When the defenders and journalists of capitalism speak of Stalinist Russia as a “socialist state” they have, from their standpoint, two good reasons for saying so. One reason, the product of ignorance if not malice, is to discredit the cause of socialism in the mind of workers by identifying it with the oppressive police rule of the Stalinist state.
The other reason results from their sound class instinct. They have never concerned themselves with the positive aspect of socialism, which is the liberation of the working class from all forms of oppression and exploitation and the assurance of abundance and freedom for all. Their idea of what socialism is, is simple enough. It is the threat to the profits and privileges they derive from their ownership of the means of production and exchange which socialism would abolish. And since Stalinism also abolishes capitalist private ownership wherever it establishes its rule, it does no less to the foundations on which the capitalist class rests than socialism would do.
That is reason enough for the capitalist class to equate Stalinism with “socialism,” or at least with “socialism of some kind or another.” It does not follow, however, that this is reason enough for the working man or the socialist to adopt the same view of Stalinism.
Socialism is uncompromisingly opposed to capitalism. But if it were merely an anti-capitalist movement and nothing else, it would be exceedingly primitive, simple-minded and even subject to all sorts of reactionary perversions. If it simply took the view that what is good for the capitalist class is had for the working class; that what hurts the capitalist class automatically promotes the interest of the working class; or that the aim of the working-class movement is to take revenge against capitalists for their exploitation and oppression — it would not have the scientific character which gives it its fundamental power and progressiveness.
Feudalism, for example, is opposed to capitalism and stands in the way of its development. But the feudal opposition to capitalism has never promoted the interests of the working class and it never merited the name or the support of socialism.
Workers, enraged by capitalist exploitation, once unleashed their fury against the modern machines which were the means of exploiting them. But the smashing of the machines which took the place of primitive handwork was, at bottom, futile and reactionary; and even if it was painful to the capitalist, it did not advance the interests of the working class or receive the support of the socialist.
Stalinism is not feudalism and it does not favour smashing machinery. It is, indeed, opposed to capitalism; it does aim to abolish capitalist private property; and it does endeavour to base itself mainly upon the working class. But only from the capitalist standpoint does this make Stalinism a “socialist” or a “working-class” movement.
Socialism opposes capitalism only from the standpoint of promoting the interests of the working class, only from the standpoint of speeding the working class to control of the economic and political power in every country, only from the standpoint that this control alone will enable society as a whole to dispense with all forms of class rule and therewith develop in full freedom from all social fetters.
From this standpoint, Stalinism is not progressive, and has nothing in common with the working class or socialism; it is a reactionary force.
Stalinism is a product of the decay of capitalism. This tells us very little about it, unless we understand that it is a product of a particular conjunction point in the decaying process of capitalism.
The decay of capitalism simply means that the ruling class is less and less capable of resolving the ever acuter problems of society by the traditional methods at its disposal, that is, by capitalist methods.
The result is: a stagnation of economic life which is “overcome” only by preparing for wars which cause a stupendous destruction of wealth and which are futile in that they solve no significant social or political problem and open up no progressive road to mankind; the growth of political reaction in the form of the enormously increased bureaucratisation and militarisation of public life, the growth of “garrison states”, police states, totalitarian states; the disintegration, debasement and stifling of cultural life; and so on.
The working class is that social force which is called upon to arrest the social decay produced by a capitalist system which has completely outlived its historical usefulness. The more acute the problems of society become, the more urgently the working class is called upon to break all its ties with capitalism and to resolve these problems in a socialist — that is, in a democratic and progressive — way.
Now, if the working class fails — whatever may be the reason for the failure at any given moment — to resolve the burning social problems in a socialist way at the time when the capitalist class reveals its inherent inability to resolve them in a capitalist way, we get that conjunction point in the decay of society which makes possible the rise of Stalinism.
There we have the key to understanding this new force which baffles and bewilders the capitalist class and the prisoners of the capitalist mode of thinking, and throws them into the panic in which they find themselves today.
Stalinism fills the social vacuum created under these conditions. It seeks to solve the problems which the main classes of society are either unable to solve or fail to solve, each in its own way.
And where it establishes its power, it does solve the problems. To be sure, it solves them in its way; it solves them in a reactionary way; in solving them, it creates a multitude of new problems or the old problems in new forms; but it does solve the old problems as they appeared in their capitalist form. It proceeds to destroy the foundations of capitalism, and to crush the capitalist class, with which the new masters have not the slightest desire to share their power.
It is that which, from the capitalist standpoint, gives it the appearance of a “revolutionary,” or a “working class” or a “socialist” force. But that is only appearance.
The reality is that the new masters, composed of the riff-raff of the old society, the uprooted and the demoralised elements of all social layers, especially of the bureaucracy of the labour movement — these new masters also crush the working class at the same time, deprive it of all traces of economic and political rights, and subjugate it to a despotic exploitation unparalleled in modern times.
If the working class foils to destroy capitalism, wrote the co-founder of the modern socialist movement decades ago, it will suffer the penalty of its own destruction. We can see today the heavy penalty the working class pays when it fails in Its task. Stalinism destroys it by transforming it Into a class of modern state-slaves.
Where Stalinism triumphs, it transfers sooner or later all the means of production and exchange to the ownership of the state. And the collective ownership and organisation of the means of production by the state is a long step forward for society; it is a milestone in human progress; it is the necessary preliminary to a state-less social order, a socialist society of abundance and freedom.
But this is so only on the absolutely indispensable condition that the state which concentrates all economic power in its hands is in turn in the hands of the working class — is a democratic state, a state whose democratic character widens constantly to the point where it ceases to be a state at all, that is, an instrument of coercion of the few against the many or even of the many against the few.
Omit this condition, or substitute anything else for it, and the state which now has all economic power centralised within it will inevitably be the most powerful exploitive and oppressive machine ever directed against a working class. That is what the Stalinist state is, in every country where it is established.
The working class is the most important productive force in society. Where the state owns all the means of production, it also “owns” the working class.
If this state is the organised working class itself, then and only then Is it a workers’ state capable of ushering in socialism. Then and only then does the working class, collectively, own and control the productive forces, including itself — and the working class does not exploit and oppress itself because in its very nature it cannot do so. But where this state is in the hands of another class, as is the case under Stalinism, it is a disfranchised slave class completely dominated by an uncontrolled bureaucracy.
The totalitarian Stalinist bureaucracy is unique among ruling classes, and so is its mode of production. Under capitalism, the market is the regulator of production. Under socialism, production and distribution will be determined by democratic social planning. In a workers’ state which leads to socialism, production and distribution must be determined democratically by the working class through its state machinery; and the only assurance this class has that production and distribution will be planned for its use and benefit is by exercising its democratic control of the state machinery.
Under Stalinism, however, production and distribution are regulated neither by the market nor by the democratic decisions of the working class — let alone society as a whole. They are determined arbitrarily by a vast network of self-perpetuating, uncontrolled bureaucrats who monopolise all political and therefore all economic power, for their own use.
In the absence of the more-or-less automatic economic controls which the market provides for capitalism, and of the democratic economic controls which a workers’ state or a socialist society would provide, the Stalinist state is left with no other means of organising and controlling the economy save the police means which are at the disposal of this super-totalitarian regime.
It is this ingrained characteristic of Stalinist rule which stamps it as reactionary not only from a political but also from an economic standpoint and dooms it to permanent economic crisis.
To maintain itself, its power and its privileges, over the masses of the people, it must maintain an unprecedentedly huge and parasitical human (or rather, inhuman!) machine of surveillance and oppression.
In the nature of the regime itself, this machine is directed not only against the masses — although primarily against them — but also against the lower ranks of the bureaucracy itself, from which it must continually draw for scapegoats for its economic deficiencies and disasters.
The whole manner of its organisation of economic life is such that it exceeds capitalism by far in the degree to which it wears out, wastes, devours and destroys outright the productive forces which are developed under its rule.
A social order is progressive to the extent that the productive forces developed in any period of its existence are socially useful; it is or becomes reactionary — as has for so long been the case with capitalism — to the extent that the productive forces developed under its rule are socially useless, are wasted and exhausted, are converted, in the words of Karl Marx, into means of destruction.
From this standpoint, Stalinist society is reactionary through and through. It docs not represent progress as against capitalism. It is a product of the decay of capitalism, which in turn produces a deeper decay of society, the new barbarism of which it is at once the carrier and beneficiary.
The vast destruction of the productive forces under Stalinism not only crushes the people it rules, but undermines the rule of the bureaucracy itself. It knows no other way of maintaining itself than by intensifying its police rule and compensating for its economic destruction by conquering, enslaving and looting countries not yet under its dominion.
That is the basis of the Stalinist imperialism which has already succeeded in reducing so many countries of Europe and Asia to the degradation of satellite, vassal or colonial states whose economic wealth and working classes are ravaged so that the economic power and totalitarian rule of the Russian master class may be maintained and expanded.
Labor Action, 7 May 1951