Collapse of Stalinism: New difficulties for the proletariat

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Stalinism has been the spearhead of the most terrible counter-revolution that the proletariat has undergone throughout its history: a counter-revolution which made possible World War II, the greatest slaughter of all times, and which plunged the whole of society into a hitherto unparalleled barbarism. Today, as the economies of the so-called "socialist" countries collapse and with the de facto disappearance of the imperialist bloc dominated by the USSR, Stalinism as a political and economic form of capitalism and as an ideology is in its death-throes. One of the working class' greatest enemies is dying; this will not make life any the easier for it, quite the contrary. As it dies, Stalinism is doing capitalism one last good turn. This is what we propose to demonstrate in the following article.

Stalinism is undoubtedly the most tragic and repulsive episode in human history. Not only does it bear the direct responsibility for the massacre of tens of millions of human beings, not only has it imposed for decades a merciless terror on almost a third of humanity, above all it has shown itself the worst enemy of the communist revolution, in other words of the precondition for the human species' emancipation from the chains of exploitation and oppression, and this in the name of the communist revolution itself. In doing so, it has been responsible for the destruction of class consciousness within the world proletariat during the most terrible counter-revolution of its history.

Stalinism's role in the counter-revolution

Ever since the bourgeoisie first established its political domination over society, it has seen in the proletariat its own worst enemy. During the bourgeois revolution at the end of the 18th century, whose Bicentenary has just been celebrated with great pomp, the capitalist class understood how subversive Baboeuf's ideas were, for example. This was why they sent him to the scaffold, even though at the time his movement could not constitute a real threat to the capitalist state.[1]

The whole history of bourgeois domination is marked by the massacre of workers in order to protect it: the massacre of the Lyon "canuts" in 1831, of the Silesian weavers in 1844, of the Parisian workers in June 1848, of the Communards in 1871, of the 1905 uprising throughout the Russian empire. The bourgeoisie has always been able to find executioners from within its classical political formations to do this kind of job.

But when history inscribed the proletarian revolution on its agenda, then these political parties where not enough to preserve its power. It fell to the traitor parties, parties that the workers themselves had created previously, to shore up the traditional bourgeois parties, or even to take the lead amongst them. These new recruits to the bourgeoisie had a specific role to play; they were indispensable and irreplaceable because their origins and their name gave them the ability to keep the proletariat under their ideological control, in order to sap its consciousness and to draw it under the banners of the enemy class. The greatest feat of the Social-Democracy as a bourgeois party lies not so much in its direct responsibility for the massacre of the Berlin proletariat in January 1919 (when, as War Minister, the Social-Democrat Noske fulfilled his responsibility perfectly as the "bloodhound" of the bourgeoisie, to use his own expression), but in the part it had already played as recruiting sergeant during World War I, and the part it was to play afterwards as an agent of mystification, division and dispersal within the proletariat, against the revolutionary wave which put an end to and followed the War.

It was only possible to enroll the European proletariat under the banner of "national defense", and to unleash the carnage of World War I in the name of the "defense of civilisation", thanks to the betrayal of the opportunist wing which dominated most of the parties of the IInd International. In the same way these parties, which continued to call themselves "socialist" and so preserved a large degree of credit within the working class, played a vital part in maintaining reformist and democratic illusions amongst the workers, which disarmed them and prevented them from following the example given by the Russian workers in 1917.

During this period, the elements and fractions which, come wind come storm, had held high the banner of internationalism and proletarian revolution, regrouped within the communist parties, the sections of the IIIrd International. But in the period that followed, these parties were to play a similar role to that played by the socialist parties. Gangrened from within by opportunism, which spread with the defeat of the world revolution, faithful executors under the leadership of an "International", which having once pushed the revolution vigorously forward was being transformed more and more into a mere diplomatic instrument in the hands of the Russian state as it sought its integration into the bourgeois world, the communist parties went the same way as their predecessors. Like the socialist parties, they were finally completely integrated into the political apparatus of the national capital in their respective countries. As they went, however, they played their part in the defeat of the last outbursts of the post-war revolutionary wave, as in China 1927-28, and above all contributed decisively to the transformation of the defeat of the world revolution into a terrible counter-revolution.

After this defeat - in fact, counter-revolution - the defeat and demoralisation of the proletariat were inevitable. However, the form of this counter-revolution in the USSR itself - not the overthrow of the power that had emerged from the Revolution of October 1917, but the degeneration of the state and party that held power - meant that it was incomparably longer and deeper than it would have been had the revolution succumbed to the white armies. Following its integration into the post-revolutionary state, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was converted from the vanguard of the 1917 proletarian revolution and of the Communist International of 1919, to the main agent of counter-revolution in the USSR and the principal executioner of the working class.[2]

But the aura of prestige surrounding its past revolutionary action, continued to maintain the illusion amongst the majority of the communist parties and their militants, as among the great masses of the world proletariat. Thanks to this prestige, some of which was reflected on the Communist Parties in other countries, the militants and the masses were able to tolerate all Stalinism's betrayals during this period. The desertion of proletarian internationalism under the pretext of "building socialism in one country", the identification of "socialism" with the capitalism which was reconstituted in the USSR in its most barbaric forms, the struggles of the world proletariat's subjection to the demands of the defense of the "socialist fatherland", and in the end of the defense of "democracy" against fascism, were so many lies which deceived the working masses largely because the parties which lived by them, presented themselves as the "legitimate" heirs of the October revolution, which they themselves had assassinated.

This identification of Stalinism with communism, probably the greatest lie in history and certainly the most repulsive, which has been aided and abetted by every fraction of the world bourgeoisie,[3] was what made it possible for the counter-revolution to reach the depths it did, paralysing several generations of workers, delivering them bound hand and foot to the second imperialist slaughter, and either eliminating altogether or reducing to the state of utterly isolated little groups the communist fractions which had fought against the degeneration of the Communist International and its parties.

During the 1930's especially, it was left to the Stalinist parties to derail onto a bourgeois terrain the anger and combativity of workers brutally hit by the world economic crisis. By its depth and extent, this crisis was the indisputable sign that the capitalist mode of production was historically bankrupt, and so in other circumstances could have been the lever for a new revolutionary wave. But the majority of workers who wanted to head towards just such a perspective remained snared in the meshes of Stalinism, which claimed to represent the tradition of the world revolution. In the name of the defense of the "socialist fatherland" and of anti-fascism, the Stalinist parties systematically drained the period's proletarian struggles of any class content, and converted them into props for bourgeois democracy, when they did not simply become preparations for imperialist war. This was particularly the case with the "Popular Front" episodes in France and Spain, where an enormous workers' combativity was derailed and wiped out by an anti-fascism that claimed to be "working class", peddled essentially by the Stalinists. In Spain the Stalinists showed clearly that even outside the USSR, where they had played the part of executioners for years, they could equal and even surpass their social-democratic masters at the job of massacring the proletariat (see, in particular, their role in suppressing the Barcelona proletariat's uprising in May 1937, described in the article in the International Review n°7).

In terms of the number of victims for which it is directly responsible, Stalinism is every bit as bad as fascism. But its anti-working class role has been far greater, since its crimes have been committed in the name of the communist revolution and the proletariat and so have also provoked a historically unprecedented reversal of working class consciousness.

Whereas at the end of World War I and in the immediate post-war period, when the world-wide revolutionary wave was developing, the Communist parties' impact was directly related to the combativity and consciousness of the entire proletariat, from the 1930's onwards the evolution of their influence has been inversely proportional to class consciousness. At their foundation, the Communist parties' strength was a barometer of the strength of the revolution; once Stalinism had sold them to the bourgeoisie, the strength of these parties, which continued to call themselves "communist" was no more than a measure of the depth of the counter-revolution.

This is why Stalinism has never been more powerful than immediately following World War II. This was the culminating point in the counter-revolution. Thanks in particular to the Stalinists, who had made it possible for the bourgeoisie to unleash yet another imperialist carnage, and whose "resistance" movements were among the best recruiting-sergeants, the Second World War, unlike the First, was not followed by a revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat.

The "Red" Army's[4] occupation of a large part of Europe, and the Stalinists' participation in the "liberation" governments made it possible to silence, either by terror or by mystification, any attempts by the proletariat to struggle on its own class terrain; it was plunged into still deeper disarray than before the war. Far from clearing the ground for the working class (as the Trotskyists claimed to justify their support for the "Resistance"), the Allied victory to which the Stalinists had contributed only increased the proletariat's submission to bourgeois ideology. This supposed victory of "Democracy" and "Civilisation" over fascist barbarism allowed the ruling class to restore the democratic illusion, and belief in a "humane" and "civilised" capitalism. It thus prolonged the night of the counter-revolution by several decades.

Moreover, it is no accident that the end of this counter-revolution, the historic recovery of the class struggle in 1968, coincides with an important weakening of the Stalinist grip throughout the world proletariat, and of the illusions over the nature of the USSR and the anti-fascist mystification. This is particularly clear in the two Western countries with the most powerful "communist" parties, and where the most important struggles of this recovery took place: France and Italy.

How the ruling class uses Stalinism's collapse

This weakening of Stalinism's ideological grip over the working class is largely due to the workers' discovery of what the supposedly "socialist" regimes really are. In the "socialist" countries, the class obviously realised very quickly that Stalinism was one of its worst enemies. The workers' revolts in East Germany 1953, in Poland and Hungary 1956, were proof that workers in these countries no longer had any illusions about Stalinism. These events (along with the Warsaw Pact's military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968) also helped open the eyes of numbers of workers in the West as to Stalinism's real nature,[5] but not to the same extent as the struggles in Poland during 1970, 1976, and 1980. Because they were much more directly placed on a class terrain, and because they took place at a time of general resurgence of working class combat, they revealed much more clearly to the eyes of workers in the West the real anti-working class nature of the Stalinist regimes. This moreover is why the Stalinist parties in the West took their distances from the repression of the workers' struggles by the "socialist" states.

The collapse of the "socialist" economy highlighted by these workers' struggles also helped to wear down the Stalinist lie. However, as this collapse became more and more obvious, and as the Stalinist lie has faded, the Western bourgeoisie put it to good use by developing campaigns around the theme of "capitalism's superiority to socialism". In the same way, the Polish workers' powerful illusions in democracy and the trade unions, especially following the formation of the "Solidarnosc" union after 1980, have been exploited to the hilt to improve the unions' image in the eyes of workers in the West. The strengthening of these illusions, especially after the repression of December 1981 and the outlawing of "Solidarnosc" goes a long way to explaining the disarray and retreat of the working class at the beginning of the 1980's.

In autumn 1983 the upsurge of a new wave of workers' struggles in the developed Western countries, notably in Western Europe, and their simultaneity on a world scale, demonstrated that the working class was beginning to emerge from the grip of the illusions and mystifications which had paralysed it in the previous period. The weakening of illusions in the trade unions was revealed in strikes such as the 1986 French rail strike, or the 1987 teachers' strike in Italy, where workers acted outside or even against the trade unions; it was also revealed in the way the leftists, in these and some other countries, started setting up the "coordinations": structures of control put forward as "nonunion". During the same period, the rising rate of abstentions, especially in working class constituencies, was a sign of the decline in the electoral mystification. Today however, thanks to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the frenzy of accompanying media campaigns, the bourgeoisie has succeeded in reversing this tendency of the mid-1980's.

If the events in Poland during 1980-81 - not the workers' struggles of course, but the union and democratic trap which closed in on them and made possible the repression that followed -allowed the bourgeoisie to create a considerable confusion among the proletariat of the most advanced countries, then today's general and historic collapse of Stalinism can only lead to a still greater disarray.

This is the case because today's events are at an altogether different level from those of Poland in 1980. They are not confined to one country. An entire imperialist bloc is involved, starting with its most important country, the USSR. Stalinist propaganda could present the difficulties of the Polish regime as being due to Gierek's "mistakes". Nobody today, not even these countries' new leaders, is trying to lay all the blame for today's difficulties on the fallen leaders of the past. According to many of these leaders, especially the Hungarians, what is in question today is the entire economic structure and the aberrant political practices which have marked the Stalinist regimes from their outset. The fact that their leaders recognise these regimes' total collapse is obviously all grist to the mill for the Western bourgeoisie's media campaigns.

The bourgeoisie also gets maximum mileage from the collapse of Stalinism and its bloc because this collapse is not due to the action of the class struggle, but to the complete bankruptcy of these countries' economies. In the colossal events taking place today in Eastern Europe, the proletariat as a class, with a policy antagonistic to capitalism, is painfully absent.

In particular, last summer's miners' strikes in the USSR were something of an exception; the weight of illusions they harboured reveal the proletariat's political weakness in these countries. Moreover, unlike the miners' strikes, most of the strikes which have occurred recently in the USSR were not aimed at defending workers' interests, but were situated on a nationalist and so completely bourgeois terrain (Baltic countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan...). Not a shadow of a working class demand is to be seen in the massive demonstrations taking place in Eastern Europe, in particular in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. These demonstrations are completely dominated by typically and wholly bourgeois democratic demands: "free elections", "liberty", "resignation of the ruling CP's", etc. By comparison, the impact of the democratic campaigns that followed Poland 1980-81 was somewhat limited by the fact that these events sprang from the class struggle. The absence of significant class struggle in the Eastern countries today cannot but strengthen the devastating effects of the bourgeoisie's present campaigns.

On the more general scale of the collapse of an entire imperialist bloc, which will have enormous repercussions, the fact that this historic event has taken place independently of the proletariat's own action cannot help but produce within the class a feeling of powerlessness, even if the event was only possible, as the Theses demonstrate, because up to now the bourgeoisie has been unable to enroll the proletariat on a world level for a third imperialist holocaust. After overthrowing first the Tsar and then the bourgeoisie in Russia, it was the class struggle which put an end to World War I by bringing about the collapse of Imperial Germany. This is the main reason that the first revolutionary wave could develop on a world scale.

By contrast, the fact that the class struggle was only of secondary importance in the collapse of the Axis countries after World War II played an important part in paralysing and disorientating the proletariat in its immediate aftermath. Today, it is not irrelevant that the Eastern bloc should be collapsing under the weight of the economic crisis, rather than under the blows of the class struggle. If the latter had happened, it could only have strengthened the proletariat's self-confidence, not weakened it as is the case today. Moreover, to the extent that the collapse of the Eastern bloc comes after the period of "cold war" with the West, which the latter seems to have "won" without striking a blow, it will create a feeling of euphoria amongst the populations in the West, including the workers, and a feeling of confidence in their governments similar (though to a lesser degree) to that which weighed on the proletariat in the "victorious" countries after the two world wars, and which was even one of the main causes of the defeat of the revolutionary wave following the First.

Clearly, this kind of euphoria, which is obviously catastrophic for the consciousness of the working class, will be much more limited today, since the world is not just emerging from an imperialist bloodbath. However, the damage will be made more severe by the euphoria infecting the population in some of the Eastern countries, and which will have its impact in the West. At the opening of the Berlin Wall, for example, the press and certain politicians compared the atmosphere in Berlin with that of the "Liberation" following World War II. It is no surprise that the population of East Germany should feel the same about the demolition of this symbol par excellence of Stalinist terror as did the populations subjected to years of occupation and terror by Nazi Germany. But history has shown us that this kind of emotion is one of the worst obstacles to the development of proletarian consciousness.

The East European population's satisfaction at the collapse of Stalinism, and above all the increase in democratic illusions that it will make possible, is already having a strong effect on the proletariat in the Western countries, especially in Germany whose weight within the world proletariat is especially important in the perspective of the proletarian revolution. Moreover, even if the reunification of Germany is not an immediate practical possibility, the proletariat in Germany will have to confront all the nationalist lies that this perspective cannot but reinforce.

These nationalist mystifications are already very strong amongst workers in most of the Eastern countries. They do not exist only within the different republics that make up the USSR. They also weigh heavily on the workers in the "people's democracies", due notably to the brutal manner whereby the "Big Brother" kept his imperialist grip on them. These mystifications have been reinforced by the Russian tanks' bloody interventions in East Germany 1953, in Hungary 1956, and in Czechoslovakia 1968, and by the decades of systematic pillage of the satellite countries' economies. Along with illusions in democracy and trade unions, these played an important part in disorientating the Polish workers in 1980-81, opening the door to the repression of December. They will gain new energy with the disintegration of the Eastern bloc which will make the development of the workers' consciousness still more difficult.

