Some 30 years ago, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time as the Soviet Union collapsed on 25 December 1991.1 Yet, although that Stalinist regime is dead, Stalinism continues to cast a long shadow on the left.
By “Stalinism”, I do not just mean the years when Stalin was the Soviet Union’s undisputed despot, between 1928 to 1953. The term describes the Soviet Union’s system between 1928 and its collapse in 1991, as well as the politics of Communist parties around the world. The period was a counter-revolutionary rupture with the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the working class seized power and briefly ran society. The International Socialist political tradition associated with this journal identified the Soviet Union from 1928 as a “bureaucratic state capitalist” society where workers had no control. After the Second World War, Stalin’s tanks forced the same model on Eastern Europe—and other officially “socialist” states such as China adopted forms of state capitalism.
In Britain today, Stalinism refers to itself as “Marxism-Leninism”, although, in fact, it is born out of a sharp break with Karl Marx and Lenin. Some young socialists are attracted to Stalinism’s seemingly militant rejection of capitalism and imperialism. The Young Communist League (YCL) has grown in the last few years in Britain. Most recently, it had significant blocs on the People’s Assembly march on the Tory conference in Manchester in October 2021 and at the Cop26 mobilisation in Glasgow the following month.2 Its new intake “have a very anti-revisionist, pro-Stalin, position”.3 “Tankie” Tik Tok videos and Stalinist meme pages abound online.4
Many of these openly hold up Stalin—a murderous dictator who drowned in blood all the gains of Russia’s socialist revolution of 1917—as a hero who advanced socialism. So much so, that even the leadership of the Communist Party of Britain, which was founded by hardline supporters of the Soviet Union in 1988, was forced to put out a social media instruction aimed at the YCL. It called on party members to tone down “adulation of Stalin and support for the substantial abuses of state power that occurred under his leadership”.5
Beyond the ranks of Stalinist organisations, many left wingers have illusions in officially “socialist” states, past and present. They argue that the Soviet Union and its satellites were, if not a model for socialism, at least more progressive than Western capitalism. This stretches from pointing to public health and education policies to far-fetched claims that those societies were bringing sexual liberation. Kristen Ghodsee’s Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism—And Other Arguments for Economic Independence is the best known example of a growing body of work that claims women were better off under what she calls “state socialism” in the Eastern Bloc.6
Faced with the horrors of the imperialism of the United States—the greatest plunderer and threat to peace in the world—sections of the left argue the Soviet Union was a “counterbalance” to US power. Here, they claim, was a power that supported struggles for national liberation and against colonialism in the Global South. In reality, Stalinist foreign policy was never based on anti-imperialism. For instance, the Soviet Union supported the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the French Communist Party ultimately failed to support Algeria’s anti-colonial freedom struggle in the late 1950s.7
What’s behind the Stalinist revival?
There are three main reasons for the resurgence of Stalinism; some are specific to Britain, some more general. First, it takes place against the backdrop of the failures of left reformist projects, particularly Jeremy Corbyn in Britain in 2019. There has been a growth of anti-capitalist ideas over the past decade, but the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left is not large enough to hegemonise this.
The leap that some young “Corbynistas” have made from the Labour Party to Stalinist politics—whether that’s joining the YCL or glorifying Stalinist regimes—is not as great as it may appear. In The Two Souls of Socialism, US Marxist Hal Draper argued that both Stalinism and social democracy were forms of “socialism from above”:
These two self-styled socialisms are very different, but they have more in common than they think. Social democracy has typically dreamed of “socialising” capitalism from above. Its principle has always been that increased state intervention in society and economy is intrinsically socialistic. It bears a fatal family resemblance to the Stalinist conception of imposing something called socialism from the top down, and of equating statification with socialism.
So, a layer of people of have simply gone from one type of socialism from above to another. For some of those disillusioned with Labour’s inability to challenge the system and the left leadership’s failure to confront the party’s right, Stalinism can appear as a more militant variety of socialism from above. The classical Marxist view of socialism from below, however, involves a confrontation with the capitalist state and the establishment of organs of workers’ self-rule. As Draper says: “The heart of ‘socialism from below’ is that socialism can be realised only through the self-emancipation of activised masses in motion…in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny”.8 Both Labourism and Stalinism disregard this.
Second, there is now a far greater historical distance between our present moment and the horrors of Stalinism. This means it is far easier to view it as having been a socialist alternative to capitalism and imperialism, rather than a repressive regime.
Third, the US has been the world’s only superpower since the end of the Cold War in 1991. For anyone aged 30 or under, the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and its support for Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians have summed up imperialism.
The political tradition associated with this journal has always stood against US imperialism and for the right of oppressed peoples to fight back against it, whether it was Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Iraq in the 2000s or Palestine today. Furthermore, whenever there is a clash between rival imperialist powers—for instance, the US and China—we should begin by opposing our own rulers. In the words of the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht: “The main enemy is at home”.9 For those in the West, this means focusing on the crimes of the US and the Western imperialist alliance. However, revulsion at US imperialism can blur into seeing its rivals and enemies, such as China, as “anti-imperialist”. Such analyses tend to reduce imperialism to the relationships between Western imperialist powers and states in the Global South, rather than viewing it as a global system of competing capitalist states and capitals. Moreover, because some states are officially “socialist”, some decry any criticism of them as “pro-imperialist”.
Stalin’s river of blood
Many self-described “Marxist-Leninists” talk as if Stalin’s secret police only hunted down dispossessed aristocrats, former capitalists and imperialist spies who had it coming. The reality is that Stalin unleashed a full-blooded counter-revolution that swept away the remaining gains of October 1917. He murdered thousands of Bolshevik revolutionaries who had tried to keep hopes of a socialist society alive. They were purged, put on the stand in show trials, tortured and murdered in dank secret police cells, and herded to their deaths in freezing labour camps.
