Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Russia: The Great Betrayal

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This article was originally published in the Militant newspaper in 1992.

The bosses attempt to link the ideas of genuine socialism with the dictatorship, bureaucracy and mismanagement of Stalinism. So the answers to How and Why Stalinism arose in Russia in the 1920’s must be found.

The first fighters against Stalin

Leopold Trepper, leader of Stalin’s legendary spy network, the Ted Orchestra, wrote in his classic The Great Game about the heroic role of the Trotskyists during the 1930s purges of Stalin.

“We went along, sick at heart, but passive, caught up in machinery we had set in motion with our own hands. Mere cogs in the apparatus, terrorised to the point of madness, we became the instruments of our own subjugation. All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist regime are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict.

“But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage? The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion it the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.

“Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not confess, for they knew that their confession would serve neither the Party nor Socialism.”

Why study this question?

The task of socialists is to explain that attacks by government and bosses are due to the demands of a sick capitalist system. But what’s the alternative to this system? Many workers in the frontline of the struggle still have doubts that socialism offers a way out. Has it not been tried and proven a failure in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union?

The bosses attempt to link the ideas of genuine socialism with the dictatorship, bureaucracy and mismanagement of Stalinism.

So the answers to How and Why Stalinism arose in Russia in the 1920’s must be found. This is not for historical interest. But these answers give us the confidence that a socialist Australia and a socialist world would not ‘end up like Russia’, but open up a new epoch of humanity.

1917 was 1st step to world revolution

A very basic definition of socialism could be ‘a system that provides more for workers than the best capitalism has to offer”. But in Russia only 10% of the populations were wage earners. 1921 industrial production was down to one-ninth of 1913 levels. 7 million beggars roamed the country. Mass famine and even cannibalism existed. Therefore it was impossible backward Russia could achieve socialism alone.

Lenin and the Bolshevik government saw the October 1917 revolution as the first step, the trigger, for a work socialist revolution. As soon as the workers overthrew capitalism in rich countries like Germany and Britain, they could assist Russia with loans, technicians etc.

“Either the revolution breaks out in the other countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish”, Lenin bluntly declared. To aid this process, the Bolsheviks created the 3rd or Communist International in 1919 to unite the revolutionary organisations of the world.

The State Machine

On the basis of a world socialist federation, the resources of the planet could be planned in the interests of the majority and not just for a rich few.

As production would rise, scarcity would diminish. The need for a repressive apparatus (a ‘state machine’ of police, army, judges, laws, prisons) to regulate the distribution of scarce resources would also diminish. As Engel?s predicted, the state would ‘wither away’. But all this was only possible through an international socialist revolution.

To stem the rise of bureaucracy Lenin outlines four safeguards. 1 – No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker. 2 – Rotation of posts. 3 – All workers to bear arms to protect the revolution (“No standing army, but an armed people”). 4 – Election of all officials with the right of recall between elections.

What happened at Kronstadt?

In 1917 the Kronstadt sailors had been in the forefront of the revolution. By 1921 this generation had disappeared to the war fronts and been replaced with peasant conscripts, politically inexperienced, who came under Anarchist influence.

Afflicted by all the peasants’ grievances, demanding more freedom but without a programme for solving the country’s problem, they staged an armed insurrection under the slogan: “Down with Bolshevik tyranny!”

This present a far more serious threat to the workers’ state than the bands of armed insurgents still roaming parts of the country. Kronstadt commanded the approach to Petrograd. With Kronstadt out of government control. Petrograd could not be defended. This gave the Whites and the imperialists a unique opportunity to attack a key centre of the revolution.

The Bay of Finland was still frozen, but the ice would soon melt. When that happened the island, defended by heavy guns and by the Baltic fleet, would become impregnable. Time to solve the crisis was very short. As Paul Avrich, the American historian of Russian Anarchism wrote, “What government would long tolerate a mutinous navy at its most strategic base, a base which its enemies coveted as stepping stone for a new invasion?

The sailors refused to surrender. Trotsky, with the unanimous support of the party leadership, ordered the attack. After days of bitter fighting, Kronstadt was taken by Bolshevik troops.

Russia remains isolated

But all the safeguards in the world would not stop a degeneration of the Soviet government if Russia remained isolated.

