The nature of Stalinist imperialism

By Hal Draper

THERE is a paradox - only an apparent one - in the development of Stalinist imperialism. Stalinism arose out of the counter-revolution in Russia under the slogan of building “socialism in one country” as against the perspective of “world revolution” represented by the Bolshevik left wing under Trotsky. An historic internal struggle took place within the party under these different banners, in which, as everybody knows, the Stalinist wing won out.

To the Stalinists, the theory of “socialism in one country” which they put forward meant: Let’s keep our eyes fixed on our problems at home; let's not worry about extending our influence or winning support abroad; that is a will o’the wisp; we want only to build our economic and social strength within our own borders and to hell with conditions outside of it. As Stalin put it later: We don’t want an inch of anyone else’s territory but let the capitalists be sure to keep their noses out of ours.

The fierce drive of Stalinist expansionism, especially after the Second World War seemed like a sharp reversal of this home-bound ideology. To many of the latter-day “Russian experts (the numbers of whom also blossomed after the war) this new policy seemed like the adoption by Stalin of the Trotskyist “world-revolutionary” perspective.

For were they not militantly pressing their power beyond their own borders? Weren’t they doing what Trotsky had demanded, only in their own way and so much more effectively? So it was said not only by the “authoritative” bourgeois commentators but even by the disoriented “official-Trotskyists” of the Fourth International, who have drifted in the direction of pro-Stalinism.

But the new postwar Stalinist imperialist expansionism was not a break with, but a logical development and continuation out of the theory of “socialism in one country”: and by the same token it was still the antithesis of a working-class revolutionary policy.

For that famous dispute of the Stalin-Trotsky struggle was never really based on the mostly-academic question of whether it was actually possible to “build socialism” within the borders of a single country (and a backward one at that). This was mainly the ideological form that the clash took between the social forces of the counter-revolution and the movement which stood for the liberating ideas of the 1917 revolution.

Behind it was a tendency much easier to understand: it represented the turn-away of Stalinism from internationalism to a Russian national-chauvinist outlook. Russia-First, they said, and the usefulness of the Communist Parties and pro-Soviet sympathizers abroad was to be gauged by the extent to which their activities contributed to strengthening Russia; for since this Russia was “socialist,” strengthening Russia meant strengthening this “socialism.” Thus the interests of the world’s workers were to be subordinated to the national interests of the “one country” where socialism was being “built.”

It is this conception which is the fundamental link between the early Stalinism of the counter-revolution and the Stalinist imperialism of the present day. We have seen in the course of our generation two related truths exemplified: that in trying to build something called “socialism” on the ruins of workers’ democracy and all democracy, the Stalinists in actuality built a new system of exploitation which is the enemy of socialism, and in trying to build “socialism” on a national chauvinist basis, they likewise built a new exploitative system which today has all the features of a virulent imperialism.

In its internal aspects, the crushing of democracy in order to build “socialism in one county” led to a process of bureaucratization which has flowered in totalitarianism. In its external aspects, the national-chauvinist ideology of the Stalinists led to imperialism, once this reactionary regime was strong enough to assert itself as a competitor for world power.

Imperialism? There is a point here which has to be cleared up for many people. For this new oppressive and exploitative class society which developed in Stalinist Russia is not based on a capitalist form of exploitation, as another part of this issue explains. Well then, isn’t it true that modern imperialism is an outgrowth of the drives of capitalism? Wasn’t it Lenin who defined imperialism as a stage of capitalism? Isn’t one of the fundamental drives of modern imperialism, for example, the need of capitalist economies to export their surplus capital; and where do you see this as an economic basis of what we call Russian imperialism?

If it were not for the widespread character of this “deduction” from a formal acquaintance with Marxist writings on imperialism, it would not even be worthwhile mentioning. For it is a useless play on words. For people who need quotations, the same Lenin who spoke of imperialism as a stage of capitalism also time and again referred (like all other educated people) to the imperialism of the pre-capitalist societies, the Roman empire for instance. Capitalism is not the only form of society which has given birth to its peculiar form of imperialism; on the contrary, there was such a thing as imperialism based on the ancient slave states, as well as the type of imperialism which developed under feudalism. Lenin was analysing the specific imperialism of the then-dominant social system, capitalism, and laying bare how it generated its own need to mobilise the nation-state for the conquest and domination and exploitation of peoples abroad.

The imperialism of Stalinist Russia is not the capitalist imperialism which Lenin brilliantly analysed in a famous work; but that is simply saying that Stalinist Russia is not capitalist, and that we already know.

But in many cases, when an objection is made to even using the term “imperialism” in connection with Stalinism (by Fritz Sternberg, for example, and others), there is more than word-juggling or ignorance behind it. There is a political idea involved which suggests to them their otherwise sterile play on words. They are often willing to speak of Russian “expansionism,” but “imperialism” no. The thought that is often behind this fine distinction is the following: Moscow may indeed be following an expansionist-adventurist policy, deplorably, and this is a bad thing: but this policy which is being followed by the men in the Kremlin is simply a policy of bad or mistaken men, and is not rooted in the “Soviet” social system; it is not inherent in the economy, which must be considered “progressive” because it is not capitalist; it is simply a more-or-less accidental excrescence of the system, or a very temporary and dispensable stage of it or the fortuitous result of Stalin the man’s personal predilections, etc. It is only under capitalism that imperialism is rooted in the social system as such: under Stalinism it is something that wiser rulers will dispense with, especially if capitalism ceases to threaten the country....

This notion of such an important difference between capitalist imperialism on the one hand and of Russian imperialism on the other is a notable stock-in-trade of Stalinoids the world over, but not only of Stalinoids! All of the powerful “neutralist” currents of Europe and Asia - anti-Stalinist elements included - are shot through with it, including even the Bevanites of England. It represents a very dangerous illusion about Stalinism even among many of its would-be opponents, who succumb to its lies.

Well then, how is Stalinist imperialism rooted in its exploitative social system?

FIRST of all, there is an important though simple generalisation to be made about the connection between imperialism and a social system, any social system. It is true, as we said, that each class society (ancient slavery, feudalism, capitalism) has had its specific drives to imperialism; but there is obviously something common to all of these imperialisms too, with regard to societal origin.

That which is common to the root of all imperialism, in spite of vast differences in the social system, is this: The ruling class is driven by inexorable necessity to foreign conquest, exploitation and looting in one form or another in order to make up for the inevitable deficiencies of its social system itself, rent-through as that system is by its gangrenous contradictions; exploiters of the society are pushed in this direction as a matter of life-and-death for their system because of their inability to create a harmonious economy capable of satisfying the needs of the people and, most especially, capable of solving the fatal diseases which arise out of the system of exploitation itself. For every class society generates its own self-poisons, which, as they accumulate, threaten to bring down the whole economic structure, unless a transfusion of fresh blood is obtained; and it is in the cards that a ruling class will be impelled to seek this new supply of economic blood in the squeezing of wider and wider circles of people, first inside its own borders (where the process is perhaps easiest or the victims at least more accessible) and then outside.

Now, designedly this presents very generally the economic root of imperialism in all class societies which have been known, but it is enough to raise the basic question about the roots of Stalinist imperialism.

Only those can see Stalinist imperialism as merely a regrettable excrescence, which is not inherent in the system, which is unrooted, who can see in the Stalinist system itself the basis for (at least an eventual) harmonious and progressive development of the forces of production and social relations: that is, who see no inherent deficiencies and contradictions which imperialism has to compensate for; that is, who look on the Stalinist system as being genuinely on the road to socialism in some real sense; that is, in short, who regard the Stalinist system as genuinely socialist in nature, even if still pockmarked with defects.

This view of Stalinist imperialism as a dispensable policy of bad men in the Kremlin is tied up with a basic illusion about the whole nature of the Stalinist economy. Since the economy is state-owned and planned, there are no limits to its possible increase in productive level.... Since it is not rent by the contradictions of capitalism which Karl Marx expounded in Capital, there is no inherent bar to the attainment of such a level of wealth that plenty-for-all becomes possible at last.... Since here is a society, whatever its other distasteful features, which is not held back from economic advance by [capitalist-type] crises, it is possible for increasing productiveness to lead to the abolition of the bureaucratic dictatorship which was necessary for a time in order to attain this wonderful aim; the bureaucratic distortions of this “socialism” will be able to disappear, etc... Such is the illusion.

It is bound up with the rosy view that this Stalinist regime will be - indeed must be - reformed from above, democratised from above, if only the present rulers are not kept scared to death by outside opponents. This is the basis for the pro-Stalinism of a man like Isaac Deutscher, on the theoretical side, and of anti-Stalinists like Aneurin Bevan, on the less-than-theoretical side.

This whole structure very largely depends on the overwhelming demonstration that this Stalinist system is not beset by the contradictions that bedevil capitalism - and sure enough that is true, just as capitalism is not being strangled by the poisons: which put the Roman Empire to death. The contradictions of Stalinism are of its own kind.

At bottom what the Stalinist illusion ignores is the fundamental contradiction peculiar to a completely statified economy under the rule of an uncontrolled bureaucratic master class: the contradiction between (1) the absolute need of the economy to be planned, since in a statified economy only the Plan can perform the role in the society which under capitalism is the function of the market and market relations; and (2) the impossibility of workably planning a modern complex society from the top down under conditions of bureaucratic totalitarianism.

It is this contradiction between Planning and Totalitarianism which is the most basic factor in making for chaos and anarchy in the Russian economy, enormous inherent wastes and inefficiencies, which are in part compensated for by the gigantic expenditure of human labour in the slave camps as well as in the mercilessly driven factories - and which was also in part compensated for by the wholesale looting of the conquered territories of East Europe after the war, a looting which still goes on in forms of exploitation subtler than open rapine.

This opens a much broader subject than the limited topic of this article: but enough has been said to indicate the line of analysis which we propose for one’s thinking on this matter. When one asks the question, “What are the roots of imperialism in the Stalinist social system?” one is really asking the question: “What are the inherent contradictions of Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism which lead to its downfall?”

In a more immediate way, then, the motive drives of Stalinist imperialism stem from the need of this fiercely exploitative system, which drives its own workers like cattle, to plug the gaping holes in its economic and social armour

0f course, certain drives it shares with its rival imperialisms on the capitalist side: the impulsion to corner raw materials, especially raw materials for war industry; the usual imperialist need to grab “buffer” lands and military-strategic points of vantage; the need to grab territories if only to prevent others from grabbing them first, to use against oneself. All these come into play once an imperialist tug-of-war is under way, and in turn they intensify and sharpen the struggle.

One other drive is held in common in a sense: the Russian rulers inherent inability to indefinitely continue to live in coexistence with a system where, in any way at all, a free labour movement exists just across a border. This is a permanent political danger to them. It cannot go on forever As long as free labour exists in the world, there is a dynamite fuse extending from the outside to inside the Iron Curtain. But an analogous need exists also for the capitalist world: to get rid of this rival upstart system, which, in its own way, is a living threat to capitalism; which shows a whole social world living without capitalism - contrary to the professors who have conclusively proved time and again that capitalism is so rooted in human nature that even the pre-Neanderthal ape-ancestors of man lived under capitalism....

But of the drives more particular to the Stalinist system itself, the basic one is the need to exploit more and more labour on on ever-widening scale. The needs of this system have driven its ruling class into methods and forms of exploitation of the workers at home which are matched in brutality and violence by few pages in the history even of capitalism: and this same ravening need drives it to the exploitation of peoples abroad. Just as within its own state, the ruling bureaucracy sucks its class privileges and revenue out of the surplus labour which it extracts from its slaves and semi-slaves so also it needs more human labourers to milk; the more workers controlled, the more the surplus labour extracted, and the greater the wealth available both for the ruling class and for the state-girding-for-war.

Moreover, precisely because it is not a capitalist-type exploiting system, it has available a method of foreign exploitation which is excluded for capitalist imperialism: direct looting of goods and products. This phenomenon took place on a very large scale for a whole period in all the lands overrun by the Russian army after the Second World War: whole factories and their machinery were dismantled and moved bodily to Russia, etc. This would not make economic sense for the capitalist economies of the West, the US for example: their chronic problem, under normal circumstances, is how to deal with the overproduction which gluts the market if not disposable through the purchasing power of the masses. The chronic problem of capitalism is not how to get production up, but what to do with the products ii it gets too high up! - and Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism suffers from no such embarrassment Therefore, its capacity for direct looting and robbery of production wholesale.

THIRDLY, it is worth mentioning also that, in a social system which dispenses bureaucratic privileges as the reward for its ruling class and aspirants thereto, imperialism creates a wider base for bureaucratic posts, an extension of the numerical basis of the “atoms” of the ruling class through the bureaucratic structures in far-flung stations of an empire.

And so this Stalinist world confronts its rival in the world, capitalism, not merely as a contender in an imperialist struggle but as a contender in a struggle of rival systems over which, if either, shall exploit the earth.

This is a distinctive feature of the present-day war crisis and its cold war which is decisively new, as compared with the First and Second World Wars which were fought primarily between imperialist rivals within the capitalist camp. An analogous situation has not obtained since the days long ago when the armies of Napoleon, born out of the Great French (bourgeois) Revolution swept over Europe in combat with a feudal continent. But two great differences exist today as against that historic conjuncture:

(1) In those days one of the camps objectively represented the interests of a new and rising class, the bourgeoisie, which was then progressive, standing for the needs of society as a whole to throw off the shackles of serfdom in favour of the social system which was destined to raise the productive forces to the level required for further progress, for the development of the technological forces that could finally provide plenty for all and lay the economic groundwork for the classless socialist society.

This has now been done. The economic prerequisites for socialism exist.

Modern industry has reached the point where it is entirely feasible to put an end to all systems — based on enforced scarcity, where man can produce an abundance of goods if industry is run for use and not for profit. The Stalinist tyranny is not a progressive alternative to the moribund system of capitalism, but a neo-barbaric relapse which feeds on the decay of capitalism as long as the working class has not unleashed its own forces to abolish it in favour of a real workers’ democracy.

(2) In those days when the rising bourgeoisie stood arrayed against the old order, there was not yet any other social class fully developed which offered a force for effective social leadership as against the two locked in conflict. Today the working class offers the social alternative, the third corner of the triangle of forces that the picture presents. It has the need and the power to build its own world, and it faces only intensified oppression and misery from the continuation of either the Stalinist or capitalist orders.

In this struggle of the two war blocs today, we socialists are enemies of both camps of exploiters and imperialists. That is the basic fact about our “Third Camp” policy.

In a previous special pamphlet-issue on Socialism and War, we have analysed in some detail the bases of our opposition to capitalist war and its policies today. But our opposition to capitalism does not drive us into support of the monstrous alternative represented by Stalinist totalitarianism or into illusions about it. That way lies no exit, no hope, no liveable future.

We say that Stalinism must be crushed, defeated, overthrown everywhere before the working class can achieve its democratic socialist future. We are not for conciliation with it, or appeasement of it. We do not share in one iota the common “neutralist” notion that the interests of peace and democracy can be served by trying to convince the rival camps to live in “harmony”; we know that “peaceful coexistence” of these dog-eating exploiters is a mirage; we do not take a stand that is “in-between” them.

Stalinism must be crushed! But it is an integral part of our indictment of capitalism that this cannot be done by the capitalist world in any progressive way or with any progressive consequences. The Western bloc can possibly defeat the Russian power in a military Armageddon, if indeed victory and defeat will retain any meaning in World War 3 even for the imperialists, but this can be done only at the expense of the downslide of a militarised, bureaucratised capitalism itself toward the same type of tyranny of which Moscow represents the acme today.

This degenerate capitalism of our world today is the very ground on which Stalinism feeds. If Stalinism is a dynamic force in much of the world, it is because - and only insofar as - it can take advantage of the justified hatred which millions masses feel for the system which has exploited them so long, and which they refuse to support against a demagogic Stalinist appeal which at least seems to offer something different.

As long as, and in proportion that, the enemies of Stalinism base themselves on support of the capitalist alternative, Stalinism is bound to grow strong and stronger.

Wherever Stalinism can pose as primarily the enemy of capitalism (which it is in truth, in its own interests), and not as an equal and even more deadly enemy of the working class and the masses who aspire to freedom, it can ride the revolutionary energies that capitalism’s crimes have unleashed in the world. This is the “secret” of its strength and its dynamic appeal.

This is why it still can count on the active or apathetic support of millions in France and Italy and other West European countries; on millions among the colonial masses of Asia; on strategic points of support in US imperialism’s backyard, Latin America. This is why the Western capitalist statesmen are at the end of their rope in Indochina, where they are fighting in the name of French colonialism against a Stalinist controlled Vietminh which is able to clothe itself in the garb of a national-liberation movement. This is why Korea was a trap for thousands of American dead.

