MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

10  After Stalin

    In late October 1952, a few months before he died, Stalin proposed to more than double the number of members of the highest party bodies, from which a successor to his leadership was certain to be drawn.

    His plan was approved by the central committee, and Stalin's list of nominees to the expanded party presidium and to the new secretariat was accepted in full. It was a move that made Khrushchev nervous, if his purported memoirs are to be believed on this point. He had not been consulted. Was Stalin preparing to oust him? A number of Western Kremlinologists thought so. But no one could be sure.

    Whatever Stalin's intent, he did not live to carry it out. At his death there were some three dozen persons, members of the presidium and the secretariat, who technically could qualify as his successor. The majority of them were probably good Marxist-Leninists. But there were clearly none -- not even the best of them, Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov -- with the towering abilities, the driving energy and a prestige even remotely approaching Stalin's.

    Amidst the growth of complacency and opportunism within the party, amidst the unceasing quiet erosion of the

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socialist structures and principles by the newly engendered bourgeoisie, there was only one man then and there, in the leadership, who had the power to save the situation. And that man, Stalin himself, died on March 5, 1953.

    His death was mourned by millions of working people from one end of the earth to another and by none more deeply than by the workers of the USSR. He had led the Soviet Communist party and the country for three decades filled with historic achievements. He had waged titanic battles against the "leftist" and rightist factions that had tried to derail the Soviet power from the path of socialist construction. The struggles he led for collectivization and industrialization laid the material basis for the Soviet people's great victory over fascism in World War 2. Whatever his errors and limits, he had been a worthy successor to Lenin. He defended Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism. With him as its leader, the Bolshevik party led the Soviet working class and peasantry from chaos, backwardness and isolation to the construction of a modern socialist state standing at the center of a growing international socialist camp. Despite the mountain of slanders heaped upon his memory by the sinister clown who took over after Stalin, the words of Molotov at Stalin's funeral in Red Square March 9 still express the judgment of Marxist-Leninists:

    "Stalin's immortal name will live forever in our hearts, in the heart of the Soviet people and of all progressive mankind. The glory of his great deeds for the welfare and happiness of our people and the working people of the whole world will live through the ages."

    Even before the late leader's body had been placed in its coffin, however, a struggle broke out among his potential successors that was to transform the USSR over the course of the next generation as profoundly as it had changed between 1917 and 1937 -- but in the politically opposite direction: from the proletarian dictatorship to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, from socialism to state-monopoly capitalism, from proletarian internationalism to social imperialism. Although in essence a struggle between two different classes, it took the form at the

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outset of a rivalry for power between different leaders. It quickly grew into a fight within and between the leaderships of the country's major institutions -- party, government and army -- and spread finally through nearly the whole of the superstructure of Soviet society.

    Only the briefest overview can be given here of the extraordinarily complex and twisted path of the power struggle that opened with Stalin's death and concluded with the defeat of the "antiparty group" and the consolidation of Khrushchev's power in June 1957.

    Politically, the broad course of events was this: Khrushchev rose in power and influence by posing as the heir and defender of Stalin and of Marxist-Leninist ideology for over two years. He declined very sharply in power when he suddenly turned against Stalin openly at the 20th Congress in 1956. He was rescued from certain overthrow in 1957 only by the intervention of the general staff of the army and air force.

    The key events in the struggle were these: the Beria putsch of March 6, 1953; the struggle between Khrushchev and Malenkov during 1953-1955, the 20th Congress in 1956 and the bloodless Khrushchev-Zhukov coup of June 1957.

    The most obscure of these turning points is what happened the night Stalin died. By dawn of March 6 the commanders of the army units guarding Moscow were under arrest and their troops confined to barracks by paramilitary state security police units under the command of L. P. Beria. Beria's men had full control of the city and the Kremlin. That night Stalin's private secretary, a Gen. Poskrebyshev -- the only one who may have known Stalin's intentions regarding the succession -- mysteriously disappeared and was never heard from again. By the end of the day, five of the 10 members of the party secretariat and 22 of the 36 members and candidates of the presidium elected by the central committee in October 1952 had been dismissed from their posts. Of the 52 government ministries, 27 were abolished. In the new list of leaders, Beria's position had skyrocketed to the rank of first deputy prime minister, right behind G. M. Malenkov. Malenkov was also named first secretary of the party, its top post;

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Khrushchev was right behind him. Marshal G. K. Zhukov emerged from obscurity to become codeputy minister of defense.

    There are no reliable accounts or explanations of how these drastic decisions were reached. The British Sovietologist Edward Crankshaw wrote that Beria's troops "had been essential for the execution of the coup -- there is no other word for the destruction of Stalin's presidium." (Khrushchev -- A Career, New York 1966, p. 188) Whatever the case may have been, the surviving leadership decided in June that year to get rid of Beria.

    According to the account in Khrushchev's purported memoirs, the members of the presidium summoned Beria to appear. They accused him of being a careerist who had wormed his way into the party. A secret button was pressed; the door opened and Marshal Zhukov stepped in from the next room saying "hands up!" and arrested Beria. (Khrushchev Remembers, New York 1970, pp. 364-366) Later Beria was shot. Control over the state security police went to a crony of Khrushchev's.

