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New International, December 1949


A. Babenko

Is an Underground Possible in Russia?

Experiences and Problems of the Resistance Movement


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 8, December 1949, pp. 236–241.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This question is of far more than simple practical significance. The existence of an underground would indicate that the contradictions in society find a way out, though in devious fashion, and that society itself is not rotting away as in the case of all the Asiatic despotisms where all opposition was suppressed. The suppression of contradictions in society is the Asiatic type of development; the growth and clash of contradictions is the European type. Modern civilization could develop only in the European social climate.

The replacement of democracies by dictatorships was known to all the civilizations which had hitherto existed. But only the European dictators (absolutists) were unable to concentrate in their hands all the power over society; they were compelled to share it, as with the landowning class, with the church, etc. In Asiatic societies individual freedom did not find such clear expression in private property as in Europe. Asia never knew the Roman law which so clearly defined the rights of a member of a society based on ownership. Today, when society is moving toward the abolition of private property in the means of production, we cannot overlook the extremely important role of this institution in the past. We cannot because we must make clear to ourselves exactly what in socialist society will take the place of private property as a safeguard of individual freedom.

Thus, the European dictatorships can be likened to the shell of an ordinary nut, hard enough to protect the kernel growing within it but permitting the new shoots to break through it, whereas Asiatic despotism grew into a shell so hard that the shoots of the new society could not break through, and they perished.

The Clash of Influences

Russia was always the land where Asiatic and European influences clashed. The institution of private property there bore no European character before Peter the Great. But even after Peter, the state manifested a tendency to expand public rights into the domain of civic relations as well. Thus, even at the beginning of the 19th century, the Czarist administrator Arakcheyev tried to introduce into Russia military settlements where the individuals and their possessions became the property of the state. In contradistinction to Europe, not only were the peasants enslaved but so were the higher class of the nobility.

The Russian Marxist, G. Plekhanov, wrote in his History of Russian Social Thought:

“Already in the second half of the 16th century the serving gentry [nobility] was completely enslaved by the state, and this enslavement – perhaps to a greater extent than the enslavement of the peasantry – made the sociopolitical regime of Muscovite Russia akin to similar regimes of the great Eastern despotisms.” (Vol. I, p. 79)

Another historian, the prominent liberal political leader, P. Milyukov, wrote on this question:

“The Moscow prince did not have to enter into struggle with the somewhat powerful feudal elements. He preferred therefore to learn his political art not from Poland or Western Europe but from Byzantium, from the Western Slavs and perhaps even from Turkey. The system of creating a military-administrative class dependent on the government was taken by the Moscow rulers from the East.” (Outline on the History of Russian Culture, Moscow 1918, part 1)

Somewhere else Milyukov states:

“The national ideology of Muscovite Russia was not chosen haphazardly or arbitrarily. Of the three border ideologies: city municipal-republican (Novgorod Pskov), Shlyakhta-feudal (Polish-Lithuanian) and Byzantine Turkish – the last was the most suitable for Moscow.” (P. Milyukov, National Problem, 1925, p. 118)

Russia was the last of the European countries to liquidate absolutism in 1917, and that only thanks to the cultural and political influence of Europe, which had always brought Russia out of the state of stagnation and ossification.

The Bolshevik dictatorship in its first phase (Leninist) was a dictatorship of more or less European type since the contradictions remained unliquidated and even open. These contradictions were represented by the state, on the one side, and by the workers’ trade unions as well as peasants cooperatives on the other.

These organizations collaborated with the state authority but, at the same time, were independent of it and even counterposed to it.

The victory of Stalinism signified for Russia the victory of the Asiatic influences and of the Asiatic type of development, though it continued to bear the name of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It may be noted, in passing, that even during Stalin’s struggle with the opposition in Russia, it was generally recognized that it was not so much a struggle of political platforms as of Bolshevik leaders who had always remained in Russia against Bolshevik emigrants who had resided for long periods in Western Europe. And the formula “Building socialism in one country” (Lenin did not use the word “building” but “victory,” that is, just the conquest of political power) meant that Bolshevism was forsaking internationalist proletarian positions for native Russian positions.

During the twenty years of Stalinist rule (beginning with 1929–30) Marxist teaching became an empty ritual and the Russian imperialist doctrine became predominant. It revived the spirit of Asiatic traditions, in particular the tradition of unlimited absolutism which penetrates even into the sphere of private-civic relations. Basing himself on these traditions, Stalin liquidated all the institutions which safeguarded individual freedom. And if the liquidation of small working peasants’ property was motivated by the tasks of the socialist transformation of the village, the liquidation of workers’ consumers cooperatives and their replacement by more costly bureaucratic state trade, could not be similarly motivated, nor could socialist arguments be applied to the liquidation of self-acting village communes and their replacement by an economy of lower, standard bureaucratic, type – the agricultural artel (Kolkhoz). The liquidation of the rights of the trade unions and their transformation into bureaucratic appendages to the state – the capitalist – lacked all justification.

An Enemy of Private Property

But it would be one-sided to regard the Stalinist dictatorship as a phenomenon absolutely alien to the world revolutionary process. Had this been the case, the tremendous influence of the USSR on the left workers’ movement could not be understood. Subjectively, the USSR of today has nothing in common with the working class. But as a new social formation (the state – the capitalist), it is a mortal enemy of the system of private property and therefore utilizes in its struggle against it all contradictions, in particular the struggle of the working class and of the colonial peoples. Out of its selfish national aims the Russian empire links up with this liberation struggle in order to crush its rivals and establish everywhere the system of state-capitalist satellites.

In this sense Stalinism fulfills in the world revolutionary process the function of Bonapartism, called upon, like its Napoleonic predecessor, to clean the Augean stables of Europe but this time not of the remnants of feudalism but of capitalism, and perhaps also of private property, if this is not accomplished in good time by democratic socialism. However, Napoleonic Bonapartism was not a dictatorship of the Asiatic type. Within its depth there developed freely the economically independent class of the bourgeoisie, which even at the height of Bonapartist bloom introduced correctives into the political and strategic plans of Bonaparte.

The prominent student of Napoleonic wars, the Russian academician, Tarle, wrote on this score:

“The French merchants prepared that event which was the first to shake Napoleon’s might. The bread speculators, by an artificially created scarcity, forced Napoleon to delay his Russian campaign for another two months, that is, for a time of the year when it was too late.”

And in Napoleon’s most difficult days of 1815, the Paris Bourse automatically increased his misfortunes by lowering the rate on government bonds. What social forces in the USSR would be able to make use of the misfortunes of Stalinism in similar fashion?

Stalinism and Slave Labor

If we find therefore in the Stalinist dictatorship elements of Bonapartism, we must at the same time not forget for a moment that the similarity is only a partial one and that Bonapartism paved the way for the free bourgeois society, while Stalinism is an ownerless social formation where slave labor is becoming the inalienable characteristic of the industrial process.

In the USSR there are not independent social layers capable of correcting Stalinist society even in covert fashion. If the weakness of Bonapartism before the growing new forces was its historic merit, the strength of Stalinism, which destroys not only the remnants of the old but the shoots of the new system (workers’ cooperation, agricultural communes, workers’ opposition) as well, is its historic crime.

Of course, every political regime will find its justification or, as Radek once said: “Once in power, the formulation will be found.” Stalinism can say: while there exists the powerful world of private property, whoever is in the way and hampers the struggle against capitalism, be it even a left-wing movement – is a traitor and an enemy, and must be destroyed. This formula would have been just had Stalinism been a part of the workers’ front, but it cannot be so regarded, and therefore Stalinism is the enemy of capitalism only in the same sense as Hitlerism was. It can serve only as a negative argument against capitalism: Behold what horrors the capitalist regime can bring.

Theoretically only a left underground is conceivable in the USSR. With the liquidation of private property, the right-wing underground lost its basis, in so far as the restoration of private property became impossible. Today, Stalinism has lost all fear of the White emigration, and a former Denikin officer can return to the USSR without apprehension. He is not feared there. Only the opposition from the left is dangerous to Stalinism, for it can say: “Good; no return to private property but down with new owners as well – the owners through the state, who exploit the peoples of the USSR.”

Against that kind of program Stalinism is helpless because its strength lies in the struggle with the old property system. In that struggle it was helped by Marxism, in that struggle the working class was incapable of offering resistance to it. But now Marxism comes out against Stalinism (against slave labor in the USSR, no matter what the justification for it might be). Stalinism is losing its proletarian ideological weapon and must hastily re-form along nationalist lines. Whoever sees present-day Soviet films cannot but be struck by vulgar Russian chauvinism (for instance, the destruction of Berlin is shown to be followed by bragging: “And here is our Moscow!” What appeal can this have for the Berlin workers?) This does not occur painlessly, however, and Stalinism tries to save itself by ever new purges, destroying the remnants of communist elements.