Being anti-capitalist in reality, in the sense that it stands for a rival system of oppression and exploitation, Stalinism can hope to and seek to use a disoriented working class wherever it finds one, as its battering ram against the old system. Where the US can find only the most discredited of reactionaries and tyrants to be its semi-reliable allies - a butcher like Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee, fascists like Hitler’s friend Franco or the neo-Nazis who flood the administration of its pet German, Chancellor Adenauer - the Stalinists are not tied to the old discredited classes and cliques in the countries of the Near or Far East, or in Europe. They can stage the act of offering a fundamental social transformation to throw out the landlords who oppress the peasant masses, whereas the US, bound by its capitalist status quo ideology, cannot even find a demagogic word to say.

No one who stands for, or who is suspected of standing for, the retention of mastery by the capitalist imperialism - even if he apologetically explains that he supports the capitalist bloc only because it is a “lesser evil” - can hope to stem the expansionist dynamic of Stalinism.

That is why we look to the gathering of the forces of the “Third Camp” - those who wish to fight in the name of an independent struggle against both camps of exploiters - as the only road to defeat both war and Stalinism, both the old and the new imperialism.

BUT that works the other way too. Wherever it is Stalinism that has established itself as the master, where it has already overthrown capitalism and had time to show its own hand, its own cloven foot, there the revolt against the bureaucratic-collectivist despotism grows fast. But the masses who turn against Stalinist power in disillusionment do not want to go back; they want to go forward. The most dramatic proof of this was given in the great June 1953 revolt of the East German workers, in their heroic first assault against the Eastern conqueror. No pro-West or pro-US or even pro-Adenauer slogans appeared among them, that on the one hand; and on the other, the representatives of the Western camp in Berlin showed themselves as leery of the aroused workers in revolt as the Stalinist masters.

Within the Stalinist empire, where it has consolidated itself, disaffection grows. Only a primitive stage was represented by “Titoism,” where a satellite regime turned national-Stalinist - that is, rebelled against Moscow domination as foreign oppression while retaining the forms and social content of the same system, totalitarian bureaucratic collectivism. “Titoism” in various forms shook the Russian empire, and we naturally cheer it on to do so; but it is not this nationalist (anti-Moscow) version of the same system which represents the future.

The next stage of the revolt within the Stalinist empire is augured by the masses’ aspiration for freedom against their new bureaucratic magnates who have replaced the capitalists as rulers, the revolt prefigured by the East German rising.

It is the revolt of the workers in the name of a democratic government which will overthrow the Stalinist horror. Revolt for democracy under Stalinism - what does it mean? In a completely statified society, where the means of production are already in the hands of the state (while the state is in the hands of a tyrannical bureaucratic class), the road to genuine socialism lies in winning the state power for the democratic rule of the people. In this kind of society, democracy is not merely a political form (as it is under capitalism at the best); it is the sole instrument whereby the workers can really build their own society, and convert the statified economy from the preserve of a privileged class to the foundations of socialism. Democracy is a revolutionary goal.

Capitalism cannot unleash the revolutionary energies of the people behind the Iron Curtain any more than it can do so with the colonial masses of Asia. That will take a struggle which offers an anti-capitalist alternative to these people who have had their bellyful of both the old system and the now tyranny, and this is a struggle which can blow the Stalinist power up from within.

This is the “secret weapon” which can defeat Stalinism without plunging the world into a world slaughter to a bitter atomic end, to the greater glory of capitalism

This is the political weapon which the Stalinists fear. It can be swung into action only by a consistent and fearless democratic foreign policy which has broken with the limitations imposed by capitalist class interests and alliances.

We are for the war against Stalinism to the death - not appeasement, deals, compromise or partitions of the world with it - but we are not for capitalism’s war against Stalinism. Our allies are not Franco and Bao Dai, but our comrade-workers of the British Labour Party who are trying to find an independent road for their movement that stands against both war camps, and who are therefore smeared as “anti-American”. Our allies are not Rhee or Chiang, but the lion-hearted East German workers in revolt. Our political blood-brothers are not the Stalinoid neutralists who want to appease Stalinism but the workers who want to find the way to fight both bloc. Our aim is not the peaceful co-existence of two varieties of exploiters but a socialist world where all people can be free.

From Labor Action, May 1954

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