Some of the left are still nostalgic about Stalin’s Russia, yet it was a brutal capitalist regime locked in competition with the West, writes Tom Orsag
In October 1917 Russian workers took power in the only successful socialist revolution in history to date.
But the civil war after 1917 decimated the working class and ruined the economy. By 1920 industrial production had fallen to a mere 13 per cent of its 1913 level.
The population of Petrograd, the major industrial city of the revolution, fell from 2.5 million in 1917 to 574,000 in August 1920. The economy entered perpetual crisis, and peasant opposition threatened to topple the regime.
By 1928, a new ruling class centred on the state bureaucracy and the upper levels of the Communist Party (CPSU) around Joseph Stalin had staged a counter-revolution and introduced state capitalism.
Today most people look back at Stalinist Russia with horror. But there are still those on the left who view it as some kind of model for socialism.
When Stalin’s first five-year plan was introduced in late 1928 it was the beginning of a program of forced collectivisation in farming and industrialisation at breakneck speed.
Russia’s poverty meant that industrialisation, without aid from the outside world, could only take place through ruthlessly exploiting the working class and extracting huge surpluses from the peasantry.
To accomplish this, the regime had to abolish the last remnants of workers’ control in the factories. Previously a troika in each factory made up of Communist Party members, a workers’ committee, and a technical expert under their control, jointly ran the workplaces.
Now the manager was to have complete control. Their orders were, “unconditionally binding on his subordinate administrative staff and on all workers.”
Trade unions were stripped of all functions, especially their right to negotiate wages. Speed-ups and new work “norms” were introduced across the board. Until then workers still had the right to strike. Strikes were now illegal and not even reported in the papers.
An internal passport system was introduced, with an employment record of behaviour. In 1930, all industrial enterprises were forbidden to employ workers who had left their previous job “without permission”.
Wages fell by half from 1930-37. Wage inequality between workers and managers increased. Abortion rights and the divorce reforms of 1917 were withdrawn.
Forced or slave labour was introduced on a massive scale.
As Stalin put it in 1931 to a meeting of managers, “No comrades…the pace must not be slackened!…On the contrary we must quicken it…To slacken the pace would be to lag behind; and those who lag behind are beaten…We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.”
Stalin wanted to do in 20 years what had taken Britain over 200 years—what Karl Marx called the primitive accumulation of capital. This meant driving peasants from the land to establish a working class and accumulating the wealth necessary to produce the factories and raw materials needed for capitalist production.
Accumulation, not consumption became the goal of production in Russia.
In January 1924 after Lenin’s death, Stalin declared his new aim as building “socialism in one country”, discarding the Bolsheviks’ insistence that real socialism could only survive if it spread internationally.
Many on the Left have trouble understanding what capitalism is. Capitalism is often equated with private ownership of companies and state ownership with socialism.
But socialism is fundamentally about democracy and workers’ control of society, something Stalin completely extinguished.
In Russia the state bureaucracy emerged as a “collective capitalist”, working to promote the accumulation of capital just as private capitalists do in the West. Russia was sealed off from price competition with the outside world. But it was still exposed to military competition with the West. Stalin aimed to build up an economy capable of competing gun for gun, bullet for bullet, bomb for bomb with the largest capitalist powers in the world at the time, Britain, Germany and the US.
By 1932 munitions plants accounted for as much as 46 per cent of iron and steel consumed. By 1938 this rose to a staggering 94 per cent!
There was resistance by workers and peasants in the form of strikes and riots to the massive cuts to living standards, speed ups and dispossession. These were ruthlessly repressed. Kirov, party boss of Leningrad and Stalin’s henchman, said in 1933, “We shall be pitiless [to] those lacking in firmness in the factory and the villages and who fail to carry out the plan.”
In 1928, after a decade of civil war and revolution, there were only 30,000 political prisoners in Russia, and the number was falling. They could not be used for forced labour. By 1931, there were two million people in a system of prison camps known as gulags. By 1933, it was five million and by 1942, a staggering 15 million people.
In order to entrench its power, the Stalinist machine also set about eliminating all Communist Party members with any link to the 1917 revolution.
Grotesque show trials saw the execution of all of the 21 members of the 1917 Central Committee, except Stalin and Kollontai, with Leon Trotsky assassinated in 1940.
By 1939 only 8.3 per cent of Communist Party members had joined before 1920, the end of the civil war. Trotsky rightly described Stalin as “the grave digger of the revolution”.
The boss dies
After his death in March 1953, recently lampooned in the film The Death of Stalin, his loyal lieutenants, like Nikita Khrushchev, began to reveal the hideous nature of Stalin’s rule.
Stalin’s use of slave labour and brute force was only effective to a point. Poverty and the random use of terror had become a barrier to increasing workers’ productivity and further expanding the economy. Stalin’s heirs decided reforms were necessary to the regime’s survival.
In 1953, the CPSU gave an amnesty which led to the release of over a million prisoners. But they were still prepared to be brutal. In July an uprising began at the Vorkuta prison camp.
Vorkuta housed 56,000 prisoners working in constructing coal mines, coal mining and forestry. A passive walkout involved up to 18,000 strikers for two weeks.
On 1 August authorities ordered shots to be fired on the crowd, killing over 66 people instantly. Many of those injured also died after being deprived of medical aid.
By 1956 Khrushchev was secure as the new leader. That year he made his famous “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the party congress. He said, “Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality, and his abuse of power… he often chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the party or the Soviet Government.”
Khrushchev wrote later, “Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night… people not to Stalin’s liking were annihilated, honest party members, irreproachable people, loyal and hard workers for our cause who had gone through the school of revolutionary struggle under Lenin’s leadership. This was utter and complete arbitrariness.”
Of the 139 members and candidate members of the party’s Central Committee elected in 1934 at the 17th Party Congress—all of them supporters of Stalin—98, that is 70 per cent were arrested and shot by 1940.
But as the inheritor of the system Stalin built Khrushchev was not about to challenge it completely. Stalin’s crimes, he said, began only in 1934. Events prior to that were not called into question.
The effects of destalinization were strictly limited. Most of the labour camps were closed down and certain social reforms were made. But there was still no right to organise an oppositional political tendency inside the CPSU or an independent trade union.
And Khrushchev was quite willing to send Russian troops into Hungary in October 1956 to put down a genuine workers’ revolution.
Nor was he averse to putting down Russian workers. In June 1962, workers at the electric locomotive building factory in Novocherkassk went on strike. Khrushchev had raised food prices as well as the production quotas required from each worker. The strike spread to other factories and a march followed to the town hall and police HQ.
Soviet troops fired on the crowd killing 26 and wounding 87, three of whom died of their wounds.
The following morning, several hundred demonstrators again gathered in the square. One hundred and sixteen were arrested. Fourteen of them were convicted through show trials, seven receiving a death sentence. The others were sentenced to prison terms of ten to fifteen years.
Autopsy of Stalinism
When Stalinism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989 and Russia in 1991, the working class of those countries did not come out to defend the system that some still called “workers’ states”.
In fact, many were active in the ending of the grotesque parody of one-party rule masquerading as socialism.
In Russia, many of the people at the top—the nomenklatura—senior Communist Party members, managed to survive the fall of Stalinism.
Large numbers of them ended up owning factories and businesses under the new free market system. They managed to move seamlessly from being bosses of state-owned industries to bosses of privately-owned industries. This is further proof that they had operated as a ruling class all along.
The assumption that Russia was more progressive than Western capitalism has fallen to pieces. Understanding Stalinist Russia as a form of state capitalism explains the dynamic of the system and its drive to accumulate capital.
The theory of state capitalism allowed Marxists to see that Stalinist Russia had nothing in common with genuine socialism.
There is nothing to mourn in its passing. The future belongs to international socialism.