These nationalist mystifications will also weigh on the workers in the West; this will not (apart from in Germany) occur through a direct increase in nationalism amongst the working class, but rather through the discredit and distortion of the very idea of proletarian internationalism. This conception has already been completely disfigured by Stalinism, and in Stalinism's wake by the rest of the bourgeoisie, which identified it with the USSR's domination of its bloc. In 1968, the intervention of the Warsaw Pact's tanks in Czechoslovakia was carried out in the name of "proletarian internationalism". The Eastern bloc's collapse, and its population's rejection of Stalinist style "internationalism", will inevitably weigh heavily on the consciousness of workers in the West.

And the Western bourgeoisie will miss no opportunity to oppose real proletarian internationalism with its own "international solidarity', understood as support for the stricken Eastern economies (or simply appeals for charity), or for their populations' "democratic demands" when they come up against brutal repression (remember the campaigns over Poland in 81, or more recently over China).

In fact, the ultimate aim at the heart of the bourgeoisie's present campaigns to taint the very perspective of world communist revolution with the collapse of Stalinism. Internationalism is only one element of this perspective. The nauseating refrain of the media: "communism is bankrupt; communism is dead" sums up the fundamental message that the ruling class in every country wants to stuff into workers' heads. The lie of the identity between Stalinism and communism, which has already been peddled by all the forces of the bourgeoisie in the past during the worst moments of the counter-revolution, has once again been taken up with the same unanimity. In the 1930's, the bourgeoisie used it to enroll the working class behind Stalinism and to complete its defeat. Today, now that Stalinism has lost all its credit in workers' eyes, the same lie is being used to turn them away from the perspective of communism.

In the Eastern bloc, the workers have already suffered this disorientation for some time: when the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" means police terror, when "the power of the working class" means the cynical power of the bureaucrats, when "socialism" means brutal exploitation, shortages, poverty and waste, when school children are forced to learn by heart quotes from Marx and Lenin, inevitably they will turn away from such notions, in other words reject what is the very foundation of the proletariat's historical perspective, refuse categorically to study the basic texts of the workers' movement; the very terms "workers' movement" and "working class" become obscenities. In such a context, the very idea of a proletarian revolution is completely discredited. "What is the use of starting again as in October 1917, if it only ends up in Stalinist barbarity?"This is the dominant feeling today amongst virtually all the workers in the Eastern countries. The Western bourgeoisie aims to profit from the collapse of Stalinism to spread a similar confusion among the workers in the 'West. And so obvious and spectacular is the system's collapse that for the most part, this works.

All the events which are rocking Eastern Europe today, and whose repercussions are world-wide, will thus for a time weigh heavily, and negatively, on the development of consciousness in the working class. At first, the opening of the "iron curtain" which divided the world proletariat in two will not permit the workers in the West to help their class brothers in the East profit from the experience they have gained in their struggles against the traps and mystifications deployed by the world's strongest bourgeoisies. On the contrary, in the immediate and for some time to come, it will be the strong democratic illusions of the workers in the East that will spill over into the West, thus weakening the gains made already by the workers there. This is how the bourgeoisie is using against the working class the death agony of Stalinism, which was once the weapon par excellence of the counter-revolution.

The perspectives for the class struggle

In a world context of deepening capitalist crisis, the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, essentially as a result of their total economic bankruptcy, can only make their situation worse. For the working class in these countries, this means unprecedented attacks and poverty, even famine. This situation will inevitably provoke explosions of anger. But the political and ideological context is such in the East, that it will be some time before the workers' combativity can lead to a real development of consciousness (see the article in this issue of the International Review). Developing chaos and convulsions on the economic and political level, the barbarity and decomposition of capitalist society which appears almost in caricatural form in the East, will not lead to an understanding of the need to overthrow the system until such an understanding has developed among the decisive proletarian battalions in the great working class concentrations of the West, and especially in Western Europe.[6]

As we have seen, at present these sectors of the world proletariat are themselves being subjected to a flood of bourgeois propaganda, and are being affected by a retreat of consciousness. This does not mean that they will be incapable of fighting back against the economic attacks of capitalism's irreversible crisis. What this means above all is that for a while at least, these struggles will be much more the prisoners of the state's organs for controlling the working class, with the trade unions to the fore, than they have been recently; this is already visible in the most recent combats. In particular, the unions will benefit from the general reinforcement of democratic illusions. They will also find easier ground for their maneuvers with the development of reformist ideology, as a result of the strengthening illusions as to "capitalism's superiority" over any other form of society.

However, the proletariat today is not the same as in the 1930's. It is not emerging from a defeat like that of the revolutionary wave that followed World War I. The world capitalist crisis is insoluble. It can only go on getting worse (see the article on the crisis in this issue): after the collapse of the "Third World" countries during the 1970's, and the implosion of the so-called "socialist" economies today, the next on the list will be the more developed countries which up to now have been able to push the system's worst convulsions out to the periphery. The inevitable revelation of the utter bankruptcy, not of any one sector of capitalism but of the entire mode of production, cannot but undermine the very bases of the Western bourgeoisie's campaigns about "capitalism's superiority".

In the end, the development of the workers' combativity will open out into a new development of their consciousness, which today is being interrupted and counter-acted by Stalinism's collapse. It is down to the revolutionary organisations to contribute determinedly to this development, not by trying to console the workers, but by showing them clearly that however difficult it may be, the proletariat can take no other road than the one that leads to the communist revolution.

FM 25/11/89

[1] It is significant that the "revolutionary" and "democratic" French bourgeoisie had no hesitation in sweeping aside the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" which they had just adopted (and which they make so much fuss about today), by outlawing all workers' associations (the Le Chapelier law of 14 June 1791). This ban was only lifted almost a century later, in 1884.

[2] The degeneration and betrayal of the Bolshevik party did not go unresisted, both by the working class, and within the party itself. In particular, Stalinism wiped out all the leaders of October 1917, and most of the militants. See, on this question, the articles on "The degeneration of the Russian revolution" and on "The Communist Left in Russia", in International Review n°3, and n°8-9.

[3] In the late 20's and throughout the 30's, the "democratic" bourgeoisie in the West was far from showing the same revulsion for "barbaric" and "totalitarian" Stalinism as it did during the Cold War and still does today. It gave unfailing support to Stalin in his persecution of the "Left Opposition", and its principal leader Trotsky, for whom the world became a "planet without a visa" after his expulsion from the USSR in 1928. "Democrats" all over the world, starting with the Social-Democrats in power in Germany, Britain, Norway, Sweden Belgium and France demonstrated their disgusting hypocrisy by setting aside their "fine principles" such as the "right" of asylum, as far as Trotsky was concerned. All these fine people found very little to protest about during the Moscow trials when Stalin liquidated the Bolshevik Party's old guard, accusing them of "Hitlero-Trotskyism"; they were even abject enough to spread it about that "there is no smoke without fire".

[4] A further proof, if one were needed, that the regimes set up in Eastern Europe following World War II (as of course, the regime then existing in the USSR itself) have nothing to do with the power established in Russia in 1917, lies in the part played in their origins by the imperialist war. The working class nature of the October revolution is illustrated by the fact that it arose against the imperialist war. The anti-working class and capitalist nature of the "people's democracies" is demonstrated by the fact that they were set up thanks to the imperialist war.

[5] This is obviously not the only factor that allows us to explain Stalinism's waning impact within the working class, any more than that of bourgeois mystifications as a whole, between the end of the war and proletariat's historic resurgence at the end of the 1960's. In many countries, moreover (especially in Northern Europe), since World War II Stalinism has no longer played anything but a secondary role in controlling the workers, when compared with Social-Democracy. The weakening of the anti-fascist mystification, for lack of a "fascist" scarecrow in most countries, and the waning influence of the trade unions (whether Social-Democratic or Stalinist) after all their work in sabotaging the struggle during the 60's, also allows us to explain the diminishing impact of both Stalinism and Social-Democracy on the proletariat. This is why the latter was able to reappear on the scene of history as soon as the first attacks of the open crisis fell.

[6] See our analysis in "The proletariat of Western Europe at the centre of the generalisation of the class struggle" in International Review n°31.

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