Any mass movement in the USSR against Stalinism, any underground must therefore inevitably occupy left positions. This is precisely what has happened with the movement known under the name of the Ukrainian Liberation Army (UPA).

Conditions for the Rise of UPA

The question arises: How could an anti-Stalinist underground and even an armed struggle arise in the USSR when before the war Stalinism had liquidated all germs of any opposition? Three reasons condition the rise of the Ukrainian underground and of the UPA:

  1. The fact that Stalinism has definitely gone over from the struggle against restorationist counterrevolutionary elements who had lost all significance after the war, to the struggle against the democratization of the Soviet regime. That change is what created the general crisis of Stalinism.
  2. The general weakening of the Soviet police system after the war.
  3. The inclusion in the USSR after the war of Western-Ukrainian lands which possessed the perfected apparatus of a revolutionary underground.

That the UPA and the revolutionary underground arose only in the Western Ukrainian regime annexed to the USSR after the war testifies to the fact that the first two conditions were insufficient for the rise of an underground in the USSR. Although the fact that Stalinism went over to the struggle against the left had produced a general crisis and created “open spaces” for the revolutionists, these spaces could not be occupied, for there were no revolutionary cadres. The ferocious Asiatic system of Stalinism not only destroyed the opposition, it atomized society, disrupted public opinion; a pre-war inhabitant of Soviet Russia could share his views with no one, there were no discussions and ideas could not develop in the consciousness of separate individuals.

Before the war Stalinism evolved an absolutely new type of man, mindful of authority and holding no convictions of his own. His highest virtue was the ability to foresee the wishes of his superiors, just as in capitalist society it is considered a virtue to foresee and utilize market conjunctures. Stalinism succeeded almost completely in atrophying the social instincts. It mercilessly removed all buffers between the state and the human personality, inclusive of school children, parental guardianship over whom is under the strictest governmental control. Therefore were the Soviet man to gain freedom, he would not know at first how to use it. He is unaccustomed to it, and the youth know nothing of it.

The Terrorist Groups

That is why after the war the genuinely Soviet lands knew no political underground organizations though there were “open spaces” and many had gone into hiding (army deserters, refugees from concentration camps). These people sought individual cover and, at best, created semi-criminal, semi-political organizations. A terrorist group, “Black Cat,” which operates in the cities of the Ukraine, White Russia and even in Russia, is such an organization. It does away with prominent NKVD-men, robs them of documents. The “Black Cat” proclaims no political program but its terrorist acts have some political significance nonetheless since a purely criminal organization would not engage in mass murders of prominent Soviet officials.

On the other hand, such an organization is an expression only of despair and is incapable of becoming a strong revolutionary force. Nevertheless, the existence of the “Black Cat,” under the conditions of Soviet urbanism, would have been utterly impossible before the war and testifies to the loosening up of the Soviet police system. On the other hand, the fact that the “empty spaces” are not filled by truly revolutionary political forces testifies to the fact that Stalinism has completely degenerated into a dictatorship of the Asiatic type, which has destroyed not only the physical but even the psychological prerequisites for further development.

Therefore, without revolutionary intervention from without, the USSR is doomed to rot. That is why some elements among the emigrants, even socialists, who have no faith in the revolutionary struggle against “Bolshevism,” have seized on the only remaining means – the war. And a weird spectacle presents itself: socialists in the role of war instigators. This is a symptom of emigrant degeneration and is a position unworthy even of discussion in socialist ranks. People refuse to understand that Stalinism is the reverse side of capitalist society and that it exists so long as capitalism exists, or at least, capitalist monopolies, that the struggle against Stalinism is above all the struggle against capitalism. Should capitalism disappear, Stalinism and its Cominforms will disappear.

But it is in the nature of Stalinism and its vital necessity to expand its borders, and therein lies its doom; since by expanding westward it will include within its borders ever fresh European elements of resistance. Such an element is also the Western-Ukrainian land, of which Galicia was never under Russian influence, having always been under Western influence, in particular, for a long period as part of Austria-Hungary. Under German influence the Western Ukrainians have brilliantly mastered German organizational methods, utilizing them in all spheres of social life (cooperation, cultural work, etc.). But with especial brilliance they have applied these organizational methods in the political field. Here we have in mind above all the organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).

This organization arose after the First World War as a reaction of intellectual youth to the defeat of the national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people. The activity of this organization was directed mainly against the Polish state. While Leninist national policy, which supported the national regeneration of the Ukrainian people, was applied in the Ukraine, a substantial portion of the Western-Ukrainian intelligentsia was pro-Soviet, the nationalist youth remained in passive opposition to the Soviet regime and a considerable portion even followed the CPWU. The routing of Trotskyism and after that also of Ukrainian communism (Khvylvoi-Skrypnik) led to a complete decline of the CPWU and to the growth of nationalist moods in the Soviet Ukraine.

The Nationalism of the Oppressed

This was the nationalism of an oppressed people, by its nature a progressive one. However, it was directed not only against Polish imperialism but also against the Soviet regime, which was degenerating into imperialism, and also against communism and socialism in general. This nationalism therefore soon fell under the influence of fascism and Nazism, which were then sweeping Europe. The ideology of reactionary militant nationalism became dominant within Ukrainian nationalism at the beginning of the war although, at the same time, not a few people from the CPWU and of the youth who sought in the nationalist movement not domination but national and social equality (not having found it in the Communist movement) had gone over to it.

At any rate, up to the war there were two tendencies within Ukrainian nationalism under Poland: one standing on the platform of reactionary nationalism of the master-nation (fascism) and seeking support in Nazi Germany, and the other – standing on the platform of progressive nationalism of oppressed nations and approaching the ideology of revolutionary socialism. The first tendency was ideologically impotent since it was torn by contradictions. On the one hand, it struggled against the subjugation of the Ukrainian people and, on the other, it itself advocated the subjugation of others. But at the beginning of the war this tendency became dominant in Western Ukraine in conjunction with the rule of German Nazism in Eastern Europe. The other, the anti-fascist tendency of Western-Ukrainian nationalism, was the original combination of nationalism with revolutionary socialism.

Views of Anti-Fascist Nationalism

The liquidation of private property in Soviet Ukraine is considered progressive, the kolkhozes – a higher form of economy but it demanded that this belong to the Ukrainian people themselves, not to Russian imperialism. Not bound by Marxist doctrine, nor by socialist traditions, this movement was more daring and more irreconcilable in its criticism of “Bolshevism,” completely denying that it had any revolutionary mission and regarding it as the mortal enemy of the toilers. It could not accept the idea that Bolshevism could have retained any revolutionary significance whatever in the objective historical sense, and in that sense this tendency foresaw the final stage of the Russian Revolution which is now taking form within the USSR and the meaning of which consists in the cessation of the process of destruction and in directing social consciousness from the struggle for merely historical aims to the struggle above all for the living person. Not the individual for the revolution but all that exists and all the conquests of the revolution for the individual.

Ukrainian nationalism added another idea, the idea of the nation as the final aim of the revolutionary process. A proletarian revolution is not made in a cosmopolitan void, but in concrete conditions of a given nation, which Stalinism turned into a fiction but which is a historic reality. Being alien to a sane national idea but incapable of breaking out of concrete national reality, Stalinism has actually capitulated before Russian imperialist nationalism. Leninism solved the national problem by a compromise and in a harmonic blending of the all-human with the national. Stalinism, having rejected the compromise, rejected the idea of national freedom. But in order to realize this utopia it was compelled to base itself on ... Russian nationalism.

It is in the organizational field, not the ideological that Ukrainian nationalism has played by far the greater role. Having passed for hundreds of years through the most perfect German organizational school, having organizational experience in its blood, so to say, and differing completely in this sense from the population of the Soviet (Russian) Ukraine where there was no organizational school whatever but only Zaporozhe-Haidamak and Makhno elemental forces, the population of Western-Ukraine, in the form of nationalism, created an organization and worked out a revolutionary technique of a quality whose equal it is difficult to find in the history of the revolutionary movements. In the last years before the war and especially in the war period, the organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) actually controlled the life of over eight million Ukrainians of Western Ukraine, whose entire population is around fourteen million. The OUN had the greatest influence in Galicia, the former province of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

During the war, through the efforts of various Ukrainian political organizations, there was created in the rear of the Germans a partisan movement which formed into the Ukrainian Liberation Army (UPA). The UPA actually dominated over the entire Western Ukraine and only the industrial centers and the railroad stations were in the hands of the Hitlerites. The Hitlerites retained in their hands only the railroad centers and the railroad stations, which looked like eighteenth century fortifications – surrounded by double log walls, buried under earth from within. These fortresses were guarded by small soldier garrisons and formed protection for the German army’s contact with the Eastern front. In the rout of the German armies in the East, no small role was played by the UPA. When the Soviet armies came into the Western Ukraine, the UPA took the road of struggle against the new occupants who brought with them a frightful terror, accusing everyone of “betrayal” and connections with Nazism. At that time, the UPA finally liquidated various political groupings and the whole movement became subordinated to the OUN. The program of the movement reflected the abandonment of the ideas of reactionary nationalism.

The UPA and OUN were joined by many Soviet elements, among whom there were people who had gone through the Marxian political school and who were theoretically much stronger than the old OUN cadres. On the other hand, these cadres, too, saw in the Soviet Ukraine a new life and above all a new village. Before them was not the downtrodden peasant whom they saw in the Western Ukraine but an energetic worker of a large industrialized agricultural economy, who hated Stalinism but did not want any return to small property holdings.

Program of the Underground

All this resulted in the entire underground OUN and UPA adopting the social-economic program of socialism: in the independent Ukrainian republic a democratic regime with socialized means of production, with three social layers – workers, peasants and the intelligentsia. Ideologically, in the ranks of the UPA there exist several tendencies, beginning with revolutionary Marxism (Gornovoy) and ending with consistent nationalists, hostile on principle to the ideology of social democratism, and rejecting all class struggle. Their ideologist, M. Poltava, says, however:

“When the Ukrainian people acquire full political independence and build their life on just democratic foundations, then and only then will it be possible to place the principle of socialized property fully at the service of the Ukrainian people. Only then will this principle become the basis for a genuinely happy, prosperous and cultured life, and a mighty factor in the development of the productive forces of the Ukraine. Return to capitalism under the conditions of the Ukraine would in all respects be a step backward, a regression.” (Position of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement, p. 28)

In other words, Poltava is a socialist but he came to socialism not through the doctrine but through living Ukrainian reality. And this is all the more striking because his doctrine is a petty-bourgeois nationalist one and it capitulates fully before reality. This is the most telling argument against all the restorationists (Ukrainian and other) who dream of the restoration of private property in the means of production in the USSR. Therefore also Poltava’s struggle against socialism must be regarded as a misunderstanding. It is rather a struggle against the practise of the European Socialist and Communist parties, a protest against their opportunism, imperialism or totalitarianism and a servile attitude to counter-revolutionary Stalinism.

Thus, Western-Ukrainian nationalism, fructified by the ideas of the great revolution, has created such a mighty organization that the dreadful machine of Stalinist terror has thus far been unable to overcome it. Even the agreement of the four powers – the USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Rumania – on a united struggle against the UPA has only restricted the scope of this movement, driven it underground; but it has not destroyed it. The rebels feel that the NKVD is not all-powerful, that it is possible to fight against it. Thus under the conditions of the Asiatic despotism of Stalinism there has appeared a European characteristic, an antithesis – the organized rejection of despotism, struggle for the highest stage of development (ownershipless democracy). This factor could not appear in the native Soviet lands (even though Ukrainian) which lived in the cultural climate of Russia.

The Soviet man was so debilitated by Stalinist Asiatism, so de-Europeanized, that he lost hope in overcoming Stalinism from within. The rejection of Stalinism came from without, from the cultural climate of Europe (Western Ukraine) where there was preserved not only the social, non-atomized person but where almost for three decades there were trained cadres of revolutionary idealists, disciplined and self-sacrificing, taught by the newest methods of the underground and the struggle against totalitarianism. These men could not only stand up against the NKVD and retain the underground in the Western Ukraine, but they spread it to Soviet Ukraine where all the prerequisites existed, but where the organization and the man-idealist with faith in victory were lacking.

Thus within the conditions of the Ukraine a problem of the greatest world-historic importance is being resolved: Will the anti-Stalinist underground survive in the USSR? Will the Ukrainian rebels and men of the underground establish in Soviet reality the factor denying Asiatic despotism, that is, will they succeed in setting Soviet society on the road of development and not stagnation? Or, in other words, will the Ukrainian revolutionary resistance push the Stalinist system from the Asiatic to the European road of development?

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