Stalinism proper is what existed in Eastern Europe and in Russia up until the 1990s. (See my article, "Socialism? But look at Russia...") For years, decades, Stalinism was a major force in the workers' movement of every country, and for many, it was the genuine inheritor of the Marxist (and Leninist) tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The aim of this article is to trace the origins of Stalinism, show its disastrous impact on the international labor movment, and on the revolutionary socialist tradition in particular.
In the early 1920s, Russia was the world's first socialist country in the world, but the working class that had made the revolution had been destroyed in the civil war. Ruling in its place was the Bolshevik party - but its ranks were swelled by old functionaries and bureaucrats from the old days of the Tsar. The apparatus of the Bolshevik party was forced to substitute its own rule and its activity for the rule and activity of the a politically conscious working class. The party bureaucracy could only substitute itself for the working class for only so long without succumbing to the pressure of alien classes, or acting as a class for itself. As John Molyneux put it: "But failing the international revolution (which it did) a stark choice had eventually to be made. Either remain loyal to the theory and goal of international proletarian revolution, with the possibility of losing state power in Russia, or cling to power and abandon the theory and goal."
Without revolution in other countries, the conservative wing of the Bolshevik party, led by Joseph Stalin, began to take power within the party. This process of degeneration did not go unchecked - a faction called the Left Opposition, led by Leon Trotsky, began to fight the rising Stalinist bureacracy. The issue around which the two factions crystallized was the slogan, "socialism in one country".
After the German Communist Party failed to lead the working class to power during the economic crisis of 1923, Stalin and the bureaucracy began to reject the notion of international workers' revolution altogether, instead favoring building a strong nation state that could keep the imperialist powers at bay. Yet international revolution had always been (and always will be) part of the revolutionary socialist program, from Marx to Lenin. Lenin himself emphasized again and again and again that the Russian Revolution was the first step of world socialist revolution. In fact, he stated explicity: "Without revolution in Germany, we are finished."
The bureaucracy wanted "socialism in country" because it didn't want to endanger its hold on state power with international revolutionary "adventures", which might provoke the intervention by the major powers. In order to hold off the more advanced capitalist countries, Russia had to develop an industrial base sufficient to compete with them. To do this, workers and peasants were forced into labor camps and surplus was forcibily extracted from them and re-invested in heavy industry and armaments.
The new ruling class used Marxist and Leninist phraseology to justify what it was doing, but it couldn't leave either intact. Leninism was and is a practice-oriented doctrine; its goal is to change the world, to win workers' control over society. Stalinism twisted Leninism into an official state religion, an unchangeable dogma, and sucked the life out of it, transforming its goal of winning workers' power to justifying workers' powerlessness. What Lenin wrote about the watering down of Marx's ideas became applicable to himself:
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes
have visited relentless persecution on them and received their
teaching with the most savage hostility, the most furious hatred,
the most ruthless campaign of lies and slanders. After their death,
attempts are made to turn them into harmless icons, cannonise them,
and surround their names with a certain halo for the "consolation" of
the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the, while at the
same time emasculating and vulgarising the real essence of their
revolutionary theories and their revolutionary edge.
Stalinism did precisely that to Lenin's ideas.
The Marxist idea that the state will wither away after the working class takes power, was flipped upside-down. Now, the state's power would grow uninterruptedly into a monstrosity. Stalin argued that because there was socialism in only one country, the strength of the state had to grow, whereas as Marx and Engels envisioned socialism being an international phenonmenon. Molyneux puts it aptly: "It was the kind of circular argument that works well when anyone who points out its circularity is a candidate for the firing squad."
Yet if Russia was a classless society, it couldn't be a workers' state; if there are no classes, then it can't be a class state. So the Stalinist bureacracy claimed that it was a state of the "people" for the same reason the capitalist claim that their state represents the "entire people" - to hide the fact that it is their state, and that they are the ruling class.
The theory of imperialism, developed by Luxemburg, Lenin, and Bukharin, was also the victim of Stalinization. The Marxist theory of imperialism holds as one of its basic principles that capitalism has established a world economy, and that the world economy is stronger than any one of its parts (nation states). In other words, no country could be utterly self-sufficient and play by totally different rules than the rest of the world economy. "Socialism in one country" of course contradicted this; and the Marxist theory of imperialism was reduced to plain-and-simple anti-colonialism.
These devlopments were disastrous not only for Russia's working class, but for the workers' movement the world over.
The Communist International was founded in 1919 as an instrument to lead the working class to power the world over; it was formed after the Second International betrayed the working class when every national section voted for "their" government's war budget in WWI. Thus, it was formed on the bedrock of internationalism.
It was a centralized world workers' revolutionary party; different national groups were sections of the world party. The Russian section, from its founding, dominated the Comintern - and rightfully so. Who else could say "we have done it, we have led a workers' revolution"? The Russian leaders had enormous prestige and authority, which was a positive thing because free debate and discussion permeated the early years of the Comintern. There were vigorous debates about ultra-leftism, compromises, the trade-unions, the role of the Communist party, the revolutionary newspaper, the party's position on the colonies, and many other subjects.
But after the Communist parties were defeated and capitalism regrained its footing in the years after 1919-1923, the Russian revolution was left isolated; this weakened and undermined the self-confidence of these parties, especially their leaderships. The prestige and authority of the Russian section - a natural and unavoiable phenomenon - combined with the failure of all the other parties led every party of the Comintern to rely very heavily on the Russian opinion. Esssentially, "the Russians are always right" became the modus operandi for the national sections. Debates in the Comintern degenerated in verbose phrase-mongering and leader praising.
As the Stalinist faction gained power within the Russian party, its influence spread through the Comintern to the other parties. Soon enough, the Russian section was bureaucratically controlling the leadership and policies of every other section; when it couldn't, there were expulsions, and even "disappearances" when leaders of various CPs were summoned to Moscow.
The Comintern was no longer an instrument of world workers' revolution; it was a mechanism to help the ruling class hold onto state power. "Socialism in one country" meant that world revolution was not a burning necessity guiding the activities of the party - it was an optional extra that was paid homage occasionally, but it was left to the far, far, misty future. The role of CPs around the world was not to lead the working class to seize power, but to act as reformist pressure groups on their respective ruling classes to prevent an invasion of the USSR. To paraphrase Trotsky, they were transformed from being revolutionary vanguards to Stalin's border guards.
Stalinist influence caused the defeat of the Chinese workers' revolution in 1925-1927; allowed the fascists to win in Spain (see my article, "Lessons of Spain"); muted and helped contain class struggle in France and the U.S. in the 1930s Worst of all, the German Communist Party (KPD) viewed the Social-Democrats as greater evil than the Nazis - and so refused joint action to stop the fascists. In the 1960s, the Indonesian Communist Party supported President Sukarno and the military, which turned on them and slaughtered as many as one million workers and peasants. During Salvador Allende's Presidency in Chile in the early 70s, the Chilean Communist party was for the "parliamentary road to socialism" and opposed workers' councils that formed. Like their Indonesian counterparts, they sought an alliance with the military - until General Pinochet destroyed the revolution and killed over 75,000 people.
Despite these criminal betrayals, every defeat of the working class strengthened Stalinism. As Tony Cliff put it:
There have been strong links binding the international Communist movement
to Moscow. For a long time it suffered one setback after another: in
Germany over and over again from the defeat of the revolution in 1918 to
the rise of Hitler; in China the defeat of the 1925-1927 revolution; the
defeat of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War; the debacle of the
People's Front in France, etc., etc. The only Communist Party maintaining
power was that in Russia. If man's weakness in [the] face of the forces of
nature or society lead[s] to his imbibing the opiate of religion with its
promise of a better world to come, Stalinism certainly became the opiate
of the international labor movement during the long period of suffering
Yet the theory of "socialism in one country" - namely, Russia - also had another tendency within it: the tendency towards nationalism. Leon Trotsky saw this tendency decades before it came to pass. He wrote that, "If it is possible to believe in the theory of socialism in one country, then one can believe it not only after but before the conquest of power. ... It will be the beginning of the disintegration of the Comintern along the lines of social-patriotism."
With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the nationalist patriotic tendency was boosted enormously. The parties in the West strained might and main to contain worker-militancy; in the U.S. the CP was the leading force behind the "no-strike" pledge during the war (the main force besides the American capitalist class and its warmongers, that is). During the McCarthy era, in which communist militants were fired, blacklisted, and systematically eliminated from the unions in the U.S., the CP tried to paint itself as "patriotic" - in favor of the Star Spangled Banner, the flag, and "being American"!
The centrifugal pressures in the world Communist movement exploded after Tito and Mao came to power in Yugoslavia and China, respectively, totally independently of Moscow. Now, rival "communist" ruling classes began to fight with each other. China and Russia had border skirmishes - which side to take when two "communist" countries were engaged in a territorial dispute was a contradiction that many rank-and-file party members saw. As a result of these conflicts, "Maoism" emerged in the 60s as a "revolutionary" alternative to Stalinism.
Stalin died in 1953, and Kruschev gave a speech in 1956 announcing that Stalin had "abused power" and "made mistakes" - something the world (and the Trotskyists in particular) had known for years. Also in 1956, Hungarian workers rose up, forming workers' councils and fighting against Russian tanks sent by the "reformer" Kruschev, proving that the old Stalinism was the same as the new. The monolith was shattered forever. Party after party hemorraged - thousands who lived through the zigzags and flip-flops in the "party line" during and after WWII - only to see that everything they had thought about Russia was false, and that the "lying capitalist press" wasn't lying about the actual state of affairs Russia.
The process of degeneration has gone so far that today the American Communist Party has abandoned indepedent working class politics even in name - its newspaper is the "People's Weekly World", instead of the "Workers' Weekly World"; it has backed the Democratic Party as the "lesser evil" in every presidential election for almost the last 60 years; it calls for the U.N. and the "international community" to "fight terrorism." Lenin, in his day, would have labelled this CP reformist, bourgeois-pacifist. In France, the French Communist Party calls for tighter immigration controls (the "lesser evil" to the fascist Le Pen's program of extermination and ethnic cleansing); the Communist Party of Italy voted to drop the name "communist" altogether, even though the fact that the PCI was not communist or revolutionary was an open secret for decades.
For almost 60 years, revolutionary socialists had to deal with mass Stalinist parties, parties made up of people who saw themselves as revolutionaries, many of whom were among the best working class fighters of their generation, but whose politics and practice held back work militancy. The rulers of the East and the West almost succeeded in suffocating and burying the real Marxist tradition of socialism from below, the self-emancipation of the working class.
The collapse of Stalinism has created a tremendous opening for the ideas of genuine socialism. The weight of dead generations no longer weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.