Skip to Content

Twenty Years Since Stalin

The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. (Engels)

Our system is state capitalism . . . (Russian underground leaflet)

It is now twenty years since March 1953 when Stalin died. High time to review trends in Russia, the so-called "Socialist camp" ― the prison camp society with a state-capitalist economy. A brief sketch of the Stalinist era will help to give the reader some understanding of the developments of the last twenty years.

Stalin became Lenin's successor largely due to his success in putting his own men in key information posts. Once in power he ruthlessly eliminated the political opposition: the Trotskyists and other opposition factions followed one another into the silence of the camps or were butchered by the G.P.U.

Bolshevik despotism relied on the same instrument of oppression as had done the Tsarist state: a secret police force, especially skilled at spying on nascent opposition movements and strangling them at birth. In Tsarist times this was the Okhrana; Lenin founded its successor, the Cheka, in December 1917. In February 1922 the name changed to G.P.U. and again in 1934 to N.K.Y.D. Nowadays it is called the K.G.B: tomorrow yet another euphemistic title will be coined. In a despotic or totalitarian State, such institutions will always be indispensable.

Stalin fought another, more desperate, undeclared civil war with the peasants. In a letter to Sholokhov, Stalin himself wrote that the peasants "in reality were making a 'silent' war against Soviet power . . . War by starvation". During the Revolution the peasants had been able to seize land for themselves and, when land-nationalisation (collectivization) was proposed, they resisted as only peasants can. In January 1930 Stalin decreed full steam ahead with collectivization and the simultaneous elimination of the kulaks (useless to define a kulak since anyone could be labelled kulak who was awkward).

The result was chaos and years of famine, even in the best agricultural regions. Some ten million people appear to have died in the Thirties: from starvation disease or liquidation, who can say? Meat consumption dropped by 50-75 per cent. whilst the country's grain requirements were barely satisfied. Peasants slaughtered their livestock and destroyed corn and hayricks.

These twin themes ― the ruthless suppression of political opposition and appalling agricultural shortages ― continue to trouble state-capitalist Russia even now.

Stalin's purges continued even through the War. In his time (ably assisted by Communist Party bureaucrats) he eliminated masses of peasants and intellectuals, Baptists and Marxists, Jews and atheists, generals and doctors and engineers: all were grist for his mill and no-one felt safe. At the time of his death he had just launched the biggest and best-ever purge of them all, aimed mainly against the Jews. As many powerful members of the Politbureau at the time were Jewish or had Jewish connections it is reasonable to speculate that they may have had every reason for eliminating him.

After Stalin's death in March 1953, Malenkov at first was in power; then in June Beria, head of the secret police, tried to become Stalin's heir but was eliminated (murdered). By September Khrushchev had become First Secretary of the Party while Malenkov remained Premier. At this stage they were all still good Stalinists. Malenkov cultivated a fairly liberal image while Khrushchev allied himself with Molotov, Kaganovich and other hard-core Stalinists ― as was only natural considering his remarkable and ruthless record as Party boss of the Ukraine.

By 1955 Khrushchev succeeded in ousting Malenkov and installed his own ally, Bulganin, as Premier. The new regime now adopted a more liberal image with "peaceful coexistence" abroad and an improvement in the standard of living at home. Then in February 1956 Khrushchev launched an attack on his enemies in the Party under cover of "de-Stalinisation". This speech, made at the XXth Congress of the CPSU remained secret, restricted to Party members and key bureaucrats, and although widely published in the West, it has never been published in Russia.

The Communist Party was split internally on the de-Stalinisation issue, and after the Politbureau vote against Khrushchev in June and the Hungarian and Polish revolts (autumn 1956), the Kremlin was torn by an internal power struggle. Throughout the Khrushchev era powerful forces in the Establishment fought de-Stalinisation which represented a threat to their positions.

Khrushchev made his second anti-Stalin speech five years after the XXth Congress. In his speech to the XXIInd Congress, which was widely published in Russia and Eastern Europe, he indicted the "anti-Party faction" as responsible for Stalinist repression. A typical case of the pot calling the kettle black! This speech shocked and startled Russians. Party morale became very low and from now on Khrushchev's position became even more precarious until in 1964, after the catastrophic crop-failure of 1963, he was finally ousted by Brezhnev and Kosygin.

During the Khrushchev decade, Party control of the arts had been, to put it mildly, erratic. Khrushchev himself authorised, indeed insisted on the publication of Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in November 1962 as part of his campaign against his party opponents. Yet Khrushchev himself declared war on avant-garde artists on December 1st. In foreign affairs the most significant factors were the Cuba crisis and worsening relations with China, culminating in the open split of June 1961.

But far more important in causing Khrushchev's downfall was his failure in the economic sphere. Agricultural production was misdirected, the price levels for meat and milk being set too low in 1958 with resultant under-production in relation to demand. So in June 1962 Khrushchev decreed big price rises ― butter prices went up 25 per cent and meat 30 per cent. The inevitable result was widespread unrest and riots in many cities, notably Novocherkassk where demonstrators were shot by armed police. Another important result was that the collectives transferred their efforts to livestock, neglecting grain production. This in turn ― combined with a bad drought ― resulted in a catastrophic shortage of grain in 1963. It proved necessary to import large amounts of wheat from abroad ― another serious blow to Khrushchev's prestige and an open demonstration that the most strictly State-run economy was uncontrollable, being subject to the anarchic laws of the market. Since 1917 there have been regular famines and grain shortages in Russia, the worst occurring in 1922-23, 1932, 1942, 1952, 1962-3 and the current crisis of 1972-73. It made no difference changing the boss: the system is basically uncontrollable.

The Khrushchev era then had unleashed bitter criticisms among the writers who began to smell freedom and when the State publishing houses refused their work, they started samizdat (Do-It-Yourself Publishing), refusing to be controlled by the Party. At the same time Khrushchev had failed to solve Russia's continuing agricultural problems.

What has been happening since Khrushchev's departure from the Kremlin? It is impossible to detect significant change either on the liberalisation issue or in agricultural policies. Just as Khrushchev was truly Stalin's heir in his insistence that art must serve the Party's interests, so today, in Pravda editorials on culture, we recognise the same ruling class view of art as subordinate to the interests of the State:

"Soviet artists were together with Lenin's party and the people . . . they gave all the strength of their talent to the great cause of communism. And this active participation . . . in the construction of a new life earned for Soviet cultural workers the love and respect of the people, made them the trusty assistants of the party . . . the raising of the ideological and theoretical level of literary and artistic criticism, its militancy and party principle basis ... To augment the glorious traditions of socialist art, leaning on the Leninist principles of party thinking and closeness to the people, to strengthen its offensive spirit ― these are a matter of honour for every Soviet artist." (Front-page editorial, Pravda, Jan. 25, 1973)

In 1966 Brezhnev-Kosygin passed two laws designed to make "spreading slanderous inventions about the Soviet State and social system", and "disturbance of public order" punishable offences. These were directly aimed at the new generation of oppositionists who were disseminating attacks on the régime in samizdat, who were demonstrating in Moscow squares and even allying themselves with increasingly militant workers (see January SOCIALIST STANDARD which carries a translated leaflet calling on workers to strike against the "Partocracy" which exploits them).

Since then more and more poets have been imprisoned or brainwashed in psychiatric prisons, more and more critics of the régime have been exiled or sent to those selfsame concentration camps that Lenin first devised and where so many of their predecessors sowed the bitter need of frustration. The secret police is as strong as ever, and so is the Kremlin.

And that other perennial theme of crop-failures? No change there either. Today in 1973 Russian agriculture is yet again facing a crisis. Last year's harvest was a flop: significantly the post-mortems in the Russian press ascribe this to inefficiency, misuse of machinery and waste on the farms, rather than to indifferent weather. Last year Russia had to import 28 million tons grain from various western countries ― 18 million tons from America alone. Yet 60 years ago, pre-Revolutionary statistics showed Russia to be a major grain exporter: "Grain exports in 1913 exceeded the grain exports of Argentina by 177 per cent., of Canada by 211 per cent. and of U.S.A. by 366 per cent." (Bulletin of the International Agricultural Institute, Rome 1914, quoted in Posev Dec. 1972 from Tsarisme et Révolution by A. de Goulevitch, Paris 1931).

And not only was last year's crop a failure but this year's prospects are exceedingly precarious. The unusually late snowfall will have partly destroyed the spring corn and this, combined with extreme shortage of seed-corn in many areas, will mean a pretty poor harvest in 1973. Only too true the admission in a recent pamphlet published by the Soviet authorities that "at the stage of socialist [i.e. state capitalist] society there are not the means to satisfy man's needs to the full" (USSR Living Standards).

We must not leave unchallenged the misuse of the term "socialism" for a state-capitalist society, a vast prison-state which treats its workers as "mere working cattle" without pity for their poverty and stoical suffering; a "Partocracy" where each and every little Party bureaucrat lines his pocket with loot; an economy which operates successfully only insofar as its wheels are greased with graft and corruption, wire-pulling, intrigue and blackmail.

One significant change there is since Stalin's days. Russia used to be relatively immune to inflation. However this infectious disease of the capitalist system, endemic in postwar Europe and America, is now reported to be rampant in Russia. As the Eisenhower administration commented to their Kremlin opposite numbers:

"The President is aware that you operate under a system of State capitalism, and he hopes that it has been useful to you to have seen the progress of our people under our system of individual capitalism. We are sure that you have found this experience interesting."(Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1959, quoted in SPGB Pamphlet RUSSIA 1917-1967)

The problems of capitalism are the same the world over. Whether the Kremlin bosses recognise their system as state capitalism or not, the workers in their country are learning fast that this system has nothing to offer them. The Russian proletariat in farms and factories, the internees doing forced labour on starvation rations in the KGB concentration camp empire (about 4 million at Stalin's death: how many now?) and the unemployed who have no unemployment pay since the régime will not admit that there is any unemployment: they have found this experience interesting indeed and they are stirring with a bitter anger. We wish the exploited people of Russia success in their struggles against the Partocracy which owns and controls the wealth of their country and which crushes them beneath its iron heal.

C.S.