Socialism Betrayed, By Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny

Excerpts from chapter 2: Two Trends in Soviet Politics

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not occur because of an internal economic crisis or popular uprising. It occurred because of the reforms initiated at the top by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev… (p. 15-16)

Outsiders commonly assumed that because the Soviet Union had only one party, political thought was monolithic and political debate non-existent. This was far from true. Starting before the revolution, the Soviet Communist Party contained more than one tendency or trend. Gorbachev did not invent his policies out of whole cloth, but rather his policies reflected trends in the Party that had earlier been represented in part by Nikolai Bukharin, Nikita Khrushchev, and others. Just as Gorbachev’s ideas did not arise in a political vacuum, neither did they arise in a socio-economic vacuum. That is, Gorbachev’s political ideas reflected social and economic interests. Gorbachev’s reforms after 1986 reflected the interests of those in Soviet society with a stake in private enterprise and the “free market.” This sector consisted of entrepreneurs and corrupt Party officials whose numbers had increased during the previous thirty years.

Before proceeding, a word of clarification is necessary. Though a continuity existed in the approach of Bukharin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, the problems they confronted, the social basis of their support, and the policies they advocated differed. For example, in the 1920s, the largest social group with an interest in private enterprise was the peasantry, which constituted a distinct class representing about 80 percent of the population. By the 1970s only 20 percent of the population worked in agriculture, and most of these were agricultural workers on state farms or collective farms. By then the social group with a stake in private enterprise had become the petty entrepreneurs in the second economy. Such elements had thrived under the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s, shrank drastically with the collectivization of property under Joseph Stalin, re-emerged under Khrushchev’s so-called liberalization, increased greatly in size under Leonid Brezhnev’s laxness, and ballooned under Gorbachev’s reforms. In another difference, the agricultural question, which was so prominent in Bukharin’s championing of the kulaks, and in various Khrushchev policies, did not figure prominently in Gorbachev’s program. Moreover, Gorbachev’s foreign policy retreats, cultural liberalization, weakening of the Party, and market initiatives went to lengths never contemplated by his precursors.
In the politics of the Russian revolution, two poles or tendencies arose because the winners of the Russian Revolution were two classes: the working class and the petty bourgeoisie, chiefly the peasantry. In 1917 the Soviet working class was small, and in the decades after 1917, tens of millions of peasants were the human material that would make up the new, growing Soviet working class. As these two classes persisted so did two political tendencies that more or less reflected their class interests. In the 1920s, both tendencies ostensibly favored building socialism. The working-class tendency, however, favored policies that strengthened the working class by rapidly building up industry and weakened the property-owning classes by collectivizing agriculture, and policies that strengthened the role of the Communist Party particularly in centralized economic planning. The petty-bourgeois tendency favored building socialism slowly by maintaining or incorporating aspects of capitalism, for example maintaining private property, competitive markets, and profit incentives. Though not all political ideas fell neatly into one or the other category, nonetheless, these categories provided the poles around which the variety often pivoted. This was evident in the early debate over the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Pause for Questions

In late 1920 and early 1921, with the country freed of foreign invaders, Lenin and other leaders of the revolution turned their attention from war to peace. They needed to replace the policies of “war communism,” particularly the forceful appropriation of surplus grain that had alienated many peasants. They had to grapple with acute shortages of fuel, food, and transportation, to revive industry and food production, and ensure the unity between workers and peasants. In March 1921 at the Tenth Congress of the Bolshevik Party, Lenin proposed what became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). It was a “strategic retreat,” a chance to regroup and lay the foundations for a future march toward socialism. Under the NEP, a tax in kind replaced the appropriation of peasant grain. Peasants could engage in free trade to sell their surplus, and various other kinds of capitalist enterprises could exist. The idea was that the NEP would encourage the peasants to produce more, and the state could use taxes on peasant produce to revive the state-owned industry. Debate soon arose. The “Lefts” called the NEP a capitulation to capitalism that would doom the Soviet project. On the other end of the spectrum, Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, and others thought the NEP was too tame and advocated even more far-reaching concessions to capitalism. Lenin agreed that the NEP represented a danger. It means “unrestricted trade,” he said, “and that means turning back towards capitalism.” Still, he thought the Party could handle the danger by limiting the retreat and keeping it temporary. Lenin prevailed.

By the time of Lenin’s death in 1924, the revolution had seized state power and consolidated its hold, had defeated invading imperialist armies and the domestic counterrevolution, had nationalized key industries, had distributed land to the peasants, and had revitalized industry and food production. Originally, all leading Communists thought that completing the socialist revolution in a backward, peasant country like Russia would be impossible without revolutions in the West. With the defeat of an uprising of the German workers in 1923, however, it became clear that no European revolution was on the horizon. With no European revolution to count on, what was to be done? Three solutions presented themselves: Leon Trotsky’s, Nikolai Bukharin’s, and Joseph Stalin’s.

Leon Trotsky advocated an attempt to build socialism at home while continuing to press for socialist revolution abroad. Domestically, he urged the development of industry, the collectivization and mechanization of agriculture, and the development of economic planning. Above all, however, and with increasing stridency, Trotsky stressed the need for international revolution as the only hope for Russia to escape from what he called bureaucratic degeneration and the loss of revolutionary fervor. Trotsky and the Left Opposition were decisively defeated at the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925, which adopted a course of rapid industrialization and self-sufficiency.

Pause for Questions

Nikolai Bukharin represented a petty-bourgeois or rightwing solution to socialism’s way forward. Barrington Moore pointed out that unlike Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, Bukharin never held a high administrative post with major organizational responsibilities. As editor of Pravda and an official of the Comintern, he manipulated “symbols rather than men.” Moreover, as a theoretician, he moved from the “extreme left to the extreme right of the Communist political spectrum.” By the 1920s, he was firmly on the right. He believed that Russia could not skip the stage of capitalism or even pass through it quickly. As Moore said, Bukharin’s positions “strongly resembled the gradualist views of Western Social Democracy.” He softened the idea of class struggle, to the idea of a peaceful contest between competing interest groups, between state industry and private industry, between cooperative farms and private farms, in which the former would gradually show their superiority. Whereas Lenin, the originator of the New Economic Policy, had frankly viewed it as a retreat, Bukharin viewed the NEP as the road to socialism. He would have continued the New Economic Policy and allowed or even encouraged private enterprise, particularly among the kulaks. Bukharin opposed rapid industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and any coercion of the peasants. Instead, he said the peasants should be given what they wanted, and he advanced a slogan for the peasants, “Enrich yourselves.” In a kind of pale imitation of Trotsky’s vain hope in socialist revolutions abroad, Bukharin sought to obtain support for the Soviet Union from non-Communist groups abroad, hopes that were dashed by the failure in 1926-27 to win the support of British trade unionists, German Social Democrats, and Chinese nationalists. Bukharin and the Right Opposition were rebuffed by the Fifteenth Party Congress in 1927 that adopted a policy of promoting the collectivization of agriculture. (Sixty years later, Gorbachev read a biography of Bukharin by historian Stephen F. Cohen. According to Gorbachev’s close advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, it was then that Gorbachev decided to rehabilitate Bukharin, and the re-evaluation of Bukharin “opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.”

In the course of debates with Trotsky and Bukharin, Stalin developed his own solution to socialism’s way forward. It had four main components. First was the idea that socialism could be built in one country, a reiteration of Lenin’s 1915 idea that “the victory of socialism” was possible “even in one single capitalist country.” In the 1920s, Stalin translated this idea into a program. Stalin argued that the Soviet Union could advance toward socialism without a revolution in the West, without help from non-Communist allies abroad, and without passing through developed capitalism, providing that the country industrialized rapidly. This was the second component. Industrialization required financing. Since the self-financing of industry would be slow, and financing by foreign investment was impossible, the growth of industry would have to be financed by increasing agricultural yields. Hence rapid industrialization required the development of large-scale collective farms utilizing mechanized production. This was the third component. The coordination of industrial growth and agricultural production demanded centralized planning, the fourth component. British historian, E. H. Carr, called this formulation of the problem and its solution proof of “ Stalin’s political genius.” With these ideas, Stalin defeated first Trotsky and then Bukharin. Moreover, as Carr noted, he saved the revolution: “More than ten years after Lenin’s revolution, Stalin made a second revolution without which Lenin’s revolution would have run out into the sand. In this sense, Stalin continued and fulfilled Leninism.”

Pause for Questions

Underneath the policy differences between Stalin and Bukharin resided more fundamental differences. Bukharin thought that class struggle was only needed until the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Though Stalin did not (as many have asserted) maintain that the class struggle in general intensified as socialism developed, he did argue that class struggle would intensify specifically as the country moved from the NEP toward collectivization. Bukharin viewed the NEP concessions to the peasants, the market, and capitalism as a long-term policy; Stalin viewed them as a temporary expedient that the revolution had to jettison when able. During the grain crisis of 1927-28, Bukharin wanted to rely on the free market and to encourage peasants to grow more grain by offering them more consumer goods. Even with the threat of impending war, Bukharin opposed speeding up industrialization if it meant adversely affecting the peasants. For Stalin, impending war provided an additional reason for speeding industrialization even if it meant exacting surplus from the peasants to finance it, and he dismissed Bukharin as one of the “peasant philosophers…” (pp. 16-21)

During the NEP, Stalin faced a different problem than had Lenin before 1919. The NEP encouraged the development of petty capitalists, or what Stalin called the “middle strata” consisting of the peasantry and “petty toiling population of the towns.” These middle strata constituted nine-tenths of the population of the “oppressed nationalities,” and they were particularly susceptible to nationalist appeals. The development of nationalism in these strata constituted a real threat to the consolidation of the proletarian dictatorship whose basis was “mainly and primarily of the central, the industrial regions.” Consequently, Stalin urged a struggle against “the nationalist tendencies which are developing and becoming accentuated in connection with the New Economic Policy.” Stalin’s main opposition on this point came from Bukharin, who in 1919 had made an about-face from opposing self-determination to embracing it. By 1923, Bukharin not only supported the NEP and the petty capitalists created by it but also advocated a hands-off approach toward this class’s growing nationalism. Stalin noted that Bukharin had gone from one extreme to the other, from denying the right of self-determination to supporting it one-sidely. What remained the same, however, was Bukharin’s failure to accord nationalism sufficient importance, his failure to appreciate either its potential support of–or its potential danger to–the revolution, and his reluctance to struggle with nationalists who opposed socialist development. (pp. 16-24)

Pause for Questions

With Stalin’s death in 1953, the political struggles over the direction of socialism continued. (p. 27)

Highly impulsive and sometimes inconsistent, Khrushchev represented an approach to building socialism that often resembled Bukharin and Andrei Zhdanov and foreshadowed Gorbachev. This approach cut across the entire spectrum of issues from ideology to agriculture, foreign affairs, economics, culture, and the operation of the Party. Though it is important to appreciate the continuity of certain ideas in the history of the CPSU, obviously the value of any particular policy depended upon its success in defending or advancing socialism at a particular time and under particular circumstances. Most would agree, for example, that Khrushchev’s advancement of the idea of peaceful co-existence and his reduction of Soviet military ground forces represented appropriate and successful policies, whatever their lineage. Others of his ideas were more dubious. Both before Khrushchev consolidated his hold on the Party in 1957, Vyacheslav Molotov and others opposed the main thrust of his policies, and in 1964 after forcing Khrushchev into retirement, the Party reversed many of his initiatives. Khrushchev’s ideas, however, did not disappear entirely and would flower again under Gorbachev.

The best way to understand the differences between the thrust of Khrushchev’s policies and those of his critics, like Molotov, (as well as Gorbachev’s policies and his critics like Yegor Ligachev), was to see them as polarities even though in practice the differences sometimes amounted to matters of emphasis. For example, Khrushchev believed in a quick and easy path to communism, while his critics projected a more protracted and difficult road. Khrushchev looked for an “easing of the contest” with the U.S. and its allies abroad and “political relaxation” and “consumer communism” at home. His critics saw a continuation of class struggle abroad and the need for vigilance and discipline at home. Khrushchev saw more in Stalin to condemn than to praise; Molotov and others more to praise than condemn. Khrushchev favored incorporating a range of capitalist or Western ideas into socialism, including market mechanisms, decentralization, some private production, the heavy reliance on fertilizer and the cultivation of corn, and increased investment in consumer goods. Molotov favored improved centralized planning and socialized ownership, and continuing the priority of industrial development. Khrushchev favored broadening the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the proletarian vanguard role of the Communist Party to put other sectors of the population on an equal footing with workers; his critics did not. (pp. 28-29)

In 1953, Khrushchev initiated a set of policies that proved to be problematic both ideologically and practically. Khrushchev encouraged the country to look to the West not only as a source of new methods of production but as a standard of comparison for Soviet achievements. He also shifted resources from industry to agriculture. To encourage agricultural production, Khrushchev reverted to NEP-type measures. He reduced taxes on individual plots, eliminated taxes on individual livestock, and encouraged people in villages and towns to keep more privately owned cows, pigs, and chickens and to cultivate private gardens. Khrushchev also came up with a brainstorm for boosting agricultural production overnight. In January 1954, he proposed a nationwide campaign to cultivate millions of hectares of so-called virgin lands mainly in Siberia and Kazakhstan. That year 300,000 volunteers joined the virgin lands campaign and plowed 13 million hectares of new land. The following year’s effort added another 14 million hectares of cultivated land. (p. 30)

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