Stalin's system of terror

The 50th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's death on March 5 1953 has been used as an occasion to revisit the massive terror he personally ordered and presided over from the late 1920s onwards. Jack Conrad investigates the legacy of 'the man of steel'

Ten, maybe 20 million died. Survivors and the once secret Kremlin archives alike testify to the scope, arbitrariness and bestiality of Stalin's killing machine.

Such evidence of human suffering and monumental loss of life deeply shames those on the left, such as the 'official communists' around the Morning Star, who guiltily downplay the significance of Stalin's terror, or, as in the case of Arthur Scargill, cynically claim that his sociopathic butchery remains unproven. Such deniers are deservedly totally marginal nowadays.

However, that does not mean that the left has no painful questions to answer. Take the Trotskyites. Organised in a bewildering variety of factions - the International Socialist Group, Workers Power, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Workers Revolutionary Party, Socialist Action, Spartacist League, International Bolshevik Tendency, etc - this school of thought unitedly argues, as a matter of high doctrine, that, though Stalin and his associates perpetrated a crime of world-historic proportions with the terror, the Soviet Union somehow remained a workers' state, albeit "degenerated", till its final demise in 1991.

The Soviet Union was no such thing. There was bureaucratic, not working class socialism. With 1928 and the first five-year plan the Stalin leadership embarked on a course of so-called 'primitive socialist accumulation', and exploiting and oppressing not only the peasantry, but the working class too. The terror was bound up with this counterrevolution with the revolution. A whole literature exists on what is commonly known as the purges. While often containing telling, sometimes searing, insights, its various strands and genres tend to be sidetracked or stopped short by pre-existing ideological assumptions or aims.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, in light of his own experience, states that the terror was self-perpetuating, irrational and that anyway revolutions inevitably eat their own children (see A Solzhenitsyn The gulag archipelago London 1974).

Others, such as Roy Medvedev and Robert Tucker, have it that Stalin was pathologically determined to wipe out every rival and that as an autocrat he needed a new class of administrators not tainted with democratic sentiments (see R Medvedev Let history judge London 1976 and RC Tucker Stalin in power London 1992).

Another view, one notoriously advanced in the 1940s by Joseph Davis, US ambassador to Moscow from 1936-38, holds that terror was needed if industrialisation was to be a success and that the purges liquidated the fifth column that would have sided with the Germans and Nazism (see JE Davis Mission to Moscow London 1942). Naturally such accounts contain elements of the truth.

The 'black tornado' certainly developed a fearful momentum all of its own. Every 'enemy of the people', often under severe and terrible torture, was forced to provide the names of 'accomplices' to the NKVD inquisition. One victim would in spite of themselves create five more.

But to grasp the logic of what appears to be inherently illogical one must go further than merely citing the Jacobin terror of Robespierre and Saint-Just, or the red terror of Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin's terror was a system in its own right. It lasted a generation and decimated a generation. It was no emergency measure dictated by civil war. Every stratum of society suffered. Every institution of the regime was traumatised. No family, no matter how high, escaped its hand.

Terror might have maintained the domination of the bureaucracy, but it also put the fear of god into the hearts of even Stalin's cronies. To a man they lived in dread of the midnight knock. And yet in the absence of socialism it is correct to say that the 'primitive socialist accumulation' of the five-year plans could only be carried through using terror.

Similar qualifications apply to theories based on Stalin as a personality. He would appear to have been mentally unbalanced. His uncontrolled vindictiveness and limitless mistrust was only equalled by his cunning. Needless to say, more is required if we are to understand how and why such a man could establish a monocracy.

As to the notion that terror eliminated internal enemies, the facts show exactly the opposite. Despite Mein Kampf's contempt for Slavs and its genocidal promise of a vast living-space for the German master race "obtained by and large only at the expense of Russia", Stalin's terrorism actually created a substantial layer of collaborators (A Hitler Mein Kampf London 1992, p128).

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, actually preferred Nazism to Stalinism. In 1925 Stalin would surely have been mortified by the idea that his bureaucratic machinations against the left oppositions would - with one improvisation logically and remorselessly leading to another - end in the terrorisation of the whole of society and mass slaughter.

