for the Urals region covering the years 1943-47. (A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, pp. 278-9.)
These few facts are sufficient to demonstrate the enormous superiority of the Soviet economy.
Not only was Soviet industry capable of producing a vast quantity of military equipment, but the tanks, planes and guns were of a very high quality and more than a match for the German equivalents. This, plus the determination of the Soviet working class to defend the gains of the Revolution, was what determined the outcome of the conflict and, ultimately, the Second World War in Europe, which was really a titanic duel between the USSR and Nazi Germany. Although Hitler had a big advantage at the start of the war and had all the resources of occupied Europe behind him, he was defeated. Before the astonished eyes of the world, the Red Army recovered from what for any other country would have been a mortal blow, regrouped, and counter-attacked, pushing the German army all the way back to Berlin.
Although the military tide began to turn at the very end of 1942, the recaptured territory sometimes added little to Soviet economic strength. The Nazis had conducted a scorched earth policy. Thus, in 1943 the gross output of industry in the (Soviet) Ukraine was just 1.2 per cent of the total of 1940. Despite this the Soviet masses were fighting a war of liberation against the Nazi invaders. If the Nazi armies had been victorious, it would have been a horrific outcome for the Russian people. These facts provided the Red Army with the fighting morale to defeat Hitler. The German army was finally halted at Stalingrad. The Battle of Kursk was a turning-point on the Eastern Front. This was undoubtedly the most decisive battle of the war. In a titanic struggle, with no fewer than 10,000 tanks deployed on either side, the Red Army was victorious.
Incidentally, throughout all this a large British army was stationed in Persia, just across the border of the USSR. Stalin asked Churchill to send in the British troops who were doing nothing to help the Red Army on the Eastern Front. His British ‘ally’ amiably counter-proposed to the Generalissimo that the Russian troops which were facing them on the other side of the border might be withdrawn to the front, while the British army would then kindly look after the border for them. In point of fact, Churchill was waiting for the Red Army to be defeated, so that he could order the British army to seize oil-rich Baku, pursuing the same policy as when the British army invaded the Caucasus during the civil war. Even Stalin could understand this!
The end result was that both sides remained in their positions, while the most decisive battles of the war were being fought out on Soviet soil. Unfortunately for Churchill, the battle ended in the victory of the Red Army, which rapidly advanced into the heart of Europe. The Germans were gradually pushed back but, as a result of Stalin’s insane policies, the Russian losses were frightful. The explanation for this is more political than military. Had the Soviet Union adopted an internationalist policy, appealing to the German workers to overthrow Hitler, this would have had enormous repercussions, especially after the first German defeats. The perspective of a socialist Germany united in a fraternal federation with Soviet Russia would undoubtedly have found an echo in the hearts and minds of the German workers and soldiers.
In this way, it would have been possible to avoid the terrible losses suffered by the Red Army in its advance towards Berlin. Victory could have been achieved sooner and at a far smaller cost. But the policy pursued by Stalin bore a completely chauvinist character. Reflecting this policy, Ilya Ehrenburg announced that “if the German workers meet us with red flags, they will be the first to be shot”. Such a policy guaranteed that the German army would fight desperately every inch of the way. This explains the ghastly loss of life suffered by both sides.
As a result of a monumental miscalculation by the imperialist powers, the Russians and not the Allies arrived first in Berlin. Trotsky explained that the main danger to the nationalised planned economy was not so much a military defeat as the cheap consumer goods that would arrive in the baggage train of an imperialist army. As it happened, Hitler’s armies brought, not cheap commodities, but gas chambers. As a result, not just the working class, but the peasants fought like tigers to defend the Soviet Union.
The victory of the USSR in the war was one of the main factors that allowed the Stalinist regime to survive for decades after 1945. To the workers of Russia and the world, it appeared that the bureaucracy was playing a progressive role, not just in defending the planned economy against Hitler, but in extending the nationalised property forms to Eastern Europe, and later China. In reality, these revolutions began where the Russian Revolution finished – as monstrously deformed regimes of proletarian Bonapartism. The installation of such regimes, far from weakening the Moscow bureaucracy, enormously strengthened it for a whole historical period.
The plans of all the imperialist powers had backfired. Churchill had completely miscalculated, but so had Stalin, Hitler and Roosevelt. Hitler believed Soviet resistance could easily be broken. General Halder, chief of the German General Staff, expected the USSR to be defeated within four weeks. Von Ribbentrop, German foreign minister, thought eight weeks, and the US War Department between four and 12 weeks. The British military gave Russia six weeks at most. Yet the war – despite the Stalin regime and the terrible sacrifices – demonstrated beyond question the viability of the new property relations established by the October Revolution.
The victory of the USSR shattered the perspectives of the Allies, who had originally hoped that Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia would slug it out until mutually exhausted. They would then march in and clean up. In the words of Harry Truman: “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.” (Quoted in D. Horowitz, The Free World Colossus, p. 61.)
On May Day 1945 the Red flag was flying over the Reichstag in Berlin. A few days later, the German High Command surrendered. But already the imperialists were manoeuvring against the Soviet Union. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans at a moment when Japan was clearly defeated and already suing for peace, served no military role and was a clear warning to the USSR from its ‘allies’.
Stalin had attempted to come to an accommodation with the imperialist powers between 1944 and 1945 at the Big Three Conferences at Tehran, Moscow, Yalta and Potsdam. Churchill noted down his conversation with Stalin in October 1944:
The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Romania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross-purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have 90 per cent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 per cent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia?” While this was being translated, I wrote out on a half sheet of paper:
Romania: Russia 90 per cent – The others 10 per cent
Greece: Great Britain (in accord with USA) 90 per cent – Russia 10 per cent
Yugoslavia: 50-50 per cent
Hungary: 50-50 per cent
Bulgaria: Russia 75 per cent – The others 25 per cent
I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down… After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it” said Stalin. (W. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 227-8.)
Thus, certain countries would fall under the spheres of influence of either Stalinism or the imperialists. Stalin washed his hands of the revolution in Greece. He told the Yugoslav partisan leader Milovan Djilas: “The uprising in Greece will have to fold up … [it] must be stopped, and as quickly as possible.” (M. Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, p. 140-1.) And according to Churchill, “Stalin adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October and in all the long weeks of fighting the Communists in the streets of Athens not one word of reproach came from Pravda or Izvestia”. He wanted Mao to make a modus vivendi with Chiang Kai-shek. In Yugoslavia Stalin favoured the restoration of the monarchy under King Peter.
As predicted by Trotsky, the war ended in a revolutionary upheaval, with the workers in the advanced countries moving in the direction of socialist revolution and the tremendous awakening of the colonial masses. But this mighty movement of millions was headed off, on the European continent by the Stalinists, and in Britain by the Labour government. In many parts of occupied Europe, the Communist Parties had gained mass support as a result of the courageous role of the Communist Party workers in the resistance to the Nazis after 1941.
The masses looked to the Communist Parties for a revolutionary way out after the bloody lessons of the war. But Stalin had other ideas. On instructions from Moscow, the Communist Party leaders entered bourgeois coalition governments in France, Italy, Belgium and Finland as a means of blocking the revolutionary movement of the workers. This failure of the working class of the advanced capitalist countries to take power was the political premise for the subsequent recovery and post-war upswing. It also shaped and predetermined the fate of the revolutions that occurred in the colonial countries.
Eastern Europe after the war
As Trotsky had tentatively suggested in his last work, the proletarian Bonapartist regime in Russia lasted for decades. This was a result, firstly, of the victory of the USSR in the Second World War, an event which radically changed the correlation of forces on a world scale. Secondly, the extension of the revolution to Eastern Europe by Bonapartist means meant the establishment, not of healthy workers’ states like that of October 1917, but of monstrously deformed workers’ states in the image of Stalin’s Moscow.
In Europe, the victory of Russia in the war and the upsurge of the masses following the defeat of German-Italian fascism also developed a tremendous revolutionary wave which threatened to sweep capitalism away over the entire continent. However, the victory also had complex and contradictory consequences. Temporarily, but nevertheless for an entire historical period, Stalinism had been enormously strengthened. The terrible destruction and blood-letting to which the USSR had been subjected left her in an exhausted and weak state, while the US economy was intact, and indeed America had reached the apex of her power militarily and economically. But because of the mood of the peoples and the relationship of class forces on a world scale, the imperialists were impotent to start a new war against Russia.
Intervention even on a scale following that of the First World War was impossible. On the contrary, the Allies were forced to swallow the Russian hegemony of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia which they would never have agreed to concede even to reactionary tsarism. The Russian bureaucracy had achieved the domination of the region beyond the wildest dreams of Russia under the tsars.
The process whereby capitalism was overthrown in Eastern Europe and Stalinism extended, took place in a peculiar way, as explained by the author of the present work in documents published at that time. The vacuum in the state power in Eastern Europe, following the defeat of the Nazis and their quislings, was filled by the forces of the conquering Red Army. The weak bourgeoisie of these areas had been largely exterminated, absorbed as quislings by German imperialism or reduced to minor partners of the Nazis during the years of the war. They had been relatively weak in Eastern Europe even before the war, as the states of this region were largely semi-colonies of the great powers on the lines of the South American states. The pre-war regimes suffered from a chronic crisis due to the Balkanisation of the area and the incapacity of the ruling class to solve the problems of even the bourgeois democratic revolution. They were nearly all military police dictatorships of a weak character without any real roots among the masses.
The victory of Russia during the war undoubtedly provoked an upsurge among the masses, which in some cases occurred rapidly and in others was delayed for a time. The socialist revolution was on the order of the day. This was dangerous not only for the bourgeoisie but also the Kremlin, which saw any independent movement of the workers as a threat. In order to prevent the workers from carrying through the socialist revolution on the lines of October, they had their agents proclaim that the time was not ripe. Instead, they proclaimed the establishment of a ‘People’s Democracy’. The bureaucracy achieved their aims by skilfully veering between and manipulating the classes in typically Bonapartist fashion. The trick was to form a popular front between the classes and to organise a government of ‘national concentration’. However, this popular front had a different basis, and different aims from the popular fronts of the past.
In Spain, the aim of the popular front was to destroy the power of the workers and the embryonic workers’ state by liquidating the workers’ revolution. This was achieved by making an alliance with the bourgeoisie, or rather the shadow of the bourgeoisie, strangling the control which the workers had established in the factories and the armed workers’ militia and re-establishing the capitalist state under the control of the bourgeoisie. As a consequence of this policy, towards the end of the war there was a military police dictatorship on both sides of the lines.
The aim of the coalition with the broken bourgeoisie or its shadow in Eastern Europe had different objectives than that of handing control back to the capitalist class. In previous popular fronts the real power of a state – armed bodies of men, police and the state apparatus – was firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie with the workers’ parties as appendages. In Eastern Europe, with one important variation or another, the real power, i.e. control of the armed bodies of men and the state apparatus, was in the hands of the Stalinists. The bourgeoisie occupied the position of appendage without the real power. Why then the coalition? It served as a cover under which a firm state machine on the model of Moscow, could be constructed and consolidated.
By introducing land reform and expropriating the landlord class, they secured for the time being the support or acquiescence of the peasants. Having consolidated and built up a strong state under their control, they then proceeded to the next stage. Mobilising the workers, they turned on the bourgeoisie, whom they no longer required, to balance against the workers and peasants, and step by step they proceeded to their expropriation. The bourgeoisie without the support of outside imperialism was incapable of decisive resistance. A totalitarian regime approximating more and more to the Moscow model was gradually introduced. After the elimination of the bourgeoisie, and the beginning of a large-scale industrialisation, the bureaucracy turned against the peasants and started on the road of the collectivisation of agriculture.
The establishment of bureaucratically deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe, and shortly after in China, had the effect of strengthening world Stalinism for a whole historic period. The strengthening of the USSR and the enfeeblement of European capitalism created a dangerous situation for American imperialism, which was forced to shore up and underwrite the European powers, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, as well as Japan. In 1947, the Marshal Plan was proclaimed to rebuild European capitalism. The price paid for this assistance was the domination of American imperialism within the Western Alliance. The entire course of international relations was dominated by the two superpowers, American imperialism on the one hand and the Russian bureaucracy on the other. In March 1946 at Fulton, USA, Churchill talked of an Iron Curtain running from the Baltic to the Adriatic. It signalled the beginning of an intense diplomatic, political and strategic rivalry between the two social systems – the cold war. The Stalinists were unceremoniously thrown out of the governments of Italy and France in 1947, and within two years NATO had been formed and Germany divided between East and West.
Victory in China
An analogous process unfolded when Mao took power in China at the head of a peasant army in 1949. Up to the Russian Revolution, even Lenin denied the possibility of the victory of the proletarian revolution in a backward country. The Revolution of 1944-49 did not proceed on the model of 1917 or of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. It was a peasant war, which took place because of the complete incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution – the ending of landlordism, national unification and the expulsion of imperialism – and ended in victory for the Chinese Stalinists. This was a gigantic step forward for the Chinese people and for the oppressed workers and peasants of the entire world. Indeed, after the Russian Revolution, the revolution in China represents the second greatest event in human history. A mighty nation of 800 million people, who had been treated by their foreign masters as dumb pack animals, was suddenly propelled to the forefront of world history, which it still occupies.
For all its world-shaking significance, the 1949 Revolution was not at all like the October Revolution. The programme of the Chinese Stalinists in 1949 was not fundamentally different to that of Castro a decade later in Cuba: 50 or 100 years of national capitalism and an alliance with the national bourgeoisie. Hence the belief of many American bourgeois that they were ‘agrarian reformers’. Only the Marxist tendency in Britain argued against the Stalinists and others when we explained not only the inevitability of Mao’s victory and the establishment of a deformed workers’ state, but also the inevitability of a split at a certain stage between the Chinese bureaucracy and Moscow. This was at a time when Mao and the Chinese Communist Party had the programme of capitalism and ‘national democracy’.
Power was gained through the peasant war by giving land to the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Then, once military victory was achieved, landlordism and capitalism were abolished, but in a peculiar Bonapartist fashion, without the direct conscious participation of the working class. This was later accepted as something normal, and even taken as the model for the revolution in colonial countries. But it was completely removed from the conceptions of Marx and Lenin. Never before in history had it even been theoretically posed that a peasant war on classical lines could lead to a workers’ state, however deformed.
The workers in China were passive throughout the civil war for reasons we will not enter here. In fact, what we have here is a perfect example of one class – the peasants in the form of the Red Army – carrying out the tasks of another – the working class. It is not the first time that this has happened in history. The German Junkers carried out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Germany, and the same tasks were carried out by the feudal regime in Japan. But when one class carries out the historical tasks of another, inevitable distortions arise. Certain things flow from this fact.
In the past the peasant army was the classical instrument, not of socialist revolution, but of (bourgeois) Bonapartism. In typical Bonapartist fashion, basing himself on the peasant Red Army, Mao balanced between the classes in order to consolidate himself in power. He leaned on the workers and peasants to perfect a state in the image of Moscow, after which he could snuff out the bourgeoisie quite painlessly. As Trotsky put it, to kill a lion you need a gun, for a flea, a fingernail will suffice! Having balanced between the bourgeoisie, workers and peasants to prevent the workers from taking power, Mao and the Stalinist leadership could then expropriate the bourgeoisie. They could then turn on the workers and peasants to crush whatever elements of workers’ democracy had developed.
The bureaucracy then developed a totalitarian one-party dictatorship, centred round the Bonapartist dictatorship of a single individual – Mao. Of course, such a regime had nothing in common with a healthy workers’ state, let alone socialism. It had nothing in common with the methods of the proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917, where power was exercised by the proletariat through the elected workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. The Maoist regime was deformed from the outset, as a hideous one-party totalitarian state. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 began where the Russian Revolution had ended.
Not for nothing has Marxist theory given the task of achieving the socialist revolution and the transition to socialism to the working class. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves! This is not an arbitrary affirmation. It is a product of the unique role in production of the proletariat which gives it a specific consciousness possessed by no other class. Least of all can the peasant small proprietor develop this consciousness. A revolution based on that class by its very nature would be doomed to degeneration and Bonapartism. It is precisely because a proletarian Bonapartist dictatorship protects the privileges of the elite of state, party, the army, industry and the intellectuals of art and science that it succeeded in so many underdeveloped countries in the post-war period.
From a Marxist standpoint, it is an aberration to think that such a process is normal. It can only be explained by the impasse of capitalism in China, the paralysis of imperialism, the existence of a strong deformed Bonapartist state in Stalinist Russia, and most important of all, the delay in the victory in the industrially advanced countries of the world. The colonial countries could not wait. The problems were too crushing. There was no way forward on the basis of capitalism. Hence the peculiar aberrations in colonial countries. But the price for this, as in the Soviet Union, would be a second political revolution to put the control of society, industry and the state in the hands of the proletariat. Only thus could the first genuine beginnings of the transition to socialism, or rather steps in that direction, commence.
A similar process occurred later in Cuba, where Castro came to power on the basis of a guerrilla war. The wide support for ‘socialism’ not only among the working class, but among the peasants and wide layers of the petty bourgeoisie in the cities in colonial countries, was the expression of the complete blind alley of landlordism and capitalism in the ex-colonial world in the modern epoch. It was also a result of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions and their achievements in developing industry and the economy. It was these factors that laid the groundwork for the development of proletarian Bonapartism. In the last analysis, the state can be reduced to armed bodies of men. With the defeat and destruction of the police and army of Chiang Kai-shek, with the destruction of the army of Batista in Cuba, power was in the hands respectively of Mao and Castro. The fact that nominally Mao was a ‘Communist’ and Castro a petty bourgeois democrat altered nothing.
The rule of the Russian bureaucracy would have been swiftly undermined by the coming to power of the workers along classical lines in these countries. But in Eastern Europe and China, the old bourgeois state was destroyed, and replaced by a regime of proletarian Bonapartism. They began where the Russian Revolution had ended. The establishment of such regimes presented no threat to Moscow. On the contrary, it strengthened the stranglehold of the bureaucracy for a whole period.
Given the delay of the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe, Japan and the USA, the colonial masses could not wait. They waged a heroic struggle against imperialism, which inevitably tended to turn into a revolutionary war against landlordism and capitalism, as in Vietnam. The barefoot army of Vietnamese peasants inflicted the first real military defeat on the USA in history. The Algerian workers and peasants succeeded, after a long and bloody struggle, in forcing French imperialism into abandoning direct rule. The failure of imperialism to crush the revolutions of the former colonial countries was to a large degree a result of the opposition of the masses in the USA and Europe. When an army has had enough of fighting, when the workers in uniform say ‘no’, no power on earth can move them. This fact explains the granting of independence to India and the inability of US imperialism to send troops to fight on the side of Chiang Kai-shek, although they did send large quantities of arms, most of which ended up in the hands of the Red Army.
The Chinese peasant revolt, which culminated in the peasant war of 1944-49 led by Mao Zedong, was in a sense derived from the defeated revolution of 1925-27. However, the role of the working class was entirely different. It was a peasant war carried out first as a guerrilla war, and culminating in the conquest of the cities by the armies of the peasants. The socialist revolution, in contrast with all previous revolutions, requires the conscious participation and control of the working class. Without it, there can be no revolution leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat as understood by Marx and Lenin, nor can there be a transition in the direction of socialism.
A revolution in which the prime force is the peasantry cannot rise to the height of the tasks posed by history. The peasantry cannot play an independent role, either they support the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Where the proletariat is not playing a leading part in the revolution, the peasant army, with the impasse of bourgeois society, can be used, especially with the existence of ready-made models, for the expropriation of bourgeois society, in the Bonapartist manoeuvring between the classes and the construction of a state on the model of Stalinist Russia. Such was the case in China, Yugoslavia, and later in Cuba, Vietnam, Burma and in the other countries of proletarian Bonapartism.
However, the victory of the Chinese Revolution, which was initially opposed by Stalin, and the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe fundamentally changed the world balance of forces to the disadvantage of world imperialism. At the same time, these revolutions did not have the same effect as the October 1917 Revolution in producing a wave of revolutionary radicalisation in the advanced countries. In each case, capitalism was overthrown, but in a distorted Bonapartist manner, with the workers playing a subordinate role. In each case the regimes which were set up were closely modelled on Stalinist Russia – with all the monstrous bureaucratic deformations, police terror, inequalities and lack of freedom. Such regimes had no basic attraction for the workers of the advanced capitalist countries.
From Stalin to Khrushchev
The victory of Stalinist Russia in the war, followed by the Chinese Revolution of 1949 and the establishment of new Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe meant the strengthening of the regime for a whole historical period. Flushed with success, the Stalinists were able to present their system as the ‘only form of socialism possible’. The main reason for the apparent endurance of the Stalinist bureaucracy, however, was the fact that, throughout this period, it actually succeeded in developing the productive forces. From a backward, agricultural country, Russia had become transformed into the second industrial power on earth and the first military power.
For a long time, it was fashionable to talk of the ‘German miracle’ and the ‘Japanese miracle’ after 1945. But these achievements, while undoubtedly real, pale into insignificance when compared with the colossal advances made by the Soviet Union in the period of post-war reconstruction. No country on earth had suffered such devastation as this. Twenty-seven million dead and the wholesale destruction of its industry and infrastructure – this was the balance-sheet of four and a half years of bloody war on Soviet soil. Moreover, unlike Germany and Japan, the USSR did not enjoy the benefits of Marshall Aid. Yet the war devastation was overcome within five years, not with foreign aid, but by the planned use of resources and the colossal efforts of the population.
As a former officer of British Intelligence in Moscow, the writer Edward Crankshaw cannot be considered a sympathiser of the Soviet Union in any shape or form. Therefore, his evaluation of the achievements of the Soviet economy can be taken as fairly objective. Moreover, these views were widely shared by Western observers at the time. Only now, in their indecent haste to bury the memory of October, do they resort to a blatant falsification of the historical records to show that nothing was really achieved by the planned economy. The following figures, cited by Crankshaw in his book Khrushchev’s Russia, graphically illustrate the situation:
On the eve of the first Five-Year Plan, in 1928, the production of steel was 4.3 million tons; of coal 35.5 million tons; of oil 11.5 million tons; of electric power 1.9 million kilowatts. At the end of the first Plan, in 1934, production had increased as follows: steel 9.7 million tons; coal 93.9 million tons; oil 24.2 million tons; electric power 6.3 kilowatts.
By 1940, on the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, production was as follows: steel 18.3 million tons; coal 166 million tons; oil 31 million tons; electric power 11.3 million kilowatts. At the end of the war, in 1945, production had declined as follows: steel 11.2 million tons; coal 149.3 million tons; oil 19.4 million tons; electric power 10.7 million kilowatts. This in spite of the fact that much heavy industry had been shifted East, and that it had absolute priority.
In 1946 Stalin gave new target figures. First the country had to be restored, then the economy had to be sharply expanded, to make the Soviet Union, as he said, “proof against all accidents.” He envisaged a series of at least three Five-Year Plans. And his new target figures for 1960, at the earliest, were: steel 60 million tons; coal 500 million tons; oil 60 million tons. This was as far as Stalin’s imagination could stretch. The achievement of these targets in 15 years seemed not only to all outside observers, but also to the Russians and to Stalin himself, to mean at least another 15 years of privation and unrewarding toil for the Soviet people.
And when the target was reached, in 1960, Soviet production would still be far behind American production as it was in 1950: steel 90 million tons; coal 700 million tons; oil 250 million tons.
What in fact has happened? In all cases Stalin’s 1960 targets have been surpassed: in 1958 the output of steel was only 2 million tons short of the 1960 total; the 1960 figure for coal was reached; the 1960 figure for oil almost doubled – 113 million tons.
So, although we can see that Dmitri Yershov’s confident boasting was a little wild (the Soviet Union was producing a good deal less than 60 million tons of steel in 1956, and in fact is scheduled to produce well under Yermeshov’s 100 million tons (86-91 million tons) in 1965) yet things are moving very fast indeed. More important, they are moving against a background of increased well-being throughout the country and increased freedom of thought, above all in the economic sphere.
The presentation of the new Seven-Year Plan in January 1959 was a paean of confidence, which, as expressed by Khrushchev, might be summed up as boom or bust. The new targets make the post-war dreams of Stalin look shabby and old-fashioned: steel 91 million tons; coal 609 million tons; oil 240 million tons. This is treading on America’s heels with a vengeance. (Crankshaw, Khrushchev’s Russia, pp. 25-7.)
Another commentator, Leonard Schapiro, who also cannot be remotely suspected of being a Friend of the Soviet Union concludes:
In 1948 again the country had reached the point where it was beginning to overcome the ravages which wartime destruction had inflicted on it. The recovery after 1947 was indeed remarkable. In 1947 overall industrial production had still not attained the level of 1940. By 1948 it had already exceeded it, and by the last year of Stalin’s life, 1952, exceeded it two and a quarter times. In accordance with the well-established policy, the main advance was in the production of the means of production; thus, in 1952, production in this category was more than two and a half times that of 1940, whereas production of consumer goods had only increased by slightly over one and a half times. (L. Schapiro, op. cit., p. 510.)
Can these figures be the result of rigged statistics? The same writer adds in a footnote:
The official figures may be exaggerated [and he refers the reader to another study which makes ‘minor criticisms’] but all Western experts agree that the rate of industrial recovery after 1947 was remarkable. (Ibid., p. 511, my emphasis.)
True, living standards remained low. The policy of the leadership was to concentrate on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, although to some extent this was inevitable given the massive destruction caused by the war. But so long as the productive forces were being developed, the workers felt that society was going forward. The country was flush with military triumph and jubilation at the tremendous blow struck against fascism and the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe and China. There were further advances in health and education. A whole new correlation of forces emerged within the USSR, with the advance of the economy and the near complete elimination of illiteracy. However, the lion’s share of the wealth created by the workers was taken by the bureaucracy, while the working class had no say on how the resources of the USSR should be allocated.
Despite the low standard of living and the material hardships (the problem of housing was particularly acute), there was a general feeling of optimism. This is in stark contrast to the present position, where the collapse of living standards associated with the movement in the direction of capitalism produces no optimism, but only fear and lack of confidence in the future. This can easily be demonstrated with reference to the level of population growth. After the war, the birth rate grew rapidly. In the mid-1990s, the birth rate slumped, not only in Russia, but throughout Eastern Europe. This most elementary of human responses tells us far more about people’s real attitude to society than any amount of election statistics.
With these successes at home and abroad, the bureaucracy looked to the future with great optimism. Their power and prestige increased in the same degree as that of the Soviet Union itself. The ruling caste looked forward to continuing its ‘historical mission’ for centuries. At the same time, the gap between the privileged officials and the masses continued to increase far faster than the growth in production.
After the war, differentials continued to widen. Direct bribes were introduced called pakety (packets) in the higher state and party institutions. On a monthly basis, higher officials received a packet containing a large sum over and above their salary. These were special payments paid through special channels, not subject to tax, and kept totally secret.
As for members of the Politburo and Stalin himself, the cost of keeping them does not submit to calculation. The numerous dachas and apartments, the huge domestic staff, the expenses for their staff and guards rose to millions of roubles yearly. As for the cost of maintaining Stalin, that nearly defies calculation. (Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 843.)
The income of the bureaucracy is derived from ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ means.
The bureaucracy enjoys its privileges under the form of an abuse of power. It conceals its income; it pretends that as a special social group it does not even exist. Its appropriation of a vast share of the national income has the character of social parasitism. ( Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 249-50.)
This fact does not contradict the numerous demagogic campaigns by Stalin and other Soviet leaders against ‘bureaucracy’, which were carried out as a means of periodically curbing the excesses of the caste. It was not to weaken the bureaucratic elite, but to strengthen it.
In the post-war years, the ratio between the real wages of an industrial worker and the salary of the highest official became incredibly wide. The wage differential between workers and the managers were in general greater than even in the capitalist West.
In a small research institute concerned with the problems of training manual and professional workers where I was employed for 10 years, the difference between the lowest salary for research assistant, 60 to 70 roubles a month, and that of the most highly paid section head was in order of 1:13. In the larger institutes of the academy of sciences the ratio between the salary of a laboratory assistant or a junior research worker with no degree and that of a top academic in charge of a department is 1 to 15 or 1 to 20.
In the Soviet ministries and the important military establishments, the ratio between the highest and the lowest rates of pay is also 1 to 20 or even 1 to 30, but if one takes into consideration the many services available to officials at public expense (food coupons, medical treatment, holidays, personal transport, etc.) the total value translated into monetary terms would make the ratio of 1 to 50 or sometimes even 1 to 100. (R. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, pp. 224-5.)
This differential was greater than in the capitalist West.
This situation could not last indefinitely. The working class is willing to make sacrifices under certain circumstances, particularly when it is convinced that it is fighting to transform society along socialist lines. But the prior condition for such a conviction is that there should be equality of sacrifice. But when the sacrifices and efforts of the workers are abused to create monstrous privileges for a few, sooner or later the fraud will lead to an explosion. This is all the more true in a society which purports to speak in the name of socialism and communism.
Stalin’s last purge
“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton in a celebrated phrase, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Certainly, totalitarian regimes of all kinds seem to have this effect. By blurring the difference between reality and the will of the individual, a regime of absolute power, in which all criticism is prohibited, serves eventually to unbalance the mind. This almost certainly happened with Hitler. And towards the end, Stalin’s mind was clearly unhinged. In the absence of any check or control he believed himself to be omnipotent. Fear of the masses drove the bureaucracy to close ranks still more fervently around the Leader who guaranteed their privileges. The growth of the economy was paralleled by a sharp increase in repression and in the cult of Stalin. At the 19th Party Congress, the cult of Leader attained its most grotesque expression. Here are just a few examples from Malenkov’s closing speech:
Of cardinal importance to Marxist-Leninist theory and to all our practical activity is the work of Comrade Stalin just published: Economic Problems of socialism in the USSR. (Loud and prolonged applause) …
Thus, the Party’s plans for the future, defining the prospects and ways of our advancement, are based on a knowledge of economic laws, on the science of the building of communist society worked out by Comrade Stalin. (Loud and long continuing applause.) …
A major contribution to the Marxian political economy is Comrade Stalin’s discovery of the basic law of modern capitalism and the basic economic law of socialism (!)…
Comrade Stalin’s discovery… Comrade Stalin shows… Comrade Stalin has shown us… Comrade Stalin discovered… Comrade Stalin has revealed…
The works of Comrade Stalin are graphic testimony to the paramount importance our Party attaches to theory… Comrade Stalin is constantly advancing Marxist theory… Comrade Stalin has disclosed the function of language as an instrument of social development, and indicated the prospects for the future development of national cultures and languages…
And finally, after numerous interruptions by “applause”, “prolonged applause”, and “loud and long continuing applause”:
Under the banner of the immortal Lenin, under the wise leadership of the great Stalin, forward to the victory of Communism!…
(On the conclusion of the report, all the delegates rise and greet Comrade Stalin with loud and prolonged cheers. There are cries from all parts of the hall: “Long live the great Stalin!” “Hurrah for our dear Stalin!” “Long live our beloved leader and teacher, Comrade Stalin!”) (Report of 19th Congress of the CPSU, pp. 134-44.)
Not satisfied with this, Stalin was preparing to launch a further series of bloody purges in Russia on the lines of 1936-38. He no longer trusted anyone. Lifelong Stalinists were rounded up and imprisoned. In 1952, Stalin accused his faithful puppets Voroshilov and Molotov of being British spies, and banned them from attending meetings of the leadership. Mikoyan was denounced as a Turkish spy and even Beria was banished from Stalin’s presence! At the 22nd Congress, Khrushchev described the paranoid atmosphere in Stalin’s leading circle: “Stalin could look at a comrade sitting at the same table with him and say: ‘Your eyes look shifty today.’ It could be taken for granted that afterwards the comrade, whose eyes were supposedly shifty, would be under suspicion.” (The Road to Communism – Report on the 22nd Congress CPSU, p. 111.)
In January 1953, Pravda announced the so-called Doctor’s Plot, a “group of saboteur-doctors” who had been arrested for murder and attempting to “wipe out the leading cadres of the USSR”. Most were Jews and were accused of links with the Jewish organisation Joint, which was under the direction of US imperialism. Three of those arrested were accused of working for British intelligence. A campaign against the Jews was conducted under the guise of “cosmopolitanism and Zionism”. Pravda began to whip up a campaign against threats of “counter-revolution”. It looked like the prelude of another mass purge, which sent a shudder through the ruling circle. There is no doubt that Stalin intended to liquidate them all. “All the signs pointed to another 1937”, states Medvedev (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 558). But it was not simply self-interest that motivated them, but a mass purge would endanger the whole position of the bureaucracy.
Stalin’s actions were endangering the position of the whole bureaucracy. It was not only that he was threatening to murder the top layer. The Soviet Union was only just recovering from the devastation of the war. To plunge it again into the chaos and lunacy of another purge would have had the most catastrophic effects. However, on the 5th March 1953, Stalin suddenly died. Even if he was not murdered – and all the evidence suggests that he was – his death could not have come at a more opportune time. Shortly afterwards, the Doctor’s Plot was declared a fabrication. Rather than a bloody purge that threatened the whole basis of the regime, reforms from the top were needed to maintain bureaucratic rule intact.
Stalin’s death provoked a power struggle within the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy were forced to loosen their control. Reforms were needed from above to prevent revolution from below. Huge protests had already rocked the regime in East Germany. Mass uprisings had taken place in the labour camps, which were bloodily suppressed. Ferment among the workers and intelligentsia reached new heights. Those that favoured ‘reform’, headed by Khrushchev, succeeded in taking the reins of power. As Khrushchev himself explains in his memoirs, the bureaucracy were terrified of the movement the ‘thaw’ may unleash. But they had no alternative.
We in the leadership were consciously in favour of the thaw, myself included… We were scared – really scared. We were afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us. How could it drown us? It could have overflowed the banks of the Soviet riverbed and formed a tidal wave which would have washed away all the barriers and retaining walls of our society. From the viewpoint of the leadership, this would have been an unfavourable development. We wanted to guide the progress of the thaw so that it would stimulate only those creative forces which would contribute to the strengthening of socialism. (Khrushchev, N., Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, pp. 78-9.)
For “socialism”, read “the rule of the bureaucracy”. As a consequence, a purge of the top hard-line Stalinists was carried through. The state secret police were brought to heel and Beria was shot. The most draconian laws were removed and the forced-labour camps were reduced in number, following strikes and uprisings of the prisoners in Vorkuta and other camps. An amnesty was granted to all, except political prisoners.
The imbalances of the Soviet economy, where everything was sacrificed to the building of heavy industry, was now partially corrected towards the production of consumer goods. Khrushchev introduced a whole series of price reforms and measures to increase production. General concessions were made to the workers. The regime in the factories was loosened up. The average wage rose from Rbs715 a month in 1955 to Rbs778 in 1958. The official price index showed little change from 1954 to 1980. Many prices were cut. In 1957 the campaign began to catch up with the United States in the production of meat, milk and butter. The combined income in cash and kind from collective work rose from 47.5 billion in 1952 to 83.8 billion in 1957. Real consumption per head increased by 66 per cent between 1950 and 1958, by which time it had reached a level of three times that of 1944.
The USSR was no longer the primitive economy of the past, but was emerging as the second world superpower. Around half the population now lived in the towns. The number of workers rose dramatically from 3.8 million in 1928 to 17.4 million in 1955. As opposed to this, the numbers in the USA rose by only a third over the same period. The Soviet industrial working class in 1928 was roughly a third of the US; in 1955 it was slightly larger. The Soviet proletariat had grown every year since the Second World War by two to three million a year. There was a massive concentration of the proletariat in factories that dwarfed those in the West. For example, there was a staggering 200,000 workers in the Gorky car plant. In the Togliatti factory, there were some 170,000 workers. It was the biggest and most powerful working class in the world.
Shorter hours were introduced for young workers without loss of pay, longer holidays, and a shorter working week by two hours, with further reductions to come, a seven-hour day to be introduced in stages; paid maternity leave to be extended to 112 days, increased pensions and disability benefits – which increased the average pension by 81 per cent. A huge house building programme was undertaken. In the 20 years between 1950 and 1970, Soviet food consumption per head doubled, disposable income quadrupled, and purchases of consumer durables rose 12 times. (Quoted in F. Halliday, The Making of the Second Cold War, pp. 138-9.)
In 1956, at the 20th Party Congress, Khrushchev made his famous ‘de-Stalinisation’ speech. Every crime was placed at the door of Stalin. The problem was alleged to be the ‘cult of the personality’. Stalin was held responsible for the frame-ups, the murders, the persecutions, the concentration camps, and the other horrific crimes against the Soviet working class and the national minorities. But how could a single individual carry through these acts? Such a position has no relation to Marxism, which does not explain history in terms of ‘Great Individuals’. The materialist conception of history explains that, if an idea is put forward (even an incorrect idea) and gets mass support, then that idea must represent the interests of some class or group within society. So, if Stalin did not represent the proletariat, who did he represent? Himself? No. Stalin represented the bureaucratic caste, the millions of privileged officials who dominated the Party and government, and who ran industry, society and the state in their own interests.
After castigating Stalin, Khrushchev turned to ‘comrade’ Beria, who he described as an “abject provocateur and vile enemy… who murdered thousands of Communists and loyal Soviet people… It has now been established that this villain had climbed up the government ladder over an untold number of corpses”. This was certainly true, but it is applicable not only to Beria, but to all the other bureaucrats who eagerly participated in Stalin’s crimes as a means of furthering their careers and feathering their nests.
It is not correct to maintain, as the bourgeois and the supporters of the theory of state capitalism do, that the relationship between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was of an imperialist sort. It is not generally realised that, apart from the initial period just after the war when Moscow bled Eastern Europe, the terms of trade were actually extremely favourable to the countries of Eastern Europe. As a rule, Russia bought their products at prices higher than world market levels, and in return sold them oil and natural gas below world prices. In effect, Eastern Europe was being subsidised by the USSR – the exact opposite of an imperialist relationship.
In the period immediately after the war, it is true, the Russian bureaucracy looted Eastern Europe. They stripped whole industries and carted them off to Russia, not only from Germany and Hungary, but even from Yugoslavia. After the war, Milovan Djilas, at that time a prominent leader of the Yugoslav League of Communists, was sent to Moscow to negotiate, among other things, the return of Yugoslav rolling stock which had been shipped to Russia. In his memoirs, Djilas reproduces his conversation with A.I. Mikoyan, the Soviet minister of foreign trade:
Mikoyan received us coldly, and betrayed his impatience. Among our requests was that the Soviets deliver to us the railway wagons from their zone of occupation which they had already promised us – for many of these cars had been taken out of Yugoslavia, and the Russians could not use them because their track gauge was wider than ours.
“And how do you mean that we give them to you, under what conditions, at what price?” Mikoyan asked coldly.
I replied. “That you give them to us as gifts.”
He replied curtly, “My business is not giving gifts, but trade”. (M. Djilas, op. cit., p. 130.)
Far more than any statistics, this little incident reveals the haughty, overbearing attitude of the Moscow bureaucracy to its ‘brothers’ in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the relationship was not at all an imperialist one, in the Marxist sense of the word. This was revealed later, when the relation was reversed.
The introduction of a regime of nationalisation and planning enabled the economies of these countries to register very high rates of growth, transforming themselves from formerly backward agricultural economies into developed modern countries. In the Soviet Union, they found a big market for their products, guaranteed against the violent swings of the world capitalist economy, and a source of cheap raw materials.
Far from exploiting Eastern Europe as an imperialist power exploits its colonies, if we exclude this period immediately after the war, the USSR actually subsidised them for decades. Living standards in the Soviet Union were generally lower than in the countries of Eastern Europe. In the period under consideration, there was a shift in the trade of the USSR away from Eastern Europe, and towards the rest of the world. In 1960, 52 per cent of its trade was with Eastern Europe. By 1979, the figure was 44 per cent – still very high.
Soviet oil was sold to Eastern Europe at this time at a discount of 17 per cent on world market prices. In the previous period, it had been even greater, but this still represented a huge advantage, especially if we bear in mind that the whole Western world was then reeling from the shock increase in oil prices following the six-day war between Israel and Egypt. This discount on oil alone represented a subsidy of $2.9 billion a year. In addition to this, the USSR paid for imports above world market prices from its Comecon partners (the East European equivalent of the European Union).
Cuba alone received a subsidy of $1 million a day from the 1960s until the collapse of the USSR. In 1978, for example, the USSR bought Cuban sugar at 40 cents a pound, when world prices were only 18 cents a pound. In 1977, Cuba bought Russian oil at $7.40 a barrel, when world prices stood at $20.50 – a discount of no less than 60 per cent! In the period 1966-78, Soviet aid to Cuba totalled $13 billion, an important amount for a small island. This included interest-free loans, in contrast to the bleeding of the third world through ‘aid’ from the West – loans with crippling rates of interest – which has led to a massive transfer of wealth from the former colonies to the wealthy imperialist countries in the last decades. One only has to compare the two cases to see the complete falsity of the description of the USSR as an ‘imperialist’ power.
Of course, this does not mean that there was no national oppression. Robespierre once made the profound remark that nobody welcomes missionaries with bayonets. The long history of the suppression of, say, Polish and Hungarian freedom by tsarist Russia meant that relations between the Soviet Union and these countries had to be handled with great sensitivity – as Lenin had always advocated in relation to Georgia and the other non-Russian peoples of the USSR. Instead, the Russian bureaucracy rode roughshod over the national aspirations of the peoples of Eastern Europe. Everywhere Moscow implanted a regime in its own image. Puppet governments were imposed, which slavishly carried out the dictates of the Kremlin. No dissidence was tolerated. The leaderships of the Communist Parties were ruthlessly purged, with show-trials modelled on the infamous pre-war Moscow trials.
Together with absolute power came paranoia. Seeing enemies in every corner, Stalin launched a bloody purge in the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe, which led directly to the split with Yugoslavia. In his struggle with Tito, Stalin staged a number of show trials against imaginary Titoists throughout Eastern Europe. It was the period of the Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia, Rajk trial in Hungary, and the Kostov trial in Bulgaria. Slánský and ten others were found guilty of “spying and sabotage” and shot. In 1963 the Prague Supreme Court squashed the verdicts. Rajk and his comrades were hanged by the regime as Gestapo agents. They were rehabilitated in 1956 due to “trumped-up charges”. Traicho Kostov was charged with sabotaging Bulgarian-Soviet trade and executed. Georgi Dimitrov, who had considered forming a bloc with Tito to create a Balkan Federation, was also probably murdered by the GPU. This stored up bitterness and resentment that finally burst through in the uprisings of 1953 and 1956.
The Hungarian Revolution
In the summer of 1953, shortly after Stalin’s death, there was a revolutionary movement of the East German workers. It started with a spontaneous strike of the building workers in Berlin. Protesting against the intolerable conditions and impossibly high norms of production, they downed tools and marched along the Stalinallee, shouting slogans which soon acquired a political character. The demonstration triggered off a mass movement which could have led to the overthrow of the Stalinist regime in East Germany. The regime was powerless. But Moscow could not tolerate such a development, and sent in the tanks to put down the uprising.
In 1956, the movement flared up again, this time in Poland, the beginning of a long-drawn-out struggle of the Polish working class to free itself from bureaucratic rule. Time after time for a period of over three decades, the Polish masses moved into action to throw off the Stalinist yoke, which was all the harder to bear because it was identified with the historical oppression of the Polish people by Russia. In an unclear fashion, the Polish proletariat was striving for a regime of workers’ democracy, which would enable it to live with honour and dignity, as masters in their own house, not slaves of hated foreign rule.
As the bureaucracy had feared, the denunciation of Stalin’s crimes by Khrushchev at the 20th Congress was the immediate spark which ignited the powder keg. The ‘thaw’ had opened up the floodgates. In June 1956, taking advantage of the disarray in Moscow, the Polish masses rose. A general strike in Poznań rapidly spread throughout the country. Workers’ councils were set up in the factories, the embryo of soviets which could have meant the transfer of power to the workers. But the movement was taken over by the Communist Party, which, under the leadership of Władysław Gomułka (who had been imprisoned under Stalin) proclaimed reform and independence.
The so-called ‘Polish road to socialism’ served as a fig leaf for the continued rule of the bureaucracy. But it succeeded in temporarily derailing the movement on nationalist lines. 800,000 demonstrated their support for Gomułka, the representative of the Polish bureaucracy, which in effect was leaning on the Polish masses to gain concessions from Moscow. Realising that an invasion would signify a bloodbath, Khrushchev bowed to the inevitable and arrived at a compromise with Gomułkaa, satisfied that the ‘fraternal’ Polish bureaucracy would hold the line, and prevent the working class from coming to power.
No sooner had Khrushchev denounced Stalin, when in October the Hungarian Revolution broke out. The Hungarian Revolution of October 1956 was an attempt by the working class to turn Hungary into a healthy workers’ state. The workers organised revolutionary committees, which they did not call soviets, because the rule of the Stalinists had made the word stink. Nevertheless, instinctively they attempted to go back to the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Had the Hungarian Revolution succeeded, it would have meant the collapse of the bureaucratic regime in Russia. For this reason, Khrushchev had it put down in blood. The Stalinist press denounced the movement of the Hungarian working class as ‘fascists’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’. However, those Russian soldiers who had been based in Hungary viewed the revolution with sympathy and fraternised with the population. A section went over and joined the fight against the hated AVO (secret police). If a conscious revolutionary leadership with an internationalist programme had been present, it could have been the starting point for a complete transformation in the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The same year had witnessed a general strike in Poland, and Russia itself was in a state of ferment following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU.
Because they could not rely on the Soviet troops in Hungary, Moscow had to withdraw them and replace them with backward troops from the Soviet Far East, who were told that they were being sent to put down a fascist revolt in Berlin. They were moved straight into action in tanks, with no possibility of meeting and fraternising with the population.
Despite overwhelming odds, the Hungarian workers fought like tigers, staging two general strikes and two armed insurrections, both before and after the Russian invasion – hardly the weapons of fascism, as the Stalinists maintained! Years later a Russian army officer who had fought in the Second World War told Alan Woods that he had never seen such ferocious resistance, even in the taking of Berlin in 1945. But inevitably, without an internationalist leadership capable of winning over the Russian troops, the Hungarian workers were defeated.
There are many lessons in the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Firstly, as Trotsky had foreseen, when faced with a general uprising of the proletariat, the bureaucracy split. Only a tiny handful of the most corrupt and degenerate elements, mainly those connected with the AVO, were prepared to resist. Thousands of ordinary members of the Communist Party tore up their cards and joined the revolution. The government of Imre Nagy was suspended in mid-air. All power was in the hands of workers’ councils, especially the Budapest workers’ councils, which consisted exclusively of elected delegates from the factories. The programme of the workers’ councils was broadly similar to the four points worked out by Lenin in 1917 as the preconditions for workers’ power. To these points, significantly, the Hungarian workers added a new one – no more one party state! After the experience of Stalinist totalitarianism, never again would the working class entrust power to a single party.
“Today, 14 November 1956, the delegates from the District Workers’ Councils formed the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest”, reads the Council statement. “The Central Workers’ Council has been given the power to negotiate in the name of the workers in all the factories of Budapest, and to decide on the continuation of the strike or return to work. We declare our unshaken loyalty to the principles of socialism. We regard the means of production as collective property which we are at all times ready to defend.” (Quoted in Eyewitness in Hungary, by Bill Lomax (editor), p. 177.)
In a short time, the workers learned fast. This is shown by the fact that the first broadcast of radio Budapest was an appeal for help to the United Nations, but the last appeal was to the workers of the world. This was a heroic episode, similar to the Paris Commune. It showed what could have happened in Russia if the movement had spread, which was a real possibility above all if there had there been a conscious leadership, like that of the Bolshevik Party in 1917. From the very beginning, they would have made a revolutionary appeal to the workers of Poland, of the whole of Eastern Europe, and above all to the workers of the USSR. Either the greatest of victories or the greatest of defeats. There was never any other alternative for the Hungarian workers in 1956.
The delay of the political revolution in Russia, and the fact that the bureaucratic regime lasted another 35 years, had a very negative effect on the consciousness of the masses. It has meant that the impasse of Stalinism has, at least for the time being, led to a movement in the direction of capitalism. The lesson is clear. There is no substitute for the revolutionary party and leadership. No automatic mechanism exists whereby the lessons of one generation can be transmitted to the next. Without the party, every generation must painfully relearn the lessons of the past through their own experience. That is why Lenin always insisted on the need for a vanguard party composed of cadres, as the memory of the class. All subsequent history, that of 1956 included, has shown this to be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the working class of Eastern Europe and Russia will have to learn all the lessons over again. But learn they undoubtedly will.
On the 4th October 1957 Russia launched the first Sputnik, followed by the first man into space in 1961. More than twice the number were employed on the Soviet space programme as on the American. Such was the confidence of the Russian bureaucracy, that at the 21st Congress of the CPSU the goal was proclaimed of “building communism” (!) within 20 years. In October 1961, at the 22nd Congress Khrushchev announced Russia’s intention of overtaking the United States by 1980. Accordingly, “labour productivity in Soviet industry will exceed the present level of productivity in the USA by roughly 100 per cent”. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, p. 515.) Khrushchev announced: “We will bury you!”
Nowadays, this is ironically dismissed as an idle boast. On the contrary. On the basis of Soviet growth rates of 10 per cent the target of overtaking America in 20 years would have been entirely possible. That, of course, would not have meant that socialism had been built in the USSR, let alone communism, a classless society, in which inequality, the state and money had become distant memories of the past, and laws and coercion are replaced by an association of free producers. Nevertheless, under the planned economy, formerly backward Russia had developed industry, science and technique to a point where the material conditions now existed for beginning to move in the direction of socialism, which, as Marx explained, requires a level of development at least as high as the most advanced capitalist country. Now the Soviet Union was within striking distance of drawing level with the USA. Only the bureaucracy stood in the way. And the bureaucracy had shown in Hungary that it had no intention of withering away.
Despite what they now say, the meteoric advance of the Soviet economy seriously alarmed the ruling class of the West. Russian industrial production had reached 75 per cent of the US level during the 1960s. The bureaucracy believed it could rule forever. It seemed the Stalinist regime thought things could only go forward. Nothing could stand in their way. The continuous high rate of growth served to explain the stability enjoyed by the bureaucratic regime for the last period. Under Stalin, the bureaucracy ruled by naked terror. But for the last three decades or more, it was able to maintain its rule mainly because of the inertia of the working class. This, in turn, was explained by two factors: on the one hand, the fear of imperialist intervention, and on the other because the masses felt that, in spite of everything, the bureaucracy was still capable of carrying society forward. All the factors which enabled the bureaucracy to survive for so long dialectically turned into their opposite.
Agriculture remained the weakest point of the regime. Food shortages and rising prices were a major cause of discontent. The 1963 grain harvest was bad, and Russia was forced to import large amounts of wheat from the West. There was difficulty in supplying bread, especially flour. Discontent was growing. Khrushchev’s policy had been to carry out a controlled reform from the top, in order to prevent a social explosion from below. The events in Hungary served a serious warning on the regime of what they might expect. However, this policy was not without dangers. The French historian-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in his classic study The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, that the most dangerous moment for an autocracy is precisely when it attempts to loosen the screws after a long period of repression. This was underlined in an episode that has been generally passed over in silence – the Novocherkassk events.
The Novocherkassk uprising
On the 2nd June 1962, the army opened fire on the strikers and inhabitants of the south Russian city of Novocherkassk during a mass rally in the central square. A large but unknown number of men, women and children were killed. Even at the time, news of the rebellion was suppressed so thoroughly that even the local radio station failed to report it. Only many years later, during the period of glasnost did reports begin to circulate from survivors of the camps. Even then, they were not always believed. Such is the power of a totalitarian state to conceal information so as to prevent a movement from spreading.
The ferocity of the repression and the total suppression of information shows that the authorities were seriously alarmed by these events. This strike was part of a wider protest movement against the increase in prices announced by the government the same month. There had been other movements, in Karganda, Temirtau, Alexandrov, Murom and other cities. But none reached the same proportions as Novocherkassk. Here were all the elements of a political revolution at least in embryo.
The most detailed eyewitness report was written by one of the participants, Piotr Siuda, a worker and the son of an old Bolshevik who had perished like so many others in Stalin’s Purges. After several years in KGB prisons and labour camps, Siuda painstakingly collected all the available information which was published in the underground press (samizdat) in the 1980s. Although at the end of his life, Siuda turned towards anarchism, at the time of the events and for most of his life he considered himself a Leninist and a “non-Party Bolshevik”.
From this account, it is clear that the strike had an entirely spontaneous character. How could it be otherwise, when the workers were denied all rights to organise outside the Communist Party and the official state unions, which defended management not the workers? On the 1st January, wages at the big electro locomotive plant at Novocherkassk (NEVZ) were lowered by 30 to 35 per cent. On the same day, the government announced that the price of meat and dairy produce would go up by up to 35 per cent. This was the last straw for the workers, who had many other grievances, particularly the housing shortage. The stupidity and insensitivity of the management when confronted with the workers’ complaints added oil to the flames. Siuda recalls:
There was no need to campaign for the strike among the workers of the plant. It was enough for the group which called for a strike to appear, and work stopped immediately. The mass of strikers was growing like an avalanche. At that time, there were about 14 thousand workers at the plant. The workers went out to the plant grounds and filled the square near the plant management office. The square could not hold all the strikers. (Russian Labour Review, no. 2, 1993, p. 45.)
The immediate demands were economic in character, slogans appeared like: “Give us meat and butter!” and “We need apartments!” The movement spread but maintained a disciplined character. Instinctively, the workers fraternised with the soldiers. The local garrison was sympathetic and could not be used:
By the end of the work day the first military detachments of the Novocherkassk garrison arrived at the square but they were not armed. Having approached the people, the soldiers were immediately absorbed by the crowd. The soldiers and the strikers began to fraternise, to embrace and kiss each other. Yes, they kissed each other. It was difficult for the officer to separate the soldiers from the people, to gather them and to take them away from the strikers. (Ibid., p. 46.)
As in Hungary, Moscow had to draft in backward peasant troops (in this case from the Caucasus) to use against the workers. The strikers’ anger was increasingly directed against the government. There were demands to seize government offices. Then for the release of arrested strikers. The size of the movement kept growing:
Columns of marchers were converging on the city from everywhere and there appeared red flags, portraits of Lenin. The demonstrators were singing revolutionary songs. Everybody was excited, full of belief in their power and in the fairness of their demands. The column of demonstrators was becoming larger and larger.
While approaching the bridge across the railway and the Toozlov river, the demonstrators noticed a cordon of two tanks and armed soldiers on the bridge. The column slowed to a standstill and the revolutionary singing died down. Then the dense mass of people moved slowly forward. Outcries were heard: “Give way to the working class!” Then the shouts merged into a powerful, unified chant. The soldiers and the tank-men not only did not try to stop the column of marchers, but actually helped the people get over the tanks. The stream of people flowed on both sides of the bridge cordon. The excitement grew. The revolutionary songs grew louder, more harmonious and more powerful. (Ibid., p. 48)
Finally, the strikers brushed aside the soldiers and occupied the CPSU committee building. At this point, the order was given to fire on the demonstrators. Even at this point, there was wavering among the troops. One officer committed suicide rather than issue such an order:
Several witnesses reported that the officer who had been ordered to open fire, refused to give the order to the soldiers and shot himself in front of the formation. But nevertheless, the soldiers opened fire. First upwards, at the trees, then at the children who fell down, killed, wounded, frightened. In such a way, the party, the state and the army were eradicating different trends of thought, asserting the unity of the party and the people, proving the democratic character of the socialist state. Then the machine guns were pointed at the crowd. (Ibid., p. 49.)
In the secret trials that followed, seven people were accused of ‘banditry’ and ‘mass riot’ and sentenced to be shot. The number of those sent to labour camps for between ten and fifteen years is unknown, as is the number of people killed and crippled. Those arrested were forbidden all links with the outside world. Novocherkassk was placed under curfew. All news of the uprising was strictly suppressed. That the Kremlin took these events very seriously was shown by the fact that A.I. Mikoyan, Khrushchev’s number two, was sent to the city. In the absence of leadership and a clear plan of action, the uprising could not succeed. But it undoubtedly played a role in hastening the overthrow of Khrushchev.