MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

11  Khrushchev's Coup

 

    In June 1957, 16 months after the 20th Congress, the storm unleased by Khrushchev's anti-Stalin speech reached a dramatic climax, a final showdown between the backers and the opponents of Khrushchev's line within the leadership.

    Inside a period of two weeks, Khrushchev was thrown out of party leadership and stripped of his power, and then restored to leadership at his opponents' expense. The story of this showdown, and of the role played in it by the Soviet military hierarchy, throws an important light on the character of current Soviet society.

    Virtually the whole of this conflict was played out among a rather narrow circle of people at the highest levels of the Soviet superstructure. While Khrushchev's opponents apparently never thought to take the issues to the masses of the Soviet people -- this was certainly their fatal weakness -- Khrushchev's backers, for their part, did everything possible to keep the Soviet people in the dark.

    Even the great majority of the members of the Communist party was kept out of it from the beginning. According to the leaked transcript of the "secret speech," the delegates to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 received Khrushchev's 20,000-word diatribe against Stalin

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with "tumultuous, prolonged applause ending in ovation. All rose." But, if the description is accurate, such enthusiasm was evidently stronger on the highest party levels than below, because for the first time in the party's history, it was decided to keep a major congress speech by the top-ranking party official concealed from the party membership at large.

    What the party press published for all to see after the congress was a fairly innocuous-seeming document that formed the last half-dozen paragraphs of Khrushchev's marathon speech: three theses that called for ending the "cult of personality" and for reviewing unspecified "erroneous views" connected with it. It was a very moderately phrased document, containing no hint of the poisonous invectives -- "treason" was among the milder ones -- hurled at Stalin during the closed session of the congress. Stalin's name was not even mentioned.

    Of the full Khrushchev text only 6000 copies were distributed within the Soviet Union, all to high-ranking party cadre. (Paloczi-Horvath, Khrushchev: Making of a Dictator, Boston 1960, p. 211.) The party at that time counted nearly eight million members. Thus only a tiny minority, fewer than one member out of a thousand, had the document. It was enough to set the venom dripping into the party's arteries, to generate endless, escalating rumors and horror stories, to create suspicion, confusion and chaos, to undermine unity and poison the atmosphere -- but not enough to give the great majority of cadre, who had learned to respect and to defend Joseph Stalin, a clear and visible target to shoot at.

    Among the figures who did have a copy of the full text, and whose own views in his field of specialty were very largely reflected in it, was the then minister of defense, Marshal G. K. Zhukov. Zhukov had been one of the top commanders of the Red Army during World War 2 and had directed a number of the army's most brilliant victories. Success, however, appeared to have made him vain and arrogant toward superiors and subordinates; and after the war Stalin relegated him to secondary roles. The resentment Zhukov appeared to have harbored because of this treatment brought him into alliance with Khrushchev. Promoted to codeputy defense minister in 1953, Zhukov

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was made full defense minister at the time of Malenkov's ouster by Khrushchev in 1955. He was the first professional military man ever to hold that post in the USSR. Khrushchev took the opportunity also to create nearly a dozen new marshals, the highest army rank.

    Although Khrushchev posed as the champion of the party's supremacy over the government and other institutions, he encouraged and rewarded for his own benefit the blatantly antiparty attitudes of Marshal Zhukov. Barely a week before the 20th Congress opened, Zhukov had published in the official army organ the following unmistakable advice to the party to stop telling the generals what to do:

    "Certain efforts have been made in the district to subject the official activity of commanders to criticism at party meetings. Such efforts are blameworthy. Our task is the comprehensive strengthening of the authority of the commanders. giving support to exacting officers and generals." (Quoted by Paloczi-Horvath, p 190.)

    On Feb. 23 while the congress was winding up its regular session, and on the eve of Khrushchev's "secret speech," Zhukov expressed similar sentiments, this time with a more clearly anti-Stalin tendency, in addressing a Moscow gathering of top officers on the 38th anniversary of the Red Army. A week later Zhukov was promoted to candidate membership on the party presidium, an extraordinary advance for a military man.

    Khrushchev was later to say of Zhukov (in the second volume of Khrushchev Remembers, p. 14) that the marshal had Bonapartist tendencies and had plans in mind for "a South American-style military takeover in our country." That is not implausible from the evidence. He put expertise over politics and clearly had personal ambitions for power. But this bothered Khrushchev only later. Meanwhile Zhukov was much too useful in Khrushchev's own designs.

    What the masses of average Soviet workers and collective farmers were thinking and doing politically during the first few months after Khrushchev's speech is difficult to know reliably. According to an account by a clandestine group of Marxist-Leninists that operated in the USSR briefly before being suppressed in the early 1970s,

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the rank-and-file party members "demanded that the central committee make an objective, Marxist evaluation of Stalin's contribution. So insistent was this demand of the membership that the opportunist leadership of the CPSU was forced to resort to attacks and persecutions against many party members and to disband quite a number of party organizations which were known for their militancy." (Program and Principles of the Revolutionary Soviet Communists [Bolsheviks], New York 1967, p. 4)

    As for the nonparty masses, not even these indications are available. But, judging from the series of little economic crumbs that were tossed at them during this period -- Khrushchev now freely borrowed from Malenkov's "new course" program that he had earlier denounced -- there must have been a certain measure of dissatisfaction. Paloczi-Horvath speaks of considerable unrest, of spontaneous demonstrations and strikes, though not all of this activity may have been progressive. Large numbers of people detained by the dictatorship of the proletariat years before, among them hard-core reactionaries of all kinds, had been released under a general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev, and were actively stirring. In any case, in the autumn of 1956, Paloczi-Horvath writes, the Soviet armed forces and state security services held their annual maneuvers extraordinarily near the cities and towns, as a precaution and a warning. (Paloczi-Horvath, p. 219)

    But the explosions that nearly blew Khrushchev away came not from inside the USSR but from its Eastern European allies. In the summer and fall of 1956 came the Polish workers' uprising and the attempted counter revolution in Hungary. Both events were widely laid at the door of Khrushchev's anti-Stalin line and his preaching of "peaceful coexistence." His handling of these crises brought him further criticisms. By late fall he was in deep trouble; in "imminent danger of being overthrown," according to Crankshaw (Khrushchev: A Career, p. 239). His position "was most insecure," according to Paloczi-Horvath (p. 246). He was rarely seen in public anymore that winter; and when he did make an occasional speech, it was to pose once again as a loyal disciple of

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Stalin and praise Stalin to the skies. (Crankshaw, p. 243) He appeared to have abandoned the keynote theme of his congress performance.

    Deeply isolated both in public opinion and in the party presidium, Khrushchev in February 1957 launched his boldest and -- but for Zhukov -- probably his last plan for counterattack. He proposed to the central committee, which he had long since larded with his own followers, a drastic economic "decentralization" package that was really much more than that. Among its measures, to be analyzed later, was the proposal to sell off the state-owned Machine and Tractor Stations to the collective farms, thus giving the collective farms the unique distinction in socialist society of owning their own means of production. In the industrial sphere, the plan envisaged the abolition, at one stroke, of the central economic planning ministries carefully constructed with years of effort under Lenin and Stalin. Their functions and powers were to be transferred to more than hundred regional economic councils (sovnarkhozy), with only loose supervision remaining at the center.

    Even Khrushchev's otherwise loyal central committee would not go for this all-out attack on socialist property and socialist planning institutions. The best Khrushchev could get, after weeks of struggle, was to have the proposal published in the press for public discussion. This took place in the spring of 1957. Khrushchev, perhaps knowing it was his last chance, went barnstorming around the country to drum up support. Crankshaw says Khrushchev, on his campaign, "offered to key men of all kinds throughout the provinces the promise of undreamed of advancement, increased scope and promotion for tens of thousands" of local and regional officials, once the "Moscow bureaucracy" was abolished. (p. 247).