Unlike Hitler, Stalin had no diabolical blueprint. His terror was driven by the becoming of a dysfunctional society which because of its internal contradictions had social relations the governing bureaucracy could neither spontaneously nor consciously control. 'Socialism in one country' was a bureaucratic adaptation to the isolation of the Soviet Union. Upholding it was to flagrantly distort Marxism.

However, Stalin and his faction could admit no such thing. Nor therefore could they tolerate (contain) those who continued to defend and advocate orthodox Marxism. Left oppositionists soon found themselves expelled from the party and exiled in remote places. Initially theorised as a corollary of the worker-peasant alliance, 'socialism in one country' proved to be incompatible with the New Economic Policy of partial market relations, introduced as a stopgap in the early 1920s under Lenin. By the mid-1920s the peasants refused any longer to market sufficient grain.

To save 'socialism in one country' NEP had to be abandoned. Unable to retreat back to the market or trust in mass democracy, Stalin had no option but to risk all and embark on a programme of forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation. Deprived of outside aid by the failure of revolution in the advanced countries, primitive accumulation could only be carried out by extracting tribute from internal sources - namely the workers and peasants. Objections to the method and proposed pace of accumulation were branded treasonable.

Economic experts and planning specialists alike received the sort of treatment previously meted out to Trotskyites and Zinovievites. And when things inevitably went wrong scapegoats had to be found. Managers trained in tsarist times, Mensheviks and foreign engineers all featured in famous show trials between 1928 and 1933. Overcoming the peasant market economy necessitated terror. So did the absence of market mechanisms.

Primitive bureaucratic accumulation 're-enserfed' the peasantry and deprived the workers of any rights remaining from the gains of the October Revolution. The first five-year plan was an agony for the Soviet people. As targets soared, along with claimed advances in production, their already wretched living standards declined proportionately.

Instead of Stalin's heralded "life of plenty", starvation and poverty was their lot: "The workers who had been recruited from the villages lived in unspeakable conditions - filth, bedbugs, cockroaches, bad food and inadequate clothing" (NI Khrushchev Khrushchev remembers London 1971, p64). The first five-year plan dramatically increased the numbers of rightless workers and the absolute and total surplus that could be pumped from them. But in showing its strength the bureaucracy also showed its weakness. Such was the dialectic of bureaucratic socialism.

The workers might have had their trade unions finally taken from them and turned into an instrument of management and the state, while subsistence levels were halved and production quotas doubled and doubled again. But the oppressed soon found unexpected ways of exerting themselves within the workplace and undermining the intentions of the supposedly all-powerful bureaucracy.

Spontaneity corroded Stalin's decrees. A stubborn refusal to cooperate by the minions on the shop floor produced disastrous results for those who sat in warm offices but who were, precisely because of their elevated position, legally responsible for the delivery of plan targets. Without "any organisers or leaders - just an invisible wink" - workers resisted (M Lewin The Gorbachev phenomenon London 1989, p25).

Go-slows, reinterpreting orders, human error, absenteeism became weapons of self-defence (negative control). Nor did workers worry about using working hours to hunt down food and other necessities. If mangers did not play ball, the labour shortage meant they had no compunction about flitting from job to job in order to search out better conditions. Demoralised, hungry, badly trained and yet prepared to cock a snook at management, workers' productivity was bound to suffer.

At a local level there was every incentive for management to seek an accommodation with the workers on the one hand and to fabricate plan results on the other. It was easier to slacken the pace of work and find bonuses and other palliatives for the workers than to genuinely fulfil the demands of the planning authorities.

The macroeconomic consequences of such micro-economic compromises were all too obvious. Quality was a chimera. Plan values never matched use values. And everywhere there were lies, cheating, deceit and wonderfully inventive reports of glorious success. From the viewpoint of Stalin and the centre it appeared that the workers were irresponsible and lazy, if not active saboteurs. With everything subordinated to accumulation there was neither room nor desire for concessions to the sullen mass.

For those now accustomed to terror the answer seemed obvious - draconian legislation. In the name of 'socialism in one country' bureaucratic omnipotence had to be enhanced and the workers cowed. What a travesty of genuine socialism! In October 1930, the first decree was made forbidding the free movement of labour. It was followed two months later by one that prohibited managers from taking-on workers who had left their previous place of employment without permission. At the same time unemployment benefit was ended on the grounds that unemployment no longer existed.

