Dazzled by seeming success

An unintentional exposé

Tariq Ali (editor) The Stalinist legacy: its impact on 20th century world politics Haymarket, 2013, pp551, £15.99

First published by Penguin in that Orwellian year of 1984, this substantial compendium of writings on the Soviet Union and its offshoots assumes a landscape that has changed almost beyond recognition in the intervening three decades.

It is a rather patchy selection: some of the chapters are stand-alone pieces, others are chunks from books; some will be known to readers of this publication, others perhaps will not be so familiar. Although some pieces - such as those by Rakovsky and Trotsky, and Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ - are in fairly common circulation, others would require some effort to find elsewhere. Several of the authors, including Ernest Mandel, Perry Anderson and Michael Löwy, will be recognised as standing in the overlapping orbits of the New Left Review and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (or whatever it’s called today), whilst others - for example, Fernando Claudín - came out of the ‘official communist’ movement.

The thorny question of the rise of Stalinism and its relationship to Bolshevism is raised at the start. Mandel’s substantial chapter on the nature of bureaucracy raises some important points in respect of the bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime during its first few years, declaring that the merging of the Communist Party with the state apparatus, the ban on factions within the party and its monopolisation of political power, together with the decline of collective management and procedures in industry, all reinforced bureaucracy and undermined the socialist nature of the Soviet republic, thus assisting the rise of Stalinism. Marcel Liebman’s ‘Was Lenin a Stalinist?’, taken from his Leninism under Lenin, also investigates the establishment of a political monopoly by the Bolsheviks. He considers that the harassing of non-Bolsheviks who accepted the validity of the Soviet system was a mistake: not only did it drive away people who could have been usefully integrated into the new system, but it also helped to undermine resistance to “the ravages of orthodoxy and monolithism” within Bolshevism itself (p166).

However, Mandel and Liebman, whilst looking at some of the perilous objective conditions facing the Bolsheviks which encouraged this bureaucratic frame of mind, fail to examine the subjective, indeed psychological, aspects of being the leading and - after the revolt of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries - the only party fully pledged to soviet power. One of the most convincing accounts of the impact of these pressures upon the Bolsheviks was presented by Isaac Deutscher in the final chapter of The prophet armed and the first chapter of The prophet unarmed, addressing this difficult matter in a far more profound manner than Trotsky ever did and many Trotskyists still refrain from doing. The question of the relationship of party and class is one that needs to be engaged; failing to do so leaves open the discussion of the Bolsheviks’ establishment of a political monopoly to that strange alignment of cold war historians, social democrats and anarchists, who continue gleefully to ‘explain’ how this was part of an ineluctable process leading from What is to be done? to the gulag.


Some of the contradictions of the traditional Trotskyist analysis of the Soviet socioeconomic formation are brilliantly, if unintentionally, brought out. Mandel states that a revolutionary party “can accomplish its historical tasks only if it is actively supported by the majority of the proletariat”, and that it must “foster workers’ democracy and encourage direct intervention of the masses in the running of the state” at “all levels”, “support the development of the world revolution”, avoid “any radical separation of the real, living working class from control over the social surplus product”, and ensure “democratically centralised, planned workers’ management of the economy” (original emphasis, pp68-69).

Very true, but, in a lengthy essay on Maoism, Roland Lew clearly states that none of these criteria applied to China: the working class had been severely defeated in 1927, the Chinese Communist Party went up country, based itself primarily upon the peasantry and “substituted itself for the proletariat as leader and master of the revolutionary process”, and, after it took the fight to the cities from the mid-1940s, saw the working class not so much as revolutionary fighters, but builders of the future republic. And yet “with the occupation of the cities … there came an irresistible dynamic of ‘permanent revolution’: that is, the building of a workers’ state which opened a period of socialist construction … the People’s Republic was a workers’ state from the start, with a class dictatorship established; it was socialism that was being built” (original emphasis, pp301-05).

So without any active support of the majority of the working class (or indeed without a working class at all as an active agency), without workers’ democracy, with a definite separation of the working class from control over the social surplus and without the slightest scintilla of democratically planned workers’ management of the economy, a workers’ state could be established and socialism could be built.

Elsewhere, Trotsky is actually accused of being too dismissive of Stalinism. Perry Anderson, whilst considering that Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union “had no equal” in its “sociological richness and penetration”, disagrees with his insistence that Stalinism outwith the Soviet Union was simply counterrevolutionary and that it was “merely an ‘exceptional’ or ‘aberrant’ refraction of the general laws of transition from capitalism to socialism”. Rather, “the structures of bureaucratic power and mobilisation pioneered under Stalin proved to be both more dynamic and more general” than Trotsky had ever imagined - and he points to the expansion of Stalinism after World War II as proof. He declares that a Stalinist regime need not be a sign of degeneration, but “could also be a spontaneous generation produced by revolutionary class forces in very backward societies” (original emphasis, pp124-27).

And so more than a whiff of Isaac Deutscher’s idiosyncratic development of Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union can be clearly detected: despite its negative sides, Stalinism had definite progressive aspects; it was considerably less reactionary than Trotsky had contended. It was not so much a case of not all being lost, but rather that a considerable amount was achieved, with the potential for further advance as a bonus. Ali himself, in a book published as the Soviet Union was grinding to an ignominious halt, Revolution from above: where is the Soviet Union going? (London 1988), went so far as to state that under Gorbachev’s reforms the Soviet regime could evolve into a workers’ democracy; an assertion that was aptly described as “Deutscherism gone mad” (Critique No22, 1990).

It is only fair to point out that this volume does not ignore the other side of Stalinism, its reactionary features. So, whilst Anderson considered that Stalinism could, pace Trotsky, play a revolutionary role “in very backward societies”, he sensibly warned that this could result in such frightful episodes as Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This naturally brings post-war Albania to mind. Unfortunately, Arshi Pipa’s entertaining review of Enver Hoxha’s memoirs, with its concentration upon Hoxha’s personal impact upon Albania’s post-war history, tends to draw us away a little from the broader awfulness of his regime. And so we are left with a mystery: just why a broadly progressive movement could also lead to such gratuitously grotesque regimes on such a regular basis remains obscure.

Workers’ state?

To a large degree, The Stalinist legacy is an attempt to resuscitate the Trotskyist theory of the ‘degenerate workers’ state’. Hence Ali contends that those who consider Stalinist societies to be state-capitalist or “a new form of oligarchy” have faced real problems, whilst “on a fundamental level Trotsky’s theses have stood the test of time” and have even been accepted to some degree or another in “a large section of the Marxist and socialist left on a global scale” (pp16-17). The first half of his statement is true enough. The various theories of state capitalism and new class societies had proven inadequate in providing a convincing understanding of the Soviet socioeconomic formation when this book first appeared; they are even less convincing in the light of the events of the subsequent three decades. But has the Trotskyist analysis fared any better?

The Trotskyist analysis of Stalinism does have the advantage over its competitors of recognising that it was an historically unviable and therefore temporary phenomenon. But, by assuming that Stalinist regimes were at root workers’ states, not only did those adhering to this analysis view them as partially progressive, but it led them, as some of the contributions here demonstrate, to bask in the reflected glory of Stalinist successes at the same time as they sought to elaborate a critique of Stalinism and a revolutionary alternative to it. As we can see here, many who took up the banner of Trotskyism went a lot further than Trotsky would have gone, but it was his theory which enabled them to do so. Ultimately, Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of the Stalinist socioeconomic formation was no more able to provide a convincing understanding of the phenomenon than the rival theories of state capitalism and new class societies, and its ambiguous nature caused considerably more confusion than they when dealing politically with Stalinism.

There are some significant gaps in this collection. Merely passing remarks appear, in Ali’s introduction, on Cuba (which is surprising, considering the fondness of the USFI/New Left Review milieu for Castroism) and on North Korea. Other than the chapter on India, some references by Claudín to Greece, France and Italy during World War II, and a mention of Althusser in a discussion of Lysenko’s quack theories, there is little on the influence of Stalinism within the capitalist world. Ali states that Stalinist economics are not covered for reasons of space, so the economies of the Soviet Union and China remain undiscussed. This was a serious enough omission in 1984; today, in the light of the Soviet collapse and the Chinese move to the market, it is a yawning gulf.

At its peak, the ‘official communist’ movement presented an impressive image: Stalinist parties ruled over a third of the world’s territory, commanding vast bureaucratic edifices, military machines and economic resources, whilst in many western countries communist parties enjoyed substantial degrees of electoral support and influence in trade unions. Even when this book was first published, it was still a force to contend with. For good or bad, Stalinism was considered by millions of people as the logical result of the October revolution, and is still considered as such today, which is why a full understanding of it is much more than a mere historical matter.

Altogether, this book presents a broad range of useful material, even if the value of some of it paradoxically lies in drawing one’s attention to the theoretical weaknesses of various Marxist thinkers who attempted to comprehend the origins, rise and nature of Stalinism as part of the quest to establish a positive socialist alternative to it.

Paul Flewers