By Richard McEwan
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The Leap Backwards

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
Review of 'Stalinism', Ed: David L Hoffman, Blackwell £15.99
Issue 271

The history of the revolution in Russia in 1917 and its ultimate defeat provide important lessons for those seeking a socialist alternative to capitalism.This textbook, intended for students, is a collection of 12 essays from leading international Russian historians. The aim is to provide different interpretations for the rise of Stalin. In particular it seeks to address why the October Revolution led to a dictatorship instead of a communist utopia.

Martin Malia’s essay ‘The Soviet Tragedy’ analyses socialist ideology to understand the origins of Stalinism. He argues that the suppression of private property, profit and the market meant that socialism or ‘non-capitalism’ was achieved in Russia. Stalin had delivered ‘the instrumental programme of socialism’, but lacked the moral programme of equality and material abundance socialism had promised. This, we are told, meant that Lenin and Stalin continued of the legacy of the Russian autocracy.

In fact the consolidation of Stalinism from the late 1920s saw Russian class relations based on the same exploitation we see under capitalism. Private property was legally abolished, but exploitation and the accumulation of profit continued. This was a form of capitalism, only the state acted in the place of individual capitalists to control production. It was state capitalism. The possibility that the 1917 revolution was overturned and Stalinism was a break from Lenin and the gains of the revolution is hardly entertained in this book.

An essay by Gail Lapidus called ‘Women in Soviet Society’, discusses the consequences for women and national minorities under Stalin. This essay is by far the best of the book. One important aspiration for women was liberation from the bondage of the family. The Russian Revolution saw men and women unite in the struggle as a class. The gains of the revolution for women cannot be understated. For example, the right to abortion and divorce–a demand passed through soviets (workers’ councils)–was unparalleled anywhere else.

By the time of the First Five-Year Plan and collectivisation, when the Stalinist bureaucracy was consolidated as a class, there was little social provision for childcare. The author demonstrates how Stalin used the rhetoric of emancipation to make women work, and consciously reinstated the family. Women were subordinated to reproducing a new labour force by the demand for rapid industrialisation. The right to abortion was revoked as women’s role in industry mushroomed. The regime calculated that this double burden of work and child-rearing would be the bedrock for the expansion of industry in Russia.

Stalin was able to forge a bureaucracy around him that began to act as a class in the 1920s as the revolutionary tide in Europe receded, destroying all the gains of the revolution. This book fails to provide interpretations of why the revolution was defeated and Stalin formed a dictatorship. For example it doesn’t look at the possibilities of a different outcome had the German Revolution succeeded. Nor does it examine Trotsky’s and the Left Opposition’s fight against Stalinism.

You will have to look elsewhere to find a real explanation for the rise of Stalinism as this book mystifies the question of revolution, and does not help us to draw the lessons against counter-revolution.

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