Was Stalinism inevitable?

The recent death of Mikhail Gorbachev has posed again the question, how did Stalinism triumph? MIKE WHALE reviews a searching account of Russia in the mid-1920s as Stalinism developed as a system of bureaucratic rule.

Was There An Alternative? 1923-1927

By Vadim Z Rogovin

Published by Mehring Books, 2021

Vadim Rogovin was a Russian Marxist historian who died in 1998. His book, Was There An Alternative?, is part of a seven volume series which examine the development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the opposition to Stalinism from genuine Marxists, particularly Leon Trotsky. With access to records and archives hidden away by Joseph Stalin and his successors that only became available as the Soviet Union was collapsing in the late 1980s, Rogovin brings significant new detail to add to our understanding of how and why the democratic workers’ state created by the Russian revolution in 1917 degenerated into a monstrous dictatorship.

Recently, there have been a significant number of books and articles written by pro-capitalist historians and commentators that attempt to argue that Stalin’s dictatorship was an inevitable outcome of the Russian revolution itself. Rogovin shows that nothing could be further from the truth.

In the opening chapter Rogovin makes the point that the “one party state” that the Soviet Union became, run by a privileged elite or bureaucracy, was imposed on the Bolsheviks rather than anything they intended. From 1918 the young workers’ state was being attacked by reactionary white armies. The Russian civil war was a fight for survival. Despite that Vladimir Lenin, quoted by Rogovin from the article All Out For The Fight to Defeat Denikin, made it clear that Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were welcome to take part in the soviets as long as they stopped giving any support to the White armies. On the eve of the signing of the Brest Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, which officially ended Russia’s role in the first world war, Lenin even discussed the possibility of merging the Bolsheviks with the left SRs.

In fact the left SRs attempted to sabotage the Brest Litovsk peace treaty and it was that which led to their banning. It was ten years later that Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik leader who also opposed the signing of Brest Litovsk, admitted that he had been approached by representatives of the SRs to organise a coup against the Bolsheviks.

Not only were Lenin and his supporters opposed to a one-party state, they also fought against the development of a privileged elite. This was both in the party and the state itself. In 1917, Lenin wrote his classic work, State and Revolution. Building on Marx’s analysis of the defeat of the 1871 Paris Commune, the book explained the need for the workers’ movement to overthrow the existing state. Lenin was proved correct when pro-Czarist generals tried to use the army to destroy the revolution in the civil war. State and Revolution also pointed out that it would be important to ensure that officials in the new workers’ state should be prevented from rising above the ordinary workers, with better wages and conditions. This also applied to party workers as well.

Lenin’s stand against bureaucracy

Rogovin provides many examples of Lenin’s fight against the developing bureaucracy from 1919 through to his death in 1924. Lenin was aware that while many Russian workers had joined the Bolsheviks because they were fighting for a better life for all, there were others who saw joining the Bolsheviks as a route to personal betterment. Already by 1919 there were concerns being raised about the growing gap in wealth of officials in the party and in the state. Lenin argued for measures to dissuade any self-seeking elements. He recognised that members of the Bolshevik party had to be the most self-sacrificing and as far as possible above reproach in their personal conduct. One measure proposed by Lenin in a letter to Kursky in 1919 was to punish any member of the Bolsheviks committing an offense harder than a non-member: “The ABC of legal work is to triple the punishment of communists compared to the punishment of those outside the party”.

While some were trying to take advantage of the situation for themselves, other Bolsheviks were extremely self-sacrificing. Rogovin quotes Eugen Varga (an Hungarian emigrant) who wrote in 1919 that “proletarian solidarity was so strong that he (Bukharin) refused to receive additional provisions; a special decree of the Politburo forced him to accept them. He came to us… in such a tattered shirt that my wife almost forcefully took it from him and patched it up”.

Despite Lenin’s concerns, it is clear that the wealth gap got worse as the 1920s developed. Rogovin quotes from resolutions passed at conferences and party committee meetings. In 1920, the Moscow committee of the Bolsheviks ordered a survey into party members “in order to establish more equal living conditions for them”. The tenth party conference in May 1921 passed a resolution that the party, “must fight against abuses regarding their status and material advantages”. The eleventh conference in December 1921 agreed that, “in the most ruthless manner, we must prosecute attempts at personal gain”. In 1921, the Bolsheviks carried out a purge of its membership which reduced it by 33.8%. Around a quarter, 24.7%, were deemed to be careerists, self-seekers or drunks and 8.7% were expelled for bribe-taking, extortion or blackmail.

The failure to prevent a wealth gap developing more effectively (and with it a privileged elite) was largely due to the conditions of civil war that existed between 1919 and 1921-22. There were shortages of everything. Famine and starvation were rife. There was a severe shortage of experts needed to provide the technical knowledge to run the economy and state. These were the ‘material’ conditions from which a privileged elite began to form.

The desperate conditions created by ‘war communism’ led to sharp differences of opinion within the Bolsheviks regarding the way forward. At the tenth party conference in May 1921, factions were formed nominally about the role of the trade unions but really about how the economy could recover and develop. Lenin was so concerned about the divisions that he thought they might split the Bolshevik Party and threaten the safety of the workers’ state itself. Lenin argued successfully for a ban on factions. However, he was clear that while organised factions were to be banned at this point, it was essential and necessary that debate should not only take place but be encouraged.

Lenin attempted to find a path that on the one hand maintained party unity but at the same time allowed the widest debate and discussion so that the best ideas could be explored to take society forward. The layer of experts who had achieved positions of privilege in the party and the state had little or no interest in allowing debate and discussion as that was likely to challenge their authority. Lenin’s personal standing and authority in the party was huge but in 1922 he had a stroke which limited his ability to play the full active role that he had previously. The decision to ban factions, taken at a time when Russia was at its most vulnerable after years of war, was cynically used by the ruling elite around Stalin to attack Trotsky and stifle debate. In the years that followed, those independent-minded Bolsheviks who put forward opposing views to the majority were accused of factionalism and being ‘anti-party’. Initially this meant censure and was used to rule out debate but eventually in the later 1920s oppositionists faced expulsion from the party itself.

In April 1922, Stalin was appointed general secretary of the Bolshevik Party. At the time, this was not seen as such a key post. Stalin, as general secretary, was part of an organisational bureau or ‘Orgburo’ rather than an individual leader. However, he used this position to promote his allies and supporters into positions of influence. He also subtlety improved the privileged position of the bureaucracy, for example by making it easier for the children of officials to access college. Stalin was encouraged by the bureaucracy and Stalin helped the bureaucracy to develop. This relationship solidified as the decade progressed.

The Georgian incident

One political responsibility that Stalin had was for nationalities. In 1922-23, the Georgian Communist Party argued that Georgia should be allowed independence but in a federal arrangement with the rest of the Soviet Union. Stalin, who was ironically a Georgian himself, argued that Georgia together with Ukraine, Byelorussia and the rest of the Transcaucasus should have ‘autonomy’ but be under the leadership of the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviets. Stalin’s position, which is parroted by Putin today, was vehemently opposed by Lenin. Lenin recognised that given the centuries-long domination of Georgia by the Russian Czars, Georgians and other nationalities would not easily trust a state dominated by Russia. It would be necessary to take a much more nuanced approach to the national question allowing full independence if required. Stalin in a particularly crude fashion accused the Georgian Communists (and by implication Lenin as well) of “Menshevik petit bourgeois nationalism”.

Lenin was furious when he discovered that not only was Stalin politically incorrect but that he was trying to intimidate the Georgians into accepting his position. Stalin appointed a commission led by one of his supporters Grigory Orzhonikidze. In one of the heated exchanges between the commission and the Georgians it is reported that Orzhonikidze resorted to physical violence. Lenin forced Stalin and Orzhonikidze to back down and the policy on nationalities was rewritten, but Stalin’s position largely prevailed in practice. Lenin was to write a stinging attack on Stalin in December 1922: “The Georgian (ie Stalin) who carelessly hurls accusations of ‘social-nationalism’ (whereas he himself is a real and true, not only ‘social nationalist’ but a vulgar Great Russian Derzhimorda) that Georgia, essentially is violating the interests of proletarian class solidarity”. [Derzhimorda was the vicious Government Inspector in Gogol’s play of that name.]

Rogovin makes it clear that Lenin increasingly recognised that Stalin was using his position to undermine democracy in the party and that he needed to be removed. However, Lenin was still fearful of a split in the party which could have threatened the revolution itself. The last eight articles that Lenin wrote before his death in January 1924, were concerned with the removal of Stalin and the establishment of a more democratic leadership in the Bolsheviks. Leadership should be spread out in the various committees rather than concentrated in an individual role. These writings are often referred to as Lenin’s ‘Last Testament’. Some capitalist historians pose the question, ‘if Lenin did not want Stalin running the country, then who did he want’? Rogovin shows that Lenin regarded Trotsky as the most able Bolshevik but that he argued for a collective leadership. He further argued for an expansion of the central committee to counter-balance the growing bureaucracy and a rotation of central committee places.

Rogovin makes a convincing but not conclusive case that Stalin may well have arranged for the murder of Lenin. Lenin’s ‘testament’ would have been a massive blow to Stalin had it been made public at the thirteenth party conference at the end of January 1924. Stalin used his position to effectively isolate Lenin. He argued that this was to protect Lenin from undue stress. Suspiciously, Stalin had warned that Lenin might want to take his own life. Rogovin quotes from Lenin’s doctors and Boris Bazhanov (Stalin’s secretary) to suggest that Stalin had everything to gain from Lenin’s death and that Lenin died after he was apparently improving in health to the extent that he might have been able to attend the conference. Following Lenin’s death, Stalin convinced the party leadership that the ‘testament’ should not be made public and it was hidden from the membership for several years after.

Could Trotsky have stopped Stalin?

It is at this point that Rogovin suggests that Trotsky might have been able to stop Stalin. Had he taken Lenin’s testament to the conference, which clearly called for the removal of Stalin, he might have been able to change the immediate situation. This is a moot point. There is no doubt that Trotsky had significant points of support at this time. However, he made it clear when analysing the Soviet Union later, that Stalinism was more than just Stalin. The bureaucracy itself, while dominant, had not fully revealed itself. In 1924, Trotsky himself was not aware of the full extent of the threat posed by Stalin and the bureaucracy.

A theme of the book is the gradual manoeuvring of individuals and policies by Stalin until he had almost unchecked control of the party. At first, he formed a ‘triumvirate’ with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two longstanding ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders. The triumvirate became a group of seven, when Stalin promoted four of his closest allies into the leadership group. Stalin cleverly got Zinoviev and Kamenev to attack Trotsky, while presenting himself as the moderate in the leadership who appeared to argue for clemency and conciliation. But the evidence provided in the book shows that Stalin was the manipulator behind the scenes. Later in the 1920s Stalin allied himself with Bukharin and got Bukharin to attack Trotsky and the left opposition group around him. Behind the scenes, Stalin ensured that he got a majority through his support from party organisers who owed their privileged positions to him.

Rogovin provides much documentary evidence from minute takers, together with records from central committee meetings and conferences, to show how the composition of the party changed. “Between the fourteenth and fifteenth congress, the percentage of factory worker members had fallen to 37.5%. Ten percent of workers who had joined the party between 1924 and 1926 had left or been expelled by the fifteenth congress in 1927”. Delegations were ‘fixed’ to ensure conference majorities. By 1927 the delegations to the party conference were made up of predominantly party officials. Most of these officials had been appointed by Stalin. At the same time, Stalin found ways to remove supporters and friends of Trotsky from positions of influence. Proposals from Trotsky and others to use the pages of the party journals for debate and discussion were rejected.

By 1928, any opposition was deemed to be factional and opposition supporters were even denied access to printing presses. Rogovin recounts one example of how an ex-White army officer was infiltrated by the Stalinist secret police into a print shop and then arrested so that the opposition supporters who used it could be accused of wanting the restoration of the Czar! Even so, the ruling group led by Stalin feared directly moving against Trotsky by force. Such was Trotsky’s standing in the party, that even after his expulsion for ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ in late 1927, he was still able to attract large crowds to hear him speak.

New Economic Policy

Throughout this period, the main focus of debate inside Russia was on how to develop the economy. Ravaged by seven years of world and civil war, Russia was on its knees. War communism, which effectively meant the militarisation of the economy, was a necessary measure to ensure the physical survival of the workers’ state, but by 1921 it was clear that something had to change. Lenin proposed a new economic policy, which became known as NEP. This policy lifted the strict state control which war communism had imposed on both industry and agriculture and allowed small businesses to develop. It also allowed richer peasants to develop the land. NEP represented a necessary retreat from the principles of socialism.

Allowing capitalism to develop in a workers’ state brought with it all sorts of problems: how would the growing capitalist class and particularly the richer peasants (known as kulaks) be prevented from becoming a political opposition? How would the disparity between the cities and the countryside be resolved? How was the state-owned economy going to fit in with the growing capitalist elements?

Trotsky argued that state-owned industry should be developed as fast as possible to try and meet the needs of the poor and middle peasants in particular and thereby preserve their link with the industrial working class for as long as possible. Stalin, particularly supported by Bukharin, appeared to be oblivious to the threat of the kulaks looking outside the state sector to the NEPmen in the towns for goods and a market for their grain and ignored the many reports and commissions (referenced by Rogovin) into the threat being caused by the growth of their power in the countryside. Bukharin, with Stalin’s support, famously called on the kulaks to “enrich yourselves”. Those like Trotsky and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky (a leading economist in the Left Opposition) who tried to alert the party to the problems emerging were ridiculed as being anti-Leninist because NEP was Lenin’s proposal. In fact, as Rogovin points out, by the end of NEP in 1928, the Russian economy had barely recovered to 1913 levels. In the countryside, the antagonism between the kulaks and the workers’ state had reached breaking point.

From a position of ignoring these problems, Stalin zigzagged to a position of extreme centralised planning and forced collectivisation on the land. This was agreed at the fifteenth party congress in December 1927 which became known as “the collectivisation congress”. Because the party conference had become a rubber stamp for the leadership, the sudden change from NEP to centralised planning meant that the party membership had no time to discuss and therefore prepare the way for a different policy. Inevitably the move was resisted by the kulaks. Trotsky later pointed out that if collectivisation had been developed through encouraging voluntary combinations of poorer peasants into joint run farms, much of the antagonism that was encountered in the countryside could have been avoided, but by that time he was no longer a member of the party and his supporters were being attacked and driven out.

The Lessons of October

One important factor which could have changed the situation were the revolutionary movements developing outside of Russia. There are chapters in Rogovin’s book on the defeat of the Chinese revolution and the increasingly opportunist tactics employed by the Communist International. There is a chapter on the tactic of the united front. The defeat of the German revolution in 1923 was a setback for Russia. Lenin and Trotsky had explained during and after the Russian revolution that the advanced technique and industrial know how of Germany could have rapidly developed the Russian economy.

Trotsky wrote the pamphlet, The Lessons of October, in late 1923 following the defeat of the German revolution. In it, he implicitly criticised the leadership of the Bolsheviks in Russia before the return of Lenin in April 1917. Stalin and Kamenev were two of the February leaders who at the time of publication were two thirds of the ‘triumvirate’. Every friend of Stalin, it seems, wrote pamphlets and articles attacking Trotsky in what became known as the ‘literary war’. In this period the ‘myth of Trotskyism’ as a specific ‘trend’ was invented by supporters of Stalin. Rogovin provides dozens of references that show that ‘Trotskyism’ was an invention of Stalin and his supporters. The idea of ‘Trotskyism’ was developed into a bogeyman to put before the party to prove that Lenin and Trotsky were opposed to each other. Rogovin is able to find many sources that show that Lenin and Trotsky were very close both politically and personally.

1927 was not the end of the process; perhaps the most harrowing part of the book is the thirty page appendix which lists some of the main characters mentioned. All but a few were murdered in the purges of 1936-1938. This is an important book (and series). The democratic socialist society fought for by Lenin and Trotsky and the CWI today is a million miles away from the Stalinist dictatorship that developed in Russia. It is vital that we learn the lessons of how Stalinism developed to both counter those capitalist commentators who use Stalinism to attack socialism but also to ensure that we prevent a bureaucratic dictatorship developing in the socialist societies to come.