Theory: 50 years since the death of Stalin 1

The death of Joseph Stalin, took place half a century ago this month. However the anniversary has been largely covered in a superficial manner in the international media. Although the press has spent much time recording the terrible crimes of Stalinism and providing psychological profiles of the absolute ruler, little or no attempt is made to seriously analyse the reasons for the rise of the phenomena of the totalitarian system he headed. Furthermore an attempt is being made with the anniversary to once again besmirch the banner of genuine socialism as commentators try to paint a direct link between Stalinism and socialism. As we saw after the collapse of the Stalinist states in the early 1990s, the capitalist class and their spokespeople will strive to use the horrors of Stalinism to convince the working class that there is no point in struggling to change society as all efforts to build socialism ’end up’ with tyranny and economic collapse.

50 years since the death of Stalin.


Stalinism and Bolshevism

Twenty years of Stalinist degeneration

Letter to the workers of the USSR

Only the ideas of genuine socialism can explain the nature of Stalinism


On the contrary, only the ideas of genuine Marxism, and especially the analysis made by Leon Trotsky in the 1920s and 1930s, can reveal the reasons behind the rise and eventual collapse of Stalinism, one of the most reactionary and counter revolutionary forces ever witnessed in world history. Only these ideas can show a way out of the crisis of capitalism today, towards the creation of a genuinely socialist society free of all oppression, exploitation.

To explain the nature of Stalinism, we are carrying three pieces of Trotsky’s writings that brilliantly describe the process of the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917, its subsequent degeneration and the rise of a powerful counter revolutionary bureaucracy led by Stalin (an excerpt from the book ’Revolution Betrayed’ and two short articles, ’Twenty years of Stalinist degeneration’ and ’Letter to the workers of the USSR’).

The Russian Revolution marked the most important event in world history: the first time the working class came to power, abolished capitalism and began to run society. The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, which in turn were led by Lenin and Trotsky. During the year 1917, Stalin, played only a minor role in events, despite the attempts later on by cringing Stalinist academics to rewrite history (removing Trotsky’s pivotal role, and falsely enhancing Stalin’s).

However facing harsh economic and social conditions and a hostile capitalist encirclement, the young Soviet state, from the beginning was under siege. The Red Army, organised by Trotsky, fought and defeated the twenty-one armies of capitalism at the gates of the revolution but at a huge cost in terms of the power and cohesion of the working class in a country dominated by the peasantry.

Lenin and Trotsky argued that only by spreading the revolution to the West could Soviet democracy survive and socialism triumph. This internationalist approach was the inspiration behind the founding of the Third International in 1919. But for a variety of reasons the first waves of revolution in Western Europe following the inspiring example of 1917 went down to defeat, further isolating Russia.

The struggle against the rise of Stalinism

Lenin and Trotsky were compelled to fight the growing power of the bureaucrats, who found fertile soil in conditions of backwardness. Stalin was to play the key role in representing and articulating the narrow, selfish interests of the bureaucracy. Lenin had warned the Soviet communist party about Stalin – his ruthlessness and rudeness, his dismissal of the rights of national minorities and party members – and argued, unsuccessfully, that he should be replace from the powerful position of party general secretary.

In the 1920s, Trotsky organized the Left Opposition, which fought against the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The bureaucracy gained strength in conditions of backwardness, famine, and economic collapse. The working class was exhausted and decimated by war, revolution and civil war.

As Trotsky explained, in a situation of general shortages the bureaucrats played the role of policing rationing. This gave them increasing power and influence. The exhausted working class was less and less able to hold these officials to account and to control the growth of bureaucrats in all spheres of life.

The forces of genuine Bolshevism, led by Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition (after Lenin’s death in 1924) fought to the end to resist the counter-revolution and to restore workers’ democracy. But faced with extremely hazardous social and economic conditions and the delay of socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, working class opposition went down to bloody defeat at the hands of Stalinism.

In the first piece we present today, taken from the masterpiece, Revolution Betrayed (1937), Trotsky succinctly describes how Stalin found himself at the helm of a new parasitic caste:

"The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak [rich peasants] and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.

"It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorian bureaucracy, as first in its midst." (Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 5).

Trotsky explained that the Stalinist regime that had seized power in Russia had done away with all remnants of workers’ democracy in a bloody counter-revolution. Nevertheless there was not a return to capitalism. The new ruling strata based itself on the state owned economy, from where it drew its perks, power and privileges. Despite the bureaucracy, the planned economy meant huge social gains for the working class, although at a terrible cost in terms of human life and general wastage. Trotsky defended the economic foundations of the USSR but gave no measure of support to the bureaucracy. In fact, as he pointed out, the only way to preserve what was left of the gains of 1917 was to overthrow the bureaucracy and to restore workers’ democracy over society, this was the essential programme of the political revolution needed to open the way to genuine socialism.

Excesses and disasters of Stalinist policies

The excesses and wild swings of Stalinist policy were reflected in all fields. Most disastrously, in agriculture, Stalin, who previously leaned on the rich peasants (the Kulaks) turned on them ruthlessly as their increasing wealth and power threatened the stability of the regime. Stalin introduced a ’five year plan’ in agriculture. Trotsky and the Left Opposition had been condemned earlier by the ruling clique for calling for the collectivisation of agricultural production, which they said had to be undertaken in a sensitive and voluntary manner. Characteristically, under Stalin, collectivisation was introduced in a violent and forced way, resulting in huge economic chaos and famine.

In international affairs the rising bureaucracy also followed a characteristic zig-zag policy, which increasingly reflected their national narrow interests, rather than the interests of proletarian internationalism, at any given stage. So, at first, when the bureaucracy was still finding its way to power, Stalin and key Third International figures like Zinoviev, advocated both ultra left and opportunist policies for revolutionary struggles in a series of countries, including in Germany, China and Britain. This fatally undermined the prospects of victory and weakened or shipwrecked the national communist parties. Later, when the Stalinists had fully seized power and were consciously opposed to world revolution (which they correctly feared would led to a workers’ revolt in the Soviet Union), Stalin and his lieutenants put forward the ideas of ’popular fronts’ involving the workers’ mass organisations and the ’progressive’ capitalists, which also ended in bloody defeats for the working class as in Spain.

With the defeat of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s, the German revolution to Hitler, and the defeat of the Spanish revolution in the 1930s to Franco – all under the ’guidance’ of Stalin and the reactionary clique ruling the Kremlin – the Stalinist bureaucracy and its counter-revolutionary policy of ’socialism in one country’ (the abandonment of world socialist revolution) was enormously strengthened.

In the 1930s, Stalin launched his infamous Show Trials, leading to the ’confessions’ of many Old Bolsheviks for absurd ’counter revolutionary crimes’ and the annihilation of countless working class oppositionists. Stalin had to wipe away all traces of the ideals of the October 1917 revolution to consolidate the power of the bureaucracy.

After the Third International’s complete failure to even debate why the German Communist Party has been incapable of even fighting a serious rearguard struggle against Hitler’s seizure of power Trotsky drew the conclusion to abandon any hopes of renewing it and to instead strive to build a new, Fourth, International.

The work to establish the Fourth International meant assembling workers and youth under a clear banner that implacably fought capitalism and fascism and for a socialist revolution in the capitalist countries, and which struggled for a political revolution to overthrow the reactionary bureaucracy that had seized power in Russia. The other two articles by Trotsky posted today (’Twenty years of Stalinist degeneration’ and ’Letter to the workers of the USSR’) were written in the late 1930s, and although penned at a time of huge defeats for the working class, at the hands of Stalin and also fascism, they also shine bright with Trotsky’s undiminished optimism.

In August 1939, Stalin signed a ’non aggression pact’ with Hitler. This desperate and cynical bid to keep the Soviet Union out of war failed disastrously. In June 1941, Hitler mounted a huge attack and made big territorial incursions into Russia. The Red Army, massively weakened by widespread purges, was initially swept aside.

After World War Two, Stalinist apologists attempted to portray Stalin’s role in the war as crucial to Soviet victory over Nazism. Nothing could be further from the truth; the purge trials so weakened the Red Army that Hitler came close to victory. It was the heroism of the people of the Soviet Union, defending the social and economic gains of the October Revolution against Nazi barbarism, and the superiority of the planned economy (directed towards war demands) that led to the defeat of the Nazi armed forces – despite the burden of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Over 25 million people died in the conflict.

Despite the role of Stalin and his coterie, Stalinism emerged enormously strengthened after the war, with new Stalinist regimes emerging in Eastern Europe. This came about due to the vacuum left after the fall of Nazism, the victorious march of the Red Army and the inability of capitalism to take society forward in these countries. The extension of Stalinism across Eastern Europe and later, on the basis of the blind alley of capitalism and landlordism, in parts of Asia and Africa, helped to strengthen its appeal for a period of time.

The antagonism between an emboldened Stalinism, resting on a planned nationalised economy, and the major capitalist nations, two fundamentally opposed social systems, soon led to the development of the Cold War

In this global context, the Moscow bureaucracy was keen to find props of support but not to promote socialism. In advanced capitalist countries its followers acted as a brake on struggles, such as those in France in 1968, Chile in 1973 and Portugal in 1975, which could have overthrown capitalism. In the ex-colonial world the communist parties derailed mass revolutionary struggles with their programme of subordinating the working class and poor peasantry to so-called ’progressive’ wings of the ruling classes. Many struggles went down to bloody defeat as was seen in Indonesia and Sudan.

Death of the ’Great Leader’

Stalin died in 1953 when the system he presided over appeared to be strong. After decades of state propaganda around the ’cult of the personality’ big sections of the Soviet population even considered Stalin a god-like figure. Stalinist leaders would in later years declare that the Soviet Union would over take the richest capitalist nations.

Many praised Stalin by pointing to the economic transformation of the Soviet Union as its economy enormously grew in the 1930s and after the Second World War. But this growth was the result of the advantages of the planned economy, not Stalin. But, as Trotsky had brilliantly predicted, under totalitarian rule the nationalised economy would eventually seize up and stagnate as it became more developed. A planned economy needs the oxygen of workers’ democracy. Either the working class would overthrow the parasitic bureaucracy and take power through a political revolution, or economic collapse would lead to capitalist restoration.

The possibility of a political revolution was borne out when Soviet armed forces rolled into the Hungary in 1956 to crush a workers’ uprising against Stalinism. During that heroic revolt the working class of Hungary were groping towards a political revolution, that is, the removal of the despotic regime and the introduction of workers’ democracy over the planned economy and society as a whole.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were mass movements in many Stalinist states against the ruling cliques. Initially, as was particularly seen in East Germany, many of the protesters were fighting against the privileged elites and for democratic rights, demands Trotsky had outlined in the struggle against the rise of Stalinism. Unfortunately, without a far-sighted leadership, the potential for political revolution was lost. The West was experiencing a boom at that time (albeit one sided and at the expense of workers’ living conditions), which gave the illusion that a return to the market economy was the solution to economic stagnation in the East. Capitalist restoration was achieved in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This has been proved to be a cruel trick for the masses of the former Stalinist states – living standards in these states suffered an unprecedented drop in the following ten years.

Although for a number of unforeseen factors Stalinism lasted much longer than Trotsky had anticipated, the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European states in 1989-1991 confirmed his analysis that the choice before the Stalinist states was, ultimately between a political revolution or a restoration of capitalism.

The restoration of capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe has been an unmitigated disaster for working people, as Trotsky had long ago predicted. It has led to an unprecedented collapse in living standards and severe social and cultural regression.

Only the ideas and methods of genuine socialism can show a way out for the mass of people in the former Stalinist states. These are the ideas that the CWI fights for all across the world, including in the former Soviet Union and in the other former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe.

Unlike Russia in 1917, the balance of forces today is much more in favour of the international working class, which is incomparably larger and stronger. Yet, the lessons of Stalin’s life and legacy should serve as a lesson to the international working class movement: only proletarian democracy and internationalism, as central aspects of the socialist struggle to change society, can see the end of capitalism and the true flowering of a genuine socialist democracy.

Note. There have been repeated rumours that Stalin was actually murdered by his own followers, who considered him insane and out of control. They feared he was threatening to begin a new pogrom against Russian Jews, thereby hugely destabilising the state.

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March 2003