In January 1931 came legislation providing for prison sentences in cases of labour indiscipline - confined initially to railworkers. February saw the introduction of compulsory labour books for all industrial and transport workers. In March, decrees against negligence were announced, followed by a stipulation making workers responsible for damage done to machines or materials. Privileged rations for 'shock brigades' were introduced, and in 1932 the then very meagre food supplies were put under direct control of factory managers and distributed through a tick system of allocation by results.

July 1932 saw the repeal of article 37 of the 1922 labour code, under which the transfer of a worker from one enterprise to another could be effected only with their consent. On August 7 1932 the death penalty was introduced for theft of state or collective farm property. A law which was immediately applied on a wide scale - firing squads began to devour workers on the same scale as kulaks.

From November 1932 a single day's unauthorised absence from work became punishable by instant dismissal. Then at the end of 1932, on December 27, came the reintroduction of internal passports - denounced by Lenin as one of the worst features of tsarist backwardness and despotism. There can be no doubt that with the advance of production under bureaucratic socialism new layers found themselves absorbed into the labour process to the point where there was a crippling population shortage. This generated an irresistible upward pressure on levels of subsistence.

The same spontaneous social laws necessitated an eventual abandonment of Stalin's most authoritarian measures. Insubstantial and ultimately unsustainable material incentives became ever more important. Nevertheless throughout its entire history bureaucratic socialism had constant recourse to naked force in order to maintain its domination. Clearly Stalin's terror played a key role in the birth of the system.

Moreover in the 1928-1941 formative years, each successive crisis caused by the unfolding of internal contradictions was dealt with using the mailed fist. With each terroristic partial solution society evolved, took shape and its contradictions became more pronounced and intractable. Terror secured the bureaucracy's domination of the countryside. It also unintentionally ruined agriculture and triggered famine.

Terror against the workers subordinated labour-power to the bureaucracy and prevented the emergence of a conscious proletarian challenge. But no legislation could break the negative control workers exercised over their own individual work, precisely because it was social (nor the non-productivity on the state and collective farms).

Stalin institutionalised competition between workers through creating a privileged stratum of shock workers (and in due course Stakhanovites). Suffice to say, reducing necessary labour remained a constant frustration. The turmoil, the countless foreseen and unforeseen drawbacks of Stalin's collectivisation and industrialisation caused huge stresses and strains to develop within the governing apparatus. The old Bolshevik, left and right, had been routed.

However, Stalin still faced overt and covert opposition from within the party hierarchy. It was Stalinite ideologically. But it was not yet completely subordinated to the man, Stalin. Ryutin Most students of the USSR agree that the so-called Ryutin platform was the "crucial" event leading to Stalin's generalisation, his systemisation of terror (R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p24).

MN Ryutin was a young, unorthodox, Bukharinite.With the help of a small group of co-thinkers he produced and circulated a long theoretical document ('rediscovered' in 1989, it is believed to have contained 13 chapters and run to 200 pages). It included, not to say centred on, a stinging attack on Stalin and his policies. The eclecticism of Ryutinite politics is summed up by the confused, but not unperceptive, notion that the (Bukharin) right wing of the CPSU "has proved correct in the economic field", but Trotsky was equally correct "in his criticism of the regime in the Party" (quoted in ibid p25).

Of course, the motive behind Ryutin's praise for former leaders was to focus on the need to remove the incumbent leader (it does not reduce Ryutin's stature that years later he became a Gorbachevite hero of convenience). According to Ryutin, Stalin was the "evil genius of the Russian Revolution". Due to his "personal desire for power and revenge" Stalin had "brought the revolution to the verge of ruin" (quoted in ibid p24).

Expelled from the party in September 1930, Ryutin was arrested six weeks later. Despite being readmitted in January 1931, unlike so many Old Bolsheviks, Trotskyite and Zinovievite, he was not to be tamed. In June 1932, as part of the "all-union conference of the Union of Marxist-Leninists" Ryutin put his name to an "appeal to membership of the CPSU(B)". Unambiguously it was a call for political revolution (Trotsky had no monopoly on the idea of revolution within the revolution). "Stalin and his clique will not and cannot voluntarily give up their positions," said the appeal. So "they must be removed by force" and "as soon as possible", it concluded (quoted in ibid p24).

It is well known that Stalin pressed for Ryutin's execution after he was rearrested in September 1932. The general secretary interpreted political revolution as a euphemism for his own assassination. The Soviet Union, however, was an oligarchy. Not yet an a monocracy. Much to Stalin's fury he could not win on the politburo. Defeat "rankled" - in 1936 he spoke of the OGPU being four years behind in unmasking Trotskyites (quoted in ibid p25).

Over the next two years Stalin put together what for him was the "logical solution" - the blood sacrifice of Kirov (ibid p25). It would appear that two implicit trends existed within the commanding heights of the apparatus. One favoured pressing on with terror. The other wanted some sort of normalisation. Both found expression at the 17th Congress of the CPSU in January 1934. Officially entitled the "congress of victors", it turned out to be the congress of victims - over the next few years 1,108 of the 1,966 delegates were to be shot, 70% of the central committee elected by them were to die violent deaths.

On the face of it Stalin was triumphant. All prominent oppositionists had surrendered by 1933 (apart, of course, Trotsky, who continued to damn Stalin from abroad). Zinoviev and Kamenev, back from Siberia, made another grovelling confession of their sins to the congress. Hitler's success in becoming chancellor in Germany finally prodded Rakovsky and Sosnovsky into capitulation. They too abased themselves before Stalin. In his report Stalin boasted that there was "nothing to prove and, it seems, no one to fight" (JV Stalin Selected works Vol 13, Moscow 1955, p354).

Yet the "murderer and peasant-slayer" did not feel secure in his Kremlin lair. Stalin warned that those who advocated a relaxation of the struggle against left and right "deviations" were "sworn enemies of Leninism" (ibid p371). He did not name names. But he must have been talking about real people, a real political trend. Perhaps equally significantly in terms of subtext, he put the all to evident shortcomings of the country's economy down not to the party's line nor objective conditions.

The "responsibility for the failures and defects" lay with "ourselves alone": ie, the bureaucracy (ibid p374). Stalin received his now customary "stormy and prolonged applause". In spite of the public adulation there had been private talk amongst delegates of replacing Stalin as general secretary with Kirov. He is reported to have rejected such suggestions out of hand. Nevertheless 150-300 delegates are believed to have voted against Stalin in the election to the central committee - the official figures gave the number as three (R Conquest The great terror: a reassessment London 1990, p33).

This not inconsiderable act of defiance reflected a broader trend which seems to have wanted an end to terror. Some have suggested that Kirov had taken up the mantel of Bukharin's pro-NEP politics. Given the sufferings the party leadership had just inflicted on the entire country in the name of primitive accumulation, it would appear improbable. Indeed no convincing evidence has been presented. NEP had woefully failed.

Moreover primitive accumulation, or more accurately the terror accompanying it, destroyed the kulak farms which generated marketable surpluses. A return to NEP would totally discredit the regime politically and almost certainly result in food supplies to the swollen cities and rash of new industrial projects becoming even scarcer.

NEP mark two was not an option. Nor it is the case that Kirov was viewed in leading circles as Stalin's natural successor. He was up and coming, but still no more than a second-rank figure. Kirov was though the personification of those who thought that, while terror had been an unfortunate necessity, it should give way to normalisation - incidentally Bukharin had been charged with the task of drafting a new, democratic, constitution and this was seen by many to indicate that the moderate trend in the bureaucracy had gained influence. Normalisation was an understandable goal.

Society had become deeply disaffected. Many party members felt exhausted and demoralised. Normalisation presumably meant some sort of democratisation and relief from suffering. Such a regime would surely have been welcomed by the Soviet peoples - at least momentarily. Stalin's institutionalisation of terror would never have happened and perhaps therefore the gruelling patriotic war with Nazism greatly shortened.

But the system could not be saved. In historic terms democratisation would have actually brought forward collapse. The social formation in the USSR was unsustainable. Normalisation was not a viable programme because the system itself was unviable. Khrushchev opened things up and was removed by the bureaucracy in order to prevent him going any further.

Gorbachev went further and the system did collapse. Stalin must have decided to strike first and liquidate all who might in some way favour his removal. To preserve the system he needed to establish a monocracy. Terror therefore had to encompass those who thought themselves totally loyal to the system but who might not be totally loyal to Stalin.

Obviously the machinery of terror was already in place. All Stalin had to do was some fine tuning. In July 1934 the OGPU was replaced by the NKVD. The change was more than one of title. The NKVD, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, unlike the OGPU, was under Stalin's "supreme political authority" (R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p34). It was his praetorian guard.

With the NKVD Stalin carried out what Conquest calls the "crime of the century" - the assassination of Kirov (ibid p37). The official 1938 version of events of December 1 1934 was an interesting combination of fact and fiction. Leonid Nikolayev was a young Zinovievite. According to the account, he planned Kirov's death acting directly under the orders of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky. The conspiracy was facilitated by Genrikh Yagoda, head of NKVD - shot in 1938.

It was he who instructed Ivan Zaporozhets, second in command of Leningrad NKVD, to remove all obstacles to the assassin. There can be little doubt that Stalin plotted the whole thing. Yagoda, as it was later said, set-up Nikolayev and cleared his way into the Smolny and Kirov's third floor office. But "Yagoda could only have acted on the secret order of Stalin" (NI Khrushchev, quoted in Argumenty i fakty February 11 1989).

Stalin showed remorse at Kirov's funeral. It was clearly feigned. Stalin would now experience no problems of the sort he had encountered over Ryutin. The death of Kirov allowed him to create the hysterical atmosphere needed to make terror permanent. The politburo did not have the opportunity to decide on its response to the Kirov assassination. Stalin simply presented its members with a fait accompli. Immediately news came in of the "evil murder of comrade Kirov", Stalin launched his terror.

Initially it was former oppositionists who were arrested. However, such 'liberalism' soon gave way to indiscriminate terror. Within a few months 30,000 to 40,000 Leningraders had been deported to Siberia and the Arctic (R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p45). It did not stop there. "The flower of the party" was to be "stamped out in the savage violence" that followed (NI Khrushchev Khrushchev remembers London 1971, p66). Along with, it should be added, millions of others. Invented enemies The Soviet social formation economised politics and politicised economics. Terror soon invaded every aspect and layer of economic life.

Traitors and spies had to be endlessly unmasked and fed to the never satiated gulag. The readily available supply of kulaks, bourgeois specialists, tsarists, Mensheviks and foreign engineers having been exhausted, new human material was needed. From outsiders the terror shifted to insiders. A new enemy had to be invented, writes Gabor Rittersporn. It had become increasingly "difficult to maintain" the fiction that the hardships endured by the people were all the fault of those "alien to the regime" (GT Rittersporn in J Arch Getty and RT Manning [eds] Stalinist terror Cambridge 1993, p101).

The Trotskyite myth had to be given a new twist. Supposed Trotskyites were to be made responsible for every shortage, every failure. Vyshinsky illustrated the desperate reasoning of a regime which made big boasts but had to explain poor results: "In our country, rich in resources of all kinds," he said, "there could not have been and cannot be a situation in which a shortage of any product should exist .... It is now clear why there are interruptions of supplies here and there, why, with our riches and abundance of products, there is a shortage first of one thing, then of another. It is these traitors who are responsible for it" (Report of the court proceedings in the case of the anti-Soviet 'bloc of rights and Trotskyites' Moscow 1938, p676).

Centre encouraged those below to find fault with those above - excluding itself of course - and to blame every fault on the Trotskyite plot to dismember the Soviet Union. Problems multiplied with every forward step the system made. Everyone had a grievance and a scapegoat. Workers resented managers for the privileges and disruption caused by Stakhanovite methods of work. Stakhanovites accused managers and technical personnel for "sabotaging" their movement. The press was full of such reports. In the midst of a "national hysteria about enemies" Stalin's paranoia could only grow (R Thuston, in J Arch Getty and RT Manning [eds] Stalinist terror Cambridge 1993, p159).

Complaints mirrored the rising scale of irrationality. Victims therefore grew exponentially. The "chronic defects of the Stalinist planning system were simply presented as sabotage". In this way the regime made it "impossible to discuss true responsibility" (E Zaleski Stalinist planning for economic growth, 1933-1952 Chapel Hill NC 1980, pp248-9).

Within industry breakdowns, raw material shortages, unfulfilled targets, accidents, lack of bonuses, etc were attributed to the vast Trotskyite plot, which, as diplomatic expediency required, was said to be directed in conjunction with the German, British, French, Japanese or Polish intelligence services. Salem and its malevolent witch-finder was re-enacted at specially convened meetings across the Soviet expanse.

At the prompting of Moscow's plenipotentiaries, hapless managers were denounced by their downtrodden subordinates. But with or without popular participation the NKVD successively liquidated one set of managers after another. Each bout of exposures, arrests and butchery saw 'red' conformists and careerists take another step up the ladder. Through 'negative selection' hundreds of thousands with little or no technical qualifications entered the administrative hierarchy. Not surprisingly, as management became progressively less skilled and more fearful, the functioning of the economy became less efficient and more chaotic.

Production, virtually stagnant in 1937 and 1938, "actually went down in 1939" (R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p276). Soviet economic difficulties were obviously exacerbated by the terror. Most authorities agree on that (see N Jasny Soviet industrialisation Chicago 1961, pp132-79; A Nove An economic history of the USSR Harmondsworth 1982, pp225-69; R Medvedev Let history judge London 1976, pp192-258).

Nor is it wrong to suggest that "the falloff in Soviet growth rates" was itself a "cause" of the terror (RT Manning, in J Arch Getty and RT Manning [eds] Stalinist terror Cambridge 1993, p116). At every level the system by its very nature bred 'saboteurs and wreckers': ie, irrationality. Target figures were always unrealistic.

Under Stalin's terror admitting failure meant certain death. Mere self-preservation led management to hide the truth with exaggerated figures and non-use values. It was a rational but high-risk strategy. With each success reported, the planners in turn calculated higher targets. Higher targets forced management into bigger lies. The gap between what was real (use values) and what was claimed (target values) grew to the point where it could not easily escape the notice of the authorities. Instead of looking for the social origins of false data and the production of waste, those in command preferred to attribute it to "malevolent human design" (ibid p117).

Hidden Trotskyite wreckers and saboteurs were to be blamed for the incoherence of the plan, not Stalin. Kaganovich uncovered their 'counterrevolutionary limit-setting on output' - and duly "organised the mass destruction of engineering and technical cadres" (R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p276). In the dungeons of the NKVD the chief director, his deputy and close associates would confess to anything. "The only chance of avoiding death was to admit to everything ... even this seldom saved a man's life" (ibid p128).

If spared, they would be packed off to do exhausting manual labour and a premature end in the camps. Needless to say, the inexperienced substitutes had to deploy the same (criminal) exaggerations and methods to survive even in the short term. Antoni Ekart rightly points out that the system left them "no option" (A Ekart Vanished without a trace London 1954, p156).

As an attempt at displacing popular anger the show trials give us an unintended glimpse of the "impossible", but actual, conditions in industry. Conquest quotes AA Shestov, an NKVD agent, who was made to testify, during the trial of the so-called 'Siberians', that it was Trotskyites rather than government policy which was rendering the worker's life intolerable. "Instructions were issued," said Shestov, "to worry the life out of the workers. Before a worker reached his place of work, he must be made to heap two hundred curses on the heads of the pit management. Impossible conditions of work were created.

Not only for Stakhanovite methods but even for normal methods" (quoted in R Conquest The great terror - a reassessment London 1990, p154). Such concoctions might have fooled some of the workers some of the time. But they could not fool all of the workers all of the time. Moreover for the system as a whole there was a high price. The new managers were supposed to be more subservient and therefore useful to the centre. Or so Stalin thought.

However, the actual characteristic that was selected, in almost Darwinian fashion, was not obedience. It was managerial incompetence, combined with a facility for conciliation with the workers and statistical disinformation. The Stalinite environment favoured hacks.