Stalin's Russia: Continuity thesis not tenable

Submitted by AWL on 23 November, 2011 - 10:24

By Paul Hampton

Sam Farber’s work is always worth reading, but I don’t think Martyn Hudson does anyone any favours by rehashing selected bits that coincide with his preconceptions (Solidarity 224, 9 November).

Farber and Pirani deserve to be read seriously, but neither appears to subscribe to the view advanced repeatedly by Martyn: namely the “continuity thesis” that Leninism led to Stalinism. In the article Martyn quotes (from Against the Current 136), Farber states that there were major “qualitative differences” between Leninism in power and Stalinism.

In my view, the continuity thesis is a Cold War relic with little relevance today, not least because the differences between the regimes before and after 1928 are abundantly clear.

The point is also existential: anyone who seriously believes there is continuity between Leninism and Stalinism will find it difficult to remain a revolutionary socialist. The working class cannot make a successful socialist revolution and hold power without its own revolutionary party. If such a party is inevitably doomed to degenerate into Stalinism in power, then such a revolution would not be a goal worth pursuing on working-class democratic grounds.

Martyn conflates two issues: first, the relationship between Bolshevism and Stalinism and second, the character of the regime in power after the 1917 revolution and the possibilities for workers’ democracy between 1921 and 1924.

Farber and Pirani are mainly concerned with the latter. Farber argues that the Leninist regime (1921-24) “harmed workers’ democracy for reasons that could not be simply reduced to “objective necessity” and seriously weakened the possibilities of successful resistance to Stalinism”. He believes the regime “politically disarmed the working class and the peasantry and made them unable to resist the onslaught of Stalinism”.

Farber and Pirani are right to criticise those who exaggerate objective circumstances, structures and contexts during this transition period, to the exclusion of agency, strategy and tactics. However they do not represent adequately Lenin and Trotsky’s perspective when they fought against the bureaucratic regime as it emerged.

Lenin and Trotsky believed that the agents for any kind of workers’ self-rule in Russia in the early 1920s were the vanguard workers within the ruling party. Their assessment was that the forces forged before the revolution together with those tempered by the experience of 1917 and the resulting civil war were the principal agents that could fight the burgeoning bureaucracy. Hence Lenin and Trotsky’s concentration on the party cadres to prolong workers’ rule.

Of course the party contained more than a few rotten bureaucrats. Some decent, class conscious workers did leave the party in disgust at what was growing within the state and the party they had built — and made some valid criticisms. But I’m not convinced that forces outside the party were a real alternative to the mainstream Bolsheviks around Lenin and Trotsky, somehow better able to have sustained a more serious fight against the rising state bureaucracy, its power and its privileges.

The Bolsheviks made mistakes during and after the civil war. But would alternative Bolshevik policies have made a difference? Interestingly, Pirani argues that even more democratic choices were unlikely to have greatly altered the course of history. Rightly he accepts that the “mountainous obstacles” of “Russia’s economic backwardness and the failure of the revolution to spread” were central to the rise of the bureaucratic ruling class.

The main thing I take from Pirani’s research and other recent studies is the evidence of persistent political zest in the Russian working class and hence the possibility of some democratic reform in the 1920s. But I think the party cadres were still the key to this unlocking this potential, however limiting the circumstances were.

I also think Pirani’s wider political conclusions are mistaken: first, his view that the Bolshevik party is no longer a model for today; and second, his argument that Russia beyond the first months after the 1917 revolution was not a “workers’ state” of any kind, whatever the qualifications. These are much bigger questions — but I don’t think these conclusions necessarily follow from Pirani’s or other research.

Unfortunately Martyn’s letters have not adequately grappled with these substantial issues and short letters are probably the worst vehicle for doing so, since inevitably they compress much that requires elaboration. A fully rounded assessment of the Bolshevik regime and its mistakes from 1917 to 1928 is worthwhile on its own terms and for the lessons it might offer for today.

I hope Martyn will develop his views in greater depth and with more precision.

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