    Khrushchev' s opponents on the party presidium -- Malenkov, Molotov and Molotov's ally Kaganovich still had their posts there -- meanwhile kept utterly silent on the issue of the proposal. It is probable that they expected to win without an open fight. The program was manifestly unpopular, Paloczi-Horvath writes; even the party press, controlled by Khrushchev, printed numerous criticisms of

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it. (p. 246). But the plan had at least one prominent supporter, who endorsed it on "national security" grounds -- what these were was never clear -- Marshal Zhukov. Crankshaw speculates that Zhukov's support was given because Zhukov believed the army would have less opposition from scattered regional economic councils than from the powerful centralized ministries. (p. 248).

    The decentralization scheme, whether intentional or not, was uniquely designed to bring about a showdown. For on the one hand it wrapped up in a single package virtually all the most "advanced" demands of the bourgeois forces in the USSR at their stage of development at the time; and on the other hand it united against Khrushchev not only the Marxist-Leninists but all those who, Marxist-Leninist or not, derived their power and not inconsiderable privileges from their connection with the central economic ministries.

    Thus it was that a presidium majority in mid-June 1957 summoned Khrushchev back from a trip to Finland for a special meeting duly convened according to the party statutes. When Khrushchev arrived, according to Crankshaw version of the event, he "found himself isolated. He was attacked with savagery . . . voted out of the first secretaryship by a strong majority of the presidium, [but] then confounded the victors by refusing to resign until this verdict had been confirmed by the central committee in full session. 'But we are seven and you are four,' exclaimed Bulganin, to which Khrushchev retorted, 'Certainly in arithmetic two and two make four. But politics are not arithmetic. They are something different.'" (pp. 249-50).

    The account by John Dornberg, a biographer of Brezhnev, gives the added detail that the presidium majority "charged Khrushchev with pursuing opportunist and Trotskyist policies." (Dornberg, Brezhnev, New York 1974, p. 152) Whatever specifically was said, Khrushchev demanded an immediate central committee meeting. A long battle raged in the presidium over procedure. Meanwhile, to return to Crankshaw's account (here Dornberg's is less detailed, though all standard accounts agree on the basic steps), as the argument raged, "the

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Khrushchev faction staged a spectacular operation. With the help of Marshal Zhukov and the army's transport planes, Khrushchev's supporters were rushed into Moscow from the remotest provinces, while those who were already there staged a filibuster until the majority for Khrushchev was assured. . . .

    "And then," Crankshaw continues, "according to Polish press reports, Zhukov went a stage further: he directly attacked Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov for their behavior during the great purge years and said that if they did not look out he would prove his point by publishing relevant documents of the period. . . ."

    Zhukov's intervention on Khrushchev's behalf drew Its significance not merely from the provision of timely transport for Khrushchev's supporters and from the threat to produce "documents." Zhukov, as minister of defense, spoke for the entire Soviet military establishment. His speeches carried more than ordinary weight. They implied the clear warning that the armed forces would not support a Molotov-Malenkov-Kaganovich "antiparty group" government.

    In reward for his services when it was all over -- Molotov exiled as ambassador to Mongolia, Malenkov to run a power station in Siberia, the others to similar oblivion -- Zhukov was promoted to full membership in the presidium. Three months later when Zhukov's putschism was no longer useful to Khrushchev, a trap was set for him and he was dismissed.

    After June, Molotov-Malenkov-Kaganovich's allies and supporters were one after the other fired from leading posts or expelled altogether from the party and government, while Khrushchev and his group put their followers in all positions. The struggle was over. Khrushchev's program had won.

    Though no blood was spilled between the antagonists in the final showdown of June 1957, Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich and their allies were put out of power, fundamentally, by military intervention. The takeover was bloodless and completely "legal" according to party rules; but it was nevertheless in essence a right-wing military coup that insured the Khrushchev victory.

Without a doubt, his power grew out of the barrel of a gun only not the gun of the revolutionary soldiers and peasants, but the gun of a bourgeois officer corps.