Out of the 1,588,852 Communist Party members on 1 March 1939, only 1.3 percent had been Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and only 8.3 percent when the Russian Civil War ended in 1920. Just one in 14 Bolshevik Party members in 1917, and one in six in 1920, were still in the Communist Party in 1939.10 About 90 percent of the leadership of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War in 1918-1920 were later purged as “fascists” and “traitors”.11 Tony Cliff, whose State Capitalism in Russia relied heavily on official Russian sources, explains that “the large-scale disappearance of the ‘old guard’ of the revolution cannot be explained by natural causes because the majority of party members in 1917 and 1920 were young”.12 Indeed, the “sheer magnitude of the ‘purges’ proved their sham nature… After all, if all those liquidated by Stalin had been ‘fascists’ and ‘traitors’, it is a mystery how they, compromising nine-tenths of the Bolshevik leadership…came to lead a socialist revolution.13
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in 1937 that the purges “draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood”.14 As a leader of the Left Opposition to Stalin, Trotsky had been banished from the Soviet Union in 1929, and a Stalinist agent assassinated him with an ice pick to the head in Mexico in 1940.
Hundreds of thousands of working-class people who fell foul of the regime faced its counter-revolutionary terror. Up to 20 million people, including five million political prisoners, passed through the 470 forced labour camps, or “gulags”, across the Soviet Union. By 1930, some 179,000 people were languishing in the gulags. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, that figure had risen to 2,468,524, having peaked three years earlier at 2,561,351.15 Around 2 million inmates died during this period. Nonetheless, the total number of people in the Soviet prison-industrial complex was actually higher than the gulag population, standing at around 26 million, with other forms of imprisonment, such as labour colonies and forced resettlement schemes, taken into account. Although mass incarceration eased off after Stalin’s death in 1953, 2,500 people were still sentenced to hard labour until 1986. In addition, Stalin’s repression of peasants—under the guise of liquidating the wealthier “kulaks”—triggered famines in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan and the Volga region in 1932-3. As many as seven million people died.16
This terror was more than just a catalogue of “abuses of state power”. Stalin saw it as a necessary element in his plans for rapid industrialisation so the Soviet Union could compete with the West. For instance, the gulags played a key role in the Soviet economy’s new Five Year Plans. Some 126,000 gulag inmates built the White Sea-Baltic Canal in northern Russia between 1931 and 1933. According to official figures, up to 25,000 of these labourers died.17
However, the gulags’ importance to the Soviet system exceeded their role as a source of slave labour for the economy. Gulags were part of a broader system of state repression. Lenin argued the state is “a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. Every state is “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another” and “the creation of “order”, which “legalises and perpetuates this oppression”.18
While forcing through industrialisation, the Stalinist bureaucracy forged a large working class. All of its industrial achievements came on the backs of workers, who had no say over the political and economic decisions that shaped their lives. The class interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the interests of workers were fundamentally different. In State Capitalism in Russia, Cliff explained that “the strengthening of the Russian state, its increasing totalitarianism, can only be the result of profound class antagonisms, not the victory of socialism”.19 Repression also served a function within the bureaucracy; without the discipline of market competition between firms, “the only means of ensuring efficiency…was terror directed at individual bureaucrats”.20
The subordination of the working class was at the heart of Stalinist labour laws. One resolution from the Communist Party’s central committee in September 1929 made clear that managers’ orders were “unconditionally binding on his subordinate administrative staff and on all workers”.21 In 1934, Mikhail Kaganovich, a Stalinist bureaucrat in the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, argued:
It is necessary above everything to strengthen “one man management”. It is necessary to proceed from the basic assumption that the director is the supreme chief in the factory. All employees in the factory must be subordinated to him.22
A system of internal passports and labour books, introduced after 1930, further strengthened labour discipline. Victor Serge, an anarchist who travelled to Russia and joined the Communists in 1919, described how the passport system worked:
With each change of employment, the reason for the change is entered into the passport. I have known of workers discharged for failing to come to work on the day of rest to contribute a “voluntary”, and naturally gratuitous, day of work. In their passport is written: “Discharged for sabotage of production plans.”
Trade unions, a basic organisation of working-class self-defence, became state appendages, disallowed from negotiating over wages.23 At a conference of managers in 1934, heavy industry minister Sergo Ordzhonikidze told his audience, “Wages are the most powerful weapon in your hands”.24 He could have been speaking at any bosses’ meeting in any capitalist country. A wages system based on piece rates—payment for each item produced—allowed the Soviet state to depress working-class living standards by raising production norms.
As the counter-revolutionary terror gathered pace, Stalin launched attacks on women’s and LGBT+ rights won by the 1917 Revolution. The regime saw the family as a key institution in sustaining and reproducing the workforce; therefore, in order to build up traditional family structures, it recriminalised homosexuality in 1934 and banned abortion in 1936. The new attitude was summed up by one Soviet judge who said women had no right to decline the “joys of motherhood”.25
In the Soviet Union the family “was central to the reproduction of the working class”, and “this shaped the subordinate role of women as workers and mothers”.26 The same is true for the Eastern Bloc after the Second World War.27 These Stalinist states, which were not the product of workers’ revolutions, “continued to rely on the family and women’s role within it for the reproduction of the working class”. Because of this, “women in the Eastern Bloc faced the same ‘double burden’ of housework and paid work outside the home as women in the West”.28
Russia 1917-28—from revolution to counter-revolution
A socialist revolution is not about a small group with berets and guns seizing power on behalf of the working class and declaring itself to be a new workers’ state. It is, in Trotsky’s words, “The forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”.29 The Russian Revolution of 1917 gave a glimpse of the potential of working-class people to run society without the bosses, bankers and landlords.
