MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE | Martin Nicolaus

9  In the Balance

 

    From the end of World War 2 to the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Communist party and government appeared outwardly strong and unshakable as never before. Behind the solid exterior, however, there were processes in motion that allowed this bastion of socialism -- the embodiment at the time of everything Marxism-Leninism stood for -- to be taken over rather painlessly, as historical changes go, by a group of leaders with an anti-Marxist, anti-Leninist counterrevolutionary program.

    The task is to understand how such a turnabout was possible. It is a very difficult task. There are few models for the mind to lean on. Most of the key documents that would shed light on particular events are not available. Much was done in secrecy. Nevertheless, by looking at developments in broad outline, it is possible to identify four main causes that brought about this historic reversal.

    The first of these has already been touched on earlier, namely the reflection, up in the highest circles of the party and the government, of the vestiges of bourgeois relations of production that existed within socialist society at the base. In the structure of the collective farms, as was

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pointed out, there remained a certain objective basis for the narrow, self-centered, profiteering and anarchic behavior that is a mark of capitalism. At the point of production in industry, likewise, an excessive concentration of responsibilities in the hands of individual directors and engineers engendered among the latter some feelings of superiority and a desire to gather power into their hands as well. In both these main branches of social production, the leading people at the base necessarily operated with one toe, or even one foot, on capitalist or semi-capitalist ground. The aspiration of moving further in that direction, rather than toward communism, could not but arise in their heads in one or another form. While in the minds of most this notion -- at least in its most obvious dress -- was undoubtedly quickly repressed, it was to be expected that such ideas in disguise would exert a significant influence over many, and become the altogether dominant impulse in the heads of a few.

    All this is inevitable in any socialist society -- society as it emerges out of capitalism, carrying with it not only many of the old ideas but also some of the old soil. Even the working class is bound to be touched in its consciousness by the survivals under socialism of what Marx called "bourgeois right"; for the inequalities of the wage scale, supplemented too often in the USSR by individual bonuses and premiums, must have worked counter to the brilliant spirit of collective enthusiasm and the new attitude toward labor which the Soviet working class displayed par excellence.

    It is equally inevitable that such remnants of capitalist relationships of production at the base of socialist society will percolate up into the higher levels of party and government, as well as other institutions. It is part of the work of the higher levels to keep in the closest possible touch with conditions below. In the countless meetings, visits and conferences where Soviet cadre of different levels daily rubbed elbows, the backward aspects of reality and thought at the base were bound to be transmitted upward along with the progressive ones. The collective farm manager whose underlying motives were not much different from those of a kulak, the factory director who

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thirsted to hold the whip hand over the workers, the engineer who developed delusions of genius, the lower-level party cadre who wanted privileges -- all were bound to find or to shape, sooner or later, a sympathetic ear on the higher levels, a leader who knew both how to conceal and to advance their interests. Con-men, careerists and, ultimately wreckers such as Khrushchev, turned out to be the natural products of the shady side of socialist society, just as the great builders of socialism, leaders of the working class and teachers of Marxism-Leninism such as Stalin were the natural products of the bright socialist mainstream.

    The presence of two-faced, careerist and opportunist individuals in high party and government circles in the USSR was an historically inevitable and constantly recurring condition. So long as society remains in the socialist stage of development such persons will be climbing or trying to climb up the ladder, just as they do in communist parties in capitalist society. The exposure and ouster of one or two of them does not discourage the others, it only teaches them to be more clever. This was the first reason why a bourgeois takeover was possible in the USSR.

    In addition to this more or less constant condition, there was in the Soviet Union during this particular period an historically temporary condition, compounded both of objective and subjective elements, which made the work of the rotten apples in the party barrel easier and tilted the scales of chance in their favor.

    The Soviet party and government by the late 1940s and early 1950s had achieved an unprecedentedly strong and triumphant position externally and internally. Having stood off, driven back and smashed the German fascist invasion during the war, the USSR found itself by 1950 no longer an isolated socialist state but the center of a camp of socialist countries embracing the bulk of the Eurasian land mass with about a third of the world's population.

    Internally, there was a rapid reconversion and reconstruction of the war-ravaged economy, a technological modernization and expansion that led to significant production advances over the prewar standard

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relatively short time, all without the spasms of unemployment that marked the postwar reconversion in the capitalist countries. Though there was still much to be done, the Soviet party and government had cause to celebrate. Their achievements were spectacular.

    This historical conjuncture, however, inevitably gave rise to a certain mood of self-satisfaction among many of the leading cadre who had been involved in the victories. There was a feeling among entirely honest and dedicated cadre that they could now retire on their laurels while remaining at their posts. A penetrating description of this development during the last years under Stalin was published in 1968 by the Albanian party newspaper Zeri i Popullit:

    "The members of the Bolshevik party, who were led to legendary battles by Lenin and Stalin, were cadres of a class origin and with revolutionary vigor, tempered in revolution, in struggles, in the building of socialism, in battles against Trotskyism, against deviators and other traitors. They were ideologically and politically tempered and had a firm and legitimate confidence in their glorious Bolshevik party, in Lenin and Stalin, in the correct line and norms that they had mapped out.

    "To them the party was everything, it was their heart, brain and eyes, that is why they defended it, were educated by it and by their great leader. But while trying to carry out the party's and Stalin's correct line and norms the Soviet cadres, at first not all of them and not in a clear-cut way but gradually, became susceptible to a feeling of stability which is alien, in the revolutionary sense, to development. . . . Successes at work nourished the feeling of self-complacency and, parallel with these successes, the Soviet cadres began to lose their proletarian simplicity, raised unjust claims, which they considered 'politically legitimate' because these people had worked and fought. With their rise to responsibility there was taking shape in them the feeling of ease and complacency and they were ever more infected by bureaucratism, intellectualism and technocratism. . . . Many cadres no longer listened, as they had done previously, to the voice of the masses. Among them the thought began to prevail

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that they knew everything themselves, that they were specialists in everything, that they stood above the masses, above the working class politically and ideologically and were more farsighted than the latter. The authority and prestige which the Bolshevik party and Stalin enjoyed among the masses of the Soviet people and in the working class were confounded by these cadres with their personal authority and prestige. All these antiproletarian features deformed the revolutionary concepts among these cadres. As this also infected the party line and its implementation, the revolutionary norms of the party remained formal, the life of the party itself and its organization as well as the whole Soviet state administration were in the process of becoming sclerotic. . . ." (The Party of Labor of Albania in Battle with Modern Revisionism, Tirana 1972, pp. 419-421.)

    In short, the problems within the Soviet party were larger than the presence of a few opportunists. There was a dulling of the fine edge of revolutionary vigilance which would have uncovered the opportunists and caused their downfall. Sincere and dedicated proletarian cadre failed to unmask the bourgeois elements among them, and even united with them to a certain extent, because they themselves had become infected with bourgeois moods.

    These two conditions alone, however, one more or less constant and the other due to temporary historical events, could not by themselves have ensured a revisionist takeover had it not been for a serious political and theoretical error committed by the party leadership, headed by Stalin, nearly two decades before and never corrected. This was the thesis, advanced publicly by Stalin as early as 1936, that the USSR had become "a classless, socialist society." (History of the CPSU, Short Course, New York 1939, p. 329.) Stalin consistently maintained that the USSR ". . . is free of class conflicts. . . ." (Report to the 18th Party Congress, 1939) and that therefore there was no danger, indeed no possibility, of a regeneration of bourgeois forces and of a capitalist restoration from within Soviet society. The danger of restoration came exclusively from the outside via foreign invasion (Letter to Ivanov, New York, 1938). Even in his last published writing, the

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Economic Problems of Socialism (1952), Stalin corrects himself only to the extent of saying that ". . .even under socialism there will be backward, inert forces that do not recognize the necessity for changing the relations of productions," but still asserts that there can be no real danger because "socialist society . . . does not include the obsolescent classes that might organize resistance. " (Peking 1972, p. 52)

    Because of this basic gap in Stalin's analysis the long series of educational campaigns, cultural purification measures and party-wide theoretical discussions undertaken at his direction after the war could not sufficiently arouse and mobilize the party and the people and shake up the complacent. The campaigns remained to a great extent formal, lifeless exercises because their point was not aimed at the heart of the question. Stalin's theoretical development on this vital point lagged behind the demands of the practical movement and did not give it the revolutionary leadership that was urgently required. This was the third of the major reasons why revisionism could triumph.

    All of this, however, would probably still not have been sufficient to ensure a revisionist victory if there had been among Stalin's closest associates in the party a leader of a stature and ability comparable to Stalin's own. For as long as Stalin himself was alive, the newly engendered bourgeois forces in Soviet society and their incognito representatives in the party and the government dared not take a decisive step. They made progress by inches if at all. They might insinuate their program in minor ways here and there, claim and receive one or another petty privilege that meant nothing and float now and then a tiny, very cautious trial balloon. But there were severe limits. For while Stalin could not or would not recognize the aspiring new bourgeoisie as a class in his theory, this did not prevent him from taking the most vigorous measures against the bourgeois program and its architects in practice.

    Just one example among many cases: In early 1949 the powerful chairman of the State Planning Commission (Gosplan), N.A. Voznesensky, undertook apparently on his

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own hook a modest but significant reorganization of the planning apparatus and an upward revision of prices in the state sector. It was a step along the lines of what Khrushchev did later and had the effect of giving greater scope to commodity-money exchange relations and to the operation of the law of value. Voznesensky did not get far. He was promptly arrested, tried as a saboteur and shot. (See Felker, Soviet Economic Controversies, Cambridge 1966, Kaser, Comecon, 2nd ed. Oxford 1967) And he was not the only one to try similar moves and meet a similar end.

    Of course in the long run this method of restraining the aspirations of the bourgeoisie could not succeed. It was a harmful method when used on a large scale and it was used too often by Stalin and his subordinates when milder measures would have been more productive. But for as long as he was alive, one thing was certain: the newly engendered bourgeoisie and the capitalist-roaders knew beyond a doubt that they were living under the dictatorship of the proletariat. They might have had a certain status and some minor material benefits, they might sun themselves on festival occasions in the party's praise for work well done -- but let them take one step out of line and they were done for. They did not have and could not achieve the most important thing, political power.