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Socialism didn't fail, Stalinism did!

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The great financial crisis has revealed the instability of the capitalist system to millions around the world.

Many workers and youth are now asking: is this really the best possible economic system?  Is there an alternative?

The alternative to capitalism is, of course, socialism. But has the experience of the 20th century, and of the collapse of the USSR, proved socialism to be impossible? Did socialism fail?

It seems obvious at firsat sight that in place of production for profit in a private market, production could be planned and run democratically to meet the needs of all. This is what socialism means. It is what Karl Marx, in his book The Civil War in France, called the "united cooperative societies, regulating production upon a common plan". A society organised along these lines was the goal of the revolutionaries in Russia, like Lenin and Trotsky, who led a mass movement that overthrew capitalism in 1917 and founded the Soviet Union.

Today, forced to explain away the obvious failures of capitalism, the ruling class argue that, whatever the problems with capitalism, the bottom line is that socialism failed in Russia and that socialism cannot work. We are told that the ideas of socialism "inevitably" led to the dictatorship of one party in the USSR, and then to the dictatorship of one man: Stalin.

Challenging this argument is obviously very important for anticapitalist revolutionaries today. We need to explain there was an alternative to Stalinism. This was principally developed by Trotsky in his struggle to save the workers' revolution from the Stalin dictatorship in Russia and the disastrous tactics it imposed on the world communist movement.

Leon Trotsky
Trotsky had been an opponent of Lenin within the Russian Marxist movement. At first he underestimated the importance of a disciplined and centralised but thoroughly democratic, party to lead the working class if it was to successfully overthrow the ruling class. But in 1917 he finally grasped this necessity and rallied to this party, the Bolsheviks, fighting within it alongside Lenin against those who opposed a struggle for state power. He became the main organiser, as Lenin was the main inspirer, of the October insurrection.From that point there was, in Lenin's own words, "no better Bolshevik" than Trotsky. In 1918 he led the Red Army to victory in the civil war that the Russian capitalists and landlords and foreign imperialists unleashed.Trotsky organised the main opposition to the growth of Stalin's dictatorship and to his anti-working class programme; first within the Soviet Union and then from exile.

He kept alive the Bolshevik fight against Stalinism right up to the moment that one of Stalin's agents murdered him in 1940.

He remained for the rest of his life a fighter for workers' democracy and revolutionary communism. Yet his books were banned inStalin's USSR, and photographs of the heroic days of the revolution and civil war were altered to remove his image. He was written out of history. No statues of him existed to be pulled down in 1991.

The Russian Revolution

The October Revolution of 1917 was a genuine workers' revolution, not a conspiracy by a tiny elite. By 1917 disillusion with the First World War was growing in Russia. Alongside a small highly modern industry the huge peasantry laboured under semi-feudal conditions, and the absolute autocracy of the Tsar denied the people the slightest element of democracy. By February 1917 the slaughter at the front and hunger in the cities became intolerable for the workers, and the millions of peasant soldiers.In Petrograd the people, led by women protesting at the lack of bread, and joined by workers and mutinous soldiers, toppled the Tsar and installed a provisional government with both capitalist and reformist workers' leaders in it. Lenin's Bolshevik Party campaigned against the war and for all power to be taken by the workers' and soldiers' councils or soviets. These consisted of recallable delegates and had first sprung up in the failed revolution of 1905. They appeared at once in February 1917. Because the soldiers sent delegates to them and insisted that all their commanders and officers' orders bear the signature of the Soviet, they were enormously powerful.Yet the reformist majority within them the Mensheviks and right wing of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)  propped up the liberal and conservative ministers in the capitalist provisional government. The government refused to end the war or distribute land to the peasants and Russia's capitalists continued to sack and starve the workers. Anger of workers at the government then led to the reformist majority within the Soviets being overturned by September 1917.

In October the Bolsheviks were able to mobilise the working class and its armed militia, the Red Guards and the soldiers stationed in the cities, to oust the provisional government and establish the power of the workers' councils. The majority of the peasants, themselves now forming soviets, supported the new power. In a matter of weeks the power and privileges of the old ruling class were swept away. The mansions of the rich were opened to the homeless. Equality for women (equal voting rights, the right to divorce, birth control and abortion) was enshrined in law. The landlords' estates were handed over to the peasants. The banks were nationalised. Workers took over their factories and instituted workers control. By the middle of 1918 the workers themselves had expropriated the vast majority of capitalists, spurred on by the sabotage of production by the bosses and their managers.

The revolution itself was virtually bloodless. But then the capitalist and landlord forces (the Whites) unleashed a long and destructive civil war (1918-21) and the British, French, American and Japanese imperialists sent in forces to help them. When today capitalist politicians tell us socialism failed, we must therefore remember that their equivalents in the 1920s and 1930s did not watch from afar the Soviet experiment but pitched in to crush the Russian revolution. They failed in this but the enormous economic pressure they put, by war, by blockade, by isolation certainly helped distort and divert the attempts to build socialism.

A revolution betrayed

One of the biggest lies of all is that the system that collapsed in the early 1990s in the Soviet Union represented "socialism". It was neither socialism nor real communism but Stalinism  the political programme and bureaucratic dictatorship constructed by Joseph Stalin and his supporters in the 1920s. They usurped the political power of the working class. The power originally based on democratic workers' councils was emasculated and then destroyed by Stalin and his supporters. The Bolsheviks had always seen the fate of their revolution as indissolubly tied to the prospects of world revolution.In the ABC of Communism  the 1919 official commentary on their programme  they wrote: "The communist movement can be successful only as a world revolution. If the state of affairs arose in which one country was ruled by the working class, while in others... the working class remained submissive to capital, in the end the great robber states would crush the workers' state of the first country."

This is precisely what the imperialists tried to do, but the heroism of the workers and peasants organised in the Red Army defeated them. At the same time the powerful revolution that broke out in Germany, Austria and Hungary in 1918-19 was strangled by the actions of the supposedly socialist parties. Heroic uprisings in Berlin, Munich, and Budapest were crushed and the Russian revolution found itself isolated.

The enormous economic backwardness of Russia, that had contributed to outbreak of the revolutionary crisis there, now became a huge problem for the victorious working class and its party. During the civil war the ravages to the economy led to a catastrophic decline in the number of workers. In addition the drawing of hundreds of thousands of militant workers, soldiers and sailors into the command and administration of the besieged workers' state weakened the Soviets, whose democracy the state had been founded on. Because the Mensheviks frequently sided with the Whites and the anarchists and the Populists (the Left SRs) disrupted the war effort, they had to be banned. The Bolsheviks, though this had never been their original intention, became the only legal party.At the same time, due to economic dislocation and the cultural backwardness of the country (whose most obvious sign was widespread illiteracy), a bureaucratic stratum began to develop within the ruling party and the state. What the Bolsheviks thought were emergency and wartime measures proved to be permanent. Within the party a group arose around the general secretary, Joseph Stalin, which defended and fostered the interests of this bureaucracy.After Lenin's death their power grew ever stronger. Suffering from a fatal illness, Lenin unsuccessfully tried to launch a final struggle against Stalin. After his death Trotsky's Left Opposition continued this fight in vain.The Stalin faction succeeded in ousting honest revolutionaries from all positions of power and replacing them with privilege-hungry bureaucrats. Stalin replaced the programme of spreading the revolution internationally with that of "building socialism in one country".

The Left Opposition

In the 1920s the Left Opposition outlined ways for the beleaguered workers' state to survive and improve the material and cultural life of the workers and peasants until help could came from revolutionary victories in Germany and China. Its core elements were:

• A programme of industrialisation democratically planned and implemented by workers themselves.

• The revival and rebuilding of workers' democracy in the soviets and the trade unions.
• The dismantling of the bureaucratic centralism and regime of terror that Stalin had built in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The reinstatement of real, democratic centralism in the party.
• The encouragement of voluntary collectivisation of agriculture, aided by its mechanisation and electrification, and moves to check the growing wealth of the kulaks (the rich peasants).

In 1929 Stalin implemented a hideous caricature of the Left Opposition's economic programme, launching the collectivisation of agriculture with a one-sided civil war against the mass of the peasantry. This was instead of the voluntary cooperatives, aided by mechanisation and electrification in the countryside, which Lenin and then the Left Opposition had argued for. At the same time  after previously opposing anything more than a "snail's pace" industrialisation  Stalin launched the first "Five Year Plan".

This ruthlessly subordinated workers' living standards to the building up of heavy industry and infrastructure, while creating a privileged stratum of bureaucrats and secret police to keep them under total control. Anyone even suspected of opposing this monstrous regime was arrested, deported to labour camps or shot. The highpoint of this was the Great Terror of 1936-38.


The policy of "socialism in one country" abandoned the goal of international socialist revolution. The reason was quite simple: workers' revolution, founded on democratic Soviets, threatened the power and privileges of Stalin's tyrannical bureaucracy. Accordingly, Stalin gave orders to the Communist parties to support the foreign capitalist allies of the Soviet bureaucracy. The effect was disastrous: revolutions in France and Spain in 1936 were actively sabotaged by the communists, as they supported the capitalist leadership of the "people's fronts".This "internationalism" based on aligning the Soviet Union with capitalist states was a world away from the workers' internationalism of 1917. In 1936 Stalin also dissolved the bureaucratically crippled Soviets altogether, replacing them with powerless parliamentary style bodies, though he retained the old name as a cover.

Throughout the 1930s Trotsky and his supporters fought to uphold this principle arguing workers should pursue the goal of taking power in every country to unite their forces in a spreading, international revolution. In exile from 1929 Trotsky devoted his life to rescuing the revolutionary programme and building a new world party to achieve this: the Fourth International.

Degenerated workers' state

One of Trotsky's great contributions to Marxism was the analysis he made of the Soviet Union in exile. He argued that the monstrous bureaucratic rule was not the inevitable outcome of revolution and the formation of a workers' state. Rather the bureaucracy had developed within the workers' state like a parasite  and it would eventually kill the workers' state, by restoring capitalism, unless it was got rid of.

The bureaucracy had, Trotsky argued, material roots, in the backwardness, poverty and isolation of the workers' state. This had encouraged its phenomenal and rapid growth. Once established it acted as "the planter and protector of inequality" always promoting and defending the privileges of a minority, which were creamed off from the labour of the mass of workers. Trotsky warned that because it rested on stolen material privileges the bureaucracy could one day overthrow the planning system altogether and position themselves to take advantage of the even greater wealth they could garner as a ruling class in a capitalist system.

A crucial part of Trotsky's analysis was that "the bureaucracy - [was] not the bearer of a new system of economy peculiar to itself, but is a parasitic growth on a workers' state". The system of planning still existed and managed industry across the economy. Whereas in capitalist economies production was determined by the drive for profit of many capitals, in the soviet system it was organised by a plan. The problem of course was that there was no democratic control over that plan.

An all-powerful bureaucracy dictated its goals, and the means for fulfilling them. A totalitarian system meant the material and cultural needs of workers and peasants were never allowed to be expressed. The efficiency of production and the quality of products was stifled because the workers could give no feedback on the quality, distribution and productive techniques. Consequently bureaucratic planning was enormously inefficient; wasteful of labour and material inputs. Production targets were set arbitrarily, not according to social need, while managers would even lie about meeting the targets to avoid repression. Not to mention the enormous resources that went into spying on the masses and maintaining the barbaric system of Stalinist repression and war.

Trotsky argued the bureaucracy had to be overthrown in a political revolution. This term was important as it recognised the existing property forms nationalised industry, the absence of a capitalist class, the planned economy, the monopoly of foreign trade still had to be defended. For this reason it was not a new social revolution (the transfer of property in the means of production from one class to another), that was needed but a political revolution to dissolve the bureaucracy, smash instruments of state repression and re-establishing workers' councils.

These would take hold of the planning system, "revise it systematically from top to bottom in the interests of the toilers," and run it democratically as the Bolsheviks had originally intended. Trotsky concluded: "The USSR thus embodies terrific contradictions. But it still remains a degenerated workers' state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers' state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism."

The Stalinist Soviet Union survived far longer than Trotsky had anticipated but the events surrounding its overthrow proved his prognosis ultimately correct. This vast parasite had weighed down the whole society and condemned the planned economy to stagnation. When movements for democracy emerged in the 1980s they did not simply call for the restoration of capitalism, but many instead argued for democracy within the existing system. In the political struggles throughout that decade, nonetheless, pro-capitalist forces did gain the upper hand in these movements. At the same time, sections of the bureaucracy repositioned in order to take maximum material advantage of capitalist restoration and many of Russia's oligarchs of today were once Stalinist bureaucrats.

The experience of Russia's workers following the restoration of capitalism demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that there were social gains to be defended in the planning system. A society in which every worker had a job for life and guaranteed access to education, healthcare and social welfare, was turned into a society with mass unemployment, huge inequalities and terrible poverty. Only those industries that could be profitable on the world or domestic markets survived. A near 60 per cent shrinkage in output resulted and years of untold social misery.

The struggle for socialism

Does the triumph of Stalinism and its eventual downfall "prove" that all attempts to replace capitalism are futile? "Yes", will answer the Labour reformists and the disillusioned and repentant Stalinists. "No" answer the Trotskyists. There was nothing inevitable about the betrayal of the western European revolutions in the inter-war years and the rise of fascism. It was a political struggle and like any struggle could have resulted in a different course of development  history always has a "fork in the road": a set of alternative possibilities. Had the Trotskyists succeeded in winning the working class from the disastrous leadership of the social democrats and Stalinists we would not be reflecting on a new capitalist crisis today.The same applies to the many post-war opportunities for revolutionary victories around the world. Precisely because we do not want to live through the defeat of socialism on this kind of scale again, it is vital that we learn the lessons of the revolutionary struggle of Trotsky for socialism and against Stalinism.Future workers' states must never be allowed to bureaucratise as the Soviet Union did:

• Preserve at all costs democracy in the Soviets and the freedom to struggle within them for leadership by all parties that the workers recognise as their own.

• Fight to spread the revolution internationally, particularly if it should occur in a relatively backward country to the more developed ones.• Build an international party with a leadership not subordinated to state control even of the healthiest workers state.

The very development of capitalism in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, its greater internationalisation, to which the global character of the present crisis testifies, means that the objective basis for applying these lessons is far greater. What we need is an instrument for this task a Fifth International: a new world party of social revolution.