Over the past five years, there has been a tremendous growth of interest in socialist ideas in the United States, especially since the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for president in 2016. Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist who ran on a program of Medicare for All, free public college, and a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, became a lightning rod for a generation which has seen nothing but capitalism in dire crisis. Likewise in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership in 2014 inspired working-class and young people to fight back against the bankrupt political establishment.
With a wave of young people gravitating toward socialist ideas, naturally questions arise about the USSR, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and other planned economies which are described by the mainstream media as “failures.” How the Bureaucracy Seized Power focuses on the legacy of the Russian Revolution and how workers democracy was overturned under Stalin while still leaving the planned economy in place. By looking at the material and political reality that the emerging Russian workers’ state faced, we can understand more concretely how – far from being inherent in revolutionary socialist politics – the rise of Stalinism was a product of the particular situation in Russia at the time.
Obviously 2018 is far different from 1987, when this pamphlet was written, and it is necessary to add a few points in this introduction about what has happened in the years since. While the analysis of this pamphlet remains thoroughly relevant today, the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 was a fundamental change and requires that we update our introduction to fit the current world situation. The year after this pamphlet was written, 1988, world events caused the CWI to re-evaluate the claim in this pamphlet that “there is no longer any possibility of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union.” Even before this perspective was definitively proven wrong, the CWI was taking into account world events in Poland, Russia, and Germany to acknowledge the possibility of a return to capitalism in Russia and the Eastern Bloc.
Increased Popularity of Socialism Today
Among young people in the U.S., 58% have a favorable view of socialism and organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Alternative have seen massive growth in the past few years. Millions were exposed to socialism by Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Young people are seeking a way out of the ongoing inequality, oppression, poverty, and environmental destruction that are endemic to capitalism. Socialist ideas, for a growing number of people, point the way forward.
DSA now stands at over 50,000 members after experiencing another spike in membership following the victory of DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Congressional primary in New York City.
What a contrast with the period following the collapse of Soviet Union, when triumphalist capitalist commentators said that this represented the “end of history” and that socialist ideas would never be resuscitated! The catastrophe of the Great Recession instead proved once again that capitalism is crisis-wracked system that cannot provide a future for humanity. This is why socialism is “back” and the representatives of capitalism now sound far less confident about the future.
Alongside a resurgence of interest in socialism comes a tidal wave of questions. As tens of thousands of working and young people begin exploring socialist ideas, they are naturally asking, what is socialism and how do we get there?
To address these questions, we need to look toward the history of the workers and socialist movement and soberly evaluate and absorb the most critical lessons. The highest point of the international workers movement to date was the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The Russian Revolution was a profoundly democratic event. The working class, with the support of rank-and-file soldiers, overthrew the Czar Nicholas II in February 1917. Workers and soldiers organized into councils (soviets) followed by peasants. Appearing first in the 1905 Revolution, these democratic bodies of working-class power were instrumental in enabling the working class to take power in October 1917.
Coming out of the brutality of World War I, the workers, peasants, and soldiers needed not one, but two revolutions to overthrow the Czar and feudal society, extract Russia from the destructive war, and address the call for “bread, peace and land.” In October 1917, the working class movement, backed by the peasantry, overthrew capitalism and landlordism and, for the first time in history, formed a government that set out to build a new socialist society. This is why socialists have time and again returned to analyze and understand the Russian Revolution.
The political leadership of Russian working class was the Bolshevik Party. They and their allies won a majority in the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in October 1917. From the beginning, they had no illusions that a classless society of abundance could be created in isolation in a poor country where the urban working class was only about 8% of the population. They saw the revolution in Russia igniting a European and global revolutionary process. To create the technical and industrial material foundations for moving toward a global socialist society required extending the revolution to more advanced capitalist countries in Europe and the U.S.
It was for these reasons that the leaders of the Bolshevik Party sought to rapidly establish the Communist International following the 1917 revolution. This was an attempt to organize the most forward-thinking class fighters around the world into a cohesive organization that could help spread the revolution beyond the newly established Soviet Union.
Stalin and Stalinism
Given the enormous possibility that the Russian Revolution represented, a crucial question for socialists and workers is how a bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorship was established. Many will wonder how, despite the horrors of Stalinism, we still claim this revolution as the most significant accomplishment in the history of the workers movement. Many will ask: Didn’t the Russian Revolution teach us that revolutions will naturally devolve into authoritarian rule? Wasn’t Stalinism the same as Bolshevism? How can we transform society but avoid a bureaucratic degeneration? Didn’t this experience demonstrate that socialism can only be achieved gradually?
These questions prompted the writing of this pamphlet in 1987 while the USSR still existed. They are still being asked in earnest by the most radicalized young people today.
Stalinism is not the same as socialism; in fact, ideologically, it is the antithesis of revolutionary socialism. Nor is it a logical outgrowth of the ideas of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The coming to power of Stalin and the bureaucracy was a political counterrevolution. A rising bureaucracy took power away from the working class that had led the revolution. In the process, it destroyed workers democracy while leaving in place a planned economy, which was the economic foundations of the workers state. This bureaucracy then protected its power by creating the myth of “socialism in one country,” i.e. that a classless society could be achieved in one isolated and poor country. This domestic justification for the rule of the bureaucracy was later combined with using the struggles of workers in the capitalist countries as bargaining chips in their utopian effort to achieve “peaceful coexistence” with imperialist countries.
This was one of Stalin’s greatest crimes – the abandonment of internationalism. In practice, “socialism in one country” meant throwing away the idea of “workers of the world unite” and led to Stalin’s narrow nationalistic approach, which put the interests of the ruling bureaucracy ahead of the interest of workers revolution. It condemned working-class revolts to defeat as in the case of the 1925-1927 Chinese Revolution. The Stalinists then sold out successive revolutions, from Spain in the ‘30s to Indonesia in the ‘60s.
Further, the Stalinist bureaucracy clamped down on all who opposed their rule. They used forced labor camps to punish political opponents and systematically executed or exiled those who resisted them – most prominently Leon Trotsky and the tens of thousands of supporters of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union who agreed with him.
This pamphlet details the actual events surrounding the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It also highlights the role played by Trotsky, one of the foremost leaders of the revolution, in fighting against Stalin and for the preservation of the gains of the revolution. His sharp criticism of the Stalinist regime was detailed in his 1937 book, The Revolution Betrayed. This analysis of Trotsky served as a foundation for this pamphlet. Trotsky also played the leading role in forming the Fourth International in 1938, which lay the foundation of a living, breathing revolutionary movement in opposition to the decaying Third International under Stalin’s control.
Russian Revolution vs. Stalinism
There are many trends of thought on the left today which have very different analyses of Stalin and the Russian Revolution than ours. Some make excuses for Stalinism’s betrayals and others distance themselves from both the degeneration of the Soviet Union and its early historic accomplishments.
Some still hold that Bolshevism inevitably leads to Stalinism. This viewpoint was articulated by Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin Magazine, in an analytical piece on the Russian Revolution called “Socialism’s Future May Be Its Past.” In this piece, while more sympathetic than many mainstream assessments of the Russian Revolution, he draws a more generalized conclusion that there was something fundamentally undemocratic about the revolution.
In a reply to this article we wrote: “Sunkara appears to imply in his op-ed that the totalitarian Stalinist regime which developed later was a logical continuation of Lenin and the Bolshevik party when he writes ‘One hundred years after Lenin’s sealed train arrived at Finland Station and set into motion the events that led to Stalin’s gulags.’ On this point both the Stalinists and the capitalist propaganda in the West are in complete agreement.”
Studying history should not be simply an exercise in seeking confirmation for our preconceptions. It must be approached scientifically. Events have to be looked at in detail and in their historical context. This is the only way we can answer the question of how Stalinism came to be, and what the legacy of Bolshevism is for today.
In this pamphlet George Collins deals with the fundamental question of how Stalinism came to be. He details the devastating effect of the Russian Civil War and the counterrevolutionary offensive from world powers like Britain and the U.S., the complications caused by the backwardness of the Russian economy, and the devastating effect that failed revolutions across Europe had on an already isolated Russian working class.
Answering these questions – about the legacy of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism – has fundamental implications for the socialist movement today. While some on the left draw the simplistic conclusion that the degeneration of the revolution is proof that revolutionary politics cannot bring about a better world, we have a responsibility to correct this. The Russian Revolution is the only example of the working class coming to power in a conscious political movement. To find the best methods of building a successful movement to overthrow capitalism, we must study the strategy and tactics of the Bolsheviks and the resulting Communist International.
Collapse of Stalinism
The Soviet Union, even with its bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of democracy, showed what a planned economy is capable of even in its thoroughly degenerated form. This pamphlet gives the statistics to show how the planned economy in the USSR demonstrated a real alternative to the unending horrors of capitalism. The USSR proved that a planned economy could raise the living standards of ordinary people and the poorest of the poor. While workers in the countries of the West suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Russian workers saw huge gains in their standard of living. Even today, Cuba, one of the last Stalinist states, despite being isolated and starved of resources, still has a far better health care and educational system for ordinary people compared to the rest of Latin America.
However, due to its bureaucratic deformation, the planned economy began to clog up and atrophy. In reality, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and despite the massive destruction caused by World War II, the Soviet Union had experienced massive economic growth. But increasingly stagnation set in – in very large measure due to the lack of democracy. Trotsky explained that democracy is as necessary for the planned economy as oxygen to the body. Without an ability of the public to criticize, there was no mechanism to review and reject substandard products. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in November 1989, ordinary people could contrast their shoddy goods to those in the West.
After many years of Stalinist mismanagement of the planned economy in the USSR, and Eastern Europe, the mood for change grew as shown by the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. In 1988, after this pamphlet was first published, reactionary British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a visit to Poland and was greeted enthusiastically. This shift in mood began to open the possibility, of a capitalist restoration. This was a big shift from the postwar period.
In Rise of the Militant, Peter Taaffe explained the roots of the support that the bureaucracy relied on.
“The development of the planned economies, even during the boom of 1950 to 1975, exceeded the growth of world capitalism. … Stalinism in this period did play a relatively progressive role, fulfilling the tasks which historically capitalism proved it was incapable of carrying through in Russia; developing industry science and technique, but at two or three times the cost of capitalism.”
But while the pro-socialist consciousness of the Eastern European and Soviet working class dimmed, that didn’t mean there was general enthusiasm for capitalist policies among working people. Within these societies, working people at different points resisted capitalist restoration. For example, the Russian miners who went on strike in 1990 opposed both the bureaucratic regime and any moves toward capitalism.
Echoed around the Soviet bloc, the dominant mood as reported by our co-thinkers in Britain was “’Not the people for socialism but socialism for the people’; ‘Do away with the special privileges for politicians and bureaucrats’; ‘Servants of the people should have to stand in queues’” (Militant #938, 3/31/1989).
For example, in East Germany, “opinion polls at that time showed majority support in the GDR for socialism in some form. The very first leaflet issued by ‘Demokratischer Aufbruch’ (DA) … called for ‘a Socialist society on a democratic basis,’ despite the DA being the most right wing of the new groups and parties then emerging in [East Germany],” (“Germany: 25 Years Since November 9,” SocialistAlternative.org, 11/9/2014).
This mood reflected the inability of Stalinism to further increase the productive capacity of the eastern bloc countries. As The Militant pointed out:
“Industry [in the capitalist countries], through the big monopolies, has outstripped the narrow limits of the ‘home market’ and looks to the world market as its base of operations. In the Stalinist states private ownership has been abolished. But the vast scale of waste, mismanagement and squandermania, which is inevitable under a totalitarian regime within the confines of the nation-state, limits the utilization of the full capacity of a planned economy.”
In Eastern Europe the enthusiasm for “building socialism” after the horrors of World War II had faded. And in Russia as well, after the passage of seventy years, the memory of the gains of the Russian Revolution faded.
It must be underlined that only in Russia was the overturn of capitalism initiated by a powerful movement of the working class. In Eastern Europe, the planned economies were imposed from the top by the Soviet Union after World War II. In China, Vietnam, and Cuba, capitalism was overturned by social revolutions, each an enormous step forward. But in all these countries the key social force in the revolution was the peasantry, not the urban working class. All of these revolutions led to one-party Stalinist dictatorships from the start with no workers democracy. 1917 still stands as the one successful workers revolution in modern history.
In the early 1990s across Eastern Europe, facing popular revolts, Stalinist regimes were overthrown by mass movements which created a vacuum in which capitalism was restored. Tellingly, these revolts began primarily against the bureaucratic mismanagement of the Stalinists. But without an alternative leadership emerging among the masses to build workers democracy based on the existing planned economy, pro-capitalist forces were able to seize the initiative. Frequently a section of the bureaucracy, changing their clothes, grabbed the leadership of the movement. Posing as “reformers” they were supported behind the scenes by capitalist powers. Very quickly the people saw their struggles derailed by these so-called reformers who then moved to reinstitute capitalism over the heads of the movement.
Trotsky anticipated this in 1935:
“Bonapartism, by its very essence, cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other. But it is precisely at this point, as we have already seen, that the historical analogy runs up against its limits. Napoleon’s downfall did not, of course, leave untouched the relations between the classes; but in its essence the social pyramid of France retained its bourgeois character. The inevitable collapse of Stalinist Bonapartism would immediately call into question the character of the USSR as a workers’ state. A socialist economy cannot be constructed without a socialist power. The fate of the USSR as a socialist state depends upon that political regime that will arise to replace Stalinist Bonapartism. Only the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat can regenerate the Soviet system, if it is again able to mobilize around itself the toilers of the city and the village.”
All of this led to the possibility of capitalist restoration in Soviet countries. Peter Taaffe explained succinctly in “Militant’s Real History” (2002):
“We therefore posed tentatively, too tentatively as it turned out, at the CWI’s World Congress of 1988, the possibility of capitalist restoration in Poland and the rest of the Stalinist world. This was before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but it was quite evident that there was growing opposition to the Stalinist regimes then.”
But if ordinary people didn’t want capitalism restored, why was this the outcome? The problem was the lack of any credible force to lead a workers political revolution against the bureaucracy, to restore workers democracy, and fight those forces who did want capitalism restored. Working-class economic and political organization had to be rebuilt from scratch in societies where the Stalinists had crushed all dissent. Again the better organized and funded pro-capitalist forces were able to ride the popular revolt to power against Stalinist regimes that fractured and disintegrated. They presented their policies as the only way to achieve the living standards of the West.
Even so, events showed another road was possible. in China in 1989, the Tiananmen Square rebellion of students, many of them children of the bureaucracy, sparked a much wider revolt in the working class. In China, the memory of the 1949 revolution was still strong. The working class was clearly demanding an end to bureaucratic privilege and policies that increased social inequality and pointed toward restoring capitalism. This was the beginning of a real political revolution as had occurred in Hungary in 1956. The Stalinist regime under Deng Xiaoping moved to ruthlessly crush the rebellion.
Restoration of Capitalism
From Yugoslavia, to Czechoslovakia, and especially Russia, the restoration of capitalism was accompanied by a massive fall in living standards and quality of life. Nowhere was this more extreme than in Russia, where the process was brutal enough to spark movements of resistance barely two years later in 1992.
Russia “managed” the transition from a planned economy in a process called “shock therapy.” As in its barbarous “mental health” namesake, shock therapy ripped apart Russian society. A section of the bureaucracy stepped into a political vacuum and then masterminded a transfer of property ownership from the state to themselves and their cronies as quickly as possible, before the people realized what was actually happening. All of what had been the productive capacity of the planned economy was distributed to what are now the oligarchs but who were at the time KGB agents and other well-placed people. The entire economy suffered a depression twice as severe as the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s. Life expectancy dropped as wages sank. During this period, Russian women were advertised as mail-order brides as the only way to get out of the misery of Russian society.
Ordinary people were given a lesson in the brutality of a capitalist system that tore up all the social gains of the planned economy. In Russia, there rapidly developed a widespread nostalgia, especially among older workers for the Stalinist era, when living standards were higher and social services and jobs were guaranteed.
The restoration of capitalism in Russia in the early 1990s meant a severe decline in living standards and ushered in a period of high suicide rates, economic stagnation, low productivity, and widespread poverty. In the former Yugoslavia, the restoration of capitalism unleashed massive ethnic conflicts with devastating consequences. While the experience was not as severe in other parts of Eastern Europe, Russia provides a tragic confirmation of the anarchy and barbarism of decaying capitalism.
While Trotsky and his cothinkers fought the devastating political degeneration of the Soviet Union, we always defended its economic gains and hold that it represented the embryo of genuine alternative to the misery of capitalism which could have flourished if working people had overthrown the bureaucracy and reestablished workers democracy. This would have inspired workers across the world and been the beginning of the end for world capitalism.
The restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union was not just devastating for its people but represented a massive setback for the entire workers movement internationally. Whole layers of activists stepped back from the road of struggle, seriously depleting the forces of the left. It was a counterrevolutionary defeat that emboldened capitalism in a period where it faced serious internal crisis. It led to an orgy of triumphalism with political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously proclaiming the “end of history.”
Today, ten years after the beginning of the most devastating crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, the triumphalism is long gone. Capitalism now offers only a future of massive social inequality and climate catastrophe.
With the revitalized interest in socialist ideas in the U.S. today, this pamphlet demonstrates the enormous gulf between the genuine tradition of Bolshevism, including the legacy of the Russian Revolution, and its later degeneration at the hands of Stalin. It demonstrates that this degeneration was not inevitable but due to very specific material and historic circumstances. It is worth underlining that a socialist revolution in advanced capitalist societies today, if successful, would not face the same challenges and could develop towards a classless socialist society with far less threat of bureaucratic degeneration.
While the Soviet Union degenerated, the genuine ideas of the revolution and the Bolshevik leadership that led workers to power were carried on by Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Left Opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Committee for a Workers International, with which Socialist Alternative is in solidarity, stands on the shoulders of Trotsky and his co-thinkers.
This pamphlet is hugely valuable to those looking to take ownership of the term “socialism.” With a concrete investigation of the Russian Revolution, its material conditions, the rise of Stalinism, and the destruction of workers’ democracy, important lessons are there to be learned. This study shows that Marxism is far from a set of maxims written in stone, but is a living scientific method. Our goal is to change the world, and as capitalism is international, the working class must challenge capitalism internationally and create a world based on human needs and democracy – socialism.
– Keely Mullen & Joshua Koritz