Many people today are interested in a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. But they often worry that socialism is associated with the brutality of Stalinism, a system which dominated Russia and Eastern Europe for much of the 20th century and that was no better than Western capitalism.
As a new generation takes to the streets against war and racism, the legacy of Stalinism continues to influence current debates.
Joseph Stalin’s Russia claimed to be the expression of Marxism. But despite its rhetoric, this was a system that had nothing to do with socialism.
Today, we don’t judge the governments of Tony Blair and George Bush by the words they spout about democracy, but by their actions. Similarly, Stalinism had nothing to do with the socialism envisioned by the socialist thinkers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.
Stalin was responsible for seeing through a transition from a system founded on the principles of workers’ democracy, to one of brutal and systematic exploitation and repression.
The Russian revolution of 1917 inspired workers and the poor around the world. It was the first revolution in a major country inspired by the ideas of Marx and Engels.
The old Tsarist state was eliminated in the revolution, and the old elite was finally defeated in the civil war that followed.
The landlords and the private industrial capitalist class were completely turned over by a mass popular government led by workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils.
These councils, referred to in Russian as “soviets”, were the kernel of a new, genuinely democratic workers’ state. Through the soviets, workers could manage society in their interests, and begin the task of the construction of socialism.
Rather than producing for profit, production was determined by need. Soviet delegates were subject to recall at any point by majority decision.
The Russian revolution was also the most successful peace movement in the world, ending the First World War on the Eastern front. It gave hope that there was a real alternative to the barbarism of capitalism and imperialism.
Stalin’s counter-revolution took place from the mid-1920s onwards, after the death of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. Russia was left politically and economically isolated as the revolutionary movement failed to break through in other countries.
Western intervention and resistance from right wing groups led to a brutal civil war in which the Russian working class, who had made the revolution, was decimated.
This allowed a new layer of bureaucrats to collect around Stalin and begin to dominate the state. They argued the need for, and the possibility of, building “socialism in one country”, a theory alien to the internationalist socialist movement.
The great lie
A system of state capitalism emerged in the Soviet Union claiming to be socialist. This later became a model internationally, copied in Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere.
In state capitalism, the state, rather than private capitalists, accumulate capital and compete for profits on the global market.
The counter-revolution was led by a state bureaucracy that played the role of a new capitalist class.
Over several years, and in conditions of extreme isolation and weakness of post-revolutionary Russia, a new class asserted itself against the workers.
Tragically Stalinism destroyed the gains of the Russian workers’ revolution.
The decisive shift toward the profit motive and the drive for capital accumulation took place in the year 1928, when the first “Five Year Plan” was presented.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Russian bureaucracy consciously asserted itself as a new state capitalist ruling class.
Leaders of the Bolsheviks who had led the revolutionary challenge to Tsarism were discredited, locked up, exiled and killed.
Peasants were torn from their land, forced into labour camps, facing torture and death if they resisted.
In the towns, workers were denied the right to strike and trade unions lost any independence from the state. Instead, they became enforcers of production quotas to further state accumulation.
Even during the early 1920s when Russia was isolated by sanctions from world capitalism, the Bolsheviks had insisted on the independence of the trade unions from the state and local workplace managers.
Then a three-person committee - consisting of the party local unit, the workers’ plant committee, and a technical manager under the workers’ direction - had worked together to affect workplace policy.
But with the Five Year Plan, the role of workers was eliminated. Instead, the individual managers were to act solely according to the production quotas set by the central bureaucracy.
Stalinism in Russia continued for 60 years, even after Stalin’s death in 1953. It ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Capitalism continues in Russia and eastern Europe in another form, but the ruling class no longer claims that the system is Marxist.
State capitalism in the Soviet Union was not identical to capitalism in the US or other Western states. The economy was “planned” in a certain way.
But despite the recurrent five year plans, each production target was set reactively, in response to the military arms race with the West.
All property was nationalised. There was no class of private capitalists. But it was capitalism nonetheless.
Military expansion was absolutely central to the Stalinist project. It was threatened by the Great Powers of the world, including Britain and Germany. This expansion meant massive exploitation of the workers.
The rate of exploitation was determined by competing - gun for gun, bullet for bullet, bomb for bomb - with the largest capitalist power in the world at the time, the US.
This global military competition established the ground for the Cold War. The destruction of the Russian Revolution turned the hope offered by socialism to millions around the world to despair and confusion.
Communist Parties internationally attracted the most dedicated activists and radical writers in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.
But by the late 1920s their leaderships were forced to serve as the foreign policy diplomats of Stalinist Russia or face severe criticism and expulsion.
Communist Parties in China, Germany, Spain, Cuba and elsewhere, tragically betrayed revolutionary prospects for workers’ power.
Clarity about the Russian revolution, its rise and its demise, is critical to what we do today.
Tony Cliff, founder of the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialist Tendency, developed a Marxist analysis of Stalinism in a book titled State Capitalism in Russia, originally written in 1947. The text is available on www.marxists.org/archive/cliff
Seeing the class contradictions inside the Soviet Union was like a beacon of light in a dark tunnel.
It allowed a small minority of socialists in the West to retain, in very difficult circumstances, the real meaning of Marxism - a realistic science of human freedom, based on the self-emancipation of the working class.
Stalinism today is certainly much less influential than in the decades of the Cold War. But the legacy of Stalinism still weighs heavily.
A vision of human emancipation as embracing as that inspired by the early years of the Russian Revolution has largely been lost on the left.
Commonly, debates about socialism are not based on imagining the possible and thinking about the potential of humanity freed from the dictates of capitalism. Instead, they are about pointing to examples of “really existing socialism”.
There is little focus on the contradictions of capitalism, and the potential of the mass of workers and the poor to change the world and create something new and different.
When people talk of a socialist alternative, usually the examples of Fidel Castro’s Cuba or Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela are held up as the models. These are states that have boldly stood up against US imperialism. Their inspiration to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements has been profound.
But no one can deny the ongoing threat of George Bush’s military machine in determining the policies of even the most radical governments in Latin America.
Socialism as Marx explained it is something very different. It is a world free of such threats, where the US working class and those of Cuba and Venezuela and around the world, organise society collectively in the interests of human need.
Karl Marx’s original framework suggests a concept of freedom, or emancipation, that is based on the revolutionary transformation of every aspect of society.
Along with his lifelong collaborator Engels, Marx maintained that human freedom depended upon the elimination of exploitation. It was about changing the material conditions of life.
This is not simply about the redistribution of wealth. The struggle for socialism also aims to unleash the potential of humanity.
This means reclaiming the capacity for conscious, creative, productive work, and the potential for human relations devoid of oppression and alienation.
The revolutionary challenge against capitalism must come from below. The outcome of the revolution for Marx and Engels was not separated from the process - the conscious, collective resistance to exploitation under the conditions of capitalism.
This was also the vision of the early Bolsheviks. It is preserved in the history of the revolutionary period of Russia before the defeat that was Stalinism.
Stalinism robbed much of the socialist movement of this vision. But today we have the capacity, and the responsibility, to bring it back.
We can reclaim a vision of socialism that points to a new and better world, one that is both realistic and in no way similar to Stalinism.
Abbie Bakan is a professor of political studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in Canada. She is a member of the Canadian International Socialists and author of a number of books including Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica