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John Passant

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October 2010



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Germany, the overthrow of Stalinism and the left

20 years ago East and West Germany reunited after a mass movement in the East tore down the Wall and overthrew the Stalinist dictatorship.

It was a liberating moment for the left as the edifice of anti-revolutionary and anti-socialist  Stalinism crumbled under the pressure from below. It was, as Trotsky presciently put it, the revenge of history.

The revolutions against the Stalinist monstrosities vindicated the stance of those on the left like me who argued that Stalinism had nothing in common with socialism, and in fact was a form of capitalism; what we in the international socialist tendency call state capitalism.

Yet the fall of Stalinism in its heartland confused many left wingers. They had imagined nationalised property relations as the essence of socialism and so the collapse of the regimes represented a defeat for socialism.

They misunderstand socialism. They see it as a top down process. They mistake property relations under capitalism for property relations under socialism. They put form over substance.

For these socialists the Red Army (or a de-classed guerrilla army, peasants or intellectuals in other contexts) rather than the working class is the bearer of socialism. And thus the nationalisation of the free market system in Eastern Europe under Russian bayonets was for them somehow socialist. 

This abandons everything that the genuine Marxist tradition stands for. No need for a revolution, no need for working class self-activity, no need for democracy – just nationalisation and we magically have socialism.

There is no analysis of who controls the state and in whose interests the state rules.

It’s a mistaken view. For Marx the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class. Not the act of intellectuals or peasants or the Red Army but the working class.  It is in the struggle to overthrow capitalism that the working class becomes fit to govern.

But it is more than just workers taking over the capitalist state and using it for its own purposes. The working class has to set up its own democratic organs of rule. Marx again, this time from the Civil War in France:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Marx goes on to describe the new organs of rule the Communards set up – universal suffrage based on the wards of the commune; representatives and public servants paid the average wage and subject to immediate recall; the abolition of the standing army and the police as agents of repression. The commune became a working body, not a parliamentary one, where executive and legislative functions merged.

The Russian Revolution built on this, electing representatives from the workplace to workers’ councils (or Soviets in Russian).  They too were subject to automatic recall, and paid the average wage. The revolution itself was the transfer of power from the old feudal regime (with a sudden new found democratic veneer) to this new beacon of democracy and working class rule.

The dream died when the revolution failed to spread and the backwardness of Russian society saw Stalin rise to power. By 1930, with his first 5 year ‘plan’ and the elimination of almost all dissent, Stalin had set up a regime that eventually killed off most of the old revolutionary Bolsheviks, forced the peasantry off its land into the newly created workplaces and attacked workers to industrialise the country rapidly.

Stalin defeated the revolution from within and established a form of capitalism in which the state became the embodiment of all bosses – economic, political and ideological. In this he mirrored the trend to the merger of the state and capital that Lenin and Bukharin had identified as the logical development of competitive capitalism and the basis of imperialism.

Marx also wrote (this time in the Communist Manifesto) that capitalism breeds its own gravedigger – the working class. By building a strong working class on the back of the peasantry in Russia, and doing so in the space of a decade rather than centuries, Stalin and his henchmen laid the basis for the revolutions of 1989 to 1991 across Europe.

These revