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Tyranny toppled by its victims

This article is over 18 years, 10 months old
Hazel Croft looks at how Stalin's empire was brought down
Issue 1841

THOSE SEEKING to justify war argue that dictators like Saddam Hussein can only be overthrown by military intervention coming from outside their country. But there are many examples of tyrants being overthrown by their own populations.

A dictator much worse than Saddam Hussein died 50 years ago this week. Joseph Stalin definitely had nuclear weapons and caused the deaths of millions of Russians.

He used the bloodiest methods to overthrow one of the most inspiring and democratic revolutions in working class history. This revolution took place in Russia in 1917. It was a mass rising of workers and peasants, a ‘festival of the oppressed’. The revolution ushered in a host of new freedoms, and it offered the hope of an end to exploitation and oppression.

There was a flourishing of debate and discussion in every area of life – in politics, art, science, music, education. Stalin did not represent the continuation of this revolution. On the contrary, he was its gravedigger.

The two greatest leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, always insisted that the revolution’s survival depended on a successful revolution in an advanced country. Revolutionary Russia battled against huge odds to survive in the hope of revolution abroad coming to its aid.

A wave of revolutions swept Europe in the wake of 1917, most importantly in Germany. Tragically, they were defeated. It was on these ruins that a new ruling class emerged, centred on a growing layer of bureaucrats around Stalin.

He conducted a counter-revolution to consolidate his rule and to wipe out the memory of the liberation in 1917. Stalin viciously exploited workers and crushed dissent. He smashed peasants’ control of the land through forced collectivisation which led to the deaths of millions.

Stalin physically annihilated the generation that had made the 1917 revolution, through show trials and mass executions. Millions more were condemned to the living hell of the ‘gulag’, Stalin’s vast system of slave labour camps.

When Stalin died in 1953 he had wielded power for a quarter of a century. His regime was seen as monolithic and unchallengeable. Russian military might had established state capitalist regimes across Eastern Europe. In these countries the state organised the exploitation of workers as brutally as private companies did in the West.

But there were huge tensions beneath the surface of Stalin’s regime which emerged soon after his death.

Revolts erupted across Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself. In June 1953 an uprising erupted in the Stalinist state of East Germany. A walkout by building workers in East Berlin sparked a wave of strikes and demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the city. Demonstrators broke into jails, and attacked police stations and Communist Party offices. It took the intervention of Russian troops to put down the rising. There were also revolts in the Soviet Union itself – at the heart of the ‘gulag’ system.

In May 1953 20,000 prisoners in the Norilsk camps went on strike. And in July prisoners at the giant slave labour camp in Vorkuta also struck. The prisoners demanded political freedom and improved conditions. They set up strike committees, produced propaganda and even put on shows and political theatre. The government could only quell the revolt by sending troops in to shoot prisoners’ leaders.

Although the regime crushed the revolts, it was terrified. It was forced to release 90 percent of camp prisoners in the next two years. Just three years later in 1956 there was an uprising in Poland, which shook the regime to the core.

Then in October 1956 the people of Hungary rose up in what was one of the great revolutions of the 20th century.

The insurrection swept the old government from office and could only be crushed by the might of the Russian army. Workers occupied the factories and offices and fought back with incredible bravery against the Russian tanks ranged against them.

The Hungarian workers lost, but their revolution cracked apart the image of the seemingly invincible monolith of the USSR and Eastern Europe. Revolt broke out in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was only crushed by a Russian invasion.

In 1980-1 a revolutionary upsurge of workers’ struggle in Poland, led by Solidarity, shook leaders across Eastern Europe to the core. And in 1989 revolutions did what many believed to be impossible and toppled the Stalinist Eastern European regimes one by one. The 1989 revolutions got rid of the lie that the Stalinist regimes had anything to do with socialism.

They showed that even the most repressive and tightly controlled regimes can be broken by struggle from below.

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