1956 ‘secret speech’ a devastating blow to Stalinist regimes

Sixty years ago Nikita Khrushchev stunned Communist Party members around the world with a speech attacking Stalin, the recently deceased dictator deified as the Soviet Union’s ‘great leader’. It sparked revolt against the rotten regimes in Russia and eastern Europe. Ultimately, it showed that top-down Stalinist rule had reached its limits.

On 14 February, 1956, the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) convened at the Great Kremlin Palace, Moscow, with 1,355 voting and 81 non-voting delegates. They represented 6.8 million full members and 620,000 candidate members of the CPSU. To the surprise and alarm of many attending, Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, began by asking everyone to stand in honour of all the CP leaders who had died since the previous congress, held in 1952. In doing so, he equated Joseph Stalin, the ‘great leader’, with the lesser known Klement Gottwald and Kyuichi Tokuda.

More shocks were to come. On the final morning of the congress, 25 February, the Soviet delegates alone attended a closed session. Sitting in stony silence, they listened to a near four-hour speech by Khrushchev, which stunned the congress and later the international communist movement. His speech was a devastating attack on Stalin, who had died in 1953. Stalin was guilty of “a grave abuse of power”, Khrushchev declared. Of “mass arrests and deportation of thousands and thousands of people, and executions without trial or normal investigation”, which “created insecurity, fear and even desperation”. Stalin “showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power... he often chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party or the Soviet government”.

Innocent people were forced to confess to crimes “because of physical methods of pressure, torture, reducing them to unconsciousness, depriving them of judgments, taking away their human dignity”. Stalin had “personally called in the interrogator, gave him instructions, and told him which methods to use, methods that were simple – to beat, beat and, once again, beat”. Khrushchev also attacked Stalin’s incompetent wartime record and his “monstrous” deportation of Caucasian peoples. Stalin was responsible for the ruin of agriculture and for promoting his own “nauseatingly false” cult of the personality. Stalin had betrayed the ideas and legacy of Lenin, Khrushchev stated. His condemnation was qualified, however. While ‘Trotskyite’ and ‘Bukharanist’ oppositionists to Stalin had not deserved “physical annihilation”, they were “ideological and political enemies”.

In his feeble self-defence, Khrushchev said that he and other long-term Politburo collaborators of Stalin were only acting now because they “viewed these matters differently at different times”. He claimed that they did not know what Stalin did in their name, and when they found out it was too late. Khrushchev also said that Stalin had plans to finish off his Politburo comrades, to “destroy them so as to hide the shameful acts about which we are now reporting”. Reportedly, leaders and former Stalin allies, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, Lazar Kaganovich and Kliment Voroshilov, sat stony-faced.

The content of the ‘secret speech’ soon spread. Eastern European delegates were allowed to hear it the following night. By 5 March copies were being mailed throughout the Soviet Union. An official translation appeared within a month in Poland, where 12,000 copies were printed, one of which reached the west.

By denouncing Stalin, Khrushchev did not seek to change Soviet society fundamentally, but his speech had wide-ranging, long-term effects. It was a devastating blow to Stalinist regimes everywhere and a factor in sparking a revolt in Poland, and in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Decades later, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union before its dissolution and the brutal re-imposition of capitalism, praised Khrushchev as “a moral man after all”.

A bureaucratic defence

The western capitalist press tried to explain Khrushchev’s speech as an act of personal hatred of Stalin (which certainly existed), or even due to some latterly discovered moral revulsion at Stalin’s atrocities. But Khrushchev and the other leaders had participated in all Stalin’s purges and in his other crimes. In Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ speech, every crime – the frame-ups, mass murders, concentration camps and other crimes against the working class and national minorities – was placed firmly at the feet of Stalin. Yet how could one individual carry through these acts?

Leon Trotsky had explained that Stalin represented the bureaucratic caste: the millions of privileged officials who dominated the CPSU and government who ran industry, society and the state in their own interests. Stalin’s dictatorship represented the needs of this caste which had usurped power from the working masses. “Before he felt out his own course”, Trotsky wrote in Revolution Betrayed, “the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself”.

The 1917 Russian revolution was one of the greatest acts in human history. Tsarist rule ended in February, and capitalism and landlordism were overthrown by the mass of workers and peasants – led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks (later, the Communist Party) – in October. Industries were taken over and democratically run by the workers. This gave a mighty impetus to the processes of world socialist revolution.

However, within a few years power was wrested from the workers by the bureaucratic elite grouped around Stalin. The isolation of the revolution in Russia – after workers’ revolutions across Europe, especially in Germany, and in China, had been defeated – and the backwardness of the economy, allowed the bureaucracy to gain control under the leadership of Stalin. “The Soviet bureaucracy became more self-confident, the heavier the blows dealt to the world working class”, wrote Trotsky.

A massive struggle against this bureaucratisation was waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. Unfortunately, the mass of workers in Soviet Russia had been ground down after years of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary struggle, along with the horrendous economic and social backwardness which had been inherited from the tsarist regime.

What remained of the workers’ state was a planned economy owned by the state. Lenin and Trotsky’s aim was for that planned economy to be run democratically by committees of workers for the benefit of all. However, when Stalin and the bureaucracy took control, workers were allowed no input into how the economy or society was run. Despite this deformation of the planned economy, Russia progressed from a backward country to a superpower, indicating what could be possible if an economy is democratically planned.

Under the bureaucracy, maintaining its power by ruthless methods, these gains were made at huge human and material costs. As the economy developed, the bureaucracy – which under the given conditions played a relatively progressive role initially – came increasingly into conflict with the needs of culture and the economy and became an absolute fetter to the development of the productive forces.

The rise of Khrushchev

In his 1956 secret speech, Khrushchev claimed that he and other leaders in the Kremlin were returning to the methods of Lenin. In reality, they were cynically exploiting the memory of Lenin to preserve the gains and privileges of the officialdom. Khrushchev’s rise is indicative of the ruling social strata he represented. Erratic, impulsive, cunning and ambitious, he could be relied upon under Stalin to carry out brutal orders.

Born in 1894 to a poor peasant family, near the present-day Russia/Ukraine border, Nikita Khrushchev had little formal education. After moving to Yuzovka (Donetsk) he became a metal worker and helped distribute Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper. After the abdication of the tsar in 1917, Khrushchev was elected to the workers’ council (soviet) in Rutchenkovo, and in May became its chairman. He was mobilised into the Red Army as a political commissar during the civil war which broke out after the October, Bolshevik revolution, when western capitalist armies invaded Russia in support of counter-revolutionary forces, known as the Whites.

Khrushchev did not join the Bolsheviks until 1918. His biographer, William Taubman, contends that Khrushchev’s “claim that he determined his ideological position immediately after October 1917 is just plain false. In fact, Khrushchev probably felt closer to the Mensheviks, with their emphasis on economic improvement, than to the Bolsheviks, who sought political power at any cost. After all, the Mensheviks’ main constituency was better-off workers with something to lose, and Khrushchev was one of them. As long as the moderates were in control, he had plenty to gain. Only after the Bolsheviks took control and seemed most likely to beat back attempts at counter-revolution did Khrushchev come down on their side”. (Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, 2003)

After the defeat of the Whites and the end of the civil war, Khrushchev worked his way up the increasingly Stalinist hierarchy in Ukraine and then Russia. As early as 1932, Khrushchev cultivated an admiring relationship with Stalin. He rose rapidly through party ranks and by 1935 became first secretary of its Moscow Regional Committee, and a member of the Central Committee. In the same year, he received the Order of Lenin from Stalin for his role supervising the construction of the Moscow metro system – built at a frantic pace at great cost to workers’ lives.

Show trials and purges

Despite his later attempts to distance himself from Stalin’s crimes, Khrushchev supported the bloody purges of the 1930s and approved thousands of arrests. From 1934, Stalin began a campaign of political repression known as the ‘great purge’, during which millions of people were executed or sent to the gulag, the vast network of prisons and prison camps. Central to this were the Moscow trials, a series of show trials of top CPSU and military leaders.

In 1936, Khrushchev expressed his vehement support for the death penalty for the Old Bolsheviks, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev: “Everyone who rejoices in the successes achieved in our country, the victories of our party led by the great Stalin, will find only one word suitable for the mercenary, fascist dogs of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite gang. That word is execution”.

Leon Trotsky circa 1920

Khrushchev oversaw the purge of many friends and colleagues. Of 38 top party officials in and around Moscow city, 35 were killed. Of the 146 party secretaries in the Moscow province, only ten survived the purges. According to Taubman, in 1937 the Politburo gave Khrushchev a quota of 35,000 ‘enemies of the people’ to be arrested, with 5,000 to be executed. He enthusiastically exceeded orders, arresting 41,000, with 8,500 facing ‘liquidation’, and requested that 20,000 ex-kulaks (wealthy peasants) who had fled to the Moscow region should be added.

Notwithstanding his craven displays of loyalty to Stalin, Khrushchev feared his own past. He had briefly joined an oppositionist group in the Donbass in the 1920s, and was afraid this might prove fatal, as it had for many others. “In 1923, when I was studying at the workers’ training programme, I was guilty of Trotskyite wavering… I was distracted by Kharechko, who was a rather well-known Trotskyite… I didn’t stop to analyse various tendencies… all I knew was this was a man who had fought for the people before the revolution, fought for workers and peasants”, Khrushchev wrote in this memoirs. In 1937 he confessed to Stalin. The dictator ‘advised’ him to tell the Moscow CP conference. Khrushchev did so, to applause, and was re-elected to his post.

The second world war

Khrushchev was sent by Stalin to govern Ukraine in 1938, where he continued the purges. Following Stalin’s notorious pact with Hitler (August 1939), Soviet forces occupied part of eastern Poland (in western Ukraine today), where a large number of ethnic Ukrainians lived. Soon after being incorporated into the Soviet Union, these western Ukrainians were alienated by the heavy-handed actions of the Soviet officialdom, for example, by staffing their organisations with eastern Ukrainians.

After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), Khrushchev was again a commissar, serving as an intermediary between Stalin and his generals. The purges had exterminated the bulk of the Red Army general staff, including its most talented officers. This meant that the USSR was unprepared for the Nazi onslaught. According to Taubman, Khrushchev started to question the infallibly of the ‘great leader’, as Stalin’s irrational military decisions led to the deaths of thousands of Red Army soldiers.

In the secret speech Khrushchev said: “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. 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”. After recovering from its shock and paralysis at Hitler’s invasion, the Soviet government evacuated human and material resources on an enormous scale and reorganised the war industry. The heroic determination of the working class to defend their country against invasion and the gains of the revolution decided the outcome of the struggle with Nazism.

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. The planned economy was defended against Hitler, and this was followed by the extension of Stalinist regimes to eastern Europe, and by the 1949 Chinese revolution. These regimes were not healthy workers’ states but were modelled on Stalinist Russia. In turn, the new Stalinist regimes greatly strengthened the Moscow regime.

The main reason for the endurance of the Stalinist bureaucracy throughout this period was that it succeeded in developing the productive forces, although fear of the dictatorship continued. From a backward, largely agricultural country, Russia had been transformed into the world’s second industrial power and a formidable military rival to US imperialism.

Khrushchev was recalled to Moscow in December 1949 as one of Stalin’s close advisers. The ageing and ever more paranoid Stalin was planning another bloody purge that would have led to chaos in society – and threatened the general interests of the ruling bureaucracy – just as the country was recovering from the war.

The thaw turns to flood

On 5 March 1953, however, Stalin suddenly died (quite possibly murdered), provoking a power struggle. Many top officials realised that reforms were needed from above to prevent revolution from below. Ferment among the intelligentsia and sections of workers was spreading. Huge protests had shaken the Stalinist regime in East Germany and uprisings were taking place in Soviet labour camps – and were bloodily crushed. Within weeks of Stalin’s death, Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious chief of the NKVD secret police, ordered an amnesty for a million prisoners, began to end forced labour, and banned extraction of confessions by torture.

It was those favouring ‘reform’, headed by Khrushchev, who succeeded in taking power. Even though the bureaucracy was terrified of the movement that the ‘thaw’ might unleash, it was not possible to continue to rule in the old ways through mass terror. The USSR was no longer the primitive economy of the past. Around half the population now lived in towns and cities; millions of workers were educated and had access to culture. Khrushchev and his allies moved against the top hard-line Stalinists. The most draconian laws were removed, although political prisoners were still held. Beria was shot.

Khrushchev’s speech at the closed session of the 20th CPSU congress marked the start of the so-called ‘de-Stalinisation’ period. But Khrushchev still sought to present Stalin as a necessary, historic figure. During a 1957 Central Committee plenum, at which Khrushchev moved against rivals and the meeting discussed Stalin’s terror in detail, he made the crude outburst: “All of us taken together aren’t worth Stalin’s shit!”

As Khrushchev feared, the thaw opened the floodgates. In June 1956, the Polish masses rose. A general strike in Poznan during the summer was crushed, but protests spread throughout the country in October. Workers’ councils were set up in the factories. But the movement was taken over by the CP, under the leadership of Wladyslaw Gomulka, who called for ‘reform’ and national ‘independence’. Satisfied that the Polish working class would not come to power, Khrushchev arrived at a compromise with Gomulka.

Much greater problems loomed for Khrushchev. In October 1956 the Hungarian revolution saw workers’ revolutionary committees established. Khrushchev and the ruling bureaucracy knew that, had the revolution succeeded, it would have acted as a mighty inspiration to the Soviet working class and numbered the days of Stalinist rule in Russia. For this reason, the revolution was drowned in blood.

The conditions in Hungary were advantageous for a successful political revolution: the working class overthrowing bureaucratic rule and introducing workers’ democratic control and management of the planned economy. Faced with the uprising, the bureaucracy split. Thousands of CP members joined the revolution. The government was paralysed and real power was in the hands of the workers’ councils.

Moscow could not rely on the Soviet troops in Hungary, who fraternised with the revolutionaries. They were replaced with troops from Russia’s far-east, who were told that they were being sent to Berlin to put down a fascist revolt. Despite overwhelming odds, the Hungarian workers fought heroically, holding two general strikes and two armed insurrections.

The key missing factor in Hungary, however, was a revolutionary, internationalist party – like the Bolsheviks in 1917 – to secure victory for the working class and to make a revolutionary appeal to the workers of eastern Europe and the USSR. The revolution was eventually crushed at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

Khrushchev’s highs and lows

As well as deploying repression, Khrushchev and the bureaucracy were able to stabilise their power due to the real achievements of the planned economy. A massive house building programme, nicknamed ‘Khrushchyovka’ – low-cost, three- to five-storied apartment buildings – replaced overcrowded communal dwellings. Russia launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, followed by the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961. On the basis of growth rates of 10%, Khrushchev claimed that Russia would overtake the United States by 1980. “We will bury you!” he boasted in October 1961.

Despite the monstrous deformation of Stalinist society, the planned economy had developed industry, science and technique to a point where the material conditions existed to begin to move in the direction of socialism. As Karl Marx explained, this requires a workers’ state to reach a level of development at least as high as the most advanced capitalist country. But that could never be realised as long as the bureaucracy – an enormous burden on the backs of the working class – continued its misrule, acting as an impassable barrier to the further development of society.

Khrushchev also projected Soviet power abroad. The two superpowers came close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The capitalist powers and media portrayed Khrushchev as having blinked first by withdrawing missiles from Cuba. But he also won plaudits among many workers internationally for his stance, which forced the US to remove missiles from Turkey as well as to pledge not to attack Cuba.

However, even in the early 1960s, the crisis of Stalinism was evident in agriculture, the Achilles heel of the economy. Khrushchev’s top-down, grandiose policies, including planting maize in unsuitable regions, only exacerbated problems. A poor harvest in 1963 saw Russia importing wheat from the west and problems supplying bread, causing unrest to spread. These events convinced the terrified bureaucracy that Khrushchev’s ‘reforms’ were endangering the whole system, and that he had to be got rid of.

Conspirators led by Leonid Brezhnev assailed Khrushchev for his policy failures and erratic behaviour. They strongly objected to his order that one-third of party committee members be replaced at each election. On 14 October 1964, the presidium and Central Committee voted to accept Khrushchev’s ‘voluntary’ request to retire from office due to ‘advanced age and ill health’. In a matter of days, the ‘beloved leader’ became a pensioned-off ‘non-person’. When he died in 1971, Khrushchev was denied a state burial and interment in the Kremlin.

Capitalist rule returns

Brezhnev’s rule became known as a period of stagnation. Bureaucratic methods were incompatible with the introduction of new technology and new productive techniques. The task facing the working class was to wrest power from the bureaucrats and to run the planned economy democratically. Such tasks require the existence of a revolutionary party. However, independent workers’ organisations did not even exist in the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Workers, angry at the lavish lifestyles of the bureaucrats, and at their own worsening living conditions, grew more restive and demanded democracy and a better life. Realising that, unless reforms were made from the top, revolution would break out from below, the bureaucracy chose Gorbachev as CPSU general secretary in 1985, and head of state in 1988 – until Stalinism’s collapse in 1991. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) only whetted the appetite of the masses for more democratic rights and rising living standards.

In the 1930s, Trotsky had predicted that either the working class would overthrow the bureaucracy and once more assume power or capitalism would defeat the planned economy. Elements of both possibilities existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The mass movements of workers across Russia and eastern Europe, and their potential to establish genuine socialism, terrified both the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union and capitalist powers in the west. In the absence of a viable revolutionary socialist alternative, however, these struggles, while bringing about the end of Stalinism, resulted in the restoration of the market economy.

Workers in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe paid a very heavy price, enduring the horrors of capitalism: mass unemployment, the destruction of industries and wholesale privatisation, a massive collapse in living standards and life expectancy, wars and conflicts, outbreaks of nationalism and ethnic hatreds, and the rise of the oligarchs alongside grotesque inequality. Meanwhile, the fall of the Soviet Union provided the triumphalist defenders of capitalism with a golden opportunity to go on the offensive against the ideas of ‘communism’, Marxism and socialism.

Yet two decades later, the peace and prosperity they promised under capitalism have failed to materialise for the vast majority of society. Capitalist economic crisis and austerity are providing the yeast for anti-capitalist sentiment. Young people, in particular, are beginning to look to the ideas of socialism. This can be seen in the US around the presidential nomination campaign of the ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders and in Britain with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.

As in 1917 the working class, youth and oppressed need their own independent mass organisations to resist capitalism and to fight for a socialist society. In doing so, they will find that the objective conditions for real socialism – not the hideous bureaucratic deformation of Stalinism – are hugely more favourable than the situation that faced the Bolsheviks in 1917. The enormous development of the productive forces on a world scale, and modern communications, provide the basis for system change globally, and for the development of a genuinely socialist society run by and for the working class.

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