Sun Apr 21, 2024
April 21, 2024

Special | Stalinism and Trotskyism: Reassessing their Legacies in the Face of Eastern European Upheaval

By Martín Hernández
Originally published in Spanish in the magazine Correo Internacional no. 17, May 2017, 44-47. Translated by Dolores Underwood from this article
When the masses overthrew Stalinist regimes, the bourgeoisie made a simplistic and crude analysis: “the masses defeated socialism, and capitalism has proven itself superior.” However, not even Stalinism was enough to defeat socialism entirely.
The blow that the masses in Eastern Europe gave to the Stalinist USSR was so great that any attempt to justify the defeat was akin to a boxer, knocked out and bloody, trying to explain to the referee that they had only tripped.
The fall of the Stalinist apparatus meant the end to the largest farce in the history of the international workers’ movement. The Stalinists tried to cling to the legacy of the October Revolution as fighters against fascism, as expropriators of the bourgeoisie, as anti-imperialists, and as the unconditional defenders of workers’ states (the “real socialism”), when in reality the regime was born fighting against the October Revolution, had capitulated to fascism, had fought against expropriating the bourgeoisie, had supported imperialism, and, finally, had helped to restore capitalism in former workers’ states.
“Socialism in one country:” the Stalinist theory that justified betrayal
For the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution was nothing more than the start to the development and expansion of world revolution. This, to them, was the only way to assure socialism in their own country.
For Stalin (after he replaced the working class in power), and for the bureaucracy placed at the helm, world revolution was very risky and could end their newfound privileges. For this reason, he came up with the anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country.”
This theory defends the utopian idea that a backward country (like the USSR), in a world controlled by imperialism, could rival imperialist powers, and in so doing, arrive at socialism without an international revolution. This utopian theory became entrenched in reactionary politics: the “pacific coexistence with imperialism.”
According to Stalin, this theory justified the assassination of the leaders of the Russian Revolution who were against socialism in one country. Being against the Stalinist theory meant being “against the victory of socialism in the USSR.”
Stalinism and its “fight” against fascism
At the beginning of the 1930s, Stalin, as part of his dispute with the social democratic left, refused to call for unity amongst the working class of Germany to stop, through mass mobilizations in the streets, Hitler’s victory. On the other hand, the USSR imposed a similar or worse regime to that of fascism and, finally, in 1939, made an anti-aggression pact with Hitler to divide spheres of influence. This resulted in the invasion of Poland by both armies (Hitler’s and Stalin’s). This pact only ended in 1941 when Hitler broke it to invade the USSR, forcing the Stalinist bureaucracy into the Second World War. The victory in war was a result of the heroism of the masses.
Stalinism and its “fight” against imperialism
Always upholding the theory of “socialism in one country” and the pacific coexistence with imperialism, at the end of the Second World War Stalin signed the Yalta and Potsdam pact with the heads of American and British imperialism.

The Yalta and Potsdam conference

The pact’s objective was to halt the spread of the global fight against imperialism. The pact divided the world into spheres of influence that effectively controlled the rise in revolutionary activity amongst the masses.
While this pact wasn’t entirely successful (for example it did not stop the triumph of revolutions in Yugoslavia, China, and Cuba) it did uphold mid-century imperialism and ensure that socialism on a global scale could not be achieved.
Thanks to this pact, Stalinism gave the revolutions in France, Italy, and Greece over to imperialism and, as a result, central Europe, in shambles from the war, was reconstructed on capitalist bases.
Furthermore, this pact halted the triumph of the revolution in Eastern Europe (except for Yugoslavia). The Red Army, in agreement with imperialism, occupied the majority of these countries and tried to construct bourgeois governments, in many cases with former Nazi collaborators at the helm. Facing resistance, the Red Army finally expropriated these countries and established new bureaucratized workers’ states.
This counterrevolutionary pact remained in place until the fall of the Stalinist bureaucracy and had a decisive impact on the region to halt the expropriation of the bourgeoisie in many countries. This was not simply a response to the immediate end of the war. The same occurred in France during the May 1968 uprisings; in Nicaragua; in El Salvador, in the former Portuguese colonies and within continental Africa; and in many more countries.
How Stalin supposedly “defended” the workers’ states
The economies of bureaucratic workers states, in contradiction with capitalism, continued to be part of a global economy orchestrated by imperialist interests.
With the failure to expand the revolution to capitalist powers, the economies in the workers’ states, at first developing rapidly from bourgeois expropriation, began to fizzle. Their close ties with imperialist states and bureaucratic management stifled growth and brought workers’ states to the point of crisis. In the middle of the 1950s, the economies in Eastern Europe continued to grow but at a slower pace. The utopian and reactionary Stalinist idea of building “socialism in one country” started to show signs of its failures.
The way to resolve this growing problem was not economic, but political: the workers’ states needed to democratize their planned economies, using human potential towards the service of economic development, and expanding the socialist revolution to the large capitalist powers. But the governing bureaucracies were not in favour of these options (democratic workers’ control and international revolution). To defend their interests, the only option was to stretch even further the economic relationships with the other economic powers. First, this took the form of the commercial development between east and west, which ended up only making more pronounced the crisis within the workers’ states due to the consequences of unequal trade.
The Stalinist bureaucracy’s response was to reach out to imperialist powers to secure “cheap” loans. Workers’ states, therefore, became dependent on imperialism through the mechanism of external debt. By the beginning of the ‘80s, the economies were in ruins and the bureaucracy within the USSR was under the threat of a possible social explosion. This analysis, an economic crisis without end, led the Stalinist bureaucracy in power to suggest the need for restoration.
The restorationist project emerged within the USSR in the same way it had within Yugoslavia and China: from the heart of the bureaucracy. The same would later occur in Cuba and Vietnam.
Cuba, China, Vietnam: how to explain the inexplicable
The Stalinist tendencies of the time suggested the masses as responsible for the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe. However, it was more difficult for them to explain what happened in China, Vietnam, or Cuba, where capitalism was restored without mobilizations against the “communist” regimes.
Confronted with this reality, their explanation was that in those countries capitalism was not restored. How could they explain the reality that in those countries planned economies no longer existed, and instead economies functioned at the whim of markets? By suggesting that these countries were doing a similar move to Lenin in the USSR with the NEP (New Economic Policy).
The 1920s NEP of the Bolsheviks made concessions to capitalism while preserving nationalized companies, a centrally planned economy, and a monopoly on external trade. These policies were all made to strengthen the workers’ state, which was badly damaged because of the civil war. It is ridiculous to suggest that these Bolshevik policies could be likened to the bureaucracy’s destruction of the workers’ states and restoration of capitalism.
As much as the Stalinists tried to deny it, it was the bureaucracies, not the masses, that in all the former workers’ states restored capitalism, and this deserves reflection: hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries were persecuted, slandered, tortured, and assassinated in the name of “socialism” as led by Stalinists. And for what? What Trotsky foresaw decades earlier: for the restoration of capitalism. That is what Stalinism is and was. This is the true assessment that they, understandably, will not make themselves.
An assessment that only Trotskyism can make
Only Trotskyism can come to these conclusions about what happened in Eastern Europe without the need to falsify events and without entering into contradictions of its programmatic basis.
Trotskyism emerged under the pretense that socialism could only exist if it spread internationally and that the bureaucratic policies of the USSR of “socialism in one country” and the “pacific coexistence with imperialism” would only lead to capitalist restoration. If we are doing an assessment, we might as well look directly at Trotsky’s writings on these topics:

  • That the privileges of the bureaucracy in Stalinist workers’ states were at a level that mirrored that of the bourgeoisie in other countries: “…the highest stratum of the Soviet society is living like the highest bourgeoisie in America and Europe.” [1]
  • That, to defend their ample privileges, the bureaucracy needed to restore capitalism: “We cannot count upon the bureaucracy’s peacefully and voluntarily renouncing itself in
    behalf of socialist equality… If at the present time, notwithstanding the too obvious inconveniences of such an operation, it has considered it possible to introduce ranks and decorations, it must inevitably in future stages seek supports for itself in property relations…It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder.” [2]
  • That the bureaucracy, defending its own interests, had imposed a similar or worse regime than the fascists had in capitalist countries: “The fascist, counterrevolutionary
    elements, growing uninterruptedly [within the Kremlin bureaucracy], express with even greater consistency the interests of world imperialism.” [3]
  • That the only way to retake the path towards socialism was through expelling the bureaucratic Kremlin government through a political revolution that would return power to the working class and to the revolutionary leadership
  • That the restoration of capitalism would provoke a catastrophic blow to the economy and culture of the USSR. The battle for the political revolution included the defence of nationalized companies, a monopoly on external trade, and a centrally planned economy
  • That the working class, only in exceptional circumstances, could form a united front with the bureaucracy to defend the economic pillars of the workers’ state: “Although it is thus impermissible to deny in advance the possibility, in strictly defined instances, of a ‘united front’ with the Thermidorian section of the bureaucracy against open attack by capitalist counterrevolution, the chief political task in the USSR still remains the overthrow of this same Thermidorian bureaucracy.” [4]
  • If the working class did not overthrow the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy would overthrow socialism: “The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.” [5]

