Fifty years ago, in 1956, the cult of Josef Stalin — the man who had imposed terror on the workers of the USSR while simultaneously being revered by millions of workers as the “genius” leader of world communism — was abruptly shattered. USSR leader Nikita Khruschev, denounced him. Khrushchev’s speech caused huge crises in Communist Parties across the world.
The American Marxist James P Cannon (above) had been a close comrade of Leon Trotsky, who led the battle of the loyal Bolshevik revolutionaries in the USSR against Stalin’s counter-revolution. By 1956 Cannon was the foremost surviving veteran leader of the Trotskyist movement. Cannon, in our view, was wrong on some things — including theoretical analysis of the Stalinist USSR — but he was an implacable revolutionary working-class opponent of Stalinism.
The two speeches by Cannon printed (in abridged form) below were published by British Trotskyists in 1956 as part of a big pamphlet, with other material, and helped the Trotskyists — then a tiny few — recruit sizeable numbers of Communist Party members set rethinking by Khrushchev’s speech.
The full texts can be found in Speeches for Socialism, 1971.
Three years ago Stalin, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the betrayer of revolutions and the murderer of revolutionists, “the most sinister criminal in the history of mankind,” unfortunately died in bed. Two weeks ago his personally selected and handpicked heirs, the beneficiaries of his monstrous tyranny and the accomplices in all his crimes, used the occasion of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party to denounce the cult of Stalin and to declare that his dictatorial rule for twenty years was wrong.
The congress pronouncement is true, as far as it goes. And it is the first official truth that has come out of Moscow for more than thirty years. Truth is a slow starter. Mark Twain said a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on. But the truth has more endurance than the lie, and eventually catches up with it. The truth is on the march again — even in Moscow.
According to press reports, after they had repudiated and buried the cult of Stalin by official decree, they wound up the congress by singing The Internationale. But I think their tongues must have twisted over the chorus, which says that those who have been naught shall be all. The chief business of their congress was to say that Stalin, who had once been “all,” was henceforth to be nothing.
The prophecy of the Internationale was shifted into reverse gear at the Moscow congress, and the cult of Stalin happened to be in the way and got run over. The Stalin cult is dead, never to rise again.
One of the Moscow correspondents of the Associated Press reports that he asked a congress delegate what would now be done about all those plaster monuments of Stalin standing around in Moscow and all over Russia, and the delegate answered: “The monuments can stand.” But he’s mistaken about that. They will stand for a while until somebody gets the idea for a badly needed road program in the Soviet Union, and looks at all this plaster standing around for no good reason, and says it ought to be put through the rock crusher and ground up into material for concrete. That’s where the monuments of Stalin will eventually end.
There is even a rumour that Lenin addressed a message to the congress through a spiritual medium. You know, in a mistaken impulse right after the death of Stalin, his successors buried him in the Red Square right beside Lenin. According to the rumor, Lenin sent a request to the congress to have him moved out of there because, he said: “I don’t want to be found dead in the same mausoleum with Stalin.”
Shakespeare must have been looking ahead to this day when he wrote:
“But yesterday the word of Caesar might/Have stood against the world; now lies he there,/And none so poor to do him reverence.”
Not even the poor American Stalinists do reverence to Stalin anymore, and they’re about as poor as you can get.
Whatever the reason for this action of the Soviet congress, the repudiation of Stalin by his heirs is big news and good news — the biggest news and the best news since the death of Stalin himself three years ago. We can recognise this without exaggerating the significance of the congress action or deceiving ourselves and others about its purpose.
It does not mean the end of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and on the international field. Far from it. The assembled bureaucrats at the congress, who are the product of the abominable system and the representatives of its privileged beneficiaries, hope to preserve Stalinism by unloading Stalin and repudiating the hateful cult associated with his name. But the repudiation of the cult may very well mark the beginning of the end of the system just the same.
It is remarkable how differently the successors of Stalin treat his name from the way Stalin found it necessary to treat the name of Lenin. Stalin, the impostor, treated the name of Lenin with a great outward show of reverence. He claimed to be the best disciple of Lenin. The whole development of Stalinism, which was a counterrevolutionary reaction against the heritage of Lenin, was passed off as a continuation of Leninism. The international revolution, the heart of Lenin’s program, was betrayed by Stalin in the name of Lenin.
All this deceitful pretence of reverence for Lenin was necessary because Lenin lived in the memory of the Russian masses as the personification of the great revolution, and the masses loved his name for that. But how different it is with the name of Stalin. The bureaucrats assembled at the Twentieth Congress. who are the true heirs of Stalin and owe their positions to his favor, are already ashamed and afraid to acknowledge him. They found it necessary and expedient, only three years after the tyrant died, to repudiate his name at a formal congress.
