MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

1  Introduction

    The Soviet Union today: Is it a friend or an enemy? Is it socialist or capitalist? Is it a bulwark of peace or an aggressive, imperialist power?

    Few differences within the broad movement against U.S. imperialism today run as wide and deep as those on this question. The different answers imply different views of the world situation, of strategy and tactics, of basic methods and philosophies. Like it or not, no one who is politically active against U.S. imperialism today can forever avoid taking a stand also on the character and role of the contemporary USSR.

    Today wherever anti-imperialists gather in the U.S., the question of the USSR is bound to arise. Whether it comes up in open debate or whether, by tacit agreement, nothing is said about it publicly, it burns all the same.

    Some 20 or 30 years ago the character and role of the USSR were a settled question for the great majority of people active on the left in the U.S. Most believed the USSR was a socialist country, that its leadership in the main followed a correct, revolutionary political line and that workers and oppressed people everywhere should look to this great land as the beacon of their emancipation.

    Those who openly disagreed -- apart from the bourgeoisie itself -- were forced to eke out some kind of political existence on the margins or in the crevices of the communist movement. Over the course of the year, the Soviet Union's achievements and victories had all but discredited its declared opponents within the ranks of the left. Unity in defense of the Soviet leadership had become an unassailable force within the broad movement against U.S imperialism.

    Obviously it is very different today. The very fact that there is a large-scale debate shows that champions of today's USSR have lost the enormous prestige within the U.S. anti-imperialist movement that was enjoyed by the champions of the USSR a generation ago. The ideological hegemony that had been won by the pro-Soviet position has crumbled.

    Why? What has brought about this decline in the prestige and influence of the pro-Soviet position? Why is the left, once so strongly united on this question, now of several minds? The answer is that the Soviet Union is not what it used to be.

    The historical record shows unambiguously who shattered the former unity on the left in defense of the USSR and what it stood for. The opening salvo gainst the prestige and influence of the USSR among anti-imperialists was fired neither by the Chinese nor the Albanian Marxist-Leninists, but by a leader of the Soviet Communist party (CPSU), Nikita S. Khrushchev.

    In a highly emotion-packed address before the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956, Khrushchev -- previously on record for his fawning and flattery toward Stalin -- suddenly unleashed a broadside of the most extreme and vituperative accusations imaginable against the leadership of the man who for three decades had headed up the Soviet party.

    Stalin, then three years in his grave, was suddenly heaped with epithets of the most astonishing kind. He was a "tyrant," he had committed "crimes more monstrous than the tsars," his "reign" was marked by "blood and terror," his leadership in the world war was tantamount to treason, he was a bumbler and so on. It was as if the congress of a 20th-century Marxist-Leninist party had been transformed suddenly into a medieval rite of exorcism.

    This speech -- the famous "secret speech" -- was not published in the Soviet press nor made available by the Soviet party leadership to the lower levels of the party cadre. The CIA however managed to obtain a copy almost immediately and passed it to the New York Times and other bourgeois newspapers of the world. This is where most of the world's communist movement first learned of it.

    The consternation, chaos and divisions that were the fallout from this bombshell within the communist movement were enormous. Every party at once entered into crisis. There was wave after wave of defections expulsions and splits. The speech was a "shot that was heard around the world" and has not stopped echoing to this day.

    Why was this speech so profoundly divisive? Because Joseph Stalin was no mere idle figurehead as a leader of the Soviet people. His whole activity as a party leader was organically bound up with, and reflected, the achievements and shortcomings of a whole period of Soviet development and all of the country's major established institutions. Wherever there was the battle to establish these institutions in the first place, and then to defend them; whenever there was a struggle to turn the development this way or that, Stalin was in the thick of it, at the head of it.

    Undoubtedly Stalin and the party he led made errors, important ones. To identify and to criticize these with surgical precision, while stressing that his correct decisions and achievements were the chief characteristic of his work, would have been one thing. Quite another thing was what Khrushchev did. To attack Stalin's leadership overall as "full of errors, grave distortions and monstrous crimes" was to assault not only Stalin the individual, the party leader, but also the essential foundations of Soviet society up to that time.

    The Soviet state and the rest of the superstructure, and likewise the Soviet economic base or infrastructure, did not develop spontaneously or "fall from the sky." They had to be established, on the basis of the given conditions and within the limits of what was objectively possible by the conscious, organized efforts of the Soviet working class and peasantry, and most essentially the efforts of their leadership, the party. Every such effort came through a political struggle within the ranks of the CPSU itself, in which the different leading figures put forward different positions. Thus, for example, Stalin held that socialism could be built in one country; Trotsky held it could not. Stalin held that the time for collectivization of agriculture had come; Bukharin held it had not. By Khrushchev's time there had been ample opportunity to review these battles and sum them up: Whom had history proven correct? Whom had history condemned?

    To say, as Khrushchev did, that Stalin's errors were the main thing, was to attack implicitly the basic policy line that the CPSU had come to adopt over the course of the previous three decades. It was to imply that virtually all the major opponents whom Stalin had defeated at every major turn of Soviet policy had been correct. It was to insinuate that the foundations of Soviet society, as it came to be constructed, were basically wrong.

    These were the implications that unsettled the international communist movement, undermined its strength and unity, and marked the beginning of the end of the political, moral and organizational influence of the USSR and its champions within the broad ranks of people opposed to U.S. imperialism.

    In a sense nearly every move of the Soviet leadership since then can be read as a series of footnotes to the Khrushchev "secret speech," as declarations and actions that made explicit -- though always under the "socialist" label -- the hidden implications of the early Khrushchevian manifesto.

    In the nearly 20 years that have passed since this opening shot, the Soviet party leadership has been engaged in a truly panoramic process of revising and transforming. No important stone has been left unturned.

    On questions of basic theory, the Soviet leadership has thrown out the Marxist view of the state as the repressive instrument of a class in favor of the view that the state is the representative organ of the whole people. They have similarly cut the heart out of the Marxist-Leninist theory of the role of a communist party. They have distorted the Marxist view on the transition to socialism to turn it into the illusion of peaceful overthrow of the bourgeoisie. They have discarded the core of Lenin's theory of imperialism in favor of the myth of 'irreversible detente' with imperialist powers. This is to mention just a few examples.

    In foreign policy, the Soviet leadership beginning with Khrushchev broke the solidarity of the socialist camp by forming an alliance with India's expansionism against socialist China and with Yugoslav chauvinism against socialist Albania. It imposed unjustifiable conditions on its aid to these fraternal countries, and abruptly cut them off when they insisted on treatment as equals. It violated the independence of the Eastern European peoples' democracies, occupied them with its troops, proclaimed that their sovereignty was "limited" and turned the majority of them into its client-states and dependencies. This, too, was merely the beginning.

    Most important have been the changes instituted by the new Soviet leadership in the economic base of Soviet society. They used the power of the Soviet state to nurture, fortify and put in command the traces of capitalism that survived in the relations of production, while breaking up the dominant strongholds of socialist relations. In their economic reforms of a decade ago, they erected an out-and-out capitalist economic structure of a state-monopoly capitalist type. It is today a consolidated economic system that conforms in all essential features to the classic analysis of imperialism given by Lenin.

    To chronicle, much less to analyse, all or even the great majority of the theoretical and practical revisions carried out by the Soviet leadership beginning with Khrushchev would require a very large volume. The key elements are the changes in the Soviet superstructure, especially during the 1950s, and the subsequent transformation of the economic relations, especially during the 1960s.

    In the present-day struggle about the role and character of the contemporary USSR, the lines drawn between the Soviet revisionists and the Marxist-Leninists constitute the main battlefront. For its part, the CPSU has gone to great lengths to charge that the genuine Marxist view of the Soviet Union, which the Chinese and Albanian parties have pioneered in upholding, amounts to nothing more than Trotskyism in a new guise.

    The great irony is that it is the Soviet revisionists themselves, through the mechanism of Khrushchev's "secret speech," that set the basis for a resurrection and revival of Trotskyism probably beyond the dreams of its prophet. It is from the CPSU itself that the Trotskyists have drawn and spread the defeatist line that its original pessimism regarding the impossibility of building socialism in one country has been vindicated.

    But it is precisely because of this temporary revival of Trotskyism that Marxist-Leninists, in explaining their view on the Soviet Union, must also draw a sharp line between themselves and the Trotskyists and show how, in fact, the Trotskyists and CPSU revisionists are the ones that conciliate and cover for each other, not only in their views of the world today, but in their overview of Soviet history as well.

    For these reasons the analysis of the contemporary USSR cannot begin with 1956, but must go back to the beginning of the Soviet period.