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How Russia went from a workers' state to state capitalism
Why did Stalin rise to power?

August 1, 2003 | Page 8

JOSEPH STALIN, the dictator of the former USSR who died 50 years ago this year, is rightly remembered as one of the most horrible tyrants of the 20th century.

But to most people, his name is also associated with socialism. After all, Stalin justified his brutal rule with the rhetoric of workers' power. In reality, this tyranny is separated from genuine socialism by "a whole river of blood," as Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it. ALAN MAASS explains how the rise of Stalin's dictatorial regime marked the defeat of the Russian Revolution.

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EVEN TODAY, 50 years after his death, Joseph Stalin represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism. How can we socialists say that we're for the "self-emancipation of the working class" when Russian workers had no power whatsoever under "socialism"? How can we champion a system that tolerated and encouraged numerous forms of oppression--based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality and ethnicity, to name a few?

The answer is that we don't. So-called "socialism" in Stalin's Russia--and other countries, like China and Cuba, that modeled their systems on the USSR--is diametrically opposed to the basic principles we stand for. The rulers of the former USSR under Stalin used the rhetoric of socialism and Marxism to justify a different reality--an exploitative system, run by a minority, using forms of authority not that very different to capitalism in the West.

Stalin and his allies established this system by re-imposing class rule over a society that had overthrown the old order in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Though they mouthed socialist phrases, the rise of Stalin's regime represented the victory of the counterrevolution against 1917.

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NO SERIOUS observer in 1917 doubted that masses of Russian workers and peasants supported the overthrow of the hated Tsar--or the establishment of the workers' councils, or soviets, as the basic form of government for a new workers' state. As Martov, a prominent opponent of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, put it at the time, "Understand, please, what we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat--almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising."

But could this system survive? Marxists believe that the basis for socialism is abundance--having enough to go around. Certainly, such a society would be impossible if an economically backward country like Russia remained isolated in a sea of capitalism, without socialist revolutions in other countries to come to its aid.

All of Russia's revolutionaries accepted this. "We are far from having completed even the transitional period from capitalism to socialism," Lenin wrote in January 1918. "We have never cherished the hope that we could finish it without the aid of the international proletariat."

It's telling that the most important idea associated with Stalin in the mid-1920s when he was emerging from obscurity to take over was his theory of "socialism in once country." This rewrote what had been a central pillar for all Marxists--that socialism must be international.

International revolution wasn't a pipe dream either. The years following the Russian Revolution saw massive upheavals in Germany, Italy and other European countries. But none succeeded in putting a workers' government in power. Russia was left isolated. And ultimately, Lenin was proved right--the revolution couldn't survive in these conditions.

But the form that its defeat took was unexpected. The workers' state won a civil war against forces that wanted to bring back the Tsar--and which were supported by the active military intervention of 14 imperialist countries, including the U.S. But the cost of the victory was catastrophic. Russia's economy suffered the worst decline ever known in world history, by one estimate.

And the Russian working class, the class that made the revolution, was effectively destroyed--killed in the civil war, or driven out of the cities by famine. In these desperate conditions, the Bolshevik Party came increasingly to substitute its own rule for that of the decimated institutions of workers' power created in 1917. This was viewed as a temporary necessity to defeat the menace of counterrevolution.

But eventually, the temporary necessities became permanent--and out of the circumstances of war and economic chaos, a group of state bureaucrats came together around Stalin and began to put its hold on power before everything else. Stalin and his allies didn't take over without a fight. In particular, Trotsky led an opposition that aimed to preserve the traditions of 1917.

But the Stalinists defeated this challenge--and from the late 1920s on, they systematically began to take back every gain won in the revolution. Average wages were slashed by 50 percent in seven years following the announcement of the first "five-year plan" in 1928. The population of Russian labor camps increased by 22 times in three years.

Rights won by women in 1917--such as free abortion on demand and liberalized divorce laws--were overturned. Homosexuality was recriminalized. And the Stalinists set about rebuilding the Tsar's colonial empire that had won the right to self-determination after 1917.

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FROM THIS point on, it's impossible to say that Russian workers had any control over society--or that they could regain it without a revolutionary transformation of the system. Formally, production was still owned by the state. But the question was: Who owned the state?

Plainly, the state bureaucracy was in command of all important decisions about the resources of society, how they were used and how the labor of the vast majority was organized. And the decisions that the bureaucrats made were actually very similar to the dynamics of Western-style capitalism.

The capitalists who rule over the free market don't spend all their profits on their own luxurious lifestyle--though they do live like kings! The main priority is to plow profits back into production--to try to out-do the competition and accumulate even more profits. "Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" Marx wrote in Capital. "Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus value [profits]...into capital!"

Similarly, Russia's Stalinist ruling class used the surplus extracted at horrific cost from workers and peasants and devoted it to investments in heavy industry--especially, anything to do with the arms industry. This was to meet the demands of competition, not among private capitalists within one country, but among state capitals internationally--that is, to meet the military competition threatened by the advanced countries of the West.

This is the point of Stalin's famous saying: "We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in 10 years. Either we do it, or they crush us." The form was different--a ruling class whose power grew out of its control over the state apparatus. But the logic was straight out of capitalism. That's why the best way to understand Stalin's rule is to recognize it as the re-imposition of capitalism--in the form of state capitalism.

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UNFORTUNATELY, MOST people continue to assume that the ex-USSR was socialist under Stalin. Certainly, that's what supporters of capitalism encourage us to believe. After all, what better argument could there be against socialism than the idea that any attempt to win change is doomed to produce another Stalin?

But Stalin's triumph in Russia wasn't inevitable. It was the result of a workers' revolution left isolated in a sea of capitalism--strangled until it was finally defeated.

None of this, though, can erase the accomplishments of the 1917 revolution during the short period that workers' power survived. And it certainly can't change our commitment to the struggle for socialism today--for an international revolution that will free all humanity, once and for all.

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