What to learn from Stalinism

Submitted by AWL on 8 June, 2010 - 12:50 Author: Hal Draper

Introduction (2010)

Stalinism dominated and shaped the would-be left for two thirds of the 20th century.

Its consequences still warp and shape much of the would-be left, including organisations that are ostensibly anti-Stalinist. To a surprising extent, the left has still not properly come to terms with the lessons of Stalinism.

This 1953 article by Hal Draper was an attempt to summarise concisely the conclusions which the Independent Socialist League (formerly the Workers' Party: the "Shachtmanites", the heterodox Trotskyists) was drawing from the experience of Stalinism.

When Draper wrote, Stalinism was still expanding. It would continue to expand for the next 25 or so years, before the sudden collapse of the USSR and its East European satellites in 1989-91.

Stalinist "socialism" was the "actually existing" alternative to capitalism for a whole era. It occupied one third of the globe.

It seemed as if it might engulf the rest of it. That view of things was mistaken, as we can now see, and so was the view that capitalism was in its death-throes, a view which the heterodox shared with the "orthodox" Trotskyists, James P Cannon, Ernest Mandel, Michel Pablo, and so on, who saw the expansion of Stalinism as a deformed working-class world revolution.

Draper's view was rooted in a picture of Stalinism as a viable historical alternative to capitalism on a world scale - though until the mid 1940s the WP/ISL majority had seen Stalinism as a short-term, freakish socio-economic formation special to the USSR - and in a culpably wrong assessment of the state of capitalism. Capitalism continued to dominate the economically and socially advanced countries, and by 1953 it was expanding and becoming prosperous.

Notable in Draper's article is the idea that democracy in the Stalinist states would in fact be the socialist transformation there, and the implicit rejection of the idea that there could ever be a victory for capitalism in those countries. Draper and his comrades shared this idea with the "orthodox" Trotskyists, whose governing, all-else-shaping idea that the Stalinist formations were "degenerated and deformed workers' states" the ISL rejected.

That too was, I think, rooted in the idea that the Stalinist system was a viable alternative to a dying capitalism.

The way in which the clearest-minded of the Trotskyist currents after Trotsky, the Shachtman tendency, saw the evolution of the world then is of great interest to socialists today.

Draper presents a picture of a left disoriented by the failure to understand that it was no longer valid to approach anti-capitalist, or seemingly anti-capitalist, revolts and movements as necessarily serving the development of a socialist alternative to capitalism. That still tells us something of fundamental importance to the would-be left.

The left is still dominated by variants of the notion that any "anti-imperialist" movement ultimately serves the socialist outcome which we fight for.

No it did not, when Stalinism confronted advanced capitalism. No it doesn't now, with reactionary "anti-imperialist" movements like clerical-fascist political Islam.


What to learn from Stalinism

Whoever cannot learn from history is doomed to repeat it. We Independent Socialists of today have only two advantages over the great socialist leaders and thinkers of the past: we stand on their shoulders, and we have lived longer. In our generation the colossal event which has tested all socialists' ideas - shattering some and affecting all - has been the rise of a completely new social phenomenon, Stalinism.

Whoever has not been able to learn lessons of the greatest importance from this, whatever movement has not been able to assimilate and readapt its conceptions to this, is doomed to impotence and worse - but to impotence only at the very best.

What our independent Socialist movement has learned from the rise of Stalinism would take much more than this page to present. We select only five of the most important lessons here. They are basic to "our kind of socialism", that is, to a genuinely socialist re-adaptation of Marxist policy for our era - not a mere "reaffirmation", not a parroting of biblical formulas, but a re-adaptation such as Marxism itself demands if its spirit is to be observed.

Three-cornered world

Most of the real lessons to be learned naturally cluster around the question of socialism and democracy. But the first is prior to it.

(1) There is a reactionary social alternative to the system of capitalism in the world today.

To the socialist generations before us, anti-capitalism and the fight for socialism meant the same thing, or at least were part of the same process. Anything which struck a blow against capitalism was a blow for socialism, in its consequences. For socialism was the next social system scheduled by history, and, whatever pulled the capitalist order down, socialism would replace it because there was nothing else.

This is not true in the modern world. There never was, indeed, any principle of Marxism which predestined that decrepit social orders could be succeeded only by progressive heirs. There were only pseudo-Marxist formulas which made a principle of history out of the pattern of capitalism's own development from its feudal predecessor. The world has known societies which crumbled into retrogressive throwbacks of civilisation itself. Which is the pattern that is "scheduIed" by history will be decided not by moods of either despair or blind faith in some mechanical schema, but it will be decided only by the struggle in society itself.