    Malenkov emerged after Stalin's death as the apparent successor, holding both the top party and the top government posts. Within two weeks, however, he resigned the party leadership, leaving Khrushchev in effective control of the party structure. In August Malenkov, still premier, launched his "New Course" policy. He promised sharp and quick increases in the supply of consumer goods; in effect, he campaigned on a platform of "a chicken in every pot."

    There were two main weaknesses in this program. One, it involved upgrading light industry at the expense of heavy industry and defense production; two, it was announced without prior approval of the party. Khrushchev skillfully exploited these weaknesses. He posed as the champion of heavy industry, traditionally the leading sector in socialist construction; as the defender of the country's military preparedness against the Cold War capitalist encirclement; and above all as upholder of the leading role of the Communist party over the government ministries where Malenkov had his base. In February 1955, with his ministries openly steering a course different

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from the party's -- Izvestia, the government newspaper, advocated priority for consumer goods; Pravda, the party organ, defended heavy industry -- Malenkov was forced to resign the premiership. It was during this contest that Khrushchev succeeded in pinning the label "antiparty group" on Malenkov and his followers.

    Khrushchev triumphed over Malenkov by seeming to defend the old course, the course of Stalin, against Malenkov's rightist deviations. He used the victory to remove from the party large numbers of Malenkov's supporters and install his own people in their place. Thus fortified, Khrushchev tackled Molotov and foreign policy.

    Here the situation was different. The foreign minister had embarked on no "new course" or other departures in foreign affairs. He moved squarely along the lines laid out by Stalin. Nor would Molotov be provoked by calculated insults such as his exclusion from negotiations with China in December 1954 and from state visits to India, Burma and Afghanistan a year later and his downgrading in the four-power Geneva talks that winter.

    Against this implacable old Bolshevik, Khrushchev had to reveal himself ideologically: It was he, not his opponent who had to embark on a "new course." In May 1955 came the first step, over Molotov's vigorous objections, in the form of Khrushchev's visit to Yugoslavia, where he blessed Marshal Tito's bourgeois regime as "socialist." Then came Khrushchev's flattery of India's Nehru, the sworn enemy of the Chinese revolution; and, immediately after the four-power summit in Geneva at the end of 1955, Khrushchev put forward his new general theory of "peaceful coexistence" between socialist and imperialist states.

    But he had so far said nothing in public against Stalin.

    What exactly were the forces and processes that caused Khrushchev at the end of the 20th Congress in February 1956 to launch his "secret speech" remains today a matter of speculation. In his general report at the opening session, which Khrushchev delivered on behalf of the central committee in his capacity as its first secretary (a post he had formally assumed in September 1953), there was nothing but praise for the deceased leader.

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    According to the account in Khrushchev's purported memoirs, Khrushchev proposed to the presidium while the congress was sitting that a speech on "Stalin's abuses" be made. Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov protested. It was a stormy session. Finally Khrushchev laid down an ultimatum: "May I remind you that every presidium member has the right to speak at the congress and to express his own point of view, even if it doesn't coincide with the line set by the general report." (Khrushchev Remembers, p. 381) The others had to relent. Thus, if the memoirs are to be believed, the special closed session was arranged where Khrushchev delivered the "secret speech."

    In the words of the reactionary publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr., who ought to know, "Nothing anticommunist writers had ever said about Joseph Stalin equaled the charges leveled at him that night by his successor." (Ask Me Anything -- Our Adventures With Khrushchev, New York 1960, p. 85) There is little probability that the full party presidium saw Khrushchev's complete text or knew the whole scope of his intent beforehand.

    In the aftermath of this bombshell, any discussion about Khrushchev's theses on "peaceful coexistence," "peaceful competition" and "peaceful transition" -- cautiously advanced in the general report to the congress -- was overshadowed by the inner-party turmoil on the question of Stalin.

    Suddenly all those members of the party who had been associated with Stalin in one way or another, directly or indirectly -- and who had not? -- were thrown on the defensive by accusations of complicity in alleged unspeakable crimes and atrocities. Khrushchev, controlling the files of the secret police, selectively released or threatened to release "evidence" to "implicate" his rivals. It did not matter anymore whether a cadre stood for Marxism-Leninism or for "peaceful transition," whether the party was on a proletarian or a bourgeois road. What was made the principal concern was whether this or that individual had, back in 1934 or 1937 or some other time, played a part in the political trials of the 1930s, where

those accused might or might not have been unjustly dealt with. Instead of questions of political line, questions of moral guilt became paramount; political struggle was made into a morality play; and all those who were "implicated" in one way or another -- and who was not? -- were encouraged, following Khrushchev's own example, to heap the responsibility upon the dead body of Stalin.

    However, it did not quite work out according to the script. Most of the Soviet Communist party cadre were not stampeded so easily. Throughout the remainder of 1956, as the speech echoed and reverberated through the socialist camp and around the world, Khrushchev's standing became shakier and shakier. His new line provoked a string of disasters.

    Toward the end of the year he was in full retreat, and was forced to make pro-Stalin speeches. By early 1957 he was all but finished. On June 18, 1957 the presidium voted to oust him from party leadership. But on June 22 Marshal Zhukov and the air force came to his rescue.