"Socialism? But look at Russia..."
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe was hailed by critics both left and right as "the end of socialism." State Department hack Francis Fukyama declared it "the end of history" -- no longer would there be the threat of nuclear holocaust and the rising tide of capitalism would soon raise all boats. Yet in Eastern Europe life expectancy is 10-15 years less than it was under the "socialist" regimes, which is amazing considering how repressive those regimes were. The free market has shown itself to be even more brutal and impoverishing than the false socialism it replaced.
Many followers of Stalinism saw their dreams evaporate into thin air. Nina Temple, the General Secretary of the British Communist party announced shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall: "... it was not socialism in Eastern Europe. And I think I should've said so long ago." Imagine the Pope saying "God does not exist, and we should've said so long ago". Many former Stalinists have concluded that the market is only the viable option, and that the only way to improve humanity's lot is through tinkering with the market.
Yet both former Stalinists and right wing free-market fanatics share the same flawed assumption: that the Stalinist states were socialist. Marx and Engels wrote that "the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves"; under Stalinism, the working class had absolutely no rights and was just as exploited as the working class of the West. The "socialist" regimes of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (among others) were installed by Russian tanks, not by their respective working classes. Marx and Engels argued for a "dictatorship of the proletariat", not a dictatorship over the proletariat.
In 1917, the working class, led by the Bolshevik party, overthrew the Russian Provisional Government and established the world's first workers' government. The power of this state lay in the workers themselves organized in soviets (soviet is the Russian word for council). Soviets were large mass meetings composed of delegates elected from all the major workplaces in a given locality; these delegates were paid the same as the average worker and were immediately recallable by the people who elected them.
The Bolsheviks knew that because Russia was so economically backward, it could not survive on its own as a socialist state surrounded by hostile capitalist countries; it would need the help of more advanced countries if socialism and the working class were to attain a lasting, permanent victory. Lenin repeated this theme in many of his speeches, declaring "Without revolution in Germany, we are finished." Leon Trotsky, the organizer of the insurrection and later the Red Army also made this point: "If the peoples of Europe do not arise and crush imperialism, we shall be crushed -- that is beyond a doubt. Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the West, or the capitalists of all countries will stifle our struggle." For the Bolsheviks, the Russian revolution was not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end. Victory in Russia would detonate revolutionary struggle abroad which would secure their victory; the success of Russia's workers was tied to the success of this international struggle.
The hope for international revolution was not the product of idealistic Marxist fantasies. In 1916, there was a rising in Ireland against British rule. Following WWI, there were revolts all over the world against colonialism. In Hungary, a revolutionary workers' government came to power under the leadership of communist Bela Kun. Workers in Italy rose up and established workers' councils similar to those established in Russia when the Tsar was overthrown after 400 years of undisputed rule. In Germany, the workers and soldiers of Western Europe's most advanced nation overthrew the Kaiser and established councils modeled on the Russian soviets.
The world revolution had come.
Unfortunately, the revolutions abroad were defeated. In Germany, the refromist Social Democratic Party, along with industrialists, generals, and monarchists organized a counter-revolutionary army (the Freikorps) which crushed the workers' movement and killed two of the best communist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The Soviet government in Hungary was overthrown by White armies after Kun's government made a number of political errors and lost the support of the masses. Mussolini's fascists defeated the Italian workers' movement. The isolation of the Russian revolution became even worse when 14 imperialist armies invaded Russia and imposed a total blockade of Russia's international trade. This helped cause a famine and a massive fall in industrial production that led to the deaths of millions.
By 1920, production had fallen to 18 percent of its 1913 figure. The revolution's leading class, the proletariat, a minority to begin with, saw its numbers cut in half as millions went to the countryside to scrounge for food while others joined the Red Army, took posts in the government, or in the Bolshevik party! The Bolsheviks "paid for victory with the destruction of the proletariat that had made the revolution," observed Tony Cliff.
Without the working class and without industrial production, workers' control over production became impossible. The Bolshevik party and the workers' state were crippled with the destruction of the working class, like an animal with its backbone has been ripped out, leaving only the soft flesh. The isolation of the revolution abroad meant its defeat in Russia.
This state of affairs forms the background of Stalin's rise to power, beginning in 1924. From the outset, he made his intention to build "socialism in one country" clear. But the entire idea of socialism is based on the worldwide overthrow of capitalism, which would be necessary in order to put the entire world's resources at the disposal of the workers of the world!
Stalin's negation of one of the basics of socialism was not an anamoly, it was just part of his total negation of socialism. With Stalin at its head, a new ruling class rose to power in Russia, the party/state bureaucracy. This new class felt itself threatened by Western military power, and so it undertook a series of massive five-year plans to industrialize the country as rapidly as possible. It sought to achieve in 5 or 10 years what the West had done in 100; it sought to create a modern industrial economy out of a country beset by backwardness. In order to begin this process, it expropriated the peasantry and forced them into forced labor camps (gulags) -- much as the Enclosure Acts expropriated the English peasantry, leading to the creation of the English working class.
Millions starved to death in Stalin's Russia as people's consumption became a lower priority than economic growth; 10 million were thrown into the gulags. Marx showed in Capital that the beginning of capitalism was not a happy and blissful affair; rather it was brutal and disgusting. He called the initial accumulation of wealth that allowed capitalism to move forward "primitive accumulation". He was writing about Britain's expropriation of the peasantry, the slave trade in the U.S. colonies that propped up the early factory system in England and the invasion and plunder of India. But the term, "primitive accumulation" also applies to Stalin's infamous five-year plans because the party/state bureaucracy were doing what the Western merchants-turned-capitalists had done: rapidly expand the productive forces in order to compete with their rivals.
The party bureaucracy now controlled, directed, and supervised every aspect of life. Planning to meet human need was not the order of the day; industrialization for the sake of arms production was. Every gain of the October revolution, from the de-criminalization of homosexuality to the right to an abortion, from the unions to the soviets themselves, were wiped out, negated, and destroyed. Strikes were made illegal.
So did Lenin lead to Stalin? Did the workers' revolution lead directly to its antithesis? Of course not. If Lenin led to Stalin, if Leninism led to Stalinism, why did Stalin have to kill all the Leninists? By 1939, of the 21 members of the Central Committee in 1917, only 1 remained in the party leadership - Stalin! 7 were shot, 3 "disappeared", 3 were politically (and perhaps physically) liquidated and a total of 13 turned out to be "enemies of the people." Trotsky himself was an illustration of this. He organized the insurrection which had put the soviets in power; he organized the Red Army that saved Russia from being overpowered by the White armies; yet he was exiled and later assassinated in 1940 by a Stalinist agent.
The only reason Stalinism arose was because the Russian working class was too weak economically and politically to hold onto power after a brutal civil war destroyed its ranks and revolutions abroad were defeated. The party/state bureaucracy arose to manage the country in its place in the midst of the civil war, but once the war was over, they held power, not the workers who had made the revolution.
The regime in Russia was not socialist, but bureaucratic state capitalist; the party bureaucracy, through its control of the state, owned the means of production, accumulated for accumulation's sake, exploited the working class, for the purpose of competing with the imperialist governments of the West. Stalinism competed with the Western superpowers on their terms, using their means. Most of all, Stalinism was the gravedigger of the revolution, not its heir.