Understanding the history of the 20th century in order to make the history of the 21st
A Marxist study course on the rise and the nature of Stalinism
London Workers' Liberty study course, 2002 (partial notes)
In week 1 we discussed what made the Russian Revolution of 1917 different from the other avowedly socialist revolutions of the 20th century - China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, and so on - its nature as a radically democratic working-class revolution.
In week 2 we looked at the measures to which the workers' government felt it had to resort when faced with civil war, invasion by the armies of 14 states, and economic collapse. We discussed how a bureaucratic layer began to form in those conditions.
In week 3 we discussed the slogan which the bureaucracy developed to express its distinctive perspective: "socialism in one country".
In week 4 we traced the events, international and national, between the early 1920s and World War 2, through which the bureaucracy gutted and then crushed the Bolshevik party and the Russian workers' movement, purged itself, and transformed itself into a clear-cut ruling elite.
In week 5 we did a "flash-forward", looking at the Stalinist systems - as developed in the USSR by the 1930s, and then replicated in several other countries between the 1940s and the 1970s - as regards their place in the big picture of the history of the twentieth century.
Then in week 6 we went back to look at the problem from the other end of the telescope, so to speak - the way that Trotsky's analyses in the 1930s sought to understand the USSR as a development then seen as provisional, temporary, acutely unstable, with all sorts of other possible paths of evolution from the one that actually occurred.
There were other minority socialist analyses at the time which saw the USSR as a consolidated new exploitative class system. Hindsight shows that they were right on that point against Trotsky - but also that they were at least as wrong in their basic understanding of the Stalinist system's place in history, and its relation to the West, as Trotsky was.
Those socialists who thought that the New Economic Policy of 1921, with its limited concessions to the market, showed that the USSR had regressed to "state capitalism", were shown to have misunderstood the dynamics by Stalin's turn of 1928-30, which drastically cancelled those concessions to the market yet redoubled the suppression and squeezing of the working class. Those who thought that the 1930s showed that the whole world was converging to a single statised model of society, with the USSR only a jump ahead, found reality diverging from their predictions drastically from the 1950s and even more drastically from the 1980s.
According to the old Social Democrat Karl Kautsky, the whole experience of the USSR was a doomed utopian effort to force the pace of social and economic development. It could produce a sort of ugly half-sister of normal capitalist development (i.e. big industrial enterprises) but only suffering and low productivity for the working class and thus, eventually, ruin. His view seems apt and realistic in hindsight. His starting axiom was to rule out working-class revolution as an impossibility. In fact the working-class revolutions were defeated (in Germany, with Kautsky himself personally contributing to that defeat). So the view which excluded them as an impossibility seems in hindsight to give an accurate picture of development. But that does not mean it was an adequate view for socialists at the time!
In week 7, we looked at the issues posed by what can now seen to have been the beginnings of Stalinist imperialism in 1939-40: the revulsion against Moscow rule in the Ukraine; the Hitler-Stalin pact; the USSR's seizure of eastern Poland and its attempt to seize Finland.
Week 8 traced the new data introduced by the events of the 1940s -- the great expansion of the USSR's world power, and the emergence of autonomous Stalinist revolutions in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, and so on - and how they were dealt with in socialist debate at the time.
Week 9 dealt with Trotsky's "last words" on the question, or rather the hugely-circulated "orthodox" selection of those words in the book "In Defence of Marxism". Week 10 dealt with by far the most influential reworking of Trotsky's concepts to fit the Cold War world, Isaac Deutscher's, and provide space for a critical summing-up on the understanding of the experience of Stalinism we need in order to develop socialist politics in the world after the Cold War.
Stalinism in the perspective of the 20th century
Basic reading: The Fate, intro pp.140-143.
Further reading: The Fate chapter 14, chapter 4. Workers' Liberty 2/2.
Assessing the USSR in the 1930s
Basic reading: The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, pp.225-9
Further reading: The Fate, intro, pp.46-81; Kautsky on Stalinism.
The USSR at the start of World War 2
Basic reading: The Fate, intro, pp.82-109
Further reading: The Fate, intro, pp.110-114; chapters 3, 4, 5, and 14; Trotsky, The USSR in War
The USSR at the end of the World War 2
Basic reading: The Fate, intro, pp.115-139
Further reading: The Fate, chapters 6, 10, 11, 12
Misrepresenting Trotsky: "In Defence of Marxism"
Basic reading: intro, pp.117-119
Further reading: Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism
Misrepresenting Trotsky: Isaac Deutscher
Basic reading: The Fate, chapter 13
Further reading: Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast
Debate on "state capitalism" and "bureaucratic collectivism"
Basic reading: Workers' Liberty 14, pp.42-44.