On the End of Stalinism

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

David Finkel

OF THE MANY important issues posed in Ellen Poteet’s letter I would like to comment briefly on only a couple: the character of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the relationship of the collapse of bureaucratic rule in the East to the class struggle and the left in the West.

When our editorial labelled the CPSU “neither communist nor a party, but the political machine of Stalin’s counterrevolution and its bureaucracy,” we meant two things in particular. First, the Communist Party had declared itself—through police repression, then through mass terror and totalitarian mobilizations, finally by an official monopoly on means of communication, organization and intellectual production—to be the only party in Soviet society.

Second, where there is only one party in society there are actually none. Parties in any meaningful sense exist only in the context of struggle and debate against other parties, representing or trying to represent social forces or sections or currents within them. The Bolshevik Party of Lenin’s time, whatever positive or negative balance sheet you choose to draw on it,(1) was such a party; under Stalin its character was transformed in a qualitative and counterrevolutionary manner.

In a single-party state the “party” does not owe its loyalty to the working class or any other class; rather it demands loyalty from all of them, enforcing that claim with patronage and police methods.(2) For this reason, I must emphatically insist that the claim that “party elites were inimical to a socialist reality, but … at some level answerable to a social order fighting capitalism” runs the risk of mystifying things.

Thus, while Ellen is absolutely on target in stating that “One of the great dangers posed by Yeltsin’s power is his independence from an organizational commitment,” it should not surprise us at all that Yeltsin comes precisely from a lifelong career in the party apparatus.

Yeltsin’s transition, and that of many bureaucrats turned supporters of authoritarian capitalism, was easy: He had only to break his organizational commitment to the CP. He did not have to break any commitment to the working class, because there was none to break, indeed, by breaking from the hated party apparatus he has enhanced his standing among most sectors of Soviet society, including many workers.

It is the rule of this self-proclaimed “leading party,” in the name of socialism, that has made “19th century liberalism and capitalist individualism” seem highly attractive to many of those in Soviet and Eastern European societies who will be capitalism’s very first victims. All this should, at the very least, put heavy qualifiers around Ellen’s claim that the CPSU “represented, at least, a bulwark against a capitalist order.”

It’s also true that the bureaucracy was not “monolithic.” Yet its own operating principles demanded that it present a monolithic face to the society of which it was the self-proclaimed “leading force.” And our statement suggested, it was precisely the disappearance of this “unanimity” that marked the onset of disintegration of the party and of the bureaucratic system itself.

Regarding the even greater complexities of the consequences of the collapse of the USSR for Third World and Western class struggles, I think that Ellen’s own phrase is the key one: “Independently of the events of August,” the Third World is undergoing a massive capitalist catastrophe, a collapse of the economy and of society much worse than the crisis of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The disintegration of Stalinism affects the Third World crisis, but obviously doesn’t cause it.

For those national liberation struggles seeking a way out of that catastrophe, the Soviet Union admittedly was often of real practical assistance;(3) yet the grip of Stalinist politics as well as the very tangible presence of the KGB in those struggles also helped make socialist revolution impossible.

I have no quarrel with those workers and peasants in struggle in Latin America, Africa or Asia who are horrified by the disappearance of the only friend they thought they had. I do take issue with those well-educated revolutionary intellectuals in the Third World whose ideological orientations and refusal to seriously examine the class realities of “existing socialism” made their movements’ dependence on the Soviet model even deeper, and therefore the present disillusionment more crippling, than was objectively necessary.

Even less excusable are the politics of those leftists in the Western industrial countries who concocted fantasies of a Soviet Third World revolutionary bloc.

The real tragedy is not the smashup of the bureaucratic party-state system, but the fact that the workers’ movements in the West—the mass labor movements and the radical left alike—are in deep retreat, unable to mobilize resistance to the employer and state attacks at home, let alone offer to the workers of the East a practical vision of the struggle for authentic socialism or to rise to the enormous tasks of solidarity in defense of the Third World.

The responsibility of today’s left is to build mass movements that can take up those challenges. Can we do it? Let’s find out; but a left that cannot survive the collapse of Stalinism deserves to die.


  1. Assessments of the Bolshevik record in power will be the subject of a symposium “Before Stalinism” in these pages and are beyond the scope of these brief comments.
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  2. This political dynamic holds roughly true whether in a non-capitalist bureaucratic totalitarian setup as existed in the USSR, or in a capitalist state like Iraq under Baathist rule, despite many other differences between them. It may also be worth exploring, in some other context, to what degree the absence of fundamental differences between the two bourgeois parties in the USA has taken us toward not only a kind of “one-party” system but a virtually degenerate “no-party” one.
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  3. But not always: The most tenacious revolutionary-led national liberation movement in Africa—Eritrea—finally won its struggle in 1991 without any help from the USSR, and in fact partly because the Soviet collapse made it impossible for the Soviet military to continue propping up the Ethiopian military dictatorship.
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January-February 1992, ATC 36