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The revolution decapitated

The ideological roots of counterrevolution in the USSR

Class Line
No. 2-3 — Winter-Spring 1999

The following is an edited transcript of a presentation given at the 1998 MWG Summer Educational. The general line of this presentation was adopted at the MWG’s National Conference, which took place after the educational. The presentation has been corrected for grammar and usage, and portions of the discussion have been integrated into the text for easier reading.

In 1936, Trotsky talked about the USSR in the context of the revolution betrayed. When we talk about the 1991 counterrevolution in the USSR, we must talk about the revolution decapitated.

Let us begin with why it was necessary to write this document. A good way to do this is to say what the impetus was for beginning our study. In 1997, a comrade of the MWG came into the possession of a book titled, The Turning Point: Pages of History. It was published under the auspices of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and was sold at Communist Party bookstores in the United States. The Turning Point discusses the period of 1924-1929, the period of the struggle of the Left Opposition against opportunism and bureaucracy. There is a section in this book titled “Stalin Acting Against Stalin.” It ends with:

“This is the end of the chapter describing how Stalin acted against Stalin. In later periods, Stalin always appeared the same before the world; he did make unbelievable turns but never acted against himself again…. We know the main thing: in 1928 Stalin rejected his own statements, he trampled on what he had worshipped and began to worship what he had trampled on. In many important theoretical and practical matters, he adopted purely Trotskyist views. The question remains, however, how did he manage to do this and why did he not fall out of ‘the Party cart’ at such a turn?” (“Stalin Acting Against Stalin,” The Turning Point: Pages of History, Novosti 1990, p. 71)

We found this fascinating. Trotsky, writing to comrades in the International Left Opposition, relayed some of his reflections on the state of the factional conflict in the Communist International. In talking about the recently expelled Right Opposition, he wrote:

“The Rights sometimes say that Stalin has applied the platform of the Opposition and has demonstrated its inadequacy. The truth is that Stalin became frightened when he bumped his empiric forehead against the consequences of the ‘farmer’ (kulak) course, which he so blindly fostered in 1924-27. The truth is that in executing a leap to the left, Stalin made use of slivers of the Opposition’s program.” (L.D. Trotsky, “Groupings in the Communist Opposition,” Writings [1929], Pathfinder 1971, p. 84)

Trotsky had also pointed out that one of the ideological effects of the counterrevolution in the USSR would be the equation of Stalin and Trotsky. Stalinism and Bolshevism would not be regarded as opposites but as twins — they would be regarded as almost the same ideology.

So, what was really going on ideologically before August 1991, when we believe that the capitalist counterrevolution took place? The analyses put forward by much of the world Trotskyist movement were wholly inadequate to answering that question. They, in fact, ignored that question.

It was from this basic outline of Marxist method that we set about to understand the ideological changes in the USSR since the Second World War.

The “three camps of communism”

Let us start by reviewing some very basic ideas, starting out with “What is Stalinism?” We all know the standard phrases used by the Trotskyists: the petty-bourgeois response to the October Revolution, the ideological representation of the interests of the bureaucracy, etc. Trotsky also had some other ideas about it. In 1928, he saw it as the center between two other factions — the Left and the Right (the Left being the Bolshevik-Leninists, and the Right being the Bukharinites).

He referred to Stalinism repeatedly as having a petty-bourgeois character. In the 1930s and until his death, Trotsky continued to refer to Stalinism through use of the term “petty-bourgeois” and his analogy with the trade union bureaucracy, and so on. This was all important because it all stemmed back from his early statements describing Stalinism as the center within the “three camps of communism.”

When he wrote about Stalinism’s ideological basis, he said it “lived off the sops” of the Left and the Right. In the above quote, Trotsky talks about how Stalinism borrowed slivers of the Left Opposition’s program. And the Stalinists also borrowed slivers from the Right Opposition. In the period of the New Economic Policy, the basis of Stalinism was in the bureaucracy and the urban petty bourgeoisie — these were its backbone.

The next question is: “What is Bukharinism?” Trotsky was clear when he referred to the Bukharinites — the Right Opposition — as a transmission belt that could move in one of two directions. In periods of heightened struggle, it could be seen as a transmission belt between social democracy and Marxism. But in times of political reaction, counterrevolution and retreat, Bukharinism was regarded as a transmission belt between Bolshevism and reformism. The basis of the Right Opposition was within the rural petty bourgeoisie, professionals and intellectuals, and the well-to-do farmers. This is where its social power was derived.

So we are left with the “three camps:” the Left Opposition, the Right Opposition, and the center that is borrowing from both. We all know the basic history of the expulsions from the Communist Party and the Comintern. We know about the machinations and maneuverism of Stalin and Bukharin uniting against Trotsky, as well as Stalin expelling Bukharin after Trotsky was out of the way, only to re-admit him, frame him and kill him in the Great Purges of the mid-1930s.

But there is more to the relations of these “three camps” than that. Until 1933, Trotsky, when writing about the dynamics going on within the Soviet Union, the Communist Party and the bureaucracy to a degree, referred to these “three camps” and talked about how the Stalinists were the center between the Left and the Right. Also, there were conciliatory tendencies, that wanted to bring together the Left and center or Right and center for different reasons.

But after 1933, Trotsky began talking differently about this dynamic. He went from talking about the “three camps” in 1933 to the “three factions” — the Faction of Butenko (fascism), the Center Faction (Stalinism) and the Faction of Reiss (Bolshevism) — in 1938. He talked about how if the Faction of Butenko was to stage an armed coup, the Bolsheviks — the Faction of Reiss — would bloc with Stalinism to smash them.

Post-WWII USSR and Bukharinism

The big question is: where did Bukharinism go in the equation? What happened to the Right Opposition? Why was it not formulated in these statements? Trotsky never really dealt with the Bukharinites after 1933, except as an afterthought. It was never dealt with in the organizations of the Bolshevik-Leninists, the International Communist League and the early Fourth International except in the most partial terms. It was not considered to be a major force; Bukharinism was seen in the West as having liquidated into social democracy or the trade union bureaucracy. Bukharinism in the USSR was seen as wiped out by the Purges in 1938.

This was a big mistake. It was a mistake to ignore or downplay Bukharinism as a force in the Soviet Union, not necessarily in the 1930s but after the end of the Second World War. We can all understand why Trotsky wrote as much as he did on the “three factions” in the mid- and late-1930s. At the time, fascism was on the march across Europe. And, in the Soviet bureaucracy, it was bound to find a reflection. This was the whole idea behind the “Faction of Butenko.”

It’s understandable that Trotsky did not deal with the question of Bukharinism. But, that it was ignored led to the problems over the “Russian question” within the Trotskyist movement after the Second World War. It led to the post-War Fourth International — a completely different animal from its pre-War namesake — ignoring the question and ignoring the “Right danger” in the workers’ movement and underestimating its strength.

Bukharinism after WWII is very important, not as an independent, organized tendency in the workers’ movement, but as an influence on Stalinism and the Soviet bureaucracy. Trotsky had made an insightful statement in 1930:

“Guessing the fortunes of the top right-wingers can only be of psychological interest. The more down-to-earth right-wing elements are in the second, third, and fifth ranks, closely linked with the conservative philistines.” (L.D. Trotsky, “The Three Factions in the Comintern,” Writings [1930], Pathfinder 1979, p. 15)

This is important because it anticipated many of the changes after the Second World War. In 1945, Stalin was in dire need of technicians, skilled laborers and party functionaries, especially in the Ukraine, Caucasus region and other areas previously occupied by the Nazis. He needed people to take over who he thought would be loyal.

So, Stalin began releasing prisoners from the labor camps in Siberia, re-admitting them into the Communist Party and giving them low- and mid-level positions in the Soviet bureaucracy. Those who had been released were once local and regional leaders of the Right Opposition, who had been held since the times of the Great Purges and before. Stalin put these skilled tradesmen, professionals and functionaries to work reorganizing industry after the War.

This set the stage for what was to happen over the next 40 years. It is very important to keep this in mind. Essentially, what Stalin did was allow the base of the Right Opposition back into the CPSU out of necessity. This was mirrored in the Communist parties of the West, as they grew in the wake of the War.

The USSR after WWII

When we talk about the USSR after WWII, we talk about the period from 1945 to 1953. During this time, the USSR was rebuilding, and attempting to create an economic recovery.

Economically, the USSR’s base was in heavy industry, primarily military. In the book by Alec Nove, The Economic History of the U.S.S.R., Nove talks about all the different stages of the Soviet economy. He talks about the war years and how important they were. He says:

“Mobilization for war was extremely thorough. Control over all resources was very strictly centralized, and both materials and labour were directed to serve the war effort, to a degree unknown elsewhere…. Centralisation was essential to mobilize resources, and the U.S.S.R., after suffering what could have been crippling losses in the first months of war, carried out centralisation very effectively.” (Alec Nove, The Economic History of the U.S.S.R., Anchor 1987, p. 265-266)

This shows just how much of the economy was placed into the hands of heavy industry, especially during the war period. When it talks about military resources and going to military planning, we are not talking uniforms, we are not talking roads, most of that was actually handled by the West. We are talking tanks, planes, guns, mostly heavy machinery.

After the war, until Stalin’s death, this remained the same. Heavy industry was the primary central basis for the Soviet economy. Stalin made a speech in 1946 where he talked about wanting to increase heavy industry and the main facets of heavy industry. His expectations were considered crazy at the time, but he exceeded them.

In 1945, steel output was 12.25 million tons, by 1960 it was 65 million tons. Oil in 1945 was about 19 million tons, by 1960 it was 148 million tons, which had even more than doubled Stalin’s predictions (Stalin had said they would have 60 million tons of oil by 1960 and it was more than double that). This shows the emphasis that was placed on heavy industry in the Soviet economy, especially in the period of recovery. Much of this was codified in the fourth Five Year Plan, which called for increasing output to be above the pre-war years by 1950, using 1940 as a benchmark. They did it.

Looking again at steel and coal, in 1940 they were producing 18.3 million tons of steel, by 1950 they were producing 27.3 million tons. In oil it was 31 million tons in 1940, in 1950 that had risen to 37.9 million tons. And all of these figures exceeded what was on the Five Year Plan. The Five Year Plan for these in steel said 25.4 million tons and in oil had said 35.4 million tons. So they were even exceeding their expectations within this ambitious Five Year Plan.

As you can see, the great deal of emphasis in this Five Year Plan is not just simply placed on heavy industry, but heavy industry that was geared toward exportable items, especially to Eastern Europe — steel, coal, oil, pig-iron. Everything that exceeded the plan was heavy industry geared for export. But all this economic normalcy, which is where Stalin had been leading things, was accompanied by many changes in the political and in the state bureaucracy.

We already mentioned the readmission of the Right Oppositionists. At the same time there was an increasing black market that was being fought. You can see that reflected in the changes in free market prices (since we all know there was a free market price and then a state price for many items).

In 1950, free market prices were on average about 10 percent above state prices. Within two years that had doubled, and free market prices were now 20 percent above state prices. And this was done through a combination of intensifying a fight against free market prices, but as well there were price cuts that were instituted beginning in 1950 and going for two years in all basic staple items.

You can also see that military expenditures rose at the same time. In 1950, 18 percent of the Gross Domestic Product was military expenditure, within two years that had risen to 24 percent, as the Cold War was sharpening.

At the same time, within the economy, the peasantry and the agricultural sector were being more and more ignored and marginalized. Stalin did not want to deal with them. In fact, he saw them as a basis for all of his troubles because, especially during the time when the Nazis came in, one of the bases the latter had was within the peasantry in the Ukraine. Thus, he took a very bitter, vindictive approach to the peasantry and an attitude almost of let them starve. In some ways this was kind of an undoing for him later on, at least it led to many changes in the bureaucracy after he died.

Along with this there were purges of leading Soviet economic ministers and reorganizations of ministries left and right in the last three years of Stalin’s life. I can think of three good examples of people who were purged, and these people are important actually because they point out an overall direction. Vosnesensky was the head of Gosplan and he was purged in 1950. Novozhilov and Varga, two leading Soviet economists, were also purged, and their World Institute of Economics was shut down and the doors padlocked. Even Molotov was under threat of being purged from the Party. There were reasons for this.

Trotsky talked about this when he talked about Stalinism. He said that in order for Stalin to make a left turn he had to purge his left; in order for Stalin to make a right turn he had to purge his right. The onset of the Third Period was marked just before with the purge of the Left Opposition. The change to the People’s Front was marked with the assassination of Kirov and the beginning of the Moscow Trials, which effectively eliminated Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky.

This is important because in 1928 Vosnesensky, Novozhilov and Varga were part of one of the conciliator blocs — one that called for conciliation between the Stalinists and the Left Opposition, to fight the Right. These three were part of that grouping that called to bring Trotsky and Rakovsky back into the Communist Party to fight alongside Stalin against Bukharin and the Right Opposition. This is after the Third Period had begun, and these three people were purged.

Another event makes it look as if Stalin was preparing for a left turn. Anti-Western rhetoric was being stepped up in 1951 and 1952. Military forces had been put on alert by 1952. Stalin was putting the USSR on a war footing. Of course, he had to “clear his baffles” before he could really do anything in the Party. That is how the purge of these three left conciliators developed.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953. His death was a watershed. Because he had not been able to affect this left turn yet, much of the Party was still in the hands of people he did not trust at that point. Even though he had admitted many these rightists into the CP in the late 1940s to help rebuild the economy, he did not trust them and — for that matter — he was looking to get rid of them. But he needed to start clearing his left first. He was not able to finish before he died.