This struggle for the world is not the duel described in the Communist Manifesto a century ago - bourgeoisie versus proletariat. It is a three-cornered battle for power, in which both basic classes of the capitalist system faces a new contender, the ruling class of the new type of exploiting system which we prefer to call "bureaucratic collectivism" but which is better known as simply Stalinism.

This triangle of forces is not a mere freak of history. It is the outcome of two facts: the old system of world capitalism is indeed crumbling and disintegrating, as was foretold, but the only class which can bring a new world of progress and plenty to birth, the working class which incubated under capitalism, has not yet reached out for its birthright. But the forces which inexorably pull the old system apart cannot wait for the working class to catch up with its tasks :as the socialist proletariat hangs back, while the old social order dissolves here and there, weakens there and here, to that extent the new social force of Stalinist bureaucratic-statism steps in to take over. Out of the most reactionary elements of the decaying world. an even more hideous ersatz exploiter grows. Stalinism is the punishment visited upon the workers for as yet failing to overthrow capitalism themselves.

Stalinism steps in, not to hold capitalism together, for it grows where that can no longer be done, but to hold society together in the only way exploiters know how in a world that is falling apart at the seams -·by brute force and tyranny.

It seeks power by appealing to the anti-capitalist aspirations and needs of the masses. It gains in power where the people know that they can no longer stand the old system of exploitation which they know on their own hacks and in their own bellies, and where they are not presented with a progressive alternative that challenges both the old and the new masters.

With regard to the fight for democracy, what is the importance of understanding that there is a reactionary alternative to capitalism in tho modern world? What is the importance of understanding that anti-capitalism is not enough? If, to previous socialist generations, the socialism that was to replace capitalism would also naturally be democratic, to us the socialism that replaces the old system must be democratic - or it is not socialism, as we shall see in Lesson 2. lf to them democracy was the expected and desired companion of socialism, to us it is a condition for socialism.

In no other era than this does the fight for democracy rise to such a pinnacle of importance for the forces of progress. No other movement in the history of the world is so driven to place the democratic goal so close to everything it strives for.

But also, more than it has ever been, this driving need for democracy is directed against both systems of domination, capitalist and Stalinist.

Today. in the capitalist-Stalinist struggle, not only the latter but also the capitalist powers turn increasingly toward bureaucratisation and militarisation to save themselves against the threatening· rival. There is no other fight, except the fight for socialist democracy, which so unifies the struggle against both systems, which so sums up the tasks of progress.

Statification and socialism

(2) Nationalisation of industry is not equivalent to socialism.

Stalinism presents us with a society in which all the means of production and distribution are "nationalised", or better, "statified", and which is yet the antithesis of socialism. This is the aspect of Stalinism which has been the source of its ability to spread confusion, bewilderment and disorientation in the ranks of the socialists themselves.

But this Stalinist-nationalised economy is not a socialised economy, it is not the property of the people. The question we have learned to ask is simply this: Yes, the state owns everything, but who "owns" the state?

It is a question which only has to be asked to cut through to the heart of the nature of Stalinism. The working class is not by its nature, and never can be, an owning class like previous ruling classes. It can "take over" the economy only in one way: collectively, through its own institutions. It can exercise economic power only through its political power. The expression of this proletarian political power can be given in two words: workers’ democracy.

Stalinism has fused the economic and political power by the very fact that the political organ, the state, is also the economic owner. It has fused this power in the hands of those who hold this power, those who exercise the totalitarian control over this state: the new ruling bureaucracy, which becomes the new ruling class.

The victorious working class also will fuse the economic and political power in its own hands, by exercising its own control over its own state. But the working people. as the great majority at the population. can control Its state only in one way - through its democratic institutions.

Nationalisation of the economy under a state which is the "property" of a new minority class of overlords is Stalinism. Socialisation of the economy under a state which is the democratic expression of the majority of the people is socialism.

The socialist revolution in Russia was made by overthrowing the bourgeoisie. The Stalinist counter-revolution had to be made by destroying the workers’ democracy.

Stalinism itself cannot he understood without understanding the new lessons of the relation between socialism and democracy.

Economics of democracy

(3) Democracy is an economic essential for socialism, not merely a desirable "moral value".

Let us make plain immediately that we agree entirely with the view that democracy is to be desired and defended because it is a vital moral value for humanity. But if that were its claim for the allegiance of the people, the case for it would go hard. People who are hungry, people who are ill-housed and ill-clothed, are difficult to interest in moral values, much as this fact disgusts professors of ethics, especially after a good meal, with the "stupidity" of the human race.

The socialist striving for democracy has a more solid base than that. It is Stalinism more than anything else that has made that clear to us.

For the Stalinist economy’s mortal contradiction is not the same as that of capitalism. It is a different system. It is immune to the specific capitalist form of crisis, as were the pre-capitalist systems. A crisis associated with "overproduction", a crisis of glut in the midst of poverty and want, unemployment because of an over-abundance of goods, such as the US saw in the ’30s, is unthinkable for it. In replacing capitalism, it has truly abolished the capitalist source of crisis and the capitalist type of crisis, as the Stalinlsts boast. But like every exploiting society it does so only in order to develop its own specific forms of crisis.

The crisis of the Stalinist economy is chronic. In eliminating capitalism it has also eliminated that which regulates and orders the capitalist system: the market and its laws. In the unplanned and economically anarchic system of capitalism, it is this "blind" behind-the-scenes regulator of the economy which keeps it working, which acts as its impersonal "planner". There is only one thing which can replace the operation of the market in a system of state-owned economy: conscious planning. Without a system of planning which can keep together the jigsaw-puzzle of the modern tremendously complex society, there can be only chaos.

The Stalinist state has an economic plan. Like everything else in this totalitarian structure, it is a plan devised, imposed and enforced from above, bureaucratically. But no bureaucratic commission can itself plan such a labyrinth of social processes. Such a plan must be constantly checked from below, corrected from below; it must depend on initiative and responsibility below; it must be self-correcting through the give-and-take of democratic planning between the lower and upper echelons on every level.

This is what is impossible under Stalinism. This is the basic reason for the fantastic botches, snarls, snags, wastes, and snafus which are angrily denounced in every issue of the Stalinist press. Under the system of totalitarian terror, no factory manager can afford to take responsibility for decisions, when mistakes are evidences of "sabotage". No continuity can exist when personnel vanish and appear regularly in accordance with the chronic purge which is the very mode of life of Stalinism.

The fatal contradiction of Stalinist economy is the basic contradiction between planning and totalitarianism. It must plan and it cannot plan. Like the contradictions of capitalism, this galloping disease which eats away at its vitals is not guaranteed to be fatal in any given number of years. The regime continually tights against the disease of bureaucratism - by more bureaucratic controls. It still keeps up vast production by fantastic expenditures of human labour power. enslaved or virtually enslaved. It loots and robs its dependent satellites more brutally than most capitalisms, as far as it can.

For a planned economy. democracy is an economic necessity. That means democracy is not merely a political good but an economic necessity for socialism.

We have only one doubt about those ideologists who tout the virtues of democracy on moral grounds. We have seen too many men who, sincerely convinced as they may be about their moral ideals, are willing to cast them aside allen faced with an inextricable dilemma. When mere "moral ideals" clash, or seem to clash, with economic and social reality, it is not usually the reality which comes off second best. For us socialists, democracy is not a valuable adjunct to, or dressing on, the society for which we fight: it is an integral element of its economic system, as profit-making and cut-throat rivalry is an integral element of capitalism.

Struggle against Stalinism

(4) Under Stalinism; the fight for democracy is the fight for socialism.

The victory of Stalinism over a people does not mean the end of the socialist struggle. It means only its re-appearance in a new form.

Every evidence shows that in the Stalinist states, the mass of working people do not yearn to return to the old system of capitalism, much as they hate their new bureaucratic exploiters. Rather, the very demagogy of the Stalinists, which speaks of the plants and factories as "the property of the people", leads them to demand that this demagogy be made reality.

What the masses of the peoples of the USSR aspire to is the democratisation of the regime, their democratic control over the state-which-owns-everything. And in such a state, this aspiration to democratic control of the economy is - exactly equals - is identical with - the aspiration for socialism.

The fight for socialism cannot be downed, by Stalinism or any other reaction. It can be abolished only by the blowing-up of civilisation. The nature of Stalinism is such that for the first time in the history of the world, the fight for democracy is not merely "bound up with" or "a part of" the fight for socialism; the fight for democracy is the fight for socialism, wherever Stalinism holds sway.

The social content

(5) Democracy means a social program or it means nothing.

The advances made by Stalinism in the modern world should be a staggering portent for those philosophers who think that ideals have a power of their own, just as virtue is its own reward. Here we see the most dynamically appealing movement in the world which is also the most totalitarian and tyrannous force in the world. Yet masses flock to its banners!

"Cannot the American democratic ideal be made just as dynamic, just as appealing?" anxiously ask the most sincere ideologists of capitalism, including its liberals. "How can this murderous system be so attractive?" They make myths about its propaganda machine, its "brain-washing techniques".

The truth is that Stalinism's appeal is that of a social program - anti-capitalism - while American capitalism flutters the rags of its democracy in vain because it can give it no meaningful social content. The fight for democracy is a power, but only if it englobes a social goal.

For us socialists the fight for democracy is no abstraction divorced from the real struggle of classes and interests. The concrete fight for democracy today is a fight for a new social order, it is a fight against both capitalism and Stalinism, it is a banner on which is written: "The socialist alternative to capitalism, the democratic alternative to Stalinism".

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.