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Fourth International, April 1946


Review of the Month

The Stalinist “Left Turn”
and the
Internal Crisis of the Kremlin Regime


From Fourth International, April 1946, Vol.7 No.4, pp.103-106.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


A large section of worker militants in the unions whose political awakening came during the war years, and others who are just beginning to awaken to political life are acquainted with Stalinism only in the guise it has assumed since June 1941. They know Stalinists as servile agents of imperialism, recruiting sergeants for the imperialist war, flag-wavers, bond salesmen, strike-breakers and red-baiters. It is an entirely new experience for most of them to encounter Stalinists disguised as “militants,” employing class-struggle phrases, posing as fighters against capitalism and for socialism. To all these elements we must know how to explain patiently and persistently that Stalinism in its “leftist” guise is just as treacherous, just as inimical to the real interests of the working class as when it is outspokenly reactionary. It is more dangerous because it is more deceptive.

Underlying Causes of the Stalinist Turn

Generally speaking, like the traditional reformists, the Stalinists are hand-to-mouth politicians. But whereas the reformists serve the capitalist rulers at home, the Stalinists are the unquestioning agents of the despotic oligarchy in the Kremlin and adapt themselves invariably to the orders and needs of the latter. On the other hand, the policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy is guided by one primary consideration, namely: to retain its power and privileges in the USSR. Whatever else may change, these factors remain immutable.

The key to the policy of the Stalinists in any given country therefore lies in the existing international and domestic position of the Soviet bureaucracy. It is this, that must be analyzed first in order to understand the true character and scope of the so-called “left turn” now in progress.

Without any fear of exaggeration, one can say that the Kremlin has never confronted a more critical situation at home and abroad than it does today.

The acuteness of the international crisis is self-evident. The conflict can no longer be kept behind the scenes of the “United Nations” organization and in the diplomatic chancelleries of Washington, London and Moscow. It has erupted to the surface with a violence unprecedented in history. Victorious “allies” are at each others throats before a single “peace treaty” has even been drafted. When and where has this ever happened before? If there was nothing else to go by than Winston Churchill’s speech, the position of the decisive section of the world bourgeoisie would nevertheless be amply clear: they are convinced that no prolonged period is possible of a relatively “peaceful” coexistence of capitalism and the Soviet Union, with its planned economy and nationalized property forms. They are now preparing for war, or more correctly, they are preparing world public opinion for war. Supplementing the speeches of Senator Vandenberg, Secretary of State Byrnes, Winston Churchill and lesser lights are the carefully calculated diplomatic moves (the interchange of notes on Iran, on Manchuria, on Bulgaria, on the movements of Soviet troops in Iran, etc.). All this adds up to a “war of nerves” on a scale comparable to that preceding the outbreak of World War II. All this does add up to a highly unstable international situation, with abrupt and even explosive shifts and turns.

Washington and London could reconcile themselves to the establishment and even extension of Moscow’s spheres of influence, provided these territories are not withdrawn from the orbit of capitalism. Political domination is not indispensable to imperialism so long as it is able to dominate economically. In the secret deals at Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin agreed to preserve capitalist relations in the “buffer zone.” We repeat what we said before, there is no reason whatever to charge Stalin with duplicity on this score. He believed that this was feasible and is probably more astonished than his capitalist “allies” that it turned out impossible for him either to combine capitalist property relations with nationalized property forms or to share political power with capitalist groups. In every case, those territories which came under the Kremlin’s political domination were almost simultaneously barred to the penetration of finance capital. It was this that Churchill objected to when he referred in his speech to the “iron curtain (which) has descended across the continent,” and not, as he pretended, to the political regime “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.”

Under these conditions, from the standpoint of imperialism it is not decisive that the Kremlin has refrained from formally incorporating into the USSR a single country in its “buffer zone,” or that capitalist property forms are still nominally retained in these areas.

Why can’t the Kremlin bide its time? Why has it so stubbornly refused to relax its monopolistic control of Eastern Europe and the Balkans? Why does it, on the contrary try to reach out for additional concessions (in the Mediterranean, Iran, Turkey, Manchuria)?

First, there are military and strategic considerations. By virtue of the new relationship of forces on the international area, the world is in effect divided into two decisive spheres of influence: one, under the domination of American imperialism, the other – under Moscow. At best only a precarious equilibrium can be maintained between any two rival world states. The situation is aggravated in the extreme by the fact that today’s rivals represent two mutually exclusive social systems. This impels the Kremlin to seek “adequate” military strongholds and territorial guarantees.

Secondly, there is the internal situation in which the regime finds itself. The economic crisis in the USSR, resulting from the war, is so grave that it threatens to pass into a political and social crisis of the regime. The regime sees no way out in the economic field save through the realization of the Fourth Five Year Plan, which cannot be achieved by the devastated country without the resources of the “buffer zones.” Unmistakable signs of a maturing social crisis are likewise apparent.

In many respects there is a striking parallel between the existing situation in the USSR and that of 1928-29, and the “left” turn that followed at that time. In drawing a historical analogy it is, of course, necessary to guard against making an identity. But if this is kept in mind, the historical experience can greatly aid in understanding the present situation.

In 1928-29 the country was threatened with economic collapse and famine. To save itself the bureaucracy executed an abrupt shift in economic policy, launching the First Five Year Plan, with high annual co-efficients of growth. In a general way this situation has been reproduced. The Fourth Five Year Plan is being launched amid devastation and the threat of famine. The inception of this plan represents a break with previous economic policy in the sense that there was no over-all planning in war-time; centralized direction was greatly loosened; great disproportions between various branches of industry not only went uncorrected but were even encouraged if they served the needs of war; and, finally, little attention was paid to costs in terms of labor and money alike which undermined still further the financial structure.

The 1928-29 turn to planning ran up against capitalist tendencies in agriculture – the Kulak, or well-to-do farmer – whose welfare had been previously promoted. Does the 1946 resumption of planning confront similar obstacles? Throughout the war years, the entire Stalinist propaganda machine was employed for the purpose of fostering nationalism and capitalist tendencies, especially in the collective farms. In place of the 1929 kulak, there now stands the “millionaire” collective farmer. Elsewhere in this issue we establish the fact that in March 1945 the Kremlin made important concessions (inheritance law) to capitalist elements and virtually in the same breath called for a political struggle against these elements. It ought to be added that at about the same time Duclos, a French Stalinist leader, was summoned to Moscow and instructed to launch the attack against Browder, who, was in common with other party leaders of Stalinism abroad, working might and main to promote chauvinism and capitalist ideology at his particular scene of operations.

The Danger of the Restorationist Wing

With the arrival of official Russian publications in this country, there is no lack of data testifying to the fear on the part of the Bonapartist clique of the restorationist wing, on the one hand, and the resentment of the masses against the privileged bureaucracy as a whole, on the other. Thus, the leading editorial in the September 1945 Bolshevik, “theoretical” organ of the Russian Stalinist party, states that “vestiges of capitalism in the consciousness of a certain part of the people, moods and prejudices connected with private property and nationalism, could not help but be revived under the conditions of German-fascist occupation.”

Just what part of the people became infected with “moods and prejudices connected with private property and nationalism.” Were they workers? Were they peasants? Were they the privileged bureaucrats and the army officers? These questions are not answered by the editorial. This is done deliberately. Under one and the same formula, Stalin combines in his traditional manner the struggle on two fronts – against the immediate threat of the restorationist tendency and against the gravest danger of all – the possible resurgence of the masses.

The November 1945 Bolshevik speaks even more emphatically in an editorial which gives political directives for the then pending elections to the Supreme Council.

The election campaign [states this editorial] demands of party organizations an intensified political activity and vigilance. The paramount task of the party organizations in the election campaign is to carry on large-scale political work. The hostile elements may attempt during the elections to revive their activity in order to undermine the confidence of the electorate in the elections, and dissuade them from taking part in the elections. (Our emphasis.)

Let us note in passing that after the election the Moscow press admitted some 2 million blank votes were cast, or almost seven times the number of oppositional votes reported officially in the 1937 elections.

The same editorial then goes on to single out among the “peculiarities of the situation” three special groups who had been exposed to “anti-people’s ideology.”

  1. “millions of Soviet citizens who lived in the regions of the USSR, subjected to German occupation”
  2. “millions of Soviet people, freed by the Red Army from fascist captivity and who have now returned to the fatherland”;
  3. “the citizens of Western provinces and republics which were incorporated in the Soviet Union shortly before the war,” (i.e., Karelo-Finnish, Moldavian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian, Republics).

How many of these millions are “hostile elements” imbued with “anti-people’s ideology?” Why should any large part of the Soviet people be infected with “moods and prejudices connected with private property and nationalism?” The answer of course is that these formulas have been devised by Stalin in order to combat the capitalist tendency within his own party and the state and administrative apparatus, and at the same time, to order to defend the regime against the masses.

For adding to the crisis of the regime is the discontent among the masses. Here, too, there is an analogy with 1928-29.

Mass Discontent

However, the 1928-29 inequalities in living standards pale in comparison with the gulf which today separates worker and manager, soldier and officer, collective-farm laborer and the collective-farm administrator. The pre-war inequalities received a tremendous impetus during the war years. They were deliberately fostered by the Stalinist regime. This cleavage between the popular masses and the bureaucracy has sharpened the conflict between them.

In the course of the war millions of Soviet civilians and soldiers who had seen the outside world only in the false mirror of the official press obtained their first glimpse of the outside capitalist world. They discovered that even under the conditions of war and devastation, even under the conditions of harsh capitalist exploitation, the living standards were higher, food and clothing more plentiful. Revolutionists readily recognize and admit this fact, just as Lenin did. And like Lenin they draw from this the conclusion that backward Russia cannot build socialism by itself, but must obtain the aid of the more advanced countries. A revolutionary leadership in the USSR would therefore work to extend the October Revolution to other countries. But the Stalinist regime has blocked and continues to block the road to the world revolution in the name of “building socialism in one country.” What answer has the Stalinist bureaucracy to give these millions who found higher living standards outside the USSR?

There are other millions who underwent great sacrifices and privations at home and who may, not unnaturally, get the idea that since the war is over and the USSR emerged victorious, their lot should be improved, that they, too, should enjoy some of the fruits of their victory. What answer has the Stalinist bureaucracy to give them?

The very same press that only yesterday spewed nationalism, encouraged capitalist tendencies and never breathed a word about socialism is now piping a new tune, to wit: “... the perspectives for the development of our society from socialism to communism have become still more reinforced” (Pravda, January 22, 1946). And this new tune is intended to exhort the masses to new sacrifices:

In some comrades the circumstances of transition to peacetime development generate moods of complacency and placidity; they think that now that the war is ended one can let up on the intensity of the work. The party organizations must fight resolutely against such moods. We are confronted with the enormous task of further strengthening the military-economic might of the Soviet country and of raising the living standards of the toilers. The solution of these tasks is impossible without the exertion of all our forces, without a further growth of the productivity of labor in the degree of organization and consciousness of the masses. (Bolshevik, September 1945.)

These words are plain enough: There will be no relaxation for the Soviet masses; they can expect little in the way of improved living standards. The emphasis in the new Five Year Plan remains, as was the case in the past, on heavy industry whose further growth can occur only at the expense of consumer goods production. The huge military burdens remain. The bureaucracy, which has grown monstrously in numbers and privileges, continues to devour an increasing portion of the national income.

The Soviet people can look for no assistance from outside in the economic field. In league with Allied imperialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy helped drag down the living standards of the whole European continent and Asia. It helped destroy the mighty industrial power that once was Germany and to reduce the German working class to the status of paupers.

Stalinism proved incapable of leading the German revolution, which was on the order of the day in 1929-33, and in unity with a Soviet Germany raising the economic level of all Europe. Instead by his policies he then helped strangle the German working class and finally today helps reduce Europe to ruins. And this whole program of barbarism and reaction is carried through in the name of “socialism in one country!”

Concurrently, we repeat, the bureaucracy has grown more arrogant, arbitrary and privileged. The reaction of the masses to this is among the news most stringently suppressed by the Kremlin censors. But two highly symptomatic items did recently creep into the press.

First, there is the incident at a mass meeting addressed by Kalinin where a woman rose up to demand why he was wearing such fine polished boots while the masses had to walk barefoot or in bast shoes. This was indeed audacious! It indicates the degree to which the resentment among the masses against bureaucratic privileges has grown.

The second incident occurred last year in the Yaroslav automobile plant where, at a general factory conference, the old chairman of the factory committee was voted out of office despite the backing of a top trade union bureaucrat. The new chairman was presently removed by the union Central Committee. But the general factory conference reelected him once again, although he was sharply criticized by the Central Committee, who, at the same time, backed the candidacy of the previous chairman.

The “left” turn in the USSR thus serves a number of purposes:

  1. to lull the resentment of the masses and cover up the reactionary character of Stalinism; and most immediate of all
  2. to conduct, a struggle against the capitalist wing at home, and reinforce the ruling Bonapartist clique, the section of the bureaucracy around Stalin.

The news of the tactical “left” turn reached the world last May with the Daily Worker’s publication of the Duclos document, attacking Browder. The downfall of Browder has no independent significance of its own but must be viewed as part of internal and international situation of the Stalinist regime. The same thing applies to the developments in the Stalinist parties in the rest of the world.

It was Browder’s personal misfortune to be at the head of a party which Stalin used once before to signal a “left” turn. The Kremlin attaches great importance to such details. In 1929 it was Lovestone’s fate to serve as scapegoat. The expulsion of Lovestone, the then leader of American Communist (Stalinist) Party, came as a public proclamation to the world that much bigger and more important heads would soon roll inside the USSR. Lovestone’s political death at Stalin’s hands was followed by the physical annihilation of the left wing – the Trotskyists – and the liquidation of the right wing in the Soviet Union, headed by Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky – that is, the liquidation of the very people with whom Stalin had been in alliance and upon whom he had relied in his struggle against Trotsky. It remains to be seen whether the current “left” turn will likewise be accompanied by a large-scale purge. There would be nothing surprising in it, for Stalin, the Kremlin Nero, is the greatest devourer of his own agents.

Ironically enough, the same Browder who waged, in Stalin’s behalf, the struggle against Lovestone, and who expelled Lovestone in 1929 for rightist deviations, finds himself expelled 17 years later – for right, opportunist revisionism. Almost the same language used by Browder at that time to denounce Lovestone, is now being used against Browder.

How Far Left Will the “Left” Turn Go?

The amplitude of the Stalinist swing to the “left” does not depend on Stalin’s will but on the further development of the international and domestic situation. Circumstances may compel the Stalinists to move much further than they themselves contemplated.

Trotsky once characterized Stalin as an opportunist with a bomb. This characterization applies to the whole movement headed by the Stalinist bureaucracy and to its parties in the capitalist countries. It manifested itself most graphically in 1929 when in recoiling from a disastrous opportunist course leaped all the way to ultra-leftism. The current swing to the left has not gone, of course, nearly so far. When one leaps from right to left, the point of landing on the left depends largely on how far to the right the starting point is. The current leap of the Stalinists started from such an extreme right that the landing point is still pretty much to the right. To arrive at the same point as in 1929 they would have to negotiate the distance in several leaps.

Moreover, several factors operate to retard the “leftward” movement of the Stalinists and to render it highly spasmodic in character.

In the first place, the very gravity of the situation, and the greatly restricted arena for maneuver renders Moscow all the more avid for allies, no matter how unreliable, no matter how temporary and weak.

For example, in Brazil, long after the “left” turn in the United States, the Stalinists flung themselves into the embraces of dictator Vargas. In Argentina, right now, they are coquetting with Peron. The services of the Stalinists will probably be offered gratis for some time to any colonial and semi-colonial bourgeoisie that makes even a gesture of ranging itself against American imperialism.

Conversely, to gain a respite, or some trifling concession, no matter how ephemeral, Stalin will not hesitate to order an about-face or to sell out his puppet parties to Washington. The most recent case in point, is the Moscow deal, where the Yenan regime was bartered over the counter.

Moreover, in countries where the Stalin parties are powerful, their very strength operates as an obstacle to their turning too sharply to the left. For this immediately poses the question of the proletarian conquest of power. And this is precisely what the Kremlin fears the most. Not alone because it will precipitate war with the “democratic“ “ imperialists, but also because the European revolution may be unleashed thereby, and sweep away the Kremlin oligarchy itself in its raging flood. That is why the Stalinists remain in the cabinets in France and Italy. And that is why they will do everything in their power to remain in an alliance with the respective bourgeoisie to the last possible moment. An open break between the USSR and Washington-London would, of course, alter their role drastically. Driven into opposition, the strong Stalinist parties in western Europe could readily engage in such ventures as the one with the EAM in Greece.

Is it possible for the Stalinists in given countries, and especially the United States, to move as far in the next period as they did in 1929? This is by no means excluded. They are now executing a forced turn. In the critical and highly explosive situation that exists, all sorts of dizzy last minute twists and turns of policy are possible. In exceptional circumstances, if they find all avenues of escape blocked to them, these opportunists with bombs are quite capable of ultra-leftist adventurism, as they demonstrated several times previously.

In 1938 when England moved toward an anti-Soviet four-power alliance (Britain, France, Germany and Italy), Stalin – in a letter purportedly answering a young Russian – threatened the bourgeoisie with “world revolution.” Significantly references to this notorious “Ivanov letter” have been reappearing recently in the official Russian press. Stalin’s reply to Churchill repeats in different terms the 1938 bluff as a counter-threat to the threat of a two-power bloc against the USSR. It is a bluff because Stalinism cannot alter its counter-revolutionary character. But this does not at all mean that it is no longer capable of conducting adventurist policies. Ultra-leftism has as little in common with revolutionary Marxism as opportunism. This has been confirmed both in theory and practice.

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