The analysis, prognostic, and political program of Trotskyism was confirmed with what happened with the former workers’ states. Just as Trotsky had foreseen, while political revolutions exploded in many countries, they were destroyed. The Stalinist bureaucracy maintained power and finally restored capitalism.
Finally, confirming Trotsky’s predictions, the restoration of capitalism meant important retrocession of the economy and culture of the former workers’ states. Not at the magnitude he suggested in the ‘30s (“catastrophic”) because the economies in these countries had already been ravaged by imperialism and the bureaucracy. What remained clear was that instead of advancing with the restoration, these economies continued to stagnate, especially those which referred to themselves as a “popular economy.”
The processes in Eastern Europe, categorically confirming Trotsky’s predictions, for the good and the bad, meant a major programmatic and political triumph in the history of Trotskyism. On the bad side, because the overthrow of the bureaucracy and capitalist restoration at the hands of the bureaucracy not only confirmed the Trotskyist program but also demonstrated that we were the only Marxist tradition, in the entire world, that had the politics to avoid it: political revolution for the larger world revolution.
On the good side, the destruction of the Stalinist apparatus by the masses was a huge triumph for the world revolution and it is, above all else, a triumph of Trotskyism, the only tendency that understood the true counterrevolutionary character of Stalinism and had a political program to destroy it.
On the crisis of the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat
In his 1938 Transitional Program, Trotsky stated that the crisis of humanity could be summarized as a crisis in the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat.
Nahuel Moreno, former leader and founder of the IWL-FI, added to this idea that after the First World War “…the causal relationship is inverted, transforming the most subjective of factors – the revolutionary leadership – into the fundamental cause of all other phenomena, including economic.” [6]
The central question we must ask ourselves is: did the processes in Eastern Europe deepen the crisis of revolutionary leadership, or, on the other hand, were they a step towards overcoming this crisis? On the basis of the answer to this question, we will be able to gauge the possibilities of constructing our parties today.
The crisis in revolutionary leadership, what Trotsky had identified so clearly in 1938, took on a new shape at the end of the Second World War:
“Unfortunately, the increase in revolutionary activity occurred simultaneously with the deepening of the crisis in revolutionary leadership, or in other words, with the strengthening of counterrevolutionary forces.” [7]
The deepening of the crisis in leadership at the end of the war was doubly significant because, on the one hand, Stalinism was strengthened, and on the other, Trotskyism was weakened qualitatively with Trotsky’s assassination in 1940.
Therefore, from the end of the Second World War until the fall of the Stalinist apparatus, the crisis in revolutionary leadership was, without a doubt, the largest crisis in its history.
This extreme crisis made possible that a victory, such as the defeat of Nazism, led to a significant defeat: the counterrevolutionary pact in Yalta and Potsdam between the principal leaders of the international workers’ movement and imperialism.
Updating the analysis of Moreno, when the Stalinist apparatus fell thanks to the uprising of the masses, the crisis in revolutionary leadership was not heightened, but instead took a step in the right direction. In our previous elaborations, we have not explained with clarity the importance of this central question, one of the most critical assessments of the processes in Eastern Europe and the fall of the USSR.
A reassessment
Today, many comrades maintain the thesis that the processes in Eastern Europe deepened the crisis in revolutionary leadership. This has to do with a total misunderstanding of the counterrevolutionary role that Stalinism played in revolutionary socialism.
To affirm that the processes in the East meant an important step forward in overcoming the crisis in revolutionary leadership, we are not saying that the crisis has been totally resolved or we are close to resolving it. We are saying, simply, that the fall of the USSR was a step forward and not a step (or many steps) backward, as many comrades maintain.
[1] Trotsky, Leon, “On the Eve of World War II,” July 23, 1939, Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 12, 1939-1940, New York, 1973, p. 17-27. Published online here.
[2] Trotsky, Leon, The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 9. Published online here.
[3] Trotsky, Leon, The Transitional Program, 39. Published online here.
[4] Trotsky, Leon, The Transitional Program, 41. Published online here.
[5] Trotsky, Leon, The Transitional Program, 39. Published online here.
[6] Moreno, Nahuel. Actualización del Programa de Transición, Tesis II. Quote translated by Dolores Underwood
[7] Moreno, Nahuel. Actualización del Programa de Transición, Tesis VII. Quote translated by Dolores Underwood.

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles