Socialism versus Stalinism

Submitted by Anon on 8 October, 2004 - 11:02 Author: John O'Mahony

In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, we went on the streets with the headline: “Stand up for socialism”, and the strapline: “Stalinism was the opposite of socialism”.

A common response, gleeful or sad, was: “Socialism is dead, darling!”

But for years and decades before 1991, we had championed the underground workers’ movements and the oppressed nationalities in the Stalinist states. We had waged war on the idea — which used to be held by many in the labour movement — that states like the USSR, China, or Cuba were socialist in any sense or in any degree.

Stalinism was as distant from socialism as modern capitalism — or more so. It was a system of extreme exploitation of the workers and peasants, run by a backward bureaucratic ruling class with a monopoly of power. It was the opposite of the ideas of Marx, or for that matter Lenin. Far from representing the working class, the Stalinist systems relentlessly persecuted working class dissidents, especially workers who tried to organise independent trade unions.

Along with the lie that Stalinism was socialism, many other lies have been pushed on us since 1989–91 by the triumphant capitalist classes.

Leninism bred Stalinism, and is discredited with it.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks led the workers to power. They fought ruthlessly against the bourgeoisie and the opponents of socialism. They smashed the walls of the Tsarist prison-house of nations. Far from substituting for the working class, the Bolshevik party, by its leadership and farsightedness, allowed the working class to reach and sustain a level of mass action hitherto unparalleled in history.

The Bolsheviks based themselves on a system of democratic working class councils (Soviets). Their goal was working class democracy. They never believed that they could make socialism in backward Russia, only that the Russian working class could take power first. They believed they had a duty to maintain their bridgehead for workers’ revolution in the most difficult and arduous circumstances.

The Bolsheviks were fallible human beings, acting in conditions of great difficulty. Mistakes they may have made in the maelstrom of civil war and economic collapse are proper subjects for socialist discussion and debate. As their critic and comrade Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, the Bolsheviks would have been the last to imagine that everything they did in their conditions was a perfect model of socialist action for everywhere at all times. But what the Bolsheviks never were was the root of the Stalinist counter-revolution, which amongst its other crimes, murdered most of those who were still alive in the mid-1930s.

When things began to go wrong the Bolsheviks stood their ground. The workers’ risings were defeated in the West. Invasions and civil war wrecked the soviets. The Bolshevik party itself divided. One section took a path on which it ended up leading the bureaucratic counter-revolution. The surviving central leaders fought the counter-revolution on a programme of working class self-defence and of renewing the soviets.

Those Bolsheviks (Trotskyists) went down to bloody defeat. Stalinism rose above the graves of Bolsheviks, just as it rose hideously above the murdered socialist hopes of the Russian and international working class. By the late-1930s Stalin had slaughtered the leading activists not only from the Trotskyist, but also from the Right Communist and even the Stalinist factions of the Bolshevik party of the 1920s.

Stalinism was not Bolshevism, any more than it was any kind of socialism. Trotsky, who was to die at the hands of Stalin s assassins put it well and truly when he said that a river of working class and socialist blood separated Stalinism from Bolshevism.

Capitalism is vindicated by the disintegration of “state socialism”.

One of the most profound paeans of praise ever written about capitalism will be found in the Communist Manifesto, the founding document of the modern socialist movement. Capitalism gave a tremendous boost to human capacity to change and control our environment and thus created the objective possibility of humanity rising above its “pre-history” out of the social jungle into a classless socialist society.

Marxists criticise the waste and irrationality and savage inhumanity of capitalism, but at the same time see capitalism as the necessary forerunner of socialism. Capitalism has not ceased to be irrational and inhuman, nor have market mechanisms ceased to be blind and wasteful just because of the Stalinist experiment in “state socialism”. Wage slavery and exploitation have not ceased to be at the heart and root of capitalism. In a world of vast productivity and excess food production, 150 million children (by UN statistics) are still malnourished — they do not get enough to eat.

In the United States, the richest capitalist country in the world, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless on any given day; millions will be homeless at one time or another over the course of a year; 44 million people have no health insurance. Capitalism is no alternative at all!

Stalinism was not an attempt to go beyond advanced capitalism on the basis of the achievements of advanced capitalism which has proved by its failure the hopelessness of all such attempts. It was an experience on the fringes of world capitalism, arising out of the defeat of a working class revolution, and stifling under its own contradictory bureaucratic regime.

Stalinism was part of the pre-history humankind must grow beyond. So is capitalism!

Socialism is discredited because only a free market economy can give a secure basis for democracy. Without it you get state control, and state control inevitably stifles democracy.

Marxists do not want any sort of bureaucratic state, neither that of a country like Britain, where the bureaucratic state works in tandem with the bourgeoisie, nor that of the Stalinist systems where the bureaucracy was the sole master of society’s wealth.

We advocate a “semi-state” without a standing army, without an entrenched bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks wanted that, too. They could not create it because of the backwardness of the isolated USSR, but it would be entirely possible in a country like Britain, especially with modern technology.

