Isaac Deutscher 1956

The Stalinists’ Case Against Stalin

Source: The Reporter, 12 July 1956. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

No one who has seen and heard Nikita Khrushchev speaking on a platform or arguing with people will doubt the authenticity of the text, published by the State Department, of his Secret Speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. The text probably has its gaps, and here and there the transcript may not be quite accurate. Nevertheless this is the real thing – genuine Khrushchev saying indirectly about himself almost as much as about Stalin.

Yet Khrushchev also gives the impression of an actor who, while he plays his own part with superb self-assurance, is only half aware of his own place in the great, complex, sombre drama in which he has been involved. His long monologue is a cry from the heart, a cry about the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and of the Bolshevik Party, but it is only a fragment of the tragedy.

Impromptu Indictment: Khrushchev himself did not expect to burst out with this cry. Only a few days before he made the Secret Speech, he did not know that he was going to make it, or at any rate he did not know what he was going to say. Even the composition of his speech showed that he spoke more or less impromptu. He dashed from topic to topic almost indiscriminately; he ventured spontaneously into side-lines; and he threw out reminiscences and confidences and asides as they occurred to him. By its irregularity this speech, delivered at the closing session of the congress, on 24 and 25 February, contrasted curiously with his formal address at the inaugural session 10 days earlier. The two speeches contrasted strikingly in content as well.

In his inaugural address Khrushchev said, for instance:

The unity of our party has formed itself in the course of years and tens of years. It has grown and become tempered in the struggle against many enemies. The Trotskyites, Bukharinites, bourgeois nationalists and other most wicked enemies of the people [italics ours], champions of a capitalist restoration, made desperate efforts to disrupt from the inside the Leninist unity of our party, and they all have smashed their heads against our unity.

The words might have come straight from Stalin’s mouth. But 10 days later Khrushchev said:

It is Stalin who originated the concept ‘enemy of the people’. This term automatically rendered it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man, or men, engaged in a controversy be proven; this term made possible the usage of the most cruel repression... against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin...

Khrushchev then went on to say that the Trotskyites, Bukharinites, so-called bourgeois nationalists, whatever their faults, were not enemies of the people; that there was no need to annihilate them; and that they ‘smashed their heads’ not against the party’s ‘Leninist unity’, but against Stalin’s despotism.

Clearly, some dramatic but as yet undisclosed event must have occurred during those 10 days to change Khrushchev’s tune so radically, an event which showed Khrushchev that it would not do to sit on the fence and that in the conflict between Stalinism and anti-Stalinism he had to come down on one side or the other. Did perhaps the small band of Old Bolsheviks, wrecks from Stalin’s concentration camps who had been brought to the conference hall as guests of honour, stage some demonstration of protest that shook the assembly’s conscience? Or were the young delegates, who were brought up in the Stalin cult, so restive after Khrushchev’s first ambiguous hints about Stalin (and even more so after Mikoyan’s more outspoken remarks) that they forced him to come out into the open?

Whatever happened, Khrushchev had to produce an answer on the spot, and the answer was an indictment of Stalin. To justify his new attitude, he ordered, no doubt with the Presidium’s approval, that Lenin’s testament – that long-suppressed testament in which Lenin urged the party to remove Stalin from the post of General Secretary – be distributed among the delegates.

To the student of Soviet affairs, Khrushchev’s disclosures bring little that is really new. A biographer of Stalin finds in them at the most a few more illustrations of familiar points. Khrushchev confirms in every detail Trotsky’s account of the relations between Lenin and Stalin towards the end of Lenin’s life. Stalin’s old critics are also proved right in what they said about his method of collectivisation, about the purges, and about the Trotskyite and Bukharinite ‘fifth columns’. Nor is there anything surprising to the historian in Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s role in the last war and about his miscalculations.

However, it is not from the historian’s viewpoint that Khrushchev’s performance should be judged. He spoke not to scholars but to men and women of a new Communist generation; to them his words came as a titanic shock, and as the beginning of a profound mental and moral upheaval.

Consider only how Khrushchev’s character-sketch of Stalin, drawn haphazardly yet extremely vividly, must affect Communists brought up in the Stalin cult. There they see him now, the ‘Father of the Peoples’, immured as he was in the Kremlin, refusing over the last 25 years of his life to have a look at a Soviet village; refusing to step down into a factory and face workers; refusing even to cast a glance at the army of which he was generalissimo, let alone visit the front; spending his life in a half-real, half-fictitious world of statistics and mendacious propaganda films; planning unlevyable taxes; tracing front lines and lines of offensives on a globe on his desk; seeing enemies creeping at him from every nook and cranny; treating the members of his own Politburo as his contemptible lackeys; denying Voroshilov admission to sessions, slamming the door in Andreyev’s face, or upbraiding Molotov and Mikoyan; ‘choking’ his interlocutors ‘morally and physically'; pulling the wires behind the great purge trials; personally checking and signing 383 black-lists with the names of thousands of doomed party members; ordering judges and NKVD men to torture the victims of the purges and to extract confessions; ‘planning’ the deportations of whole peoples and raging impotently at the size of the Ukrainian people, too numerous to be deported; growing sick with envy at Zhukov’s military fame; ‘shaking his little finger’ at Tito and waiting for Tito’s imminent fall; surrounded by dense clouds of incense and, like an opium eater, craving for more; inserting in his own hand passages of praise to his own ‘genius’ – and to his own modesty! – into his official adulatory biography and into history books; himself designing huge, monstrously ugly, elephantine monuments to himself; and himself writing his own name into the new national anthem which was to replace the Internationale. Thus did Khrushchev expose before his party the huge, grim, whimsical, morbid monster before whom the Communist world lay prostrate for a quarter of a century.

And yet Khrushchev added: ‘Stalin was convinced that all this was necessary for the defence of the interests of the working classes against the plotting of the enemies and against the attack of the imperialist camp.’ When he surmised that even those who stood closest to him did not share his phobias and suspicions, Stalin wrung his hands in despair. ‘What will you do without me?’, he growled. ‘You are all blind...!’ ‘He saw’, Khrushchev assured the congress again, ‘from the position of the interest of the working class... of Socialism and Communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot... In this lies the whole tragedy!’

Inverted Hero Cult: The mainspring of the tragedy still remained hidden from Khrushchev. His whole speech was full of the denunciation of the hero cult; yet it was nothing but inverted hero cult. Its only theme was the power, the superhuman power, of the usurper who ‘placed himself above the party and above the masses’. In passage after passage Khrushchev argued that all the evil from which the Communist Party, the Soviet people and the international labour movement suffered for so long sprang from this one ‘individual’. Then he said in quite as many passages that it was utterly wrong to imagine that one man could exercise so much influence on history, for the real makers of Soviet history have been the masses, the people and the ‘militant Bolshevik Party’ bred and inspired by Lenin.

Where then was that ‘militant party’ when Stalin ‘placed himself above it'? Where was its militancy and its Leninist spirit? Why and how could the despot impose his will on the masses? And why did ‘our heroic people’ submit so passively?

All these questions, which have so close a bearing on the Marxist Weltanschauung, Khrushchev left unanswered. Yet if one agrees that history is made not by demigods but by masses and social classes, one has still to explain the rise of this particular demigod; and one can explain it only from the condition of Soviet society, the interests of the Bolshevik Party, and the state of mind of its leadership. But no sooner have we descended with Khrushchev to this level of recent Soviet history than his lamp is blown out and we are once again enveloped by dark and impenetrable fumes.

Three Phases: The political evolution of the Soviet regime falls into three main phases. In the first the Bolsheviks under Lenin seized power and established the single-party system, in which they saw the only way to preserve their government and safeguard the October Revolution against domestic and foreign foes. But having suppressed all other parties, the Bolshevik Party itself split into several mutually hostile factions. The single-party system turned out to be a contradiction in terms: the party was breaking into at least three.

In the second phase the rule of the single party was replaced by the rule of a single Bolshevik faction – that led by Stalin. The principle of the ‘monolithic’ party was proclaimed. Only a party that does not permit diverse currents of opinion in its midst, Stalin argued, can safeguard its monopoly of power. However, the victorious faction, once it gained power, was in turn torn by internal rivalries.

In the third phase, the rule of the single faction gave way to the rule of the single leader, who by the nature of the whole process had to be intolerant of any potential challenge to his authority – constantly on his guard, constantly bent on enforcing his will.

Even while the Bolshevik Party was suppressing all other parties, up to 1921 it was still internally free and democratically ruled. But having deprived others of freedom, it could hardly help losing its own freedom. Subsequently, the same thing happened to the Stalinist faction. Between 1923 and 1930 it destroyed ‘inner-party democracy’ for its opponents, but internally was still more or less democratically ruled.

From phase to phase the monopoly of power grew ever narrower. As it became so, it had to be defended ever more fiercely. The early Bolsheviks cherished controversy too much to be able to enforce the ban on disagreement outside the party with anything like the Stalinist violence. Even the Stalinist faction, before it succumbed to Stalin, only expelled its opponents and exiled them rather than executing them.

However, what gave the whole development its momentum and its convulsive and cruel character were the social tensions in a nation first ruined and famished after seven years of war, revolution and civil war, then rushed through forcible industrialisation and collectivisation and drawn into devastating armament races. All this called for heavy sacrifice, rigid discipline and massive coercion, and all provided Stalin with the justifications and pretexts for his use and abuse of the monopoly of power.

Stalin did not, thus, appear as a diabolus ex machina. [1] Yet it was as a diabolus ex machina that Khrushchev presented him.

It is not difficult to grasp why Khrushchev views Stalin in this light. He and his colleagues represent the Stalinist faction, or rather what has remained of it. It is a different faction from the one of 20 years ago. It rules a different country – the world’s second industrial power. It leads a different ‘socialist camp’ – a camp that contains one-third of mankind. It is richer in experience, and is anxious to understand what has happened to it. It is probing restlessly into its own mysterious past. But this is still the Stalinist faction, caught in the tangle of its own experiences and its traditional but now untenable viewpoints.

The Tangle of Reasoning: Khrushchev has described how the members of the Presidium, the man who rule the Soviet Union and manage its vast nationalised economy (the world’s greatest single industrial concern), spend their days and weeks poring over the archives of the NKVD, questioning the officials who once conducted purges and extracted confessions, and reliving in their thoughts the long nightmare of the past. Yet the understanding of which the members of this Presidium are capable – especially the older ones – has its historically formed limitations, which they cannot easily transcend. They cannot see when and why things had ‘gone wrong’. They would like to cross out, if possible, the last chapter of their story – the one in which Stalin oppressed and ‘betrayed’ his own followers. They would still like to think that what was done in the earlier chapters was justified and beneficial and need not have led to the final debacle and shame. They would like to remain Stalinists without and against Stalin, and to recapture the spirit of the ‘sane’ and ‘innocent’ Stalinism of the 1920s, of that Stalinism which had not yet soaked its hands in the blood of the Bolshevik Old Guard and in the blood of masses of peasants and workers. They do not realise that the latter-day ‘insane’ Stalinism had sprung from the earlier ‘sane’ Stalinism, and that it was not only Stalin’s whimsical and cruel character that was responsible for it.

This approach governs all of Khrushchev’s reasoning as revealed in the 24-25 February speech. It dictates the range and nature of his disclosures. Because Khrushchev pleaded the case of the old Stalinist faction ‘betrayed’ by Stalin, his evidence against Stalin showed huge gaps and was all too often ambiguous, in spite of the bluntness of the language he used and the shocking character of his facts.

Significant Omissions: Khrushchev built his case against Stalin on three sets of facts: Lenin’s denunciation, in his testament, of Stalin’s ‘rudeness and disloyalty’, Stalin’s role in the purges, and the faults of Stalin’s leadership in the war. Under each count of the indictment he treated the facts selectively so as to turn the evidence against Stalin himself rather than against the Stalinist faction.

He conjured up Lenin’s ghost, because only with this ally at his side could he, after 30 years of Stalin worship, hope to obliterate Stalin. He quoted from Lenin’s testament the passages aimed directly against Stalin, but he passed over in silence all that Lenin had said in favour of Trotsky and Bukharin. He assured his hearers that he now views ‘objectively and with detachment’ the party feuds; but he still labelled Trotsky and Bukharin ‘enemies of Leninism’, although they were no longer ‘enemies of the people’. In the light of Lenin’s full testament, Trotskyism and Bukharinism may be seen as offspring of the Leninist line at least as legitimate as even the early Stalinism. The testament has therefore not been published in Russia even now – it was distributed only to the delegates at the Twentieth Congress. And even in his Secret Speech Khrushchev was afraid of making too extensive use of it.

Even more eloquent were the gaps in Khrushchev’s story of the purges. He began with dark hints about the assassination of Kirov in 1934, the event that set in motion the avalanche of terror. He alluded to Stalin’s connivance at the crime but added that nothing was certain; and he left the mystery as deep as ever. Then he gave a more or less detailed and horrifying account of the secret purges of Eikhe, Postyshev, Kosior, Chubar, Mezhlauk and Rudzutak, who perished between 1937 and 1940, and of the purge of Voznesensky in 1951. But he had nothing explicit to say about the purge trials of 1936-38, which shocked the world and in which the defendants were men of world fame, the recognised leaders of Bolshevism, the Red Army, Soviet diplomacy and the Communist International.

He revealed nothing of the inner story of the purges of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Radek, Rakovsky, Pyatakov and Tukhachevsky. He was silent on Trotsky’s assassination, which was instigated by Stalin and Beria. Eikhe, Postyshev and Chubar were by comparison insignificant figures. Their names meant little or nothing – not only to the outside world but even to the young Soviet generation. But they were men of the Stalinist faction: and through Khrushchev, the faction honoured in them its martyrs.

Not for nothing did Khrushchev dwell so much on the fortunes of the delegates to the Seventeenth Party Congress held in 1934. (At that assembly the Stalinist faction celebrated its final triumph over all its adversaries, in party annals the congress is referred to as the ‘Victors’ Congress’.) Of nearly 2000 of the ‘victors’, about 60 per cent were later, according to Khrushchev, ‘arrested on charges of counter-revolutionary crimes’. In the years 1934-38 alone, Stalin annihilated 60 or 70 per cent of the leaders of his own faction, and there were uncounted victims among the rank and file.

In recent years public opinion outside Russia has been aware of the fate of anti-Stalinist victims of the terror. It is only right that it should also be aware of the fate of Stalinist victims. But do not Khrushchev and his associates feel the indecency of their exclusive concentration on their own Stalinist martyrs?

One Man to Blame: Throughout Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin ran the motif of self-exculpation.

‘Everything depended on the wilfulness of one man’, Khrushchev said repeatedly. But if so, ‘comrades may ask us, “Where were the members of the Political Bureau...? Why did they not assert themselves...? Why is this being done only now?"’ Unwittingly he demonstrated that much more was in play than the ‘wilfulness of one man’. Stalin had so much scope only because Khrushchev and his like accepted his will.

Khrushchev recalled how at first they all trusted Stalin and zealously followed him in the struggle against other factions until they made him so powerful that they themselves became powerless. He showed that even when they might have been able to act against him they did not wish to act. He related that in 1941, when the Red Army reeled under Hitler’s first onslaught, Stalin’s nerve snapped. It might seem now that this was an opportunity for the party leaders to get rid of him.

Instead they sent a deputation to Stalin to beg him to seize the reins again; and so they condemned themselves and their country to another 12 years of terror and degradation. None of them had the confidence and courage of Trotsky, who as early its 1927 foresaw such a turn of events and said (in his famous ‘Clemenceau Thesis’) that in such a crisis it would be the duty of party leaders to overthrow Stalin to wage war more efficiently.

The Politburo of 1941, fearing that a change of leadership in the middle of a war would destroy morale, rallied to its oppressor. It should be noted that this was not the first situation of this kind. In exactly the same way, the Politburo had hoisted a dejected and sulking Stalin back into the saddle nine years earlier at the height of collectivisation. In every major emergency the Politburo felt the need of the ‘strong arm’, and it turned to Stalin only to suffer under that strong arm for years. It so magnified his authority that it never felt it had enough authority to take his place. Because the history of the Soviet Union was one sequence of emergencies, the Stalinist faction was always at an impasse.

The question inevitably arises whether during all those years no members of the ruling group made any attempt to destroy the incubus. It would have been unnatural if no plots at all had been hatched against Stalin. If Khrushchev and his colleagues really thought that ‘it all depended on the wilfulness of one man’ (which Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev never thought), might not some of them have concluded that the way out was to eliminate that ‘one man'? Khrushchev tells us that Postyshev, Rudzutak and other leading Stalinists did indeed come into opposition to Stalin. But here too he leaves many things unsaid; and so the full story of the Stalinist opposition to Stalin remains to be disclosed.

The historian finds a further contradiction in Khrushchev’s testimony, one that it has in common with Trotsky’s appraisal of Stalin, although in Khrushchev the contradiction is, of course, far cruder. Khrushchev stressed the achievements as well as the failures of the Stalin era. For the achievements – industrial advance, educational progress, planned economy, victory in war – he praised the masses, the people, the party, Leninist doctrine and even the Central Committee – the cowed and docile Central Committee of the Stalin era. For the failures he blamed Stalin alone.

If the qualities of one man were responsible for the Soviet military disasters of 1941, were they not also in some measure responsible for the victories of 1943-45? If all major decisions on policy and strategy were taken by Stalin alone, then it is at least illogical to deny Stalin all credit for the results.

At times Khrushchev’s argument savoured of Tolstoy. In War and Peace Tolstoy argued that all ideas, plans and decisions conceived by emperors, generals and ‘great men’ were meaningless and worthless, and that only the innumerable, spontaneous and uncoordinated actions of nameless masses of people shaped history. But Tolstoy was consistent: he attributed to ‘great men’ no special influence on history, for evil any more than for good.

The Semi-Alibi: No matter how vigorously Khrushchev pleaded the alibi for himself and the present ruling group, he proved a semi-alibi only. As a prosecutor he could hardly convince a jury that he has not been the defendant’s accomplice – at best he made himself an accomplice under duress. He spoke of Beria as that ‘villain who climbed up the government ladder over an untold number of corpses’. How true! But was Beria alone? Khrushchev described with horror the character of a former official who took part in preparing the purges of 1937-38 and in extracting confessions. The official was brought before the Presidium and questioned. He was, said Khrushchev, ‘a vile person, with the brain of a bird, and morally completely degenerate’. What did this repulsive character claim in his defence? His plea, as reported by Khrushchev, was that he acted on higher orders which he understood it to be his duty as a party member to carry out. Khrushchev indignantly rejected this apology as worthless. Yet almost in the same breath he used the same apology for himself and the other members of the Politburo. Under Stalin, he said, ‘no one could express his will’.

The tragedy of contemporary Russia is that the whole √©lite of the nation share in one degree or another Stalin’s guilt. Certainly no one in Moscow who would set himself up today as Stalin’s accuser and judge could prove his own alibi. Stalin made of the whole nation, at any rate of all its educated and active elements, his accomplices. Those who opposed him perished, with very, very few exceptions, long ago.

Khrushchev exposed not only Stalin but Stalinism, not only the man but his method of government, and this rendered the continuation or revival of the method nearly impossible. He set out to state only the case of the Stalinist faction against Stalin, and he destroyed the case of the Stalinist faction. Willy-nilly, he exploded the idea of the monolithic party and of the monolithic state in which all must think alike.

Having produced the shock, Khrushchev was anxious to soften its impact. ‘We cannot let this matter get out of the party, especially not to the press’, he warned his listeners. ‘It is for this reason that we are considering it here at a closed congress session. We should know the limits; we should not give ammunition to the enemy; we should not wash our dirty linen before their eyes.’ However, one may even suspect that the indiscretion that allowed the State Department to act as Khrushchev’s first publisher was not unwelcome to Moscow. It is from the mass of the Soviet people that his speech has been kept secret so far.


1. Diabolus ex machina – a devil from out of the machine, that is, an unexpected phenomenon that has a significant effect upon proceedings – MIA.