There was a profound reason for their action, and that reason is the key to the riddle. I think it is clear now, as Trotsky always said, that the cult of Stalin was the cult of the privileged bureaucrats. It was never the faith of the masses of the Soviet workers. Despite all the years that Stalin ruled after the death of Lenin; despite all the falsification of history, all the crooked, lying propaganda; despite all the suppression of free opinion, all the terror, all the frame-ups and murders: despite all the attempts to bury the murdered opponents of Stalin under tons of official slander, and the official deification of Stalin — despite all that, the cult of Stalin never took hold among the Soviet workers. They never believed it..
And now, with the stamp of “legality’’ placed on the true sentiments of the masses, this pressure will grow stronger and will bring far greater repercussions than this first formal action.
We see proof every day that the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the public schools in the United States stimulated the struggle of the Negro people for equal rights all along the line. So, in the same way, we can expect that the Moscow congress action will encourage the workers in the Soviet Union and the satellite countries to demand the real thing as well as the promise.
There cannot be the slightest doubt that the long-oppressed Soviet workers have received the congress reports as tidings of great joy, and have lifted up their hearts in hope. There is jubilation in the factories and dancing in the streets of the forced-labor camps. The political prisoners of Stalinism, who number millions in the Soviet Union, look forward now to the end of their long ordeal. There can be no doubt that the Soviet masses will seize upon these congress pronouncements as a banner in their struggle to end the long nightmare of police-state tyranny which bears the name of Stalinism.
History does not know another repudiation of a cult coming so soon after the death of the individual who personified it, without a revolution accompanying the death of the tyrant. It is true that the cult of Mussolini died with him on the same day, on the same meathook from which the fascist monster was hanged upside down on the public square by the revolutionary partisans of Italy. Stalin escaped the fate of Mussolini, which was his due. Stalin didn’t die in the right way, and that caused a slight delay in the burial of his cult along with its author. But this discrepancy has finally been made up; the cult of Stalin has followed him in death after only a brief three-year interlude.
The repudiation of the Mussolini cult was thoroughgoing and unconditional, and included everything connected with his name after he came to power. That was possible because Mussolini himself was executed by his enemies, the revolutionary masses of Italy, and revolutions do not stop at half measures. The repudiation of the Stalin cult by the friends and heirs of Stalin was more limited. They were willing, so far, to say only that Stalin’s regime had been wrong for twenty years before his death, without naming the most atrocious crimes of Stalinism in that long time.
Those twenty years, which they have now proscribed and repudiated, include the 1936-1937 period. The years during which they say his rule was wrong are the years in which the Old Bolsheviks — the noblest, the most heroic generation in all history — were framed up and murdered by Stalin. They have not yet said so specifically, but by inference they have repudiated all the frame-ups and all the murders. They have even begun to rehabilitate some of the victims of the purges, specifically by name.
But that still leaves ten years unaccounted for — the crucial first ten years when the regime of Stalin was consolidated in the course of a political counterrevolution against the heritage of Lenin, which was defended by Trotsky.
They have repudiated the cult of Stalin, but they haven’t yet repudiated Stalinism and the crimes of Stalinism. That is something like a professional criminal pleading guilty to spitting on the sidewalk in the hope of avoiding trial on the charge of murder.
The Moscow bureaucrats have made a start — that cannot be denied, or ignored. They have confessed something, but they haven’t confessed enough yet. They said A, but they choked over B. But in the political alphabet, B follows after A, and we can be confident that it will be said in due time. If the heirs of Stalin cannot yet say B, because to do so they would have to repudiate themselves, the Soviet workers, whose burning hatred of every memory of the Stalinist regime is the driving force behind these first partial disavowals, will say it for them—and against them.
Reforms granted in the hope of staving off a mass revolt can, by their revelation of fear and weakness, act as a spur to the revolt. This can also be the result of the new turn of events in the Soviet Union.
Before they had the tyrant buried they were promising a relaxation of the Stalinist terror. Hardly a week had gone by when they announced that the big case against the Jewish doctors had been exposed as a frame-up and would not be carried through.
The first promises of reforms in the regime had a double effect. They not only encouraged the Soviet masses and the workers of the satellite countries to demand more. They also nourished some delusions in a minority in our own ranks about the “self-reform” of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The Soviet workers laboured under no such illusions about the voluntary self-reform of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The East German workers rose in revolt in June 1953. That was followed — in July 1953, and as a result of it — by the mass strike in the Vorkuta forced-labour camp. There can be no doubt that these momentous actions, lightning flashes of the coming revolutionary storm, were sparked by the death of Stalin and the first promises of reforms by his successors. The revolt of the East German workers and the strike of the prisoners in the Vorkuta forced-labour camp, were deadly serious revolutionary actions — glorious harbingers of great events to come.
Stalinism’s days are numbered now.