The idea that only the market system of the West can be the basis for democracy is the idea that only wage slavery for the masses together with the increasing concentration of wealth — and therefore power — at the top of society can be the basis of democracy! It is a prize example of the crazy logic satirised by George Orwell according to which war is peace and lies are truth.

Even such democracy as we have in the West owes its existence to decades and centuries of struggle by the working class. Democracy in capitalism is limited, imperfect, and normally not very stable. Mass self-rule by the producers, dominated neither by a bureaucratic state monopoly nor by the economic rule of the multimillionaires and their officials, is a better form of democracy. It is socialist democracy.

The reason for the economic impasse of the Eastern Bloc is that centralised planning cannot work in a complex economy: therefore capitalism is the only possible system.

This argument too rests on the lie that Stalinism — the Stalinist command economy — was socialism. The attempt to have the state control everything served the Stalinists, not the working class. Marxists never believed that the working class could take power and simply abolish the market: in 1921 Lenin set the goal of Soviet government as that of occupying “the commanding heights of the economy”.

Socialism, once the workers have taken power and abolished wage slavery by taking the major means of production from the capitalist class, would — probably for generations ahead — operate through a combination of planning and market mechanisms.

There is a vast difference between an economy where the basic strategic decisions are made by democratic planning — which is certainly possible — and one where they are made by the crazy gyrations of the Stock Exchange.

How quickly a workers’ planned economy will be able to make its planning more comprehensive, and move towards replacing the market altogether, must be an open question. We do not know now how quickly computer technology will progress, for example.

The Communist Parties have ditched Marxism and Communism, and they should know what they’re talking about.

The Stalinist rulers in the USSR have created an ideology through which their interests and their immediate political concerns were expressed in stereotyped language derived from Marxism. Marxist analysis has been no part of that ideological process.

Communist Parties like the British CP danced like performing bears to that official “Marxism”. In the high Stalinist period, Moscow could say on Monday that Britain and France were democratic powers justly opposing ravenous German fascism, on Tuesday the British and French warmongering imperialism were ganging up on peace loving Germany, and on Wednesday that it was Anglo-French democracy against German fascism again — and the CPs would jump accordingly. (They did that between September 1939 and June 1941).

These political whores and charlatans can speak neither for socialism nor for Marxism. As the former Communist Parties have mostly dissolved or changed their names, what has collapsed is not Bolshevism or Communism but the grotesque counterfeit of Marxism and socialism shaped and moulded by Stalin, and in part sustained by Stalin’s wealth and power.

The collapse of Communism vindicates the reformist “social democratic” model of socialism.

Social democracy defined itself historically not against Stalinism but against Bolshevism. And the social democrats were wrong at every point against Bolshevism.

They either supported their own bourgeoisie, even against the revolutionary communist workers, or temporised and hesitated and thus helped the bourgeoisie to win. It was the social democrats who rescued German capitalism in 1918 and thereby isolated the Russian Revolution. By betraying socialism or dithering in countries like Germany and Italy, the social democrats played the role of historic stepfather to Stalinism.

The Bolsheviks did not lead the workers to power believing socialism could be rooted in Russia; they led the Russian workers on ahead believing the European workers would follow. The socialist leaders in the West left them in the lurch, amidst the Russian backwardness, where Stalinism was eventually to grow up. Whatever about this or that error made by the early Communist International, the international Bolshevik current was entirely right against reformist social democracy.

The reformists’ criticisms of Stalinism have often, of course, been correct. They have been right on the same questions bourgeois democrats have been right on. The disintegration of Stalinism cannot lead logically to the conclusion that reformist social-democracy is the answer — unless we also accept that Stalinism was socialism, and that its collapse therefore shows us that capitalism is the best we can ever hope for.

Reformist social-democracy is not a different strategy for achieving socialism. Socialism is the replacement of wage-slavery and the capitalist system built on it by a different mainspring — free cooperative self-administering labour. What has that got to do with the achievements of social democratic reform?

The fight for welfare-state reforms, and the defence of existing welfare state provision, is indeed necessary for socialists. But socialists cannot stop there. And today the “reformists” do not even defend the welfare state. The fight to defend welfare state provision is today a fight directly against the Blair-Brown Labour government and indirectly against the sluggishness and timidity of reformist trade union leaders.

Since the 1920s, social-democratic parties have abandoned even a verbal commitment to fighting for a socialist system defined as something radically different from capitalism. They aspire at most to modifying capitalism, with a few welfare measures. Since the 1980s, social-democratic leaders in France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and Italy have carried through pale-pink Thatcherite policies.

The only model of socialism restored to its proper shape and colour by the disintegration of Stalinism and the open disavowal of socialism by the Stalinists is the only model of socialism that ever deserved the name — the fight to organise the working class as a clear conscious force, a class for itself, to break bourgeois state power, abolish wage slavery and establish a comprehensive, democratic self-rule throughout society.

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