The Rise of Stalinism

In order to understand the conditions which led to the rise of Stalinism, it is necessary first to understand the Marxist theory of the state, and to understand the conditions under which the world's first real workers' state emerged. There are many distortions on this subject, which attempt to "prove" that the Soviet State under Lenin and Trotsky was the same state which Stalin headed a few years later. This distortion is made in order to equate Lenin, Trotsky, and the Russian Revolution with the horrors of Stalinism.   The ruling class wants us to forget about the great historical advances made by the Russian Revolution. They say to us: "socialism is a nice idea on paper, but it inevitably leads to Stalinist totalitarianism – so forget about trying to change the world, and be content with capitalism!" Luckily for those of us fighting for the socialist transformation of society, nothing could be further from the truth!  A look at the material reasons for the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and their usurpation of the Soviet state shows that there is nothng inevitable in this process. At root, the rise of the Stalinists was due to the material and cultural backwardness of Russia in 1917.  Socialism must be based on a high level of the productive forces, and due to the failure of the revolution to spread beyond the borders of Russia (although there were many opportunities), it was isolated and unable to materially start the building of socialism, which in practice means raising the living standards of everyone across the board, and cannot be confined to a single country.

In February 1917, the Bolshevik Party had no more than about 8,000 members in the whole of Russia. At the height of the civil war, when Party membership involved personal risk, the ranks were thrown open to the workers, who pushed the membership up to 200,000. But as the civil war grew to a close, the Party membership actually trebled, reflecting an influx of careerists and elements from hostile classes and parties. These elements had to be rooted out. The necessary "purge" initiated by Lenin in 1921 had nothing in common with the monstrous frame-up trials of Stalin; there were no police, no trials, no prison-camps; merely the weeding out of petty bourgeois and Menshevik careerists in order to preserve the ideas and traditions of October from the poisonous effects of petty bourgeois reaction. By early 1922, some 200,000 members (one third of the membership) had been expelled.

As early as 1919 the Bolshevik government had also organised the People's Commissariat of Workers' and Peasants' Inspection (known as Rabkrin, from the acronym of its Russian name). Its task was to weed out careerists and bureaucrats in the state and party apparatus. Stalin, given his record as a good organiser, was put in charge of Rabkrin. However, in a short space of time, Stalin's narrow, organisational outlook and personal ambition led him to occupy the post as the chief spokesman of the bureaucracy in the Party leadership, not as its opponent. Stalin used his position, which enabled him to select personnel for leading posts in the state and Party, to quietly gather round himself a bloc of allies and yes-men, political nonentities who were grateful to him for their advancement. In Stalin's hands, Rabkrin became an instrument for building up his own position and eliminating his political rivals.

By the end of 1920 the number of state officials had mushroomed from a little over 100,000 to an astonishing 5,880,000. This was five times the number of industrial workers. In the Red Army, such was the shortage of military skill that former Tsarist officers were enlisted to fight against the White armies. By August 1920, 48,409 former Tsarist officers had been called up as military specialists. These layers had no deep-seated loyalty to the Soviet state. In order to persuade them to provide their services and prevent them from fleeing to the other side, the Bolshevik government was forced to grant them considerable privileges. Also political commissars were appointed to oversee the loyalty of these officers, and provide an essential instrument of workers' control over these layers.

Lenin's intention was gradually to involve the whole of the working class in the tasks of running the state: "Our aim is to draw the whole of the poor into the practical work of administration, to ensure that every toiler, having finished his eight hours' 'task' in productive labour, shall perform state duties without pay." (LCW, Vol. 27, p. 273.) But under the prevailing conditions of backwardness, this proved impossible. The young Soviet state was forced to make use of whatever they could of the left-overs of the old state machine. In March 1918, Lenin told the Party Congress that "the bricks of which socialism will be composed have not yet been made". (Ibid., p. 148.)

Given the low cultural level, every lever, every toe-hold would be used to further the revolution. As we have seen, the prevailing illiteracy forced the Bolsheviks to rely on the old Tsarist bureaucracy ("slightly anointed with Soviet oil"), administrators, government functionaries, military commanders and factory managers. This was unavoidable, at least until assistance arrived from the West. This would have far reaching consequences later on. But, at that time, there was simply no alternative.

In relation to the Soviet state itself, Lenin told the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922:

"We took over the old machinery of state and that was our misfortune. We have a vast army of government employees, but lack the educated forces to exercise real control over them. At the top we have, I don't know how many, but at all events no more than a few thousandÉ Down below there are hundreds of thousands of old officials we got from the Tsar and from bourgeois society." (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 430.)

As always Lenin explained the harsh truth about the Soviet state apparatus. He never entertained any idealised view of this wretched organ which had been largely inherited from the past. It was a bureaucratic machine, coloured by a thin socialist varnish. He understood full well that this bureaucracy was not simply a matter of bureaucratic behaviour, excessive red-tape, officialdom, etc. Such an approach has nothing in common with the Marxist method. Marxism explains bureaucracy as a social phenomenon, which arises for definite material reasons. In the case of Russia, it arose from the isolation of the revolution in a backward, illiterate peasant country.

Lenin explained the rise of bureaucracy as a parasitic, capitalist growth on the organism of the workers' state. The October Revolution had overthrown the old order, ruthlessly suppressed and purged the Tsarist state, but in conditions of chronic economic and cultural backwardness, the elements of the old order were creeping back everywhere into positions of privilege and power in the measure that the revolutionary wave ebbed back with the defeats of the international revolution. There was a real danger that the revolution could suffer a bureaucratic degeneration. As such, Lenin denounced the growing bureaucratic threat and demanded a ruthless struggle against it:

"We threw out the old bureaucrats, but they have come back. They wear a red ribbon in their buttonholes and creep into warm corners. What to do about it? We must fight this scum again and again and if the scum has crawled back we must again and again clean it up, chase it out, keep it under the surveillance of Communist workers and peasants whom we have known for more than a month and for more than a year." (LCW, Vol. 29, pp. 32-3.)

Engels explained that in every society where art, science and government are the preserve of a privileged minority, then that minority will always use and abuse its positions in its own interests. And this state of affairs is inevitable, so long as the vast majority of the people are forced to toil for long hours in industry and agriculture for the basic necessities of life. After the revolution, with the ruined conditions of industry, the working day was not reduced, but lengthened. Workers toiled ten, twelve hours and more a day on subsistence rations; many worked weekends without pay voluntarily. But, as Trotsky explained, the masses can only sacrifice their "today" for their "tomorrow" up to a very definite limit.

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

"The machine no longer obeyed the driver" – the state was no longer under the control of the Communists, of the workers, but was increasingly raising itself above society. Referring to the views of Smena Vekh, Lenin said: "We must say frankly that the things Ustryalov speaks about are possible, history knows all sorts of transformations. Relying on firmness of convictions, loyalty, and other splendid moral qualities is anything but a serious attitude in politics. A few people may be endowed with splendid moral qualities, but historical issues are decided by vast masses, which, if the few do not suit them, may at times treat them none too politely." (LCW, Vol. 33, p. 287.) In other words, the state power was slipping out of the hands of the Communists, not because of their personal failings or psychological peculiarities, but because of the enormous pressures of backwardness, of bureaucracy, of alien class forces which weighed down upon the tiny handful of advanced, socialist workers and crushed them.

With each international defeat of the working class, and its accompanying mood of despair and disappointment amongst the Russian proletariat, the bureaucratic reaction in the Soviet Union assumed an increasingly menacing form. The terrible backwardness and low cultural level of the masses proved an insurmountable obstacle to the Russian proletariat, weakened, crushed and exhausted by years of civil war, deprivation and demoralisation. The bureaucracy fed on this mood of weariness and growing scepticism particularly amongst the older generation. Largely left over from the old Tsarist state machine, this caste of officials began to flex its muscles and feel more conscious of its independence, importance and power.

The diminishing participation of the masses in political life reinforced this process. The bureaucracy soon revealed its own ideas, feelings and interests. It yearned for stability and the abandonment of international revolution. "On all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country," remarked Trotsky. "The reaction within the proletariat caused an extraordinary flush of hope and confidence in the petty bourgeois strata of town and country, aroused as they were to new life by the NEP, and growing bolder and bolder. The younger bureaucracy, which had arisen at first as an agent of the proletariat, began to now feel itself a court of arbitration between the classes. Its independence increased from month to month. The international situation was pushing with mighty forces in the same direction. The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class. Between these two facts there was not only a chronological, but a causal connection, and one which worked in two directions. The leaders of the bureaucracy promoted the proletarian defeats; the defeats promoted the rise of the bureaucracy." (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 90.)

The defeat of the German Revolution of 1923, followed by the defeats in Bulgaria and Estonia, constituted a severe blow to the morale of the Russian proletariat. It condemned the Soviet state to a period of further economic and political isolation. Within the Communist Party the initiative and independence of the rank and file was being systematically stifled by bureaucratic "commandism" at all levels. A hierarchy of appointed officials replaced the elected representatives. Trotsky, who had been urged by Lenin to take up the struggle against bureaucratism, formed the Left Opposition to meet this challenge. Their demands centred around the restoration of workers' democracy within the Party and the co-ordination of industry and agriculture through a national plan. These ideas immediately met with furious opposition from the majority faction of Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin. Trotsky's defence of Bolshevism was met with abuse and ridicule by the ruling apparatus.

In early 1924, the death of Lenin delivered a further blow to the morale of the Russian workers. Some historians have suggested that if Lenin had lived longer it would have resulted in a totally different development in Russia. But even if Lenin had lived it would not have made a fundamental difference. Lenin's colossal personal prestige, in itself, would not have been sufficient to prevent the political counter-revolution. As early as 1926, Lenin's widow Krupskaya, in a meeting of the Left Opposition, pointed out: "If Ilych [Lenin] were alive, he would probably already be in prison." At that time this was probably an exaggeration. Had Lenin lived a few more years, the process of degeneration might have been delayed, modifying the course of events. But as long as the revolution remained isolated in conditions of frightful backwardness, the fundamental process would have been the same. Without doubt Lenin would have fought relentlessly against the bureaucracy, but that in and of itself would not have been sufficient to have defeated the reaction. Only with the success of the revolution elsewhere, which would have broken the isolation and rekindled the revolutionary élan of the Russian masses, could the bureaucracy have been stopped in its tracks. The fact of the matter is Lenin did not survive his third stroke which totally incapacitated him for nine months prior to his death.

Does this mean that those who struggled against Stalinism were doomed to defeat? To pose the question in this way would be abstract, schematic, and fatalistic. The emergence of Stalinism was a struggle of living forces, the outcome of which could not be determined in advance. Trotsky and the Left Opposition certainly realised that there were strong objective forces working on the side of the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, there was nothing fatalistic about their attitude. Everything would depend upon the international situation. As Trotsky explained: "The development of the struggle has shown, without any doubt, that the Bolshevik-Leninists would not have been able to win a complete victory in the USSR – that is to say, conquer power and cauterise the ulcer of bureaucratism – without support from the world revolution." (Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, p. 178.) That is why the Opposition fought for a correct Marxist policy in Britain, China and elsewhere.

The serious illness and subsequent death of Lenin put effective power in the hands of the "troika" of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. In reality, the central lever of power was already in Stalin's grip, given his complete organisational domination of the apparatus as general secretary of the Party. The troika conspired to prevent Trotsky taking over from Lenin. They deliberately suppressed Lenin's Testament, which had directly called for Stalin's removal. Another factor was the opening of the Party to a flood of raw, inexperienced new members after Lenin's death – the so-called Lenin Levy. This swamped the revolutionary nucleus of the Party in a sea of politically backward elements, who were putty in the hands of the apparatus-men, hand-picked by Stalin's machine. The weakening and isolation of the Party's Old Guard was the necessary precondition for the victory of the apparatus. Suffice to say that 75-80 per cent of the membership were recruited after 1923. The number of Party members with pre-revolutionary service was less than 1 per cent.

