By the end of the 1920s, Stalin's party-state apparatus had become the dominant force in Russian society. A bureaucratic ruling class treated all forms of dissent and resistance as crimes against the state
First the Wall Street Crash plunged the world into the Great Depression and put 40 million out of work. Then the Nazis, the most barbaric political movement of modern times, seized power in Germany.
No wonder millions of desperate activists looked for an alternative. No wonder they believed Russian leader Joseph Stalin’s claim to be the world’s standard-bearer against capitalism and fascism.
Mass unemployment and the menace of fascism made them uncritical. Why should they believe western reports of atrocities and injustices in Russia? Was it not inevitable that ‘the capitalist press’ would denigrate the homeland of socialist revolution?
After all, the new Russian economy was booming while the rest of the world was mired in depression. The success of Stalin’s ‘Five Year Plans’ seemed prodigious.
Between 1927/28 and 1937, the value of Russian industrial output increased five-fold. While Russia had accounted for just 4% of global industrial production in 1929, this had risen to 12% by 1939.
But these were not the triumphs of any sort of socialism. On the contrary: all vestiges of workers’ control over industry had been stamped out.
In its place, a new model of state-capitalist development was being pioneered, where the ruling class was formed of government bureaucrats, the national economy was run like a single giant corporation, and all forms of dissent and resistance were treated as crimes against the state.
Lenin had seen the danger before his premature death in 1924. ‘The party’s proletarian policy,’ he had written, ‘is determined at present not by its rank and file, but by the immense and undivided authority of tiny sections of what might be called the party’s “old guard”.’
The party had filled up with the johnny-come-latelies of post-revolutionary times – because a party card had become a passport to a paid post in government, army, or industry. As early as 1922, only one in forty members had joined before the February Revolution.
Lenin had also identified Stalin as the potential leader of the emerging party-state bureaucracy. In a secret ‘Testament’ written shortly before his death, he warned leading party comrades that the Secretary-General of the Party had ‘unlimited authority concentrated in his hands’, that he was too boorish and bureaucratic to wield such power, and that they should consider ‘removing Stalin from that post and appointing another man in his stead’.
The Testament was suppressed and ignored, and, with civil society hollowed out by war and economic collapse, the party-state apparatus swelled to fill the vacuum (see MHW 80). Stalin’s position gave him control of this apparatus. By the end of the 1920s, it was the dominant force in Russian society.
The destruction of the opposition currents inside the party was easily accomplished by the police agents of the bureaucracy in 1928 – both the Right, led by Bukharin and representing the private capitalist interests which had developed under the New Economic Policy, and the Left, led by Trotsky, representing the revolutionary socialist tradition of the Bolsheviks.
Against Trotsky was the power of inertia in an exhausted, impoverished, peasant country. Without world revolution to reinforce them, backward war-torn Russia had simply consumed its native revolutionaries – until they were so few that they could be swept into the oblivion of the gulags.
Even so, the idealism and self-emancipation of the revolutionary years survived in popular memory and served to indict all that followed. For this reason, the remaining revolutionaries were hounded to their deaths during the 1930s. Only one in 14 of the Bolshevik Party’s 1917 members still belonged to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1939; virtually all of rest were dead.
The bureaucracy had acted in 1928 because it had the power to do so and it faced a crisis. The peasants were refusing to supply enough grain to the cities, and foreign governments were cutting off diplomatic relations and banning trade links. The leadership’s response was to seize the grain, drive down wages, and impose rapid industrialisation.
‘To slacken the pace of industrialisation would mean to lag behind,’ Stalin announced, ‘and those who lag behind are beaten … We are 50 to 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years or they will crush us.’
Russia had survived civil war and foreign invasion: the new regime had not been destroyed by military force. But the defeat of the world revolution had left Russia isolated and impoverished in a global economy dominated by capitalism. So the counter-revolution was achieved not by violent overthrow, but by the relentless external pressure of economic and military competition.
Russia needed to export grain to pay for machine tools. It needed machine tools to build modern industries. It needed these to produce the guns, tanks, and planes with which to defend itself in a predatory global system of competing nation-states.
