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What is Stalinism?

Why is socialism in one country impossible?

Why did Russia degenerate into a totalitarian, Stalinist dictatorship, and how does the planned economy work to develop the productive forces without the “check” of the market?

What about Mao and the Chinese Revolution?

Is China today communist or capitalist?

Q. Why is socialism in one country impossible?

A. First of all, socialism absolutely needs to be based on a high level of productivity. The lowest stage of socialism must be the highest stage of capitalism. If so many of the problems in the world today are due to the unequal distribution of resources, then the only solution is to produce more than enough and distribute it democratically to provide a high standard of living for all. Nowhere in any of the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky will you find them proposing the idea of socialism in one country. The Stalinist, nationalist idea of socialism in one country has nothing to do with Marxism which has always been internationalist in perspective.

The working class has had many opportunities to carry out a socialist transformation over the last century, and has tried in many different countries. However only once, and then only temporarily did they succeed, in the Russian Revolution of 1917. This revolution in a backward country succeeded in overthrowing 1000 years of Tsarist autocracy, and the working class began to grapple with running the whole of society. However it was never the intention of Lenin to build socialism in one country. That is impossible, as socialism requires a massive increase in production to produce the needs of society. That requires the pooling of resources internationally. Also of course, capitalism cannot simply be defeated in a single country. The revolution must spread to other countries, and eventually the whole world.

As a result of its isolation, and its backwardness, civil war, and the assault of 21 armies of foreign intervention, the revolution in Russia hung by a thread. Without the assistance of revolutions in more economically advanced countries in Europe, there could not be socialism in Russia. If the revolutions in the rest of Europe had been successful, they could have all pooled their technology, natural resources, and populations as one in order to begin producing enough for all and spreading the revolution to the rest of the world. Instead, the isolated revolution degenerated into a bureaucratic dictatorship. The struggle for socialism must be international!

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Q. Why did Russia degenerate into a totalitarian, Stalinist dictatorship, and how does the planned economy work to develop the productive forces without the “check” of the market?

A. In order to be able to understand the process of the socialist transformation of society, and why it has not yet succeeded, we must be able to give a scientific answer to the question what happened to the USSR?  There is an entire book online about this question, called Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution. But a brief generalization of the events is as follows.

First of all, the general historic appraisal that we make of the Russian Revolution is extremely positive. For the first time, the mass of workers and peasants proved in practice that it was possible to run society without landlords, capitalists, and bankers. The superiority of a planned economy over the anarchy of capitalist production was proved, not in the field of ideas but on the concrete arena of industrial development, raising living standards, education, and health. Russia, in a short period of time, went from being a backward, mainly agricultural, and imperialist dominated country into being one of the first industrial and economic powers on earth. And this was achieved only because of the planned economy. If you take any other backward capitalist country of that time and you see its evolution over the last 80 years, with very few exceptions, you will see that it remains backward and dominated by imperialism. You can use as examples India, Pakistan, the Philippines, most of Latin America, etc.

But at the same time we must be able to explain why the Stalinist states with their potentially very productive planned economies then entered into crisis at the end of the 1980s and eventually collapsed in the early 1990s. We think that the explanation lies in the lack of democratic control over the planning of the economy. Under capitalism, the market represents, to a certain extent, a check on the economy. If you own a shoe making factory, and the shoes you produce are of very poor quality and more expensive than others in the market, you will probably go bankrupt. If you invest in a sector of the economy where there is already overproduction you will probably go bankrupt.

So the market, although in an anarchic way and through devastating cyclical crises, represents a certain check on the productive forces (although this has been diminished by the concentration of the economy in the hands of a few multinational corporations). That does not exist under a planned economy. The only possible control is that of the democratic participation of working people (consumers and producers themselves) in the planning of the economy. Who knows better than the workers themselves the needs that there are in their neighborhoods? Who better than them knows how the factories should be organized? The problem in the Soviet Union was that these democratic controls did not exist at all. A handful of bureaucrats at the top of the “Communist Party” and the state apparatus dictated everything. .

It is clear that an economy which produced one million different commodities every year could not be controlled without real genuine workers’ democracy. So, why was there no workers’ democracy in the USSR? The bourgeois critics will tell us that this was the inevitable consequence of the struggle for socialism. “Communism is anti-democratic and means dictatorship.” We reply: these are all lies and slanders.

If you read Lenin’s State and Revolution, you can see how Lenin establishes a series of conditions for the functioning of workers’ democracy, which he draws mainly from the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune, the first workers’ government in history. There are four main conditions:

1) All public officials to be elected and with the right to recall (that is that they can be changed immediately when they longer represent the interests of those who elected them).

2) No public official to receive a wage higher than that of a skilled worker. Marx said that “social being determines consciousness,” in other words the way you live determine the way you think. One of the main causes for reformism amongst labor movement leaders is precisely the inflated salaries they receive as members of the government, or even trade union top officials.  They therefore think that capitalism is “not so bad” after all.

3) No standing army, but general arming of the people.

4) Over a period of time everyone would participate in the tasks of running the economy and the state. In the words of Lenin “if everyone is a bureaucrat, no one is a bureaucrat.”

Even a superficial analysis of these conditions will immediately lead us to the conclusion that none of them applied in the old Soviet Union. But why? In the first years of the revolution, Lenin and the other leaders of the revolution struggled to establish what was probably the most democratic regime which has ever existed. The soviets (workers’ and peasants’ councils) were running the state and the economy and everyone was allowed to participate in them. All political parties were allowed to participate in soviet elections and debates and put forward their ideas. It is a little known fact that the first Soviet government was in fact a coalition between the Bolshevik Party and the left wing Social Revolutionaries. The only parties not allowed were those which had taken up arms against Soviet power.

Within the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks were later called) there was the widest of democracies. During the discussion of the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement with Germany there were at least three different fractions within the CP with different opinions. One of them, the Left Communists, headed by Bukharin, even published for a while a daily paper, The Communist, opposing Lenin’s position on the issue! So, how could such a democratic regime become a dictatorship?

Lenin, in State and Revolution also deals with the questions of the economic preconditions for the establishment of socialism. The democratic planning of the economy can only be established if you have the economic and material basis to produce plenty for all. As soon as there is scarcity of the basic goods, inevitably, there must be someone to control in an authoritarian way, the distribution of these scarce goods. In short, in Russia in 1917 the material conditions for socialism did not exist.

So why did the Bolsheviks organize the revolution in Russia? Their perspective was never building socialism in Russia in isolation. They saw the Russian Revolution as the beginning of the European revolution. They thought that the taking of power by the workers in Russia would lead to a wave of revolutionary struggle all over Europe. Workers’ power in Europe would provide the material means for a fast development of backward Russia. And in fact, the Russian Revolution opened the way for a massive revolutionary wave in Europe. There was the 1918–19 German revolution, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Spanish revolutionary general strike, factory occupations in Italy, and in general mass movements of the working class all over the continent. But unfortunately, all these revolutions were defeated.

The were various reasons for these defeats, but to summarize it, the labor movement was still very much under the influence of the social democratic reformist leaders, and the Communists had not had time to organize properly and made a number of fatal mistakes in this period. So, in this way, the Russian Revolution became isolated in a backward, mainly peasant country, ruined by the First World War. If that was not enough, immediately they were sucked into a vicious civil war, in which the counterrevolution with the support of 21 foreign armies of intervention tried to overthrow the young soviet republic (and they nearly succeeded).

Finally, the Red Army won the civil war but at a very high cost. Not only the economy was completely destroyed and the masses were starving, but also the cream of the cream of revolutionary communist cadres had been killed over these difficult years. One of the preconditions for workers’ democracy is precisely a general shortening of the working week, in order to allow all working people time enough to raise their level of education and to participate in politics and the running of society. In Russia we actually had a longer working week and very bad conditions in general. Participation in the soviets slowly dropped and a layer of officials started to emerge which slowly started to push the normal workers out of politics and discourage participation.

One of the first to warn against the danger of bureaucratization was actually Lenin in his last writings, which were suppressed by Stalin for many years. But even under these extremely difficult conditions it was not easy for the Stalinist bureaucracy to firmly establish a grip on power. There was a very big opposition in the ranks and the leadership of the Communist Party. In fact, the bureaucracy had to physically eliminate most of the party in order to succeed. If you take the Central Committee of the party in 1917, the revolutionary leaders who carried out the October Revolution, by 1940 there was only one survivor apart from Stalin. Most of the others had been shot dead by Stalin, died in prisons and labor camps, some were missing and a few had died of old age. Thousands of honest and loyal Communists were killed or died in the concentration camps. The person who waged the most comprehensive opposition against the rise of bureaucracy was Trotsky, who with Lenin had led the October Revolution and later organized the Red army.

The figure of Trotsky has been obscured for many years in the Communist movement, precisely by those who defended unconditionally the Stalinist bureaucracy. That is why it is to be welcomed for example that the documents of the last Congress of the South African Communist Party (ex-Stalinists) recommend the reading of his writings. Communists can only learn from an open and frank debate about the reasons for the rise of Stalinism.  See also Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For.

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Q. What about Mao and the Chinese Revolution?

A. From time to time it is necessary to draw a balance sheet of our ideas and theoretical positions. How did they work out in practice over the past fifty years? If there is a major contribution of our tendency to Marxism, this is our analysis of the colonial revolution and the development of proletarian bonapartism, beginning with our analysis of the Chinese revolution after 1945. It was precisely the impasse of capitalism in these countries and the pressing need of the masses for a way forward which gave rise to the phenomena of proletarian bonapartism. This was due to a number of different factors. In the first place, the complete impasse of society in the backward countries and the inability of the colonial bourgeoisie to show a way forward. Secondly, the inability of imperialism to maintain its control by the old means of direct military-bureaucratic rule. Thirdly, the delay of the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries and the weakness of the subjective factor. And lastly, the existence of a powerful regime of proletarian bonapartism in the Soviet Union.

The victory of the USSR in the Second World War, and the strengthening of Stalinism after the war with its extension to Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese Revolution were all factors that combined to condition the development of proletarian bonapartism as a peculiar variant of the permanent revolution which was only understood by our tendency. This was an entirely unprecedented and unexpected phenomenon. Nowhere in the classics of Marxism was it even considered as a theoretical possibility that a peasant war could lead to the establishment of even a deformed workers’ state. Yet this is precisely what occurred in China, and later in Cuba and Vietnam.

We characterized the Chinese revolution as the second greatest event in world history, after the Russian revolution of 1917. It had an enormous effect in the subsequent development of the colonial revolution. But this revolution did not take place on the classical lines of the Russian Revolution in 1917 or the Chinese Revolution of 1925–27. The working class played no important role. Mao came to power on the basis of a mighty peasant war, in the traditions of China. The only way Mao was able to win the civil war of 1944–49 was by offering a program of social liberation to the peasant armies of Chiang Kai-shek, who was armed and backed by American imperialism. But the Stalinist leaders of the peasant Red Army had no perspective of leading the workers to power as did Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. When Mao’s peasant armies arrived at the cities, and the workers spontaneously occupied the factories and greeted Mao’s armies with red flags, Mao gave the order that these demonstrations should be suppressed and the workers were shot.

Initially, Mao did not intend to expropriate the Chinese capitalists. His perspectives for the Chinese revolution were outlined in a pamphlet called New Democracy in which he wrote that the socialist revolution was not on the order of the day in China, and that the only development that could take place was a mixed economy, i.e., capitalism. This was the classical “two stage” Menshevik theory which had been adopted by the Stalinist bureaucracy and had led to the defeat of the Chinese revolution in 1925–27. But our tendency understood that under the concrete conditions that had developed that Mao would be forced to expropriate capitalism.

Not only that but we also predicted in advance the fact that Mao would be forced to break with Stalin. Already in early 1949 we wrote:

“The fact that Mao has a genuine mass base independent of the Russian Red Army, will in all likelihood provide for the first time an independent base for Chinese Stalinism which will no longer rest directly on Moscow. As with Tito, so with Mao, despite the role of the Red Army in Manchuria, Chinese Stalinism is developing an independent base. Because of the national aspirations of the Chinese masses, the traditional struggle against foreign domination, the economic needs of the country and above all, the powerful base in an independent state apparatus, the danger of a new and really formidable Tito in China is a factor which is causing anxiety in Moscow.”

However, the subordination of the Chinese economy to the benefit of the Russian bureaucracy, with the attempts to place puppets in control who will be completely subordinate to Moscow—in other words, the national oppression of the Chinese—will create the basis for a clash with the Kremlin of great magnitude and significance. Mao, with an independent and powerful state apparatus, with the possibility of maneuvering with the imperialists of the West (who will seek to negotiate with China for trade and try and drive a wedge between Peking and Moscow) and with the support of the Chinese masses as the victorious leader against the Kuomintang, will have powerful points of support against Moscow.

Stalin’s very efforts to try and forestall this development will tend to accelerate and intensify the resentment and the conflict. (“Reply to David James”, reprinted in, The Unbroken Thread, 304.)

These lines were written more than a decade before the outbreak of the Sino-Soviet conflict, when the Chinese and Russian bureaucracies seemed to be inseparable allies.

The victory of Mao’s peasant armies in China was due to a number of factors: the complete and utter impasse of Chinese capitalism and landlordism, the inability of imperialism to intervene because of the war-weariness of the imperialist troops after the Second World War, and also because of the colossal power of attraction of the nationalized planned economy in Stalinist Russia which demonstrated its superiority during the war with Hitler’s Germany.

The fact that the peasantry was used to carry through a social revolution was a completely new development in the history of China. China was the classical country of peasant wars, which took place at regular intervals. But even when these wars were victorious this merely resulted in the fusion of the leading elements of the peasant armies with the elite in the towns, resulting in the formation of a new dynasty. It was a vicious circle which characterized Chinese history for over 2,000 years. But here we had a fundamental departure. The peasant army under Mao was able to smash capitalism and create a society on the image of Stalin’s Moscow. Of course, there could be no question of a healthy workers’ state as in Russia in November 1917 being established by such means. For that, the active participation and leadership of the working class would be required. But a peasant army, without the leadership of the working class, is the classical instrument of Bonapartism, not workers’ power. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 began where the Russian Revolution had ended. There was no question of soviets or workers’ democracy. From the very beginning it was a monstrously deformed workers’ state. Our tendency underlined that on the world scale the only class which can bring about the triumph of socialism is the proletariat.

Once Mao had taken power and created a state apparatus on the basis of the hierarchy of the Red Army he did not have any need to ally himself with the bourgeoisie. In a typical bonapartist fashion, Mao balanced between the different classes. He leaned on the peasantry and to a certain extent on the working class to expropriate the capitalists, but once these had been defeated he then proceeded to eliminate any elements of workers democracy that might have existed. This phenomena was possible precisely because of the delay of the world revolution and the impasse of society. He had the powerful example of Stalinism in Russia, where a strong bureaucracy was parasitizing the planned economy and benefiting from it, so he decided to follow the same model. Despite its monstrously deformed character, the Chinese Revolution nevertheless represented a gigantic step forward for hundreds of millions of people who had been the beasts of burden of imperialism.

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Is China today communist or capitalist?

The Chinese bureaucracy, having seen the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, sought a way to invigorate their economy and maintain their privileged positions. Beginning in 1978, Deng Xiao Ping introduced a series of measures to invigorate the economy to stimulate the economy. Since this time it has taken on a life of it’s own. Throughout the 1980s “free market zones” were established, allowing foreign-owned companies to operate with Chinese labor. Along with this process was a decline in the conditions of the Chinese working class. This is what lead to the massive Tianenmen Square movement which threatened to overthrow the bureaucracy. During the 1990s the bureaucracy accelerated the process, with more state enterprises being reorganized to be geared towards private sector, if not completely nationalized. In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization.

While it is impossible to say where the nationalized, planned economy passed qualitatively into capitalism, it is undeniable that what exists in China today is the worst features of capitalist exploitation, along with a monstrous Bonapartist state that visciously represses the working class.

The task of the Chinese working class, is not merely a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy—as was advocated by Marxists in regard to the Soviet Union—but a social revolution to overthrow the current regime and to take over the private industries, nationalize them, and put them under democratic, workers control.

For more on this process, please read our document China’s Long March to Capitalism

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