Simultaneously, a campaign of calumny and falsification was opened up against Trotsky. This was precipitated by Trotsky's publication The Lessons of October which dealt with the reasons for the defeat of the German Revolution, laying particular responsibility on the failure of leadership. In doing so, Trotsky drew parallels with what had happened in October 1917 in Russia and the vacillation of the rightwing of Zinoviev and Kamenev who both came out against the insurrection (although they were never mentioned by name). These important lessons were buried in the campaign against "Trotskyism". All the old smears about Trotsky's non-Bolshevik past (which Lenin had written off in his Testament), about the "permanent revolution", Brest-Litovsk, and the rest, were dragged up by the ruling faction to discredit Trotsky and oust him from the leadership. A stream of literature was brought out against Trotsky, while reinforcing the idea of the Leninist Old Guard of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev: Trotskyism or Leninism (Stalin), Leninism or Trotskyism (Kamenev) and Bolshevism or Trotskyism (Zinoviev). Trotsky was subsequently removed from the post of Peoples' Commissar of War in January 1925. The campaign against Trotskyism was then taken into the Communist Parties internationally where votes were demanded supporting the Russian Party majority leadership.

Dialectical materialism has nothing in common with the kind of mechanical approach which sees history as a simple linear process. Such a view is more in line with religious philosophies like Calvinism with its fatalistic theory of predestination. Accidents play a role in history as in nature, but, as Hegel brilliantly explained, necessity frequently expresses itself through the medium of accidents. The efforts of Trotsky alone were insufficient to change the Party's course. Ranged against him was the Old Guard of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Stalin. This played a certain part in the equation. Marxism does not deny the role of the individual or of accidents in history. On the contrary. Individuals can play a tremendous role – for good or ill. Kamenev and particularly Zinoviev played an important role in the turn towards reaction after Lenin's death. Here personal motives played a role. Having worked closely with Lenin for many years, Zinoviev considered that he should inherit Lenin's mantle. He was ambitious and jealous of Trotsky. As a result, he organised a parallel leadership, even before Lenin's death, composed of all the members of the Politburo except Trotsky. Using methods entirely alien to Bolshevism, he resorted to manoeuvres and intrigues to discredit Trotsky, and drive a wedge between him and Leninism.

By inventing the myth of Trotskyism after Lenin's death, Zinoviev and Kamenev played a pernicious role which deepened the disillusionment and increased the disorientation of the workers. Neither of them showed any understanding of the real processes at work. They imagined that they were using Stalin as a tool, when in fact it was they who were being used. In this way, without realising it, Kamenev and Zinoviev laid the basis for Stalin's victory over the Bolshevik Party, and over themselves. They felt themselves superior to Stalin, and, in a moral and intellectual sense, they were right. But Stalin's strength lay, not in his intellect, but in the fact that he reflected the pressure and the interests of millions of officials who were thirsting for power. In this struggle, Kamenev and Zinoviev were handicapped by the very same qualities that had earlier been their strength – their faith in the revolution and loyalty to the cause of the working class. By the time of his break with them, Stalin had none of this. He was motivated purely by ambition for himself, but unlike Kamenev and Zinoviev, was not burdened down by principles. He eagerly based himself upon the bureaucracy, first in the Party, the apparat, which he dominated, and later became the champion of the millions of former Tsarist officials who continued to function under the protective colouring of the Soviet state.

This process eventually ended in the slaughter of the Old Bolsheviks, who could not stomach Stalin's destruction of the Revolution and the party of Lenin. Stalin thus played the role of the executioner of the Bolshevik Party. Yet it is necessary to see that, if Stalin had not existed, or if he had refused to act in the interests of the bureaucracy, he would merely have been replaced by someone else. In the concrete conditions, it would almost certainly have meant the victory of Bukharin's faction. This would have meant the victory of capitalist restoration even at that time. In a panic reaction, Stalin was later forced to adopt in a caricature form many of the policies of the Left Opposition. Without this, the pressure of the kulaks in the countryside and the NEPmen in the towns would undoubtedly have led to the overthrow of the regime. The new policy was enthusiastically received by the working class, who nevertheless remained largely passive. The policy of "dekulakisation" was carried out in a hooligan way by the bureaucracy, which simultaneously covered its rear by striking blows against the Left Opposition.

At the time of their bloc with Stalin, both Kamenev and Zinoviev were not consciously aware of the processes which were taking place in the Soviet state and which they were unwittingly abetting. They did not realise in what direction their attacks on Trotsky and Trotskyism would lead them, any more than did Stalin, at that time. But in attempting to drive a wedge between Trotskyism and Leninism, they set in motion all the machinery of historical falsification and bureaucratic harassment which marked the first decisive step away from the ideas and traditions of October towards the monstrous bureaucratic police state of Stalin. Thus they were acting as the unconscious agents of processes outside their control and beyond their understanding.

Without doubt the role of individuals, with all their strengths and weaknesses, plays an important role, but we can only understand this role in the context of the struggle of social forces. The role of the individual in history is not more decisive than the objective conditions that they live in, although the personal ability, intellect and character of individuals certainly does affect the historical process, and, at critical points, may be decisive. Without Lenin and Trotsky, the October Revolution would never have taken place. This is a concrete fact. There can be no doubt that the policies of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin would have led to defeat, and the triumph of reaction in 1917, after which we would have been treated to a large number of doctoral theses "proving" beyond all doubt that the idea of a successful socialist revolution in Russia was completely utopian.

Historical materialism does not at all deny the role of the individual in history. It merely explains that individuals are not absolutely free agents, as idealists imagine, but must operate on the basis of given social and economic conditions which are not chosen by themselves and operate according to laws created independently of the will of men and women. Once we understand these laws, we are in a position to arrive at a scientific analysis of the real scope and significance of the actions of the individual player on the historical stage. The same Lenin and Trotsky who led the Russian workers to victory in 1917 remained isolated and powerless for decades before this. For all their personal abilities and theoretical knowledge, they did not stand above the general conditions of society. Just as Lenin and Trotsky set their stamp on the October Revolution and the regime that emerged from it, so the bureaucratic counter-revolution has become so closely linked with the name of Stalin that the two have become synonymous. But of course, the political counter-revolution in the USSR did not depend upon one man. That would be a mechanical interpretation of history. With or without Stalin, if the revolution remained isolated in a backward country, reaction was inevitable, sooner or later, in one way or another. This, however, does not exhaust the question. In politics as in warfare, the question of "sooner or later" and "one way or another" is not at all secondary, and can be decisive.

After the Revolution, there was a pressing need for able administrators to run the state. Many people were thrust into positions of responsibility without having the necessary preparation. Many of the best elements were killed in the civil war, and replaced by less able people. Once in positions of responsibility, they found themselves in close contact with the old Tsarist officials who knew the ropes. Often it was difficult to know who was leading whom, as Lenin bitterly complained. The demobilisation of the Red Army after the civil war added to the problem. Although the Red Army had been thoroughly democratised, the low cultural level of the mass of peasant soldiers meant that many of the officers and NCOs had got used to the method of command. In the prevailing conditions of industrial collapse and the partial atomisation of the proletariat, the working class was no longer able to exercise the same degree of control. Gradually, the state apparatus was slipping out of control.

What was decisive here was the shift in the balance of class forces. The working class was exhausted and weakened by the years of war, revolution and civil war. The delay of the international revolution had a depressing effect on the Russian workers. On the other hand, the rising layer of bureaucrats increasingly felt themselves masters of the situation. The theory of socialism in one country was merely the ideological expression of a petty bourgeois reaction against October which arose from the vague yearning of these elements for an end to the storm and stress of the revolution, for order which would allow them to get on with the tasks of administering society – from above.

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