What Was Stalinism?

What was Stalinism?

by Roger Silverman (2003)

Socialists today still find themselves under the dark shadow that Stalinism has cast over the history of the twentieth century. It is more than ten years since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe – overthrown in many cases by workers’ uprisings. These were hideous, corrupt, vicious regimes, and workers rightly celebrated their downfall as liberation. And yet they were generally identified with “socialism”, they were ruled by “communist” parties, and even according to the orthodox Trotskyist definition, they were “workers’ states” – albeit bureaucratically deformed.

Does it matter how we characterise regimes which are dead now anyway? If we reopen this discussion, won’t we be indulging in academic pedantry? Not at all.

The revolutionary struggles of the twentieth century were matters of life and death for the working class, but they were also driven by an ideological conviction that capitalism had had its day and that humanity was entering into a new millennium. The Russian revolution was greeted as a victory worldwide. Russia’s subsequent development into a super-power, and later the downfall of landlordism and capitalism over a third of the surface of the Earth, both looked like a guarantee of a socialist future.

Equally, the horrific corruption and long-drawn out decay of the Stalinist regimes, and their eventual collapse, sapped the morale of the working class internationally. Today it feels ideologically bereft, deprived of a theoretical compass.

Class and Caste

At first sight it seems ridiculous to consider these regimes “workers’ states” of any kind. For the workers that had to live under these conditions, certainly, it made little difference whether those in charge were Stalinists or Nazis, Pol Pot or Genghis Khan.

However, for serious socialists, impressionism is not enough. No analysis is carved in stone, and it may be that a fuller and deeper explanation of these very strange, paradoxical, contradictory historical phenomena will emerge. But this requires a serious attitude to theory.

In analysing any phenomenon, it is not enough just to take a snapshot, without looking at it historically and studying how it arose. Yes, these regimes were reactionary. The workers were deprived of elementary rights. But in itself that tells us little about their fundamental definition.

For Marxists, the word “class” has a special meaning. It should not be confused with the colloquial meaning of the word, which for instance talks of the “class system” in England when what it means is the privileges of those with posh accents, public school backgrounds or aristocratic titles. These are in reality only the remnants of a redundant former ruling class, a social circle which today is no more than a privileged caste.

Incidentally, there are also many underprivileged social castes within modern Western society, where blacks, Asians, Jews, travellers, etc., all represent castes, which face various degrees of discrimination. There is no direct correlation between caste and social class. There are black members of the ruling class, and there are aristocratic paupers.

What is a class according to Marxist theory? It is more than just a social sub-group with special ties of kinship. It is an economic category; one which has its own special relationship to production, based upon its property rights. Slaves had no property and were themselves chattels. Serfs owned small strips of land, for which they paid in kind or in labour on their landlords’ vast estates. The petit-bourgeoisie and the peasantry are smallholders in town and country respectively. Proletarians are free day-labourers, neither owned by their masters nor themselves owning any property. In earlier societies, there were many such classes: “In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs. The modern bourgeois society has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” (From The Communist Manifesto,1848.)

The fundamental core of Marxism is its brilliant discovery of the law of historical materialism, to which the concept of social class is central. Every stage in the development of the productive forces is based upon new property forms and brings new ruling classes to power. The historical role of capitalism is to build the material basis for socialism on the one hand, to develop the productive forces to the point that it becomes technologically possible to create an economy of superabundance, and on the other, to create a vast proletariat – the first class in history based upon collective mass cooperation.

Upon taking power, the proletariat expropriates private ownership of the means of production. This is its first task. In thus abolishing classes, it also begins to abolish itself as a class, and in the process the state begins to wither away. Tortuously and painfully, a rational human co-operative society is born.

What is a Bureaucracy?

In its heyday, the bourgeoisie played a unique, positive, indispensable, revolutionary role in creating the material and social conditions for socialism. A clique, caste or social stratum living off mere privilege – mere inflated salaries – can never qualify as a class in Marxist terms. What positive contribution did the Stalinist bureaucracy ever play in the development of the economy or society? It was a parasitic tumour on the body of society from the start. It would be grossly undeserved flattery to elevate it above mere parasitism and accord to it the noble historical status of a ruling class. 

How would such an idea fit into the Marxist view of history? Social classes are not just random phenomena, growing like a fungus according to the presence or otherwise of accidental or conjunctural local conditions. A ruling class represents something more than mere luxury, greed, privilege, etc. Before becoming reactionary and ripe for overthrow, it first performs an indispensable function in the historical development of human society towards communism. This is the ABC of Marxism.

The Stalinist bureaucracy was parasitic from the beginning. It played no necessary or progressive historic role at any time. Its sole function was to suck the blood of the workers’ state. If we are to honour this corrupt bureaucracy with the accolade of a real class – which means according to it its own special function in history – then we are also bound to recognise its initially progressive contribution. We would then be left with the paradox of having to support the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia for a whole period against the proletariat. And since classes are not just local flora and fauna exclusive to their own particular respective habitats, but world historical agencies, we would also have to support the coming to power of similar bureaucracies in every other country, as a necessary historical stage before the proletariat could take the power into its own hands. Why dignify these bloodsuckers with a historical mission which they never had?

If the bureaucracy were a new ruling class, then in terms of the Marxist outlook it must have had a necessary historical contribution to make. In that case, it must have represented in its day a positive and progressive force, to be supported until it had exhausted its historic role.

But this is just the opposite of what had been intended by the supporters of the “bureaucratic collectivist” theory – those who argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy represented a new ruling class. It implies an entirely new stage in historical progress, previously unknown to Marxism. Where is the counterpart to the new progressive bureaucratic collectivist class in America, say? It is no accident that Burnham and Schachtman – the first proponents of this theory – soon abandoned that convenient stepping stone away from Marxism, to become active bourgeois politicians.

If, on the other hand, we call the Stalinist bureaucracy merely a variant of capitalism – state capitalism – then this creates even worse contradictions. The fact that the system operating in Russia after the revolution still depended upon money, wages, and the laws of the market does not help. This would apply equally to the purest, healthiest and most democratic workers’ state. Marxists have never imagined that these laws can be abolished by decree the day after the conquest of power.

When and how could “state capitalism” have been established? By the New Economic Policy in 1921, which allowed private enterprise under state control, and which Lenin in fact called “state capitalism”? This might seem a promising answer – except for the fact that it was brought to an abrupt end by Stalin himself in 1928.

Under Stalin’s Five-Year Plans? But then the economy operated under entirely different conditions from “Western” capitalism. This was the period when the planned economy proved its overwhelming superiority over slump-doomed capitalism.

In the 1960s, with the controlled introduction of elements of licensed private production? But these were subject to strict supervision and were periodically reversed under the constant zig-zags of state policy.

The State

If the system that existed in Russia was capitalism both before and after the downfall of the Stalinist regime, then that event would be reduced to a mere detail of no historical significance. The selling off of state property, the end of full employment and welfare rights, the pauperisation of the working class, could not be considered defeats. We could take no stand against privatisation, because the change in the forms of capitalist property would be a matter of complete indifference to us. That is certainly not the standpoint of the workers of Russia.

Whatever kind of social grouping held power in Russia up to 1991, it was certainly not the predatory gangster Mafia that rules Russia now. Nobody can seriously deny that there has been a fundamental transfer of property and power.

It is not just a secondary switch of policy, like the privatisations in Scandinavia, or even a political revolution like the accession to power of the Nazis in Germany – which after all left property rights untouched (except for the property of Jews) and indeed crucially safeguarded the property of the existing German monopolies.

It simply makes no sense to dignify the parasitic caste of Stalinist bureaucrats with the historical mission of a ruling class. To deny the proletarian basis of this treacherous and corrupt regime might render superficial observers emotional satisfaction, but it does nothing to enlighten anyone who wants to understand history.

To protect and consolidate their newly won power, the proletariat has to create its own state. But a healthy workers’ state – a workers’ democracy – in classic conditions has no separate administrative or military machine. It is based upon elected workers’ councils; strict safeguards against privilege and corruption; no standing army but an armed people; wide rotation of administrative tasks. It is from the beginning already only a “semi-state”. It begins from the start to wither away: to move from “the government of people” towards “the administration of things”. Elements at least of such a healthy workers’ democracy existed, even in the conditions of backward starving Russia in the early days of the revolution.

In the words of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the state – even a healthy workers’ state – is by definition “a parasitic excrescence” and a “relic of barbarism”. Moreover, the workers’ state established by the October revolution in Russia had serious bureaucratic deformations from the beginning. That was inevitable, in a semi-Asiatic empire devastated by war and civil war, in which industrial production had slumped to one-ninth of pre-war levels and agriculture was based on the medieval wooden plough; where millions of semi-savage orphaned children roamed the wastelands, and famine and even cannibalism were rife. The Bolsheviks were forced by circumstance to offer the intelligentsia precious privileges, including a maximum wage differential of four to one. The prolonged isolation of the revolution further consolidated this privileged elite, and as the economy grew – at spectacular rates initially, due to the advantages of the plan – the gulf between its living standards and those of the working class widened astronomically. The roots of Stalinism lie in this growing disparity of income and lifestyle. 

Obviously, in the USSR the economy was run not by the working class, but by a greedy and repressive new elite. The question is: not whether the bureaucratic elite has special interests of its own – of course it does – but whether this makes it a social class.

A bureaucracy has no special proprietorial rights over the resources of society. It is a hierarchy made up of the personnel of any state. Bureaucrats are mere administrative tools of the class that rules in society. Sometimes, due to exceptional circumstances, these civil servants can become overpaid, corrupt, arrogant, domineering, and wayward. But in their capacity as bureaucrats they have no independent role in production; they do not live off their ownership of property. They draw their income in wages – ranging from modest and even lower-than-average salaries at the lowest level, to grossly swollen perks, privileges and sleaze at the top.

It is significant that the grotesquely privileged high life style of the top Stalinist bureaucrats even to the end was largely informal and unofficial. It did not come primarily from overt and legal sources. It was not therefore legitimated by a state constitution belonging to them. It came largely from one of two sources: either from illegal though widespread plunder, bribery, and corruption (the “parallel economy”), or from covert informal perks – the use of exclusive restaurants, sanatoria and holiday facilities, the right to foreign travel, access to special foreign-currency shops, etc.

Why would the establishment of workers democracy in Russia have constituted a “political” as opposed to a social revolution? Because it would not have needed to touch existing property relationships. All that was required was a simple restoration of Soviets (elected workers’ councils), together with other rules that had already been laid down by the Bolsheviks to rule out corruption, privilege and repression. These were: that no official was to receive a wage higher than the average skilled worker; that there should be no standing army but an armed people; that administrative functions be rotated among the working people. The Stalinist bureaucracy had ruled by virtue of its monopoly of political power. It had usurped the institutions of workers’ democracy. It had to be swept away by reclamation of Soviet power by the working class.

Political and Social Revolution

There have been countless political revolutions and counter-revolutions within the bourgeois state. Take for example the Nazi political counter-revolution in Germany in 1933. The German bourgeois had no direct control over the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Some of them even died in the concentration camps. By the end of the war the entire bourgeoisie was desperate to overthrow a regime that was rushing them towards catastrophe. Under the lunatic grip of this regime, on top of the destruction of their cities and industry, for half a century the capitalists were to lose half of Germany and half of Europe.

How then could the Third Reich be called a bourgeois state? Only by one single definition: in that it stood guard over and protected the property forms upon which the bourgeoisie depended. The proprietors of the means of production had been forced to cede day-to-day control to their armed security gangsters as their only hope of preserving their property. But by retaining their grip on business, industry, and finance, they remained the dominant class in society.

Similarly, under Stalin the Russian proletariat had no control over the state. Millions of workers died in concentration camps. They were enslaved and subjected to terror. How could this be called a workers’ state – no matter how monstrously degenerated? Only by the fact that the Stalinist bureaucrats stood guard over the property forms established by the proletarian revolution of October 1917, and from which the bureaucrats themselves drew their inflated income and privileges: state ownership of the means of production, and the state monopoly of foreign trade. This is the analysis made by Trotsky, which he defended vigorously against all those who sought to draw superficial comparisons between Nazism and Stalinism, and talked of a “managerial revolution” and of “bureaucratic collectivism”.

As the bureaucratic stranglehold tightened over the development of the economy and culture, it became increasingly reactionary. From the beginning it had been parasitic. It played a negative role and it was a relative drag on progress. But at a certain point (during the 1960s) it reached the point where it had become an absolute barrier and roadblock standing in the way of any further progress. Increasingly, the economy stagnated, productivity declined, wastage and plunder became rampant.

The bureaucrats were to continue guarding nationalised property forms up until the point when they could no longer be a source of power and privilege; at that point they liquidated them. Maintaining their rule through sheer inertia, they had grown cynical and lost faith in their system. They began to look with envy upon the genuine ruling classes in the West, and to ape their life styles. Ever-wider sections began to plunder and hoard state property. As state planning choked in red tape and bureaucratic incompetence, an underground “parallel economy” began to flourish. These processes accelerated and extended until the whole economy was drowning under an ocean of corruption, embezzlement and theft. Eventually they relinquished their role as guardian of state ownership and paved the way – at first intuitively, later increasingly explicitly and consciously – towards the restoration of capitalism.

Capitalist Restoration

That the working class would overthrow the Stalinist regimes was no surprise to the most acute Marxist commentators, above all to the CWI. They had a far clearer perspective than the CIA and the spokesmen of imperialism, most of whom were taken utterly by surprise by the collapse of the so-called “evil empire”. Despite the scant raw information on which it was based, their analyisis proved fundamentally accurate. They monitored the developing crisis in these societies and economies from the standpoint of a perspective that workers’ uprisings were impending.

Events nevertheless turned out very differently from how even they had envisaged. The movement began, in accord with their enthusiastic predictions, as a political revolution led by the most heroic and politically aware vanguard, to establish (or, in Russia, to re-establish) workers’ democracy. Soon it became deflected into social counter-revolution, as the more backward downtrodden masses poured into the vacuum, to be easily manipulated by restorationist elements, both inside and outside the bureaucracy.

The restoration of capitalism represented the final betrayal by the Stalinist bureaucracy, and the end of their long road towards counter-revolution. This too should have been no surprise to Trotskyists. It had always been Trotsky’s prediction that if it were not overthrown by the working class in a political revolution, the bureaucracy would ultimately surrender state property and open the road to social counter-revolution. “The Thermidor could not stop halfway”.

The regimes that ruled Russia and the other Stalinist states were rotten to the core. They lacked the social roots enjoyed by a ruling class, with its common special interests of property, inheritance, history, law and culture. They could justify their existence only by the threadbare pretence that they were communists. That is why at the first serious challenge to their rule, they collapsed like a house of cards.

The final shock which brought them tumbling down was the development of the new technology. It had been the startling growth rates in Russia (and later some other Stalinist states) in contrast with the Great Depression in the 1930s, which had boosted the credentials of Stalinism. But Trotsky warned even then that in the event of a German invasion, it would be not so much Nazi guns as the cheap goods in their baggage trains that would bring the prospect of counter-revolution.

The sclerotic stagnation of the bureaucracy in the last 25 years had ground the wheels of progress to a halt in Russia and the other Stalinist states. Meanwhile the spectacular feats of technological growth in the West had undermined whatever historical justification the bureaucracy had ever claimed. They lost all confidence in the system from which they themselves had fed for so long, and rushed to join the new restorationist Mafia.

It was in fact the CWI which later revised Trotsky’s prognosis and, right up to the very eve of the actual event, ruled out any possibility of capitalist restoration. This was in its day absolutely correct, due to the new balance of forces that prevailed internationally between 1945 and 1975-80. It became a gross and catastrophic mistake only with the ending of that historical period. We were all too slow to acknowledge the ending of one historical epoch and the advent of a new world: a world which had as dramatically different a landscape as the post war world had had from that of 1938, when Trotsky proclaimed the programme of the Fourth International.


The transition from one epoch to another is rarely as simple and clear-cut as pedants would like. The bourgeois-democratic revolution in England went from civil war and the execution of a King, to the Cromwell dictatorship, to the restoration of the monarchy and a compromise with the landed aristocracy. In France it passed through a century of sharp zig-zags, including the Terror, a succession of quasi-monarchical dictatorships, and the Paris Commune, before there came an only slightly more stable series of constitutional republics.

It is hardly surprising that the world’s first proletarian revolution – and all the more so one isolated to a backward peasant country – spawned a grotesque abortion. Stalinism was a cancerous excrescence, an accidental freak of history. It soiled the banner of socialism in the eyes of the workers of the world. We can only be thankful that it has been wiped off the face of the earth. The worst mistake we could make would be to dignify it with the attributes of a legitimate stage in the historical process.

That is why the answer to this question is so important. If all that happened in Russia was that a new exploiting ruling class was brought to power, then history becomes a futile cycle of successive forms of oppression. If what was brought to power by the Russian revolution was merely capitalism in another guise, then wouldn’t that prove capitalism in fact to be omnipotent, the “end of history”?

If on the other hand Stalinism is understood to be a historical aberration, produced not by the revolution but by its failure to spread; by its isolation to a backward outpost; as the price paid for its tenacity in clinging on despite the odds – then this gives an altogether more hopeful prospect for the future.

In no way does it imply the least mitigation of the crimes of the Stalinist butchers of socialism, who were as vile and bloodthirsty as the Nazis in the capitalist world, to conclude that they were not a separate ruling class. Stalinism was a poisonous tumour on the body of the workers’ state brought into existence by the October revolution. It festered in conditions of isolation, backwardness and a hostile environment; and eventually it killed its host.


Republished from the UK socialist website, Left Horizons

No comments: