Section one. The historical rise of false communism - Claude Bitot

Section one. The historical rise of false communism - Claude Bitot

First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.

The Historical Rise of False Communism

The Final Sanction: The Rise and Victory of Stalinism

On September 27, 1917, Clemenceau announced his proposal for a “plan of action” in Russia that would “implement an economic blockade of Bolshevism and provoke its collapse”. And on December 19, later that same year, French troops disembarked at Odessa. The English, the Americans, and even the Japanese in Siberia would come later. Bolshevik Russia would successfully contain all these counterrevolutionary forces as well as their domestic counterparts that were armed by the Entente, but at a high price. Although Russia was not militarily defeated, it was disorganized and subjected to famine that led to scarcity in the cities and starvation in the countryside, which wreaked havoc during the summer of 1921. By creating this situation, it was hoped to provoke anti-Bolshevik movements within the country that would overthrow the established regime. This is what started to happen at the beginning of 1921: strikes in Petrograd and open rebellion at Kronstadt. These movements were strangled, but at the cost of a split between what remained of the working class which, due to its privations had become half-lumpenproletarianized, and the Bolshevik party. After that point, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was nothing but the dictatorship of the party, a party which had also fallen on hard times and which had to be purged, due, as Broué tells us,1 to indiscipline, inactivity, drunkenness, careerism, swindling, corruption, lying....

In the words of Saint-Just, the revolution had “frozen”. In 1922 measures were implemented that would make it more difficult to become a party member, but would they be effective enough to halt the bureaucratization of the party and the State? The word was spoken, and Lenin gladly admitted its existence: our State, he declared, is a “proletarian State”, but “one that suffers from serious bureaucratic deformations”. For Lenin, this bureaucratic plague has deep roots. It is a legacy of the old czarist regime and, as we said above (see Chapter IV), of what Lenin called “Russian lack of culture”. In fact, Lenin recognized that the preconditions for a proletarian State did not exist in Russia. What was to be done? Against bureaucratization, a Workers and Peasants Inspectorate was created, in an attempt to limit its increasing scope. But we are not out of the woods yet: this “inspectorate” is ... just as bureaucratic as the bureaucracy it was supposed to control! And Lenin exclaimed: “There is no worse institution than the Inspectorate”.2 In short, Lenin did not know whether he was coming or going. Everything was slipping out of his control. He was reduced to using expedients to try to salvage what he could and making imperative proclamations: “the bureaucracy, not only in the soviet institutions, but in the party institutions as well” must be destroyed.3 This must ... that must ... but nothing is done, because nothing of the sort can be done! That is the problem! Lenin died in January 1924 and was spared the rest: the final sanction, Stalinism. Regarding the rise and victory of Stalinism, it is not a matter of playing sociologist and maintaining that it was the product of a “bureaucratic system” inherent to the party form: if the bureaucratic phenomenon cannot be denied, one must above all attribute it to Russian backwardness, since under normal conditions, that is, in an advanced country, there would have been means available to limit its influence; Stalinism was not due to an unknown bourgeoisie (which had been eliminated in 1917) or neo-bourgeoisie (the kulaks, who had enriched themselves during the N.E.P., but would be severely punished during the early 1930s by the Stalinists themselves), but to a collapse of revolutionary utopianism within the Bolshevik party.

After 1923, the dream evaporated. During that year the perspective of a hypothetical “German October” was still being disseminated, which, were it to take place, would completely transform the situation. But this was merely the last illusion which, when deflated, led some Bolshevik militants to commit suicide. But the majority became realists, that is, cynics, sneaks, opportunists.... Trotsky and the few supporters of the left opposition only saw this phenomenon from its “bureaucratic” side, without seeing what lies behind that aspect: the loss of revolutionary faith, the realization that everything was in vain, the disappearance of the poetic illusion. With regard to this issue, it would be useless for us to sketch, as has been done so abundantly, the portrait of a Stalin who, from beginning to end, was a perfidious and crafty individual, who was only waiting for the chance to consolidate his personal power. This portrait is false. When he began his career, Stalin was a revolutionary militant who, like so many other Bolsheviks, paid a high personal price, living a clandestine life, for his beliefs; it is of no use to characterize him, as Trotsky did, as “the most simple-minded man on the Central Committee”. It was not until after 1923 that he became, like so many others, disillusioned. Broué mentions, in his book The Bolshevik Party, although he does not derive any lessons from it, the important fact that “of the 121 members of the Central Committee elected at the XV Congress of the Party (held in late 1927, it marked the complete and definitive victory of the Stalinists), 111 were Bolsheviks from before 1917”.4 This proves that the party had been vitiated of any revolutionary conviction; the “old Bolsheviks” were now nothing but tired heroes who no longer understood anything of a history that eluded them, ready to submit to any line, except for the indomitable and irreducible Trotsky, who still thought he could preserve a few threads. After 1927, Zinoviev and Kamenev completely surrendered, not so much to the Stalinists as to the events that left them behind. Bukharin hardly did any better, having marshaled his theoretical resources to become the official ideologist of “socialism in one country”. With Lenin dead, Trotsky exiled, the left opposition disoriented, the Bolshevik party of October 1917 no longer existed. The party remained and continued to use its name, taking advantage of its glorious past; this was when the Stalinist farce began.

To say that Stalinism has “nothing to do” with Bolshevism would be to close one’s eyes to the facts. A connection exists insofar as Bolshevism, by degenerating, led to Stalinism. It is important to emphasize the word, “degenerating”, because it is obvious that the contents of the two are not the same. Bolshevism was animated by a revolutionary idealism that cannot be denied: “Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and all the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity which western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks”, Rosa Luxemburg wrote in The Russian Revolution. From the revolutionary point of view, Stalinism is nothing but an empty vessel, a spent Bolshevism that replaces the revolutionary faith and drive of the Bolsheviks of October 1917 with cynicism, careerism, Jesuitism, lies, mummery and fakery.

To sum up: between 1917 and 1923, the tension was extreme. But the Russian revolution, the Russian utopia, like all utopias, could not last very long. It began to collapse after having traversed three successive stages. A first lyrical stage that extended from February 1917 to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in March 1918; during this period, it seemed like anything was or soon would be possible. A second stage of tension that continued until the repression of the Kronstadt revolt, in March 1921, including the period of civil war and revolutionary terror: during this period it was thought that, although the Bolsheviks knew they were betraying their principles, it was imagined that they would be able to re-establish them on a sound footing later. A third stage, finally, of disorientation, that lasted until the death of Lenin, in January 1924; this is the period where everything was out of control, presaging total ruin.

The originality of the Russian utopia, however, resides in the fact that, instead of having been brutally smashed, it degenerated, issuing into Stalinism. This is its catastrophic side. Let us make a comparison. The Commune of 1871, which “could not be socialist” (Marx), managed to escape unsullied: its utopia only lasted about two and a half months and was drowned in blood, slandered by Versailles; but its prestige is immense, it is the heroic victim and a peerless example for the workers movement, which reactionaries cannot really besmirch although they have tried, without much success. It had the advantage of being ephemeral: it is therefore impossible to show where it could have led. Nothing like that happened to the Russian utopia. Far from having been crushed by the German army in early 1918, or beaten in the civil war by the counterrevolutionary armies supported by the Entente commanded by Denikin, Kolchak and Yudenich, or even—the only possibility remaining to it—defeated in 1921 in its conflict with the citadel of Kronstadt, the riots serving the purposes of the white reaction, this utopia more or less emerged from the quagmire, holding onto power. But things did not proceed as planned: it then degenerated, sliding into Stalinism. It would have been a thousand times better to have been defeated by foreign forces rather than to have rotted from the inside, for then matters would have been very clear. Instead, the Bolshevik party, by remaining in power, still blindly clinging to the international revolutionary possibilities that they believed to exist, went on to allow the introduction of an enormous factor for confusion: the ideological creation of a false communism, Stalinist communism, which proclaimed its fealty to communism and Marxism but which did something totally different in practice.

“Socialism in Russia”: A Case of Capitalist Primitive Accumulation

For Lenin, what was of prime importance in 1921 was not State capitalism, but something that was a precursor to State capitalism: the N.E.P. (New Economic Policy), that is, after the end of “war communism”, the return to commodity exchange between city and countryside. In 1925 the left, with Trotsky, wanted to introduce elements of planning in the economy and therefore proposed a State industrial policy christened with the moniker of “socialist primitive accumulation” by its theoretician Preobrazhensky, which is a fancy way of dressing up State capitalism as “socialism”! The right, with Bukharin, was still in favor of the N.E.P., that is, the market, while calling upon the peasants to “Get Rich!” In this manner there would be an accumulation of capital in agriculture and, with the enriched peasants (the Kulaks), a new source of demand would be created that would stimulate industrial production. And Bukharin called this capitalist accumulation “building socialism even upon a mediocre technological foundation”, carried out “at a snail’s pace”. In fact, left and right, the same fight! Both clearly proclaimed that they had gotten themselves into a terrible, capitalist mess! What they confronted was nothing less than the question of how to build capitalism, the material foundation for socialism, which did not exist in Russia; in addition, we see the confusion that reigned: if “building socialism” is equivalent to developing the economy, then in this case Western capitalism, which is always building the economy, is also “building” socialism since it is thereby creating the material foundations of socialism! In the meantime we are treated to the strange spectacle offered by these left or right “communists” who carry out all kinds of agitation for the purpose of replacing the capitalist class in this task and who only speak of a supposedly “socialist” “primitive accumulation”, or else call for everyone to “Get Rich!” like Guizot!

In 1929 the “great turn” took place: the Stalinist leadership proclaimed the end of the N.E.P. and, in its stead, forced “collectivization” in the countryside and a five year industrialization plan. Economic development was too slow, it had to be accelerated so that industry “not only (. . .) does not fall behind the capitalist countries, but catches up to and passes them”, marshalling “every means”, especially the “iron discipline of the proletarian rank and file”,5 which clearly means: superexploitation of the workers....

By means of compulsion, the so-called Soviet Socialist Republic would strive to achieve in ten or twenty years what had taken the societies of the West several centuries to do: a primitive capitalist accumulation that led to a modern industrial society but which, instead of being left to the anarchy of the market, it would be conducted in accordance with a systematic plan for the exploitation of labor power. First, under the aegis of “collectivization”, the peasants would be violently expropriated, so that some of them could go to swell the ranks of the working class. Thus, the working class, which counted 3 million people in 1928, had more than 8 million in 1932. Marx had spoken of the violent expropriation of the peasants in England that had been written “in letters of blood and fire”. Tony Cliff was correct when he observed that, “much more blood flowed during the primitive accumulation in the U.S.S.R. than during that which took place in Great Britain. Stalin achieved in a few hundred days what England took hundreds of years to do.”6

“Man is the most precious form of capital”, Stalin said.... The formula, as cynical as it is, contains a kernel of truth: in fact, in this case it was a question of squeezing as much as possible, both in terms of intensity as well as duration, from labor power, in order to create the surplus value necessary for the accumulation of capital. For this purpose, “Stakhanovism” was invented (from the name of the miner Stakhanov), that is, a movement that, utilizing the notion of “emulation”, was intended to attain exceptional yields from labor. It was most commonly implemented as piecework wages with regularly changing quotas. Labor discipline was draconian: a labor passport system was established in 1931, and strikes were considered to be “counterrevolutionary sabotage” and were punished with the death penalty or twenty years of forced labor. It is common knowledge that women were employed in mines, construction, railroads and ports. As for the average wage, measured on the basis of the price of food products, it declined from 151.4 in 1928 to 65.5 in 1937.7 And to crown it all, the labor camps! According to Tony Cliff, in 1928 there were 30,000 detainees in the camps and work was not obligatory. In 1942 there were between 8 and 15 million; the canal to the White Sea and a section of the Trans-Siberian railroad were built by teams of deportees. As Cliff said, “the slaves in Stalin’s camps are a crude version of the ‘reserve army’ of traditional capitalism, which is to say, they serve to keep the rest of the workers in their place”.8 This is the famous “Gulag” that shady cretins and forgers have attributed to socialism!

Such is the condition of labor in the “workers’ homeland”! It was a merciless exploitation of man by man that was established there. Capitalist primitive accumulation in the West also waded through mud and blood; the looting of the colonies, the slave trade, etc., were aspects of the bloody prehistory of capital. It is therefore useless, in the West, to play at frightened and outraged innocence when, in Manchester, around 1840, the average lifespan of a worker was less than 40 years, and eight year old children went down into the mines. It would fall to the lot of the Stalinists, however, to add the horror of the crudest forgery: presenting this accumulation of capital as “socialism”. “Building socialism”—with this formula the Stalinists made people believe that socialism is a huge public enterprise, one vast quarry that will be a magnificent city, a workers’ city of course. In this way, digging canals or constructing prisons equated to “socialism”, the latter becoming a magical and providential word. “The Stakhanovist movement is distinctly soviet, distinctively socialist”, the Commissar of Heavy Industry, Ordyonikidze, was not afraid to assert. Industry=Socialism; such was the favorite equation of the Stalinists. It is the ideological exploitation of socialism in every possible way, the idea of the emancipation of the workers put at the service of their frenetic exploitation: sweat, get dirty, and suffer and thus you will prepare a “radiant future”.... Lenin too, in 1918, with the “self-sacrifice in labor”, for example, used a productivist language, but he at least did not pretend that he was talking about socialism, and openly called it what it was: State capitalism!

This forced march towards industrialization, however, was not without results: the index of production, which in 1928 was 79, surpassed 185 in 1932, and reached 429 in 1937; the third five-year plan was interrupted by the war, the fourth brought the index up to 1088 in 1950, and the fifth attained the level of 2049 in 1955. And the Stalinist sirens start singing in every key: The Victory of Socialism! Hip, hip, hurrah!

The Nature of the Stalinist Social and Economic System

Behind the facade of socialism, the Stalinists have succeeded in creating the State capitalism that Lenin advocated, but under compulsion (which explains to a great extent the brutality of the methods employed), while Lenin, in 1921, had anticipated, with the N.E.P., a much longer time frame for its realization. From a Marxist point of view, what does State capitalism mean? It is a form of capitalism that has existed in one fashion or another in western capitalism since the latter’s earliest days. Thus, Colbertism, Bonapartism, Bismarckianism, “New-Dealism”, and Keynesianism were tendencies whereby the State took over certain sectors of production and became their direct exploiter. In his time, Engels noticed this kind of capitalism and denounced attempts to assimilate it to socialism: “But neither conversion into joint stock companies [and trusts] nor conversion into state property deprives the productive forces of their character as capital.... The more productive forces it takes over into its possession, the more it becomes a real aggregate capitalist, the more citizens its exploits. The workers remain wage-workers, proletarians.”9 State capitalism is thus not a form that has been ignored by Marxism. The Stalinist system inscribed itself into this Statist tradition of capitalism. The difference, however, lies in the fact that Stalinism raised the model of the State as owner to an extreme level, making it the almost exclusive form of capitalist development in Russia, unlike the situation in the West where it was never more than complementary. This conferred upon the Stalinist system a certain economic and social specificity.

The principal originality of this Stalinist capitalism while it was being constructed was the fact that, instead of being a spontaneous product, left to the initiative of the market as was to a great extent the case in the West, it was intended to be a conscious and rational undertaking that was carried out in accordance with a precise plan: the State, by establishing the five year plans and assigning enterprises production quotas, replaced private initiative and became the great command center for economic development. This is the origin of the illusion of socialism in Russia. Didn’t socialist theory say that private property must be abolished? And didn’t it say that the anarchy of the market must be replaced with conscious regulation? As Engels said: “The proletariat seizes the public power and by virtue of this power transforms the social means of production, which are slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property (. . .). Social production in accordance with a predetermined plan now becomes possible.”10 The Stalinist system, by planning the economy as a whole, could thus pass itself off as socialist. In reality, this Stalinist planning was capitalist and not socialist; it was oriented not to the satisfaction of human needs but to economic power, to heavy industry, to which everything must be sacrificed, or in other words, to the accumulation of industrial capital, concentrated entirely in the hands of the State. To whom does this State belong? For socialist theory, “The proletariat seizes state power and to begin with transforms the means of production into state property. But it thus puts an end to itself as proletariat, it thus puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms, and thus also to the state as state”.11 The Stalinist State, however, by developing the proletariat, demonstrates that it was that “collective capitalist” that Engels referred to, the direct exploiter of the workers, never ceasing to increase its power; this means that it was in the hands of a separate class: a State bourgeoisie, more commonly called the “bureaucracy”. Since everything belonged to the State, and since the so-called “bureaucracy” controlled the State, the “bureaucracy” equates to a class that exercises its will over the means of production. Under what form? Not, certainly, under the form of private property as it existed under classical capitalism, so that each member of this State bourgeoisie would be in charge of a piece of State property; instead, this kind of bourgeoisie collectively holds title to this property, and only disposes of control over it, from which the workers, reduced to simple executors, are in fact excluded.

The behavior of this State capitalism displays a certain number of anomalies compared to classical capitalism. Thus, since private property in the means of production has, so to speak, disappeared, the free market, with its corollary, competition among independent enterprises, no longer exists; as a result, the law of value cannot fully operate, since prices are fixed by the State. Likewise, in the absence of competition among enterprises, when an enterprise is badly managed, “the only means,” as Tony Cliff writes, “that remains to the bureaucracy for assuring the efficiency of production is terror against individual bureaucrats”.12 In other words, instead of an economic sanction being applied, as in classical capitalism (in which some bankrupt capitalists can find themselves ruined overnight), it is a political sanction that is inflicted on those responsible.

We cannot, however, allow these anomalies to lead us to believe that we are dealing with a wholly new mode of production that succeeds capitalism, as some authors have claimed.13 The Stalinist system is certainly related to capitalism, but to a capitalism that is still under construction (which is therefore unable to fully reproduce its complete model, Western capitalism), and encounters its raison d’être wherever a traditional bourgeoisie is lacking. This was especially true of semi-Asiatic Russia which did not have the historical experience of the gradual development of a mercantile bourgeoisie that would play an increasingly important role in economic life and ultimately acquire hegemony over it, as had happened in the West. Hence the role of the State as the decisive factor in economic development, as Stalinist Russia inaugurated a model of capitalism that would later be found in a whole series of third world countries: on the Asian continent, in China, North Korea and North Vietnam, which adopted the model of State capitalism for their own use; and also, to various degrees, in North Africa (Algeria), in Sub-Saharan Africa (Guinea, Mozambique and Angola), in the Middle East (Nasser’s Egypt, Syria and Iraq) and even in Latin America (Cuba). The Stalinist model thus acquired a kind of international recognition. Under the ideological aegis of an alleged Marxism-Leninism, one could cheaply boast of the existence of a “socialist camp” that was supported by the achievements of the Soviet Union, which became the world’s number two industrial power by the late 1950s.

False Communism: The Balance Sheet

The Russian State bourgeoisie, with its State capitalism, stoked the fires of the dream of “reaching and overtaking” the Western countries. If at one time it seemed that, with growth rates that were higher than those of the West, it qualified as a dangerous rival, today it no longer arouses such illusions, its economic system having demonstrated all its limitations, as would later be seen. This does not obviate the fact that there was a time when such false communism was functioning at full capacity ideologically, and when one would be immediately denounced as “reactionary”, “bourgeois” or with some other infamous insult, if one expressed any doubts about it, when it unleashed a wide range of methods of ideological terrorism of the first order. Far away where “a new world” was being built, socialism ... , communism . . ., with the “little father of the peoples”, Stalin, as the master architect. And western workers, intellectuals, artists, humanists and progressives went there to see the results. They returned, if not joyful and spellbound, then at least confident in the future: socialism would soon be fully realized, it was only a question of time, and then the entire world, in admiration, would ultimately merge with its peerless model.... Today, Stalinism has become an object of horror, and wonder is often expressed regarding how it could have provoked such “blindness” on the part of intellectuals and its other admirers during that era. The Stalinist model aroused so much celebration in the West because of the reformist idea that “socialism” was being created there: a State-organized capitalism that puts an end to the anarchy of the market and implements its benevolent social reforms. This is why almost the whole organized workers movement in Europe (and with it, its inevitable “progressive” fellow travelers), whose deepest inclination, as we saw above, was not revolutionary, more or less accepted Stalinism, having bought into the reformist myth. A myth that consequently must not be criticized, under penalty of being denounced as a “traitor” or a “Hitlerite-Trotskyist Hyena”, since by doubting Stalinism one also questioned all reformist illusions. Obviously, if the proletariat had been revolutionary, matters would have proceeded differently. Stalinism would have been denounced immediately as a false communism, as a vile opportunism that formally laid claim to, but did nothing but betray and discredit Marxism and communism by its actions. Apart from a few isolated voices that were quickly drowned out, no sufficiently powerful force existed in the proletariat that could make it possible for such talk to be heard. Instead, what prevailed was stupid adulation of a regime that had nothing communist about it except its name. And one of the worst mystifications in history began. How could it be forgotten that it was in the Lenin shipyards, and the Paris Commune and October 17 factories, where the most pitiless instances of the exploitation of man by man took place? Or that it was at the Karl Marx stadiums, the Friedrich Engels avenues and various Red Squares that the most incredible “socialist” political masquerades were staged? Not even Spartacus, the rebel slave, was spared: wasn’t the term “Spartakiads” used to designate the imbecilic sports extravaganzas staged in imitation of the Olympics of the Western bourgeoisie? In fact, it was the entire revolutionary tradition that was mutilated and subjected to ridicule: in the hands of the Stalinists, it became a convenient bludgeon at the service of the world bourgeoisie—socialism, why that’s the Gulag! A totalitarian utopia! Today, the iron curtain has been torn down, Lenin’s statues have been overthrown, the red flag has been tossed in the dumpster, “Marxism-Leninism” renounced, the “communist” party dissolved. Who regrets this? It was all nothing but a comedy, a hoax, a deceit, and a caricature. Nonetheless, we still hear talk of the “seventy years of communism” that supposedly existed. The real question is therefore, what allowed such mystification to reign? How is it possible that history has produced this false communism?

  • 1. Pierre Broué, The Bolshevik Party, Ed. Minuit, Paris, 1972, p. 164. The relevant chapter (Chapter VII: “The Crisis of 1921”) available online in English at: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1971/ussr/ch07.htm
  • 2. Quoted by Pierre Broué, ibid., p. 175.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 175.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 302.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 290.
  • 6. Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in the USSR from Stalin to Gorbachev, E.D.I., Paris, 1990, p. 52. Originally published as State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks Press, London, 1988.
  • 7. Ibid., p. 39.
  • 8. Ibid., p. 32.
  • 9. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976, p. 360.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 369.
  • 11. Frederick Engels, op. cit., p. 362.
  • 12. Tony Cliff, op. cit., p. 206.
  • 13. Bruno Rizzi, L’U.R.S.S., Collectivisme Bureaucratique: La Propriete De Class, Ed. Champ Libre, Paris, 1976. An English translation is available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/rizzi/bureaucratisation/index.htm