Private capital accumulation was too slow. What Bukharin in the 1920s had called ‘socialism at a snail’s pace’ would have left Russia trailing behind and ever vulnerable to dismemberment by hostile powers.
Only the state had the power to concentrate resources, impose a plan, override opposition, and drive through rapid forced industrialisation.
The aim was mass production to build state power. Russia’s rulers thus became personifications of state-capitalist accumulation. But they also used their power to reward themselves richly, even as they plundered the peasantry, cut wages, increased work pressure, and filled the gulags with slave-labourers.
By 1937, plant directors were paid 2,000 roubles a month, skilled workers 200-300 roubles, and workers on the minimum wage 110-115 roubles. Pay differentials in the army were even more extreme: during the Second World War, colonels were paid 2,400 roubles a month, private soldiers 10.
The pay of plant directors and army colonels was modest, however, compared with that of top members of the state bourgeoisie earning up to 25,000 roubles a month – more than 200 times the minimum wage.
So the bureaucracy was a privileged class with a clear material interest in remaining loyal to Stalin and the state-capitalist system. It proved utterly ruthless in imposing forced industrialisation on society at a colossal cost in human suffering.
Consumption was sacrificed to investment in heavy industry. The proportion of investment devoted to plant, machinery, and raw materials – as opposed to consumer goods – rose from 33% in 1927/28 to 53% by 1932 and 69% by 1950.
The result was shortages and queues – though less then there might have been, because at the same time, wages were cut, by an estimated 50% over six years.
Grain was seized from the peasantry to feed the growing urban population and to pay for imports of foreign machinery. Because of this, when the price collapsed on world markets in 1929, at least three million peasants starved to death.
It was not enough. The state decreed ‘the collectivisation of agriculture’ (state control). Millions of peasants – denounced as kulaks (rich peasants producing for the market) – were dispossessed and transported. Many died. Others ended up as slave-labourers in the gulags.
The gulags (labour camps) expanded into a vast Siberian slave empire run by Stalin’s security apparatus. The 30,000 prisoners of 1928 had become two million by 1931, five million by 1935, and probably more than ten million by the end of the decade.
Millions of others were simply murdered by the police, the annual cull rising from 20,000 in 1930 to 350,000 in 1937.
State terror on this scale reflected Russian backwardness, the pace of state-capitalist accumulation, and the levels of exploitation necessary to achieve it. The working class, the peasantry, and the national minorities had to be pulverised into submission.
The damage was not confined to Russia. The revolutionary content of Marxism was abandoned but its verbal formulas were retained and redeployed to justify the policies of the Russian bureaucracy. The Comintern – the Communist International – became a vehicle for imposing the ideology and policies of the Russian state on foreign Communist parties.
In 1927, having abandoned world revolution in favour of ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin tried to break out of Russia’s isolation by seeking respectable allies abroad. So the Chinese Communist Party was ordered to kow-tow to Chiang Kai-shek and disarm the Shanghai working class. The result was a terrible counter-revolutionary massacre (MHW 78).
The following year, the policy suddenly switched to sectarianism and adventurism. In the Comintern’s disastrous ‘Third Period’, Stalin proclaimed a new revolutionary advance, such that Communists were to break all ties with Social-Democrats and prepare for an imminent seizure of power.
This mirrored (and helped justify) the policy inside Russia. The attack on the kulaks was presented as an attack on private capitalism (which was true) and as a major advance towards ‘socialism’ (which was not). The ultra-left turn of the Third Period provided a smokescreen for bureaucratic power and forced industrialisation.
The sectarianism of the Third Period created a fatal division inside the German labour movement and allowed Hitler to take power in 1933 (MHW 83).
But the Nazis threatened a resurgence of aggressive German imperialism, and Stalin began casting around for European allies. The Comintern therefore lurched from ultra-left madness to ‘broad frontism’: Communists were now to form alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie, reining back the working class to placate potential allies of the Russian state.
Thus, instead of promoting world revolution, the Stalinist Comintern had, by the mid 1930s, become actively counter-revolutionary. This was to produce, in 1937, another catastrophic disaster to place alongside those of 1927 and 1933.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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