Reform or Revolution In East Europe?

Submitted by AWL on 25 September, 2013 - 11:21

A totalitarian or despotic society is one in the midst of a deep-seated social crisis. Totalitarianism is needed when it is impossible to rule with the consent of the people.

While such a regime presents a picture of monolithic unity, beneath the surface are the severest conflicts and suppressed class struggles. Or else why the need for repression?

But to rule in-this manner is extremely expensive in the social sense. It necessitates a tremendous bureaucratic apparatus which is at best a drain upon the economy; it is an expensive way to run the affairs of the society and in the case of Stalinism which also runs the economy, it has proved to involve fantastic waste and inefficiency.

While Nazi totalitarianism grew up on the basis of a decaying capitalism, the Stalinist bureaucracy grew out of the degeneration of the Russian revolution. It was the manifestation of the degeneration as well as one of the contributing causes of the degeneration. Given the isolation of the Russian Revolution after the failure of the socialist revolutions in any one of the advanced industrial nations in Western Europe, and the social exhaustion of Russia itself after the long years of the civil war, the stage was set for the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy under the slogan of "building socialism in one country."

But to industrialize Russia, given the narrow economic base which was the heritage of the Russian working class, would have been difficult on a capitalist basis. To attempt to do it in this Russia on a socialist basis was impossible. Once the hothouse rate of industrialization was decided upon, it was inevitable that extreme measures of repression were needed in order to squeeze the surplus production out of the working class and the peasantry and to put it into building industry.

The frenzied attempt to industrialise meant suppression of the living standards of the Russian people. And to suppress the economic well-being of the people meant that the Stalinist bureaucracy has to suppress their right to protest or to advocate a different policy.

The political consequences of this policy are well documented and acknowledged. They were verified by the highest authority in Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Party Congress. Russia is a totalitarian society based on collective property where all democratic rights have been suppressed. "It was governed by the methods of an oriental despotism rather than of a modern civilized society," now admit the editors of the magazine Monthly Review.

Scarcity and bureaucracy
If the cause of the bureaucracy's rule is to be found in the economic backwardness and general scarcity, and exacerbated by the drive to accumulate the means of production, then what happens once the Russian economy rises to a higher level?

What is the social "justification" of the bureaucracy - once there is the basis for a more equitable or equalitarian distribution of the still scarce, although more plentiful, consumption goods?

Now that Russia has passed through the first stages of industrialization, to the point where it is the second most powerful industrial nation, should not the bureaucratic privileges and social differences which grew out of the less industrialized society now prove to be superfluous and even a barrier to further economic advancement?

Considering the existence of the Stalinist bureaucracy in this way, a whole school of thought has arisen, best typified by Isaac Deutscher, which proclaims that "de-Stalinization has become a social necessity." But they also maintain more than this: they maintain that the bureaucracy itself recognizes the conflict between the old Stalinist method of rule and the actual and potential needs of the Russian economy, and that the bureaucracy itself is capable of "an astonishingly intense reformist initiative" and of abolishing the Stalinist political superstructure. This means introducing socialist democracy if it is to have any meaning at all.

It is not a question whether the sociological generalizations about the relationship of industrialization and social progress are true. For the most part they are, but one does not automatically follow from the other.

At issue is the dynamic of the unrest and "reforms." Those, like Deutscher, who are for "reform from above" see the dynamic in the bureaucracy: Khrushchev understands the contradiction in Stalinism and he is trying to dismantle the Stalinist system itself. But the actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy in reality, are the reactions to the pressures from below, from the Russian and satellite peoples and even from the ranks of the lower sections of the bureaucracy.

Khrushchev is reacting to the rising discontent — East Berlin, Vorkuta. Tiflis, Poznan, Hungary and the student unrest in Russia itself—in an attempt to head it off by a series of "reforms," while at the same time preserving the Stalinist totalitarian system.

The question is not whether the Stalinist bureaucracy can curb some of the excesses of Stalin's despotic rule, for there is no theoretical or practical reason why it cannot, and to a certain extent it has done so. It is not even a question of whether a ruling class, even a totalitarian one, can give up some of its privileges in order to preserve the bases of its own rule. Nor is it merely a question of whether certain "reforms" can be introduced. The Titoist bureaucracy in Yugoslavia has gone a long way toward demonstrating that many "reforms" can be introduced.

At issue is whether the Stalinist ruling bureaucracy, whether or not it is designated a ruling class, con dismantle its own rule and introduce democracy in the real sense of free speech, free press, the right to form political organizations of the people's own choosing such as political parties and free trade unions. If genuine democracy is not achieved, or at least a significant and real start made toward achieving it, then there can be no question but that the essentials of the old system remain. Here again the Tito example is instructive since almost everyone agrees that there are indeed differences between the Yugoslav and Russian regimes.

In Yugoslavia there were no bloody and extensive purge trials such as the Moscow trials of the. 1930s, no bloody forced collectivization of agriculture, no increasingly draconian labor laws, no slave-labor camps on the scale of the Russian camps. And yet the social system of the two countries is the same - bureaucratic collectivism - and the political regimes are totalitarian.

A few years ago in radical and socialist circles it was fashionable to point to the "liberalization" and "reforms" of the Tito regime as Tito took steps or made gestures toward removing or modifying many of the most objectionable features of the regime in the course of the life-and-death struggle with Russia. It was an attempt to win mass support as against Moscow's pressure and to stabilize the bureaucracy's rule. But on the decisive and all-important criterion of political democracy - the right to political dissent - no concessions were made.

No oppositional political parties could be formed and no oppositional voice was permitted in the party and the bureaucracy continues to rule supreme. If there was any question of this, then the arrest and imprisonment of Milovan Djilas for merely writing an article (which did not even appear in Yugoslavia but only in a foreign magazine) should have settled it.

This then is the limit of "reforms"or "liberalization" under, a Stalinist regime: nothing will be permitted which challenges the political, and therefore social, rule of the totalitarian bureaucracy.

By Stalinism is meant a social system, and not merely particular characteristics and "aberrations" embodied by Stalin as an individual. Khrushchev, in his now famous speech, pointed to all the particular excesses of' Stalin's personal dictatorial rule, even over the bureaucracy itself, which the bureaucracy as a whole found to be a deterrent to its rule and to the personal security of the bureaucrats themselves. Titoism is the living example that many of the excesses can be eliminated without changing the nature of the social system.

The specific characteristic of this bureaucracy as differentiated from the fascist bureaucracy is that its rule is based on state (nationalized) property. In a society where the means of production are nationalized, that group which has political power (which "owns" the state) has social power, and this determines the social relations. Under Stalinism, this group is the bureaucracy and not the working class. Its social power, the means whereby it continues to occupy its position of privilege and power, rests upon its monopoly of political power. Anything which shifts political power from the hands of the bureaucracy to the people, i.e., introduces democracy, undermines the social power and existence of the bureaucracy as the ruling group.

Democracy is a life-and-death issue for the Stalinist bureaucracy. The iron law of this bureaucracy is that its rule depends on the absence of democracy. Therefore any real democratic reform does not mean merely political change but involves socio-economic changes; so that the establishment of political democracy in Russia, far from being merely a desirable but dispensable embellishment to "socialism," actually means a basic shift in social power from the bureaucracy to the working class - that is, a social revolution.


If those who speak freely about "democratization" and "reforms" in Russia do not understand this fundamental fact, it is not lost on the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Within several weeks after the 20th Congress, the.Russian press began to denounce the "rotten elements" who were going outside of the bounds of constructive criticism. An editorial in Pravda on July 6 attempted to put the lid; down on the discussion which followed the downgrading of Stalin: "As for our country, the Communist Party has been and will be the only master of the minds, and thoughts, the spokesman, leader and organizer of the people in their entire struggle for communism."

Another voice which, spoke out in support of the Deutscherite theory of "reform from above" was the Monthly Review. But the Sweezyites, who are firm ideological Stalinists and never pretended to believe in the basic need for democracy under socialism, caution their readers not to go overboard: "... at this stage of the game we would be wrong to expect more from de-Stalinization than the abolition or rectification of methods which were most obviously in conflict with the present needs and attitudes of the Soviet people. We may expect an end of arbitrary police rule, but certainly not an end of the secret police. We may expect an end to the frame-up, but not an end to the conception; of political crime. We may expect an end to the deliberate falsification of history, but not an end to the party-line interpretation of history. The Stalin cult is dead, but not the Lenin cult. Above all, there is no ground for expecting an abandonment of the one-party state or any abdication of its monopoly of leadership by the Communist Party. . . . All this may sound disappointing to people who have been reading the news out of Moscow as indicating the beginning of a sweeping democratization. But the truth is that there have never been any solid grounds for such extravagant expectations. The Soviet dictatorship is cleaning house, not abolishing itself."

If there is no solid ground for believing that even the beginning of a sweeping democratization is taking place, then what happens to the entire Deutscher theory with which Monthly Review expresses such complete agreement? For their part they see democratization occurring as a "slow process" during which time the "Soviet public will rise far above the highest capitalist level in both knowledge and culture, and when that time comes genuine socialist democracy will become not only possible but inevitable."

What is seen here is the combination of a reformist ideology with pro-Stalinism. Isaac Deutscher expresses this reformist conception of social change: "Only when the gap in the political consciousness of the Soviet masses and the Soviet intelligentsia has been eliminated can de-Stalinization be brought to that ultimate conclusion to which Stalin's epigones can hardly carry it."

The factor holding back the expression of democracy is not the murderous hand of the Stalinist bureaucracy but the lack of knowledge, culture and political consciousness on the part of the people. The bureaucracy is merely the caretaker of the "socialist" social system until the people are mature enough (in the bureaucracy's and its apologists' opinion) to assume control of their own destiny.

The question whether It is possible to have "reform" from above handed down by the bureaucracy, or whether it is necessary to have "revolution" from below, is not one that need be considered merely in the abstract. This question has a long history In the socialist movement for, in general, It divided those who believed that socialism could be handed down to the working class by a series of legislative reforms without the active participation of the working class - that is. without a working-class political party winning power - from those who believed that socialism could be achieved only through a thoroughgoing transformation carried through by the working class itself after a basic change in class power.

The difference is not between those who want to go fast as against those who want to go slow. In the last analysis it became a difference in the goal, although, it was not seen at the time. The dispute was not decided in advance and in the abstract. The verification came in the course of action. During the First World.War the test was the support of one's own ruling class in the slaughter.

The test of reform or revolution in respect to Stalinism also can only be decided in practice. And here the test is the Hungarian Revolution. Pro-Stalinists have therefore proceeded to slander the fight of the Hungarian people for freedom, and decried it as going "too far."

The Hungarian people were demanding the complete democratization of the Stalinist regime, something which the Deutscherite "reformers" are also for, presumably. But in practice the "reform from above" advocates are not for the same goal — the thorough democratization of the regime. For events showed that this goal demanded revolutionary means.


Submitted by Dan Britt (not verified) on Sat, 16/05/2020 - 19:24

I don't understand the constant need for apologizing by way of adopting the most flawed, disingenuous court histography against the socialist regimes.
The USSR was flawed, but it didn't resemble the totalitarian trope, outside of the mid-to-late 1930s (and even then distorted and exagerated in a cartoonishly negative context), of now discredited late 20th Century tenure chasing, historians. The USSR was more successful than not.

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