Malenkov and Krushchev

This brings us to the period marked by two Soviet leaders, Malenkov and Krushchev. This was a ten-year period from 1954 to 1964. Before we go further, we should talk about an analogy Trotsky used when he talked about the degenerated workers’ state. He referred to it as a ball balancing on top of a pyramid. It is an important analogy to think of and an important image to keep in mind because a lot of people have very narrow views.

When Trotsky developed the term “degenerated workers’ state,” he said it was a very transitory term, a temporary one, and that it was not going to stay like this. But the post-war Fourth International marked time very differently than Trotsky did. They marked it in human lifespan years and not in historical lengths of time. Basically Trotsky said that a ball cannot balance on the point of a pyramid for a very long time, but he was referring to historical lengths of time.

He was saying that in historical terms the ball cannot balance there for any length of time, that it has to fall at some point. Then there’s an important question, and this leads right into the rest of the presentation. And that is: What is the length of time it takes for the ball to reach the bottom of the pyramid — counterrevolution?

In our opinion, the ball really began rolling down in 1954. When Stalin died in 1953, a triumvirate of Malenkov, Beria and Molotov took over. Molotov is edged out, Beria tries a grab for power, and is tried and executed by the government. This leaves Malenkov. It was logical that Malenkov would come to power. He was the chair of the Council of Ministers in 1953 and 1954 and so he had a lot of the state ministries in his hands and he could reorganize them at will. Nove talks about this. He says:

“Malenkov held on to the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers, and at first exercised a leading role in economic policy, except perhaps for agriculture, where his particular contribution to the reforms of 1953 is still obscure.” (ibid., p. 315)

Malenkov was able to reorganize the ministries to such a point, and reappoint party leaders, to allow himself to come to power. So he had his own base of support in the higher ministries. And this was done with an express purpose. Malenkov had an idea of a new industrial policy, a shift away from the traditional basis of the economy, heavy industry, to consumer goods.

Nove again:

“Under Stalin the top priority of heavy industry was ruthlessly enforced. Errors and omissions were borne by the less important sectors. Hence persistent neglect of agriculture, and the fact that even the modest housing plans were never fulfilled, despite the notorious degree of overcrowding.

“But under his successors this was no longer so. Housing, agriculture, consumers’ goods, trade, all became of importance, even of priority. So the task of planning became more complicated, because a system based on a few key priorities, resembling in this respect a Western war economy, could not work so effectively if priorities were diluted or multiplied.” (ibid., p. 349-350)

That is important because Malenkov’s new industrial policy marked a complete shift away from the economic practices that had been going on basically since 1928, when Stalin began to force collectivization and heavy industrialization. In effect, Malenkov was advocating almost a second NEP, a shift back to consumer goods, a shift back to agricultural supplies, a shift back to the peasant — away from the industrial worker and back to the peasant.


It was this shift that allowed the rise of Krushchev, because, through this reorganization of ministries, Krushchev became one of the leading economic ministers. He had his base in the collective farms, the state farms, and the middle peasantry, the individual farmers. In turn, Krushchev, being so grateful to Malenkov for putting him where he did, used his base within the agricultural sector to sap Malenkov’s power, and let him fall on his own.

In 1955, only a year after Malenkov took over, Krushchev became the head of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party. Within a year Krushchev begins de-Stalinization. The question is: Why does he do it? Why did Krushchev de-Stalinize? To begin with, we look at the background of Krushchev. Krushchev was also in a conciliationist block in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but he was in the right conciliationist bloc.

He advocated a return to the Stalin-Bukharin tendency of the mid-late 1920s. He also needed to back off for another important reason, and that was that Stalin, near the end of his life, had become very anti-Western, and in turn had begun moving military hardware into Eastern Europe. This is something that is very important. In 1953, after Stalin’s death, there were workers’ uprisings in East Germany and in Poland.

For the right wing of the Party, which included Krushchev, they were under fear that they were going to lose Eastern Europe. There is a Central Committee document from 1955 where they are discussing the status of East Germany, Poland and the other workers’ states. Krushchev makes a remark about how East Germany and Poland are lost causes because of their own ineptitude — because they can’t keep the workers in line.

This is important because, at that time, not only were they relying on the technicians and the skilled labor that Stalin had released from prison, but they were also relying on technicians and skilled labor from Eastern Europe, specifically, for technicians they went to Germany. And of course if East Germany is a lost cause then it is likely that they lose the technicians and the heavy industry, heavy machinery goes bust.

So they shift the economy from heavy industry to consumer goods. The opinion at the time was: “We can deal with that — we can shift it over, we can have a more national-based economy, we are not relying any more on Eastern European technicians to get us by. We can now really build socialism in one country with our own technicians and our own smaller industry and our own consumer goods.

So, in essence, de-Stalinization had several goals: First, to appease the growing right wing in the Party, which was saying Eastern Europe was a lost cause and that they can still build “socialism in a single country” through enriching themselves, through more consumer goods, etc.

There is a good example of the effects of de-Stalinization, and that is the case of Kaganovich. Kaganovich was Stalin’s right hand man since 1923. Trotsky refers to him and talks about how it is the dialectics of everything when “what’s most hated becomes most loved, ink becomes water, the October Revolution becomes Kaganovich.”

In 1957, Kaganovich was purged from the Party, along with many other leading Stalinists (I’m going to discern at this point between Stalinists and Krushchevites, simply for the purposes of better understanding).

This was the largest purge since the Moscow Trials. Only a year before, there was an amnesty granted to political prisoners. These amnesties were not general, they were very specific, and they were given to Right Oppositionists, this time more well known ones. They were also given to intellectuals, religious leaders, people who would bolster the right wing, would bolster its face.

Krushchev, the bureaucrat he was, could purge most of the leading Stalinists, but could not purge all of them. Krushchev was fearful of a backlash from the Stalinists. He saw what happened to Malenkov and feared meeting the same fate. So he felt he had to cater to both sides.

In many ways, that is why he initiated the suppression of the revolution in Hungary, as well as bolstered the Cuban regime in the early 1960s. It was more trying to cater to both sides. You can see a progression in his zig-zags. In 1954 and 1955, when he is ascending, he is catering to the right. In 1956, he initiates de-Stalinization and suppresses the Hungarian Revolution at the same time.

In 1958, Krushchev initiated the Seven Year Plan. The new Plan called for an emphasis to be placed on two main areas: consumer goods and agricultural products. So now we are shifting away from heavy industry and it’s being codified in the plan, along with a call for increased investment east of the Ural Mountains. During the war a lot of industry had been shifted east and many towns and villages sprang up everywhere.

After the war, most of the eastern regions converted to an agricultural role, collective farm base area, where the heavy industry that was there was either disassembled and moved West or it was converted into something a little more innocuous.

The main basis was agriculture and consumer goods. They made shoes, they made textiles, they grew corn and wheat. This was a large shift in the Soviet economy. It meant a shift away from building durable goods that could be traded on the world market to much more of a self-reliant economy.

And this was pretty much true for everything that was outlined in the Seven Year Plan except for wheat, which had always been seen as a main exportable item. At the same time as the seven year plan, Krushchev had also set up regional ministries which he called “Sovnarkhozy” (councils of people’s industry). They were regional ministries, controlling a given area, and able to override the Union and Republic ministries.

Thus, a decentralization happened in the Soviet economy. This decentralization was coupled with a willy-nilly approach to production outputs. For example, output at a given factory during the Five Year Plan would come close to the goal. So they would raise the goal. They would say, well, instead of your goal being 49, we are going to make it 59. This struck a lot of people on the right as reminiscent of Stalin’s method.

This impression, along with the disbanding and reorganization of ministries led to Krushchev’s fall in 1964. Even though he had a history as a right conciliationist, even though he had been the leader of de-Stalinization, even though he had succeeded in purging the more Stalin-loyal elements from the party, he was still seen as too much of a Stalinist. He was still seen as too much of a command-type leader.

He was still giving orders, he would arbitrarily raise production levels, or production goals (he did that throughout the Seven Year Plan). Brezhnev, when talking about why Krushchev was going to be removed, said “Krushchev comes up with these hair-brained schemes,” referring to his habit of raising production goals.

But, in fact, it was not production levels they were concerned about. They were concerned about the fact that Krushchev was raising production goals by himself, that it was coming from a central authority, that it was coming from the Kremlin. It was not coming from the Sovnarkhozy, it was not coming from local collective farms and local manufacturing centers. This made him too much of a Stalin for the right-wing elements who had gained a lot of power in the bureaucracy during Krushchev’s tenure.

The beginning of the end

In 1965, Brezhnev instituted another Five Year Plan. This Plan placed a higher priority on agriculture, particularly wheat, meant for export. At the same time, he wanted to set wheat production levels meant for domestic consumption at the same level. He kind of wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Like Krushchev before, Brezhnev reorganizes ministries — more consolidations and more divisions.

Before Brezhnev, there was a formula used for production projections. Brezhnev was trying to scale back the intensification that had developed since 1928. He was trying to scale back levels of production.

In 1965, he instituted changes in industry. He increased managerial powers and enacted a decentralization of state enterprises. Effectively, regional managers of state enterprises now had more authority than the central ministries, the republican ministries — the government itself.

Prices were recalculated to a formula of cost plus a percentage of capital asset value. Also, he instituted trade among the industries. This meant an end to the procurement and allocation policies that had been in place since the first Five Year Plan, where a factory would be allocated a given amount of resources to produce a given amount of products.

Now each enterprise had to go out to different companies, to different enterprises, and barter for raw materials. This was not handled through a ministry, this was handled directly by the individual enterprises. Brezhnev also abolished the Sovnarkhozy.

Although many of these changes, according to Brezhnev, were meant to strengthen the economy, they were never really implemented. By 1970, industrial growth slows down.

For the period of 1965 to 1970, the aggregate growth rate was 50 percent. For 1971 to 1975, it was 43 percent. For the period of 1975 to 1980 — and this is decisive — it went down to 24 percent. In 1980 to 1985, it fell to 20 percent. By 1985, the economy of the USSR was growing at an average rate of 4 percent a year, down from 10 percent between 1965 and 1970.

By 1985, free market prices were 220 percent of state prices. In other words, a liter of milk that cost Ru1 at state stores, cost Ru2.20 on the free market. Also, there were shifts in the balance between imports and exports.

In 1965, the total exports were 7.35 milliard (billions of foreign-trade Rubles) and imports were 7.25. In 1975, it was 24 milliards in exports, 26.7 in imports. In 1980, 49.6 in exports, 44.5 in imports. In 1984, it’s 74.4 in exports, 65.3 in imports. And in 1986 it’s 68.3 in exports, 62.6 in imports.

Of that, the rate was four to one with other workers’ states. That is, if the USSR sent one milliard of goods to the West, they sent four milliards just to East Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and the other workers’ states.

The ideological triumph of the Right Opposition

This set the stage for events after Brezhnev’s death. In that period, there is a succession of three Soviet leaders — Andropov, Chernyenko, Gorbachev. Andropov and Gorbachev were alike in terms of their economic outlooks.

However, Andropov was really not wanted by the bureaucracy. He had been head of the KGB during Krushchev’s suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Therefore, the base he would need to rely on to institute economic reforms, would not support him. Chernyenko, on the other hand, was a lot like Brezhnev. So Gorbachev was the logical choice.

The ascension of Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the ideological triumph of the Right Opposition. He represented the victory of the Right Opposition over Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Bukharinism — more precisely, neo-Bukharinism — ruled from 1985 to 1991.

In Gorbachev’s book, Perestroika, many of the core ideas Gorbachev put forward, especially in the second phase of perestroika, which started in 1989, were almost verbatim from the program of the Right Opposition — agricultural reform, industrial reform, state reform, glasnost. All of the reforms Gorbachev instituted were taken out of the handbook of the Right Opposition. They were taken from Bukharin’s writings.

The triumph of the Right Opposition was codified in the rehabilitation and near beatification of Bukharin as a leader of the Communist Party. Bukharin was rehabilitated and a near-cult was formed around him. His writings were openly and freely circulated. Bukharin represented a shining model for the new Soviet Union being built by Mikhail Gorbachev.

From Malenkov to Gorbachev

All of this highlights the shifts in the bureaucracy. These shifts were in ideology, not necessarily in alignment. Stalinism was still the center. When we say that Gorbachev’s ascension was the triumph of the Right Opposition, it was an ideological triumph, not a faction versus faction (i.e., organizational) victory.

In the end, the Bukharinites and their ideology won over, or influenced to the point of qualitative change, the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Stalinists surrendered their own past in order to embrace not just a slice, but the whole pie of Bukharin’s theory. And this represented a real shift in the ideology, which you can see in the shifts of the bureaucracy since 1985.

Before Gorbachev, when Soviet scholars and historians wrote of Bukharin and his ideas, they called them counterrevolutionary, social-democratic, right-wing ideas that would lead to capitalist restoration. By 1989, Bukharin’s ideas and writings went from vilification to codification. In effect, what had happened was that, ideologically, the Stalinist bureaucrats in the CPSU shifted themselves out of the center position and amalgamated themselves with the Right. They became the transmission belt to Social Democracy, which we saw as the counterrevolutions happened in Eastern Europe.

We saw the Stalinist parties reborn as Social-Democratic parties, trying to join the Second International. We saw Gorbachev and his followers forming Social-Democratic parties in the former USSR. This shift is important because, while the faces did not change, while the composition did not change, the ideology did. In theoretical terms, the result was new content behind the old forms.

Trotsky said the bureaucracy at some point was going to have to choose its course. It could not remain the center faction for long. It could not remain a petty bourgeois formation, it had to choose a class basis. And in the end it did, and it resolved its contradiction and openly embraced bourgeois ideology through the route of Bukharinism. Bukharinism was the transmission belt to Social-Democracy for large sectors of the Soviet bureaucracy and the CPSU.

Imperialism and capitalist restoration

The changes in the Stalinist bureaucracy cannot be seen in isolation. We have to be aware of what was going on internationally. The influence of imperialism on the internal situation in the USSR was crucial for the development of the conditions that led to the triumph of neo-Bukharinism.

To place the developments in the USSR in the context of international events, of what was going on around the world and the pressures that the imperialists were placing on the USSR, is to focus on material conditions. And it is those material conditions in the end that are the determining factor.

It is absolutely essential to understand the internal contradictions of the Soviet economy, as well as the contradictions of the USSR surrounded by imperialism. The material conditions are, in the end, a determining factor of what ideological trends are going to develop and dominate. In turn, these ideological trends will influence the development of the material conditions until a new situation comes about.

The imperialist campaign against the USSR, the Cold War, placed pressure on the Stalinist bureaucracy in ways that fostered the growth of the Right in the Party and the bureaucracy. This pressure went in ebbs and flows. In the period following the Second World War (1946-1956), imperialism forced the USSR to undertake programs that were costly to the Soviet economy. These programs also brought to the fore Rightist elements. The need for technicians in the USSR (for the space race, industry, etc.) allowed for the cultivating of Right forces in key areas of Soviet industry.

The Krushchev period (1956-1964), brought about by the influence of the Right in industry and the Party, initially led to a lessening of tensions. However, as Krushchev instituted the Seven Year Plan and began raising production goals on his own, while appeasing the Stalinist wing of the CPSU on the international plane, the imperialists once again stepped up their campaign (the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S. entry into Vietnam).

Brezhnev’s ascension also gave the imperialists an impetus to maintain the Cold War. However, when it was clear to the imperialists that Brezhnev was strangling the economy, the imperialists stepped back and allowed détente to take hold. The relative lessening of tensions between imperialism and the workers’ states had an effect on the Soviet economy, particularly the defense industry.

The years 1979 and 1980 were a turning point. The USSR’s entry into Afghanistan, along with the electoral victories of the right wing of the bourgeoisie in the U.S. and Britain, led to an escalation of conflict and the rebirth of the Cold War. At this point, however, the Soviet economy could not handle the sudden shift back to heavy industry and producing armaments. The result was the collapse of the economy in the mid-1980s.

This economic crisis directly resulted in the ascension of Gorbachev. The bureaucracy saw the need for a qualitatively new direction. The imperialists saw Gorbachev as someone who could serve as the caretaker of counterrevolution. Perestroika and glasnost were the tools. For the imperialists, all Gorbachev needed was time. In concrete terms, all he needed was six years.

Stalinism and the August 1991 coup

This brings us to the question of August 1991. Does this new understanding change our position of calling for a united front with the CPSU against Yeltsin and the counterrevolutionaries?

In short, no. In fact, we had been saying all along there was something different about the Stalinist bureaucracy. We said they were not the same old Stalinists Trotsky wrote about in The Revolution Betrayed.

At the same time, we said they were not the same as Yeltsin. August 1991 was a battle between open counterrevolutionaries, embodied in Yeltsin, and neo-Bukharinites, embodied in Yanayev and the GKChP (the State Committee for Emergency Measures, the coup committee).

In a sense, the August 1991 coup was a replay of the Kornilov days during 1917. Except, this time Kornilov wins.

The shift in the Stalinist bureaucracy created a vacuum in its wake. A vacuum in the center, as well as on the left. Eventually the center was filled with “orthodox” splits from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — the Russian Communist Workers’ Party, Nina Andreyeva’s All-Union Communist Party — which were your hard Stalinist, traditional Stalinist, parties. But these parties did not fully develop until after the 1991 counterrevolution.

But there was still a vacuum on the left and, since the CPSU was probably the most heterogeneous, the most fractured, party at the time — and at the same time probably the most open of the parties –it resembled the Social Democratic parties of the mid-1930s. It could develop centrist wings, it could develop wings that could move to the left that Bolsheviks could unite with and move further to the left and win over to Marxism.

The course and the direction of the August 1991 coup started to crystallize that wing. But it was cut off at the knees. Some of the rank-and-file CPSU members who supported the coup were in many ways the “Faction of Reiss” in its second infancy. Only now (1998) are some of these elements beginning to break, albeit in a contradictory way, from the neo-Bukharinite and Stalinist movements, and move toward Bolshevism.

This also raises another point, because we said in our resolution on the August 1991 coup (“On the August 1991 Coup in the USSR,” Class Line No. 1, Spring/Summer 1998) that the GKChP would be more afraid of the working class than of Yeltsin and that they would more than likely unite with Yeltsin against the working class if the working class was to mobilize. It raises a question: Did they, in a certain sense, actually do this?

There were divisions in the GKChP. Those who were the furthest to the right were the public spokesmen and, by giving up the way they did, they helped to create the situation in which the banning/outlawing of the Communist Party was possible. This was, to a certain degree, saying to Yeltsin, “The rank and file of the Communist Party has become too dangerous. We’re more afraid of this ‘Faction of Reiss’ than we are of you.”

This can only be absolutely answered by the GKChP leaders themselves. However, history has shown that, whatever the machinations of the neo-Bukharinite leaders, the practical result of the GKChP’s surrender was an all-sided attack on the working class and their gains.

Stalinism and Bolshevism

The shift from Stalinism to neo-Bukharinism in the USSR also had its effect on the West. This process actually began under Brezhnev, but went forward by leaps and bounds under Gorbachev. The process of the transformation of many of the “official Communist” parties in Western Europe from Stalinism to Eurocommunism was a symptom of this.

In the West, Africa, Asia and Latin America, the former Stalinist (now neo-Bukharinite) Communist parties are replacing Social Democracy’s historical role in the epoch of imperialism. In France, the Communist Party is now the main bourgeois workers’ party, and the Socialist Party is the bourgeois party.

In Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the former ruling Stalinist parties are filling a vacuum created due to a lack of Social-Democratic parties. These parties like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Socialist Party in Poland, etc., are fulfilling the role of Social Democracy.

Of course, the “official Communist” movement has its offshoots: the orthodox Stalinists, the Maoists, etc. We need to think about them in a different light at this point. Many of these movements did not develop until well after the death of Stalin. Thus, they were greatly influenced by the incipient neo-Bukharinism in these parties. Maoism in particular was susceptible to the neo-Bukharinite ideology.

Maoism and Bukharinism shared a common class basis: the rural petty-bourgeoisie, particularly the middle peasant. As a result, both trends reflected the outlook of this strata, each refracted through their own lens. This is why Mao was able to win adherents out of the Communist parties to his ideas, especially in the semicolonial countries. However, Maoism differs from Bukharinism in its attempt to cloak its petty-bourgeois basis in “proletarian” phraseology. This creates a contradiction in the Maoist organizations, especially if they begin to attract workers. It makes them open to Marxist criticism.

As for the orthodox Stalinists, they are perhaps more susceptible to a Marxist critique. Their basis is the urban petty-bourgeoisie. Thus, their material conditions bring them closer to the proletariat than their Maoist cousins. To them we can say: If you can split from the neo-Bukharinites — the people who want to fulfill the historical role of Social Democracy — then you need to look seriously at your own ideology. It was this ideology that led them to that path.

Some conclusions

Unlike previous social revolutions, a proletarian socialist revolution is a conscious act. And, therefore, the conscious, subjective factor is important. The consciousness and the politics are important and they do serve as a guiding force.

That’s the reason why Trotsky placed a lot of emphasis on the need to analyze the politics behind the bureaucracy and why he placed such an emphasis, when talking about what was going on in the Soviet Union, on the Stalinist theory of “socialism in a single country.”

Trotsky recognized, and did say, that the conscious element is important in understanding the directions of the Soviet Union. The post-WWII Trotskyist groups have never understood this — and that is their central failure.

They try to apply the method used to understand capitalist development — which relies mainly (almost exclusively) on objective factors — to the USSR, a workers’ state. The result is a mechanical understanding of the class nature of the Soviet Union.

Trotsky would roll over in his grave if he knew that the two largest organizations that call themselves the “Fourth International” still regard the former USSR and Eastern Europe as “deformed and degenerated workers’ states.”

As opposed to these epigones of Trotsky and the Bolshevik-Leninists, we are attempting to develop an analysis of the Soviet Union that picks up where Trotsky left off.

This understanding serves as a basis for realigning ourselves on this question — getting it right — for the first time in 62 years.


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