The bedrock of the revolution was the workers’ council, or “soviets” in Russian. These produced a much more thorough-going democracy than could exist under capitalism by handing democratic power over the workplace to workers.30 Landowners’ estates were broken up and handed to peasants. As the revolution turned society upside down, it unleashed human potential; there was a flourishing of creativity in art, architecture and literature, the sciences, psychology, education and many other fields. US socialist journalist John Reed, an eyewitness to 1917, wrote that “all Russia was learning to read, and reading politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know”. His Ten Days That Shook The World describes the scene as he and a group of Bolsheviks arrived at the front, where the futile First World War against Germany—which the revolution would soon end—was still being waged:
We came down to the front of the 12th Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches. When they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and the flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, “Did you bring anything to read?”31
There were also huge strides towards women’s and sexual liberation. Decades before the vast majority of capitalist countries such as Britain brought in mild reforms, Russia decriminalised homosexuality and women were guaranteed the right to divorce and to access abortion on demand. Such changes were more than just decrees from on high; ordinary people’s ideas changed during the course of the revolution. Alexandra Kollontai became the first woman in world history to become a government minister in a country in which, in some areas, husbands had until recently been permitted to whip their wives.32 Trotsky, a Jew, was elected chair of the vitally important Petrograd Soviet and recognised as a leading figure in the revolution despite the long and deep roots of antisemitism in Russia. Moroever, in a sharp break with the “Great Russian Chauvinism” pushed under Tsarism, the Soviet state gave the right to self-determination to the oppressed peoples that had been encaged inside the Russian Empire.
The reality of October 1917 shows a far richer and more democratic vision of revolution than either liberals can envisage or Stalinists can admit. The YCL, for instance, published the following account on the revolution’s 104th anniversary:
Bolshevik Red Guards took control of the Winter Palace and crushed their anti-communist White Guard opposition. Whereas the February Revolution saw the end of Tsarist rule, the October Revolution sought to unite Russia under one ideology—Marxism-Leninism. On this day, the Congress of Soviets was created, laying the framework for a new form of democracy previously unknown to the world.33
There are some bizarre factual errors here. First, the Congress of Soviets was not formed on the day of the revolution; in fact, the revolution drew its legitimacy and power from the soviet system rather than creating that system after the victorious insurrection. Second, the term “Marxism-Leninism” was a later Stalinist invention that did not exist at the time of the October Revolution. Furthermore, and far more importantly, this description of a remarkable moment of working-class self-emancipation makes it sound like one of the most boring and top-down affairs in history.
Discontent against the Tsarist dictatorship had been accelerating since the beginning of the slaughter of the First World War in 1914. Hundreds of thousands of peasant conscripts died in the meat grinder at the battlefront while hunger grew on the home front. The final reckoning with Tsarism would come in February 1917. Women textile workers, striking over bread prices on International Women’s Day, provided the spark. As Trotsky describes in his The History of the Russian Revolution:
The February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations. The initiative was taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat—the women textile workers… Overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings and encounters with the police.
The following day “the movement…doubled” with “about half of the industrial workers of Petrograd” on strike.34 The Tsar was forced to abdicate and a new power, the so-called Provisional Government, took charge. Led by liberals and “moderate” socialists, it aimed to turn Russia into a parliamentary democracy and develop a modern capitalist state. However, the working class had set up its own democratic organisations during the February Revolution. The soviets were based in working-class areas and made up of delegates from workplaces and soldiers’ garrisons. The Petrograd Soviet, consisting of around 1,200 delegates from smaller workers’ councils, controlled the capital city after February. Lenin described this situation as “dual power”—the “existence of two governments” in tension with one another:
One is the…government of the bourgeoisie, the “provisional government”…which holds in its hands all the organs of power. The other is a supplementary and parallel government—a “controlling” government—the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which holds no organs of state power but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, the armed people and soldiers.35
This new situation of dual power was highly unstable and could not last indefinitely—the question was, which power would win out? The Provisional Government’s and workers’ aspirations were, initially, in tune with one another. However, Russia’s new leaders kept the country in the First World War and shied away from upsetting the social order too much. At the same time, workers’ demands for “bread and peace” were impossible to satisfy while Russia remained part of the imperialist slaughter of the First World War.
After February, workers began radicalising, and soon there was little support for the Provisional Government and the war. Lenin and Trotsky saw the possibility of the soviets becoming “organs of revolutionary rule”.36 The Bolshevik Party began arguing that the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, could seize power and lay the basis for building a new socialist society. They popularised a new slogan, “Peace, Bread and Land”, but said this could only be achieved through handing “All Power to the Soviets”.
The role of the Bolshevik Party was crucial. It argued for revolutionary politics within the working class and gave leadership at key points. However, the 7 November insurrection was not proclaimed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Instead, it was called by the Petrograd Soviet’s military revolutionary committee, “Milrevcom”. This body was formed in the final weeks before the insurrection by the Petrograd Soviet, which had a Bolshevik majority by that point. Trotsky, who had joined the Bolshevik Party in August 1917, was the Soviet’s president. Milrevcom was made up of representatives from the Bolsheviks and members of the left-wing peasants’ party, the Left Social Revolutionaries. One of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Pavel Lazimir, was “placed at the head of the committee in order to emphasise the fact that Milrevcom was an institution of the soviet and not a party organisation”. If the Bolsheviks had failed to win wider support for an insurrection among workers, the insurrection would never have happened.
Lenin did not lead to Stalin
Liberals often claims that the horrors of Stalin’s regime were the logical conclusion of Lenin’s politics, but this is simply wrong. The fate of the Russian Revolution flowed from two main factors: first, the failure of workers’ revolution to spread to more economically advanced capitalist countries, and second, the decimation of the working class in the Russian Civil War.
Lenin and Trotsky had always argued that, in order to survive in economically backward Russia, the revolution had to spread to advanced capitalist countries in Europe. Only this could stop it being crushed by capitalist competition and provide it with the resources needed for socialist development. In fact, the 1917 Revolution in Russia did unleash a wave of revolt that ended the First World War and brought down two more European monarchies, the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, workers’ revolution—crucially in Germany, which had one of the most powerful labour movements—failed to break through. At the same time, 14 imperialist powers, including Britain, invaded Russia to try to “strangle Bolshevism at birth” and fought alongside the White Armies that wanted to restore the old Tsarist order.
The Red Army, led by Trotsky, repelled the invaders and destroyed the White Armies by 1922, but the Russian Civil War had a devastating impact. First, it decimated the working class that had made the revolution; thousands died on the front lines, hollowing out the soviets and undermining the basis of workers’ power. Second, as production collapsed to below pre-war levels, Russia faced all-out societal collapse. Third, the alliance between the working class and the peasantry, crucial to the revolution and victory in the Civil War, began to break down.37
Nonetheless, the Bolshevik Party found itself in charge of a sprawling state bureaucracy. In 1921, as the revolutionary wave ebbed in Europe, the Bolsheviks were forced to bring in the New Economic Policy (NEP), an attempt to encourage industrial development and reconcile peasants to the regime. This allowed a “free market” and private production, and state-owned industries were to be run on a “profit basis” and “reorganised on commercial lines”.38 That year, Lenin argued that Russia was a “workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions” in a country where “it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates”.39 Lenin and Trotsky wanted the Bolsheviks to hold on in Russia’s adverse circumstances with the hope of spreading world revolution. However, contrary to Lenin’s hopes, the NEP period weakened the position of the working class within society and worsened the bureaucratisation of the party.
The Soviet bureaucracy, in its attempts to hold society together in the 1920s, had to mediate between different social classes—most importantly, workers and peasants. This meant keeping hold of the collectivist aims of the socialist revolution while simultaneously appeasing the individualistic aspirations of the peasantry. Although no one can doubt the Bolsheviks’ socialist intentions in the 1920s, the Soviet state’s own structures came to reflect the often antagonistic class forces it mediated between. The working class could have brought socialist pressure to bear, but sadly it failed to do so because it was the weakest and least organised of these class forces.
These tensions were expressed in three different factions within the Bolsheviks: Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition, Stalin and the “centre”, and Nikolai Bukharin and the “right”. The Left Opposition stuck most closely to the Bolshevik’s revolutionary socialism. Its programme argued that, in order to move in a socialist direction, the Soviet Union had to increase the weight of the cities over the countryside and the weight of industry over agriculture. This required planning and taxes that penalised wealthy peasants. If this did not happen, the peasantry would grow in strength and subordinate the state bureaucracy to its interests. Moreover, the Left Opposition insisted that increased workers’ democracy had to go hand in hand with industrialisation. These policies would increase the weight of the working class and maintain Russia as a beacon of socialist revolution. Yet, this would be insufficient to attain the material level required for building socialism; that would still require fighting to spread socialist revolution to the more economically advanced capitalist countries.
However, the Bolsheviks rejected this programme because two social forces at play in the party opposed a break with the NEP. Bukharin and the “right” reflected a section of the party that had become comfortable working with the wealthy “kulak” peasants and “NEPmen”, businessmen who benefited from the NEP market economy. The “right” had adjusted their socialist aspirations to the needs of a peasant economy. Fitting these interests, Stalin and Bukharin formulated the anti-Marxist idea of “socialism in one country”. They made a virtue of the failure of revolution to break through in the advanced capitalist countries, claiming that under their leadership it was possible to build socialism in the Soviet Union alone.
The Stalin group was based upon the bureaucracy itself, and Stalin was the party’s chief bureaucrat, the general secretary. This bureaucracy’s main aim was maintaining social order and cohesion, and its size and importance grew in the 1920s. In 1923, the Stalin group took on the Left Opposition within the party. After Lenin’s death the following year, it built up the cult of personality, invented “Leninism” and “Trotskyism” as two ideologically opposed positions. Stalin had taken on the Left Opposition with the help of Grigori Zinoviev, who had a leading position in the party and controlled the bureaucracy in Petrograd. After dealing with the Left Opposition, he turned on Zinoviev in order to assert the dominance of the centralised bureaucracy. In How the Revolution Was Lost, Chris Harman explained:
With the fall of Zinoviev, power lay in the hands of Stalin. His unrestrained use of bureaucratic methods to control the party, his disregard for theory, his hostility to the traditions of the revolution (in which his own role had been minor) and his willingness to resort to any means to dispose of those who had actually led the revolution—all these features epitomised the growing self-consciousness of the apparatus.
Stalin exhibited all these qualities to their full extent in the struggle against the new opposition. Meetings were packed, speakers were shouted down, prominent oppositionists were likely to find themselves assigned to minor positions in remote areas and former Tsarist officers were utilised as agents provocateurs to discredit oppositional groups. Eventually, in 1928, Stalin began to imitate the Tsars directly and deport revolutionaries to Siberia. In the long run, even this was not enough. He went on to do what even the Romanovs had been unable to do: systematically murder those who had constituted the revolutionary party of 1917.40
By the end of the decade, the Soviet bureaucracy was transforming itself into a new ruling class with its own set of class interests. In 1928, the combination of imperialist pressures, underlying weaknesses in the NEP and refusals by the peasantry to supply grain pushed the bureaucracy towards industrialisation.41 Stalin turned on Bukharin and the “right”. However, this shift to a strategy of industrialisation did not represent an adoption of the Left Opposition’s aim of the towns dominating the country. Instead, it represented the domination of the bureaucracy over the whole of Soviet society. The introduction of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan in 1928 symbolised a qualitative shift to “bureaucratic state capitalism”, subordinating workers’ consumption to the needs of capital accumulation.42
Russia and the Eastern Bloc were “state capitalist”
Trotsky and his supporters argued the Soviet Union had become a “degenerated workers’ state”. The bureaucracy had seized political power from the working class but had retained the basis for a socialist society: state ownership of the means of production. Therefore, Trotsky argued, it would only take a political revolution to displace the bureaucracy.
After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, his supporters continued to base their politics on his revolutionary socialist critique of the Soviet Union. However, the end of the Second World War posed a major problem for these “orthodox Trotskyists”.43 After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe. Soviet satellite regimes were set up in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, claiming to be “socialist” and “workers’ states”. However, unlike Russia in 1917, these countries had never experienced socialist revolutions in which workers took power. If Stalin’s tanks could impose socialism from above, it would throw into question the whole notion of working-class self-emancipation at the heart of Marxism.
Confronted with this problem, some Trotskyists tried to perform intellectual somersaults, claiming that Stalin’s satellites were workers’ states but had been “deformed” from birth. In contrast, Tony Cliff, one of the founders of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), developed the “theory of bureaucratic state capitalism”. He argued that the Soviet Union had become a state capitalist society in which the ruling class—the state bureaucracy—behaved in much the same way as a capitalist firm. Today in Britain, the SWP holds to this analysis. Orthodox Trotskyist groups, such as Socialist Appeal and its Marxist Student Federation, continue to argue that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers’ state. Fundamental questions about the nature of revolutionary socialism remain at stake.
To apply Cliff’s theory of bureaucratic state capitalism, it is vital to understand how the system works. Under capitalism, there are two main social divisions. The first division is between the working class and those who own and control the “means of production”—factories and machinery, call centres and IT equipment, infrastructure and so on. A minority of capitalists exploit workers to get their hands on profits. They do this for more than personal greed, but also because they are compelled to by the nature of the system.
Under capitalism, workers’ ability to work—their “labour power”—is turned into a commodity. Workers are forced to sell this labour power to make a living, but they only receive a small proportion of the value they create in wages. This gap—what Marxists call “surplus value”—is at the heart of capitalist exploitation of workers and lays the basis for profits. As capitalists invest into more profitable sectors, surplus value flows across the system. The aim of capitalists is to grab as large a chunk of surplus value as possible. The more efficient a firm is, the bigger the slice they can get their hands on.
This is where the second major division in society—the division between rival capitalists—kicks in. Competition acts as a coercive force on individual capitalists. It forces them to reinvest profits into new technologies and more efficient methods of production in order to get ahead of their rivals. This leads, as Marx put it, to a system of “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake”.44
The Soviet Union was clearly marked by the first division between workers and the owners of the means of production. Individual Stalinist bureaucrats had no formal ownership over the means of production, unlike private capitalists in the West, but they did control the state that owned the means of production. Moreover, they enjoyed very privileged lives compared to the working class. However, what about the second division? After all, there was very little to no market competition inside the Stalinist economies.
Marx called the interaction of capitals through competition the operation of the “law of value”. This law shapes the organisation of production, the division of labour and the allocation of resources within capitalist economies. Viewed in isolation, the Soviet Union was not subject to the law of value; instead, it was the state’s Five Year Plans that directed investment and the division of labour. Nonetheless, we can shine a different light on the Soviet economy when we view it in the context of imperialism, the global system of competing capitalist states.
The Soviet Union was locked into military and economic competition with capitalist states, as Stalin admitted in a 1931 speech, “The Tasks of Business Executives”: “We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must close this gap in ten years. Either we do it or we will go under”.45 This competition with other states meant that the law of value acted on the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc on a global scale. In Zombie Capitalism, Harman explained how this worked:
The organisation of production inside the Soviet Union might involve the putting together of different use values (so much labour, so many physically distinct raw materials, such and such sort of machine) to produce further use values. But what mattered to the ruling bureaucracy was how these use values measured up to the similar conglomerations of use values produced inside the great corporations of the West. And that meant comparing the amounts of labour used in the Soviet to the labour used in the Western corporations. Or, to put it in Marx’s terms, production within the Soviet Union was subject to the law of value operating on the global scale.46
A report in Communist Party newspaper Pravda (“Truth”) in 1970, quoting then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, showed the bureaucracy understood the pressures of competitive accumulation:
Comrade Brezhnev dwelt on the economic competition between the two world systems. “This competition takes different forms,” he said. “In many cases we are coping successfully with the task of overtaking and outdistancing the capitalist countries in the production of certain outputs…but the fundamental question is not how much you produce but also at what cost and with what outlays of labour… It is in this field that the centre of gravity between the two systems lies in our time.47
However, the majority of the international left still had illusions in the Soviet economy as more progressive than capitalism. This included not just members of the Stalinist Communist Parties, but also many Trotskyists and other socialists. Ernst Mandel, a leading orthodox Trotskyist, claimed in 1956:
The Soviet Union maintains a more or less even rhythm of economic growth, plan after plan, decade after decade, without the progress of the past weighing on the possibilities of the future… All the laws of development of the capitalist economies that provoke slowdown in the speed of economic growth are eliminated.48
In reality, the Stalinist bloc felt these “laws of development” all too acutely. Although the Soviet economy saw impressive growth rates, it suffered from a serious lack of dynamism compared to Western capitalism. Fundamentally, it was impossible for internal growth to overcome the international pressure for ever more capital accumulation. The state capitalist economies continually crashed against the limits of accumulation set by their national economies.
This was compounded by the arms race during the Cold War. Because the Soviet Union was less developed than the United States, military competition placed a particularly heavy burden on its economy, distorting other investment decisions. Moreover, although the economy was organised according to Five Year Plans, this failed to ensure a “more or less even rhythm”. There were fits and starts between and during each plan as the bureaucracy suddenly redirected investment or froze industrial projects in order to stave off crises of overaccumulation. The result was a misshapen economy, with anarchy and imbalances between different sectors.
Crisis and class struggle in the Stalinist states
As class societies, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were just as marked by crisis and class struggle as the West. Workers rose up in Czechoslovakia and East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980-81. In the late 1980s and 1990s, strikes in Russian and Ukrainian coalfields and in Belarus played an important role in precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. When the Eastern Bloc’s workers fought back, they faced repression. Indeed, there were full-scale Soviet invasions during the Hungarian workers’ revolution in 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring reform process in 1968.
The underlying cause of these revolts was the ruling bureaucracy’s squeezing of workers’ living standards in the drive for capital accumulation. Before the Berlin workers’ uprising of 1953, East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party admitted as much. It said new working norms in construction—in reality a 10 percent pay cut—were necessary because “accumulation can only be achieved through continual advance of labour productivity”.49
By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were faced with an economic crisis. This caused divisions within the bureaucracy between “conservatives” and “reformers”. Conservatives wanted to continue with Stalin’s methods, fearing reforms would loosen their grip on power and destabilise the state capitalist system. Reformers wanted to shift investment away from heavy industry into new areas. At root, it was a battle between rival sections of the ruling class over the best strategy to continue the accumulation of capital.
However, these battles opened the door to one of the most impressive workers’ uprisings against Stalinism: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi had built up heavy industry at the expense of workers’ living standards in the years following the Second World War. By 1953, it could boast that industrial production had soared by 210 percent since 1949. Yet, during the same period, workers’ living standards had sunk by 20 percent. They were forced to pay the price of “building socialism”, which in reality meant the accumulation of capital.
The Soviet Union’s new leader was a “reformer”, Nikita Khrushchev, who forced out Rákosi for his refusal to face up to the crisis. Khrushchev also launched an opportunistic attack on Stalin’s “cult of personality”. This caused immense ideological confusion among Eastern Europe’s rulers, but it also led ordinary people to begin to question the system. Hungarian workers began asserting their demands on the factory floor; then, on 23 October 1956, mass resistance erupted.
Peter Fryer, a journalist on the Daily Worker newspaper, had been dispatched by the Communist Party of Great Britain to report its official line that the workers were “counter-revolutionaries”. Yet, as he made his way through Hungary, Fryer discovered a workers’ revolution against the Stalinist regime. His book, The Hungarian Tragedy, is a brilliant eyewitness account. Hungarian workers had set up their own democratic organisations in opposition to the state, and these could have become the new “organs of revolutionary rule”. Describing one committee in the town of Győr, Fryer wrote:
Here was a revolution, not to be studied in the pages of Marx, Friedrich Engels and Lenin, valuable though those pages may be, but happening here in real life before the eyes of the world. A flesh and blood revolution with all its shortcomings and contradictions and problems—the problems of life itself.
As they took me to see the president and vice-president of this committee not yet 48 hours old, I caught sight of a portrait of Lenin on the wall. I could almost fancy his shrewd eyes twinkling approvingly.50
There was a situation of “dual power” between the Hungarian government and the workers’ councils, but this could not go on forever. Hungarian workers had begun to link up into a central soviet in Budapest, but there was no revolutionary organisation in Hungary that could have raised the slogan, “All Power to the Soviets”. With the help of thousands of Russian tanks, the government reasserted its control.
Though the revolution was crushed, it also shattered the British Communist Party’s ideological stranglehold and opened the door for a new anti-Stalinist left. Under its chief slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow—But International Socialism”, the International Socialist political tradition supported working-class struggles in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Today, it continues to support workers fighting back in supposedly socialist states such as China and Cuba.
Stalin—gravedigger of world revolution
The Soviet Union was no bulwark against imperialism. Its foreign policy was shaped by imperialist competition and had disastrous consequences for workers’ and liberation movements across the world. Again and again, Stalinist policies buried revolutionary potential: China in 1925-7, Spain in 1936-8, Greece, Italy and a host of other European countries after 1945, Iraq in 1958-9 and France in 1968. The charge sheet is simply too long to explore in full detail, but the example of Spain is instructive.
From 1935, Soviet foreign policy was driven by the desire to make an alliance with capitalist powers against Nazi Germany. The Moscow-aligned Communist parties were instructed to join “Popular Fronts” with social-democratic and liberal capitalist parties. They were told to clamp down on any working-class action that might scare off the most right-wing forces within these cross-class coalitions. As US Trotskyist James P Cannon explained in 1954:
The anti-Leninist theories of “socialism in one country” and “coexistence” with capitalism in all other countries transformed the Soviet bureaucracy into the most effectively conservative, anti-revolutionary force in the world. It also debased the Communist parties in the capitalist countries from agents of revolution into border guards for the Soviet Union and pressure groups in the service of its foreign policy.51
Stalin’s Popular Front policy had disastrous results in the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. When General Francisco Franco launched an armed rising against the Spanish Republic on 17 July 1936, the Popular Front government seemed paralysed. For two days, it behaved as if the rising had not happened, even trying to negotiate with Franco. It refused to send the navy to block Franco’s attempts to cross from Spain’s colony in Morocco, fearing Britain’s wrath if Spanish ships blocked the Strait of Gibraltar.
However, workers and peasants rose up, managing to fend off Franco’s rising in large parts of the country. A general ferment of revolt gripped Spanish society. As the Republican state collapsed in many regions, workers and peasants began forming their own organisations to take over the running of everyday life. The revolutionary process was most advanced in Barcelona. Arriving there to fight fascism, British socialist writer George Orwell wrote: “It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”.52
However, Stalin was hostile to the idea of a revolution taking place in Spain. A workers’ revolution would have sent shockwaves through ruling classes across the US and Europe, making an alliance between the Soviet Union and Britain and France impossible. He insisted on keeping the inept moderate Manuel Azaña as Spanish president, arguing it would “prevent the enemies of Spain from considering her a Communist republic”.53
The Popular Front—with the Communists playing a key role—did its best to hold back the workers’ and peasants’ resistance. Jesús Hernández Tomás, editor of the Communist Party journal, declared, “We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic.” If a boss had not declared themselves for Franco, the Communists would oppose workers’ action to take over the factory. If a landowner had not declared themselves for Franco, they opposed peasant action to take over the fields. From 1937, the Communist Party’s influence grew inside the Popular Front as Stalin began to give some arms to the Republic. These guns were turned on the left-wing opponents of the Popular Front in order to put down the Spanish Revolution, notably in the counter-revolutionary coup in Barcelona in 1937. Contrary to the Stalinists’ claims, the defeat of the revolution strengthened fascism and helped lead to its victory.
The Soviet Union was not “anti-imperialist”
Today, many socialists who take an uncompromising stand against Western imperialism look to the Soviet Union’s support for national liberation struggles as a source of inspiration. However, the Stalinist regime’s actual record shows it was no principled supporter of colonial freedom. Indeed, the Cold War was an inter-imperialist conflict between US and the Soviet Union in which these superpowers and their rival blocs competed on the world stage, fighting a number of proxy wars.
The Soviet Union’s foreign policy was shaped by this superpower competition. For example, as Zionist paramilitaries ethically cleansed Palestinians in 1947-8, Stalin backed the creation of the settler-colonial state in Israel, hoping for an ally in the Middle East. The Soviet’s new satellite regime in Czechoslovakia supplied vital arms to the Zionist Haganah militia, which soon became the core of the Israel Defence Forces. In the summer and autumn of 1948, the Czechoslovakian armed forces even trained an Israeli brigade. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, later claimed: “Czechoslovak arms saved the State of Israel, really and absolutely. Without these weapons, we would not have survived”.54
In 1954, the Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale; FLN) rose up against French colonial rule and fought an armed struggle until it won independence in 1962. However, the Stalinist French Communist Party (Parti communiste français; PCF) would end up leaving it to fight alone. In 1956, the PCF infamously backed the social-democratic prime minister Guy Mollet when he seized “special powers” to act to “safeguard the territory” of Algeria. Stalinist hardliner Jacques Duclos justified the PCF’s support by arguing for the “permanence of political, economic and cultural bonds between France and Algeria”.55 The shameful stance of the once proudly anti-colonial PCF was, in part, a legacy of its Popular Front strategy of the 1930s. Working with bourgeois parties, it framed policies in terms of “French interests” and French nationalism.
China is not an alternative
According to some on the left, criticising or rejecting officially “socialist” regimes such as China and Vietnam means being insufficiently anti-imperialist. One new group, No Cold War, was set up to oppose the US and Britain’s ramping up tensions with China in South East Asia. However, rather than seeking unity around opposition to Western imperialism’s war drive, it opts for a craven adoration of the Chinese state. Speakers at its meetings downplay the oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of Anglo-Chinese “understanding” and “friendship”. When the former Communist Party hack Martin Jacques, now a China specialist, appeared on left-wing news platform Novara Media, he justified Uyghur repression by referring to a “terrorism” problem, mirroring the Islamophobic rhetoric of the West’s “War on Terror”.56
Of course, revolutionaries must stand against Western imperialism. Socialists’ main job is to oppose their own ruling class. Nonetheless, this should never mean siding with regimes such as China.
The Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a blow to feudalism and imperialism and improved the lives of ordinary people. However, unlike Russia in 1917, it was a nationalist revolution rather than a socialist revolution in which workers seize political power and begin to run society. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army marched into Beijing, jubilant crowds of workers lined the streets. However, these workers had played no active part in the revolution, and it is impossible to describe the CCP regime that came to power as “socialist” or a “workers’ state” in any meaningful way. Workers’ councils did not control society, workers did not run their factories and peasants did not control the land.
None of this was inevitable. The Russian Revolution had inspired Chinese workers and sections of the middle class. A group of socialist activists, including Mao Zedong, set up the CCP in the early 1920s, arguing the working class would be central to revolutionary change. Though numerically few, Chinese workers had a social power disproportionate to their numbers and could lead revolutionary change like Russian workers in 1917. Workers’ revolution seemed like a real possibility when a wave of workers’ struggle swept through Chinese cities in 1925.
However, the Soviet leadership, which was increasingly dominated by Stalin, ordered the Chinese Communists to follow a disastrous strategy. The bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang party, led by warlord Chiang Kai-shek, thought it could gain from the revolt and aligned itself with the Soviet Union. Stalin then instructed the CCP to subordinate itself to the nationalists. Even though Chiang wanted to throw off the shackles of foreign imperialist domination, he also aimed to develop China into a modern capitalist state, leaving Chinese bosses untouched.
In 1927, fearing the potential of workers’ revolution, the Kuomintang turned its guns on the CCP and the workers’ movement. Thousands of activists were murdered or forced to flee to the countryside. These events transformed the CCP from a party comprised of working-class militants and radical middle-class intellectuals into a military organisation based among the peasantry. Stalin encouraged this transformation as the CCP fought the Kuomintang throughout the 1930s and 40s. Meanwhile, Mao looked to the Soviet Union’s state capitalism as a model to develop China into a modern state. He hoped to replicate Stalin’s rapid industrialisation on the backs of the workers and peasants once the “chief enemies”, imperialists and landlords, were out of his way.
One in power, Mao and the CCP leadership hatched a series of failed attempts to kick-start growth in the 1950s and 60s—with murderous consequences. During the “Great Leap Forward”, beginning in 1957, peasants were rounded up into huge communes and forced to work around the clock to meet impossible production targets. The result was a famine with 30 million dead by 1960 and tens of millions of other people reduced to desperate measures such as eating grass and tree bark.57
By the late 1970s, the CCP leadership was convinced that development would be impossible just through more attempts to squeeze more out workers and peasants. Instead, China’s rulers turned towards opening up the country to foreign investment, though they still maintained a high degree of state planning and political control. This strategy has enabled China’s rulers to oversee huge growth rates and assert their own imperialist interests. However, they now face a problem—the neoliberal period has increased inequality, fuelled social discontent and created a large working class. This working class is a social force that could challenge the regime and has already shown its ability to fight in recent years. In response, China’s rulers have relied increasingly on centralisation and nationalism. This includes clamping down on ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghur Muslims. In contrast, when the CCP was a revolutionary party in the 1920s, it supported the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.
Of course, socialists must stand against US and British imperialism, but we must resist painting China as any more a socialist alternative than the Soviet Union was. We should be on the side of the workers against the state capitalist rulers and with oppressed minorities when they demand their right to self-determination.
These arguments are not academic or an irrelevant reprise of left-wing debates from the Cold War. The need for a socialist alternative to capitalism has never been more pressing. Capitalist society—where everything is subordinated to the logic of capital accumulation—is driving us to disaster. Climate catastrophe, the threat of war and nuclear annihilation, the coronavirus crisis, and global slump are all morbid symptoms of the system’s multiple crises. Questions about Stalinism cut right to the heart of what we are fighting for—what is socialism and how do we win it? Stalinist politics were the gravedigger of socialist revolution. The Soviet Union’s rulers built oppressive societies at home and, again and again, helped bury hopes of socialism and liberation in other countries.
Instead of Stalinist politics, we need revolutionary socialist politics, which fight for a society that abolishes workers’ exploitation and tears out the roots of women’s and LGBT+ oppression and racism. This genuine Marxist tradition insists that “the self-emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class”. Socialism is about working-class people taking control of their lives and running society themselves—or it is nothing.
Tomáš Tengely-Evans is online editor at Socialist Worker and a member of the Socialist Workers Party in east London.
1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Martin Empson, Christian Høgsbjerg, Charlie Kimber, Gareth Jenkins, Sheila McGregor and Tony Phillips for their comments on the first draft of this article.
2 The YCL appears to be focused on building itself up through impressive blocs at demonstrations, summer camps and so on. It is not, presently at least, operating as an important reformist and conservative force within the trade union movement as the old Communist Party did after the Second World War.
4 “Tankie” is a term used to refer to Communist Party members after they supported Russian tanks invading Hungary and Czechoslovakia to suppress uprisings for democracy.
6 McGregor, 2021.
7 French Communists had a nominally anti-imperialist position when Algeria rose up in 1954, arguing France should concede to “legitimate Algerian demands for liberty”. However, they shifted to a “Popular Frontist” capitulation to demands for national unity—Adereth, 1986, p157.
8 Draper, 1966.
9 Liebknecht, 1915.
10 Figures calculated in Cliff, 1974, pp118-119.
11 Cliff, 1974, p121.
12 Cliff, 1974, p119.
13 Cliff, 1974, p121.
14 Trotsky, 1937.
15 These figures are taken from the official secret police documents of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (known as the NKVD), quoted in Applebaum, 2003.
16 Conquest, 1986.
17 Applebaum, 2003, p7.
18 Lenin, 1965a.
19 Cliff, 1974, pp122-123.
20 Cliff, 1974, pp125-130.
21 Cliff, 1974, p13.
22 Cliff, 1974, p13.
23 Binns, 1975.
24 Cliff, 1974 p20.
25 Cox, 2021.
26 McGregor, 2021.
27 In this short article it is impossible to outline in any great detail the importance of the family within state capitalism and the shift it represented from Russia in 1917. For a thorough analysis of this, see McGregor, 2021.
28 McGregor, 2021.
29 Trotsky, 1930.
30 Some workers had taken control of their workplaces, and others were given control in the Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited in January 1918—www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/jan/03.htm
31 Reed, 1919, p27.
32 Orr, 2015, p220.
34 Trotsky, 1930.
35 Lenin, 1964.
36 Lenin, 1974, p402.
37 For a thorough explanation of the process, see Harman, 1967.
38 Lenin, 1965b, p184.
39 Binns and Hallas, 1976.
40 Harman, 1967.
41 For a more detailed discussion of events in 1927-8, see Harman, 1988.
42 Cliff, 1974, pp152-154.
43 For more on degenerated workers’ state and the debates among Trotskyists, see Hallas, 1988.
44 Marx, 1986, p558.
45 Stalin, 1954.
46 Harman, 2009, p175.
47 Pravda (24 April 1970), quoted in Harman 2009, p176.
48 Harman, 2009, p202.
49 Harman, 1988, p64.
50 Fryer, 1956.
51 Cannon, 1954.
52 Hore, 1990.
53 Hore, 1990.
54 Zbavitelová, 2020.
55 Duclos, 1956.
57 The figure of 38 million is from official statistics quoted in Chang and Halliday, 2007, pp533-535.