The Russian Revolution inspired revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria. But only Russia had a mass Marxist party at the head of the working class. All these revolutions failed because of the role of the workers’ leaders. Russia remained isolated.

The Bolshevik?s Red Army managed to beat off invasion from over 20 imperialist armies, and internal revolt from capitalist “Whites”. But the cost was massive.

265 of the 799 industrial enterprises in Petrograd were closed down within months of the October Revolution. The number of industrial workers dropped from 2.4 million in 1918 to 1.2 million in 1922. “Our proletariat has been largely declassed”, said Lenin.

By 1921 Russia was on the level of barbarism. In April 1918 most parts of Russia were receiving around 6% of the amount of bread officially ‘provided for’ by the Food Commissariat.

The Bolsheviks had to retreat and allow concessions to private property on the land to encourage the peasants to produce food. In the cities they had to bribe engineers and technicians to work by granting them pay rises – with a maximum wage differential of 4 to 1. This new policy became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Lenin was honest about this: “if you scratch the varnish of socialism on top you will find the same old Czarist state machine beneath.” Many workers (already decimated by the civil war) were taken out of the factories and put into administration posts to run the country and check over the old Czarist officials.

“If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we taken the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? l doubt very much if it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing: they are being directed.”

In the midst of all this, with defeat knocking on the door, the Bolsheviks allowed an internal debate to rage within their ranks over role of the trade unions in a socialist society. The Bolsheviks under Lenin were the most democratic party in world history.

A bureaucracy arises

But it is obvious that in this environment, those with literacy, administration and technical skills would develop into an elite. Because of the backwardness of Russian society (a backwardness that would not be overcome until Russia’s isolation was ended by an advanced country moving to socialism) a bureaucracy could arise. Realising that the Bolshevik government was secure after the civil war victory, the careerists and self-seekers covered themselves in alleged loyalty to the revolution.

Lenin was alert to the danger of a degeneration of the regime as long as Russia remained isolated. “We threw out the old bureaucrats, but they have come back…. and they wear a red ribbon in their buttonholes and creep into warm corners. What to do about it? We must fight this scum again and again, and if the scum has crawled back we must again and again clean it up, chase it out…”

Zinoviev (a Bolshevik leader) told the 1918 Party Congress of the experience of a Communist Party official who, receiving a newly joined member ot the Party and asking him to come back the next day to collect his membership card, was given the reply: ‘No, comrade, let me have it today, l need it at once in order to get a job in an office’!

Stalin rises to the top

It was these layers of budding bureaucrats that rallied behind Stalin inside the Communist Party (as the Bolshevik Party was renamed in 1919). As the percentage of workers in the party fell from 60% in 1917 to 41% in 1921, Lenin organised purges of non-worker elements and “self-seekers”. But as long as the revolution remained isolated, it was a rearguard action.

As the privileged bureaucracy rose inside the party and the state, the masses had less time for politics – and consequently the ability to combat this degeneration. In 1921 the Moscow population received only 60 grammes of bread every two days. The war demanded food, medicine and energy for the frontline. Between 1918 and 1920, 7.5 million died from hunger, cold and epidemics. Real wages in 1922 were only 30% of pre-World War One levels. Survival through pillaging and stealing was the only option for many.

How could socialism be built in this environment?

Stalin, the most conservative Bolshevik figure was the natural leader for the rising bureaucracy. His position as General Secretary of the party allowed him to give jobs and perks to this allies and strengthen his power. In 1918 there were 114,359 officials in Russia, this rose to 539,841 in 1919 and by 1920 the number had mushroomed to 5,880,000!

As Trotsky explained, “(Stalin) brought (the bureaucracy) all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine…The petty bourgeois outlook of the new ruling stratum was his own outlook. He profoundly believed that he task of creating socialism was national and administrative in its nature.”

Lenin fights against Stalin

In the last years of his life, Lenin, from his sickbed, linked up with Trotsky to fight Stalin and the rising bureaucracy. In his final writings, Lenin declared “Stalin is too rude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a Secretary-General. That is why l suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead…”

On March 6th, 1923, the last day of Lenin’s political life, his wife Krupskaya told Bolshevik leader Kamenev that Lenin had resolved “to crush Stalin politically”. But he had another stroke and lost the power of speech and died in January 1924, leaving Stalin to take over the reigns of power.

With Stalin representing the rising bureaucracy and Trotsky representing the interests of the decimated proletariat, the former was able to consolidate power.

“Socialism in One Country”

Stalin put the interest of the bureaucracy before the interests of the international socialist revolution. A successful revolution internationally leading to democratic workers’ control would put into question his own increasingly dictatorial rule. Out of the blue, in December 1924 he created the ‘theory” of “Socialism in One Country”, the greatest distortion of the ideas of socialism. He abandoned internationalism to please the bureaucrats, the black marketers, the rich peasants who thrived under the NEP, as well as capitalist governments he sought favours from. It was a turning point in Soviet Russia.

Stalin poured scorn on Trotsky for ‘underestimating Soviet Russia’. But as Lenin had warned, “if we behave like the frog in the fable and become puffed up with conceit, we shall only make ourselves the laughing-stock of the world..”

Stalin rests on isolation of Soviet Russia

Stalin’s regime became isolated from Russia masses and world proletariat. Advice to Communist Parties of the world was increasingly influenced by what was beneficial to the foreign policy interests of the Moscow bureaucracy, not the interests of world revolution. Each outbreak of revolution and mass struggle in the 1920s (ie1923 Germany, 1926 Britain, 1927 China) was defeated because of incorrect strategy and tactics from the by then Stalinist-dominated Communist International.

In turn, each defeat internationally, increased the isolation of Russia and strengthened the position of the bureaucracy.

By the 1930s bad advice from Stalin had turned into out-and- out betrayal of the world revolution. During the Spanish Revolution, the Stalinists murdered those workers who attempted to link the fight against fascism to the fight against capitalism. Stalin was desperate to win support from France and Britain against fascist Germany.

He was willing to sacrifice the Spanish revolution if necessary. Ironically, it has recently been proven that Britain and France secretly backed Franco with arms despite Stalin’s compromises.

Trotskyites heroic fight

The Trotskyites led the fight against Stalin in defence of the ideals of the October Revolution. For their sins, they suffered the full wrath of Stalin. Hundreds of thousands were jailed in death camps and later killed. All the Bolshevik Central Committee of October 1917 were either killed, exiled or broken by Stalin in the 1930s.

As one commentator said at the time, “If Marx lived in the Soviet Union today, they would probably declare him insane too. As for Lenin, it is well known that he was virtually under house arrest for the last two and a half years of his life, isolated from the leadership of the party”.

Economic chaos because of bureaucracy

A planned economy (a state-run economy) needs the democratic participation of the workers. Without such control, a bureaucracy rules. The plan is thereby open to corruption and mismanagement without a check by workers or the check of the market.

Up to 50% of production was wasted under Stalin thought bungling and red tape.

The surprise was that despite the bureaucracy, the advantages of the plan shone through. Despite Stalin’s rule, Russia’s share of world industrial output rose from 3% in 1917 to 20% in the 1960s. Russia moved from being an ‘India’ in 1917 to becoming a superpower.

Inevitably, however, the crime of the bureaucracy caught up on it in the 1980s. By then the economy was in dire straits. They moved from being a relative fetter (constraint) on economic growth to being an absolute fetter. Between 1975 and 1985 there was zero growth after taking out oil revenues and vodka sales.

Nevertheless the planned economy had created a large, educated working class – the biggest in the world. This powerful working class came into conflict with an increasingly demoralised bureaucracy – a bureaucracy that fell like a house of card during the revolutions of the past years.

Lessons for Australia

Stalinism did not arise ‘naturally’ from the ideas of Bolshevism – but in opposition to them. Stalin killed hundreds of thousands of workers loyal to the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.

Stalinism arose out of backwardness and isolation. Today Australia is part of the advanced capitalist world. The working class is educated and doesn’t rely on the capitalists for administrative and technical skills. The capitalists play a parasitic role in production. They own shares in the big monopolies, but leave management to highly paid salary earners.

The anti-Stalinist revolutions showed the inability of ruling elites to stop revolutions from spreading from one country to the next.

More than ever, the world economy is intertwined. A revolution in even one major power would be a devastating blow to world capitalism, opening up the door to a socialist federation of the world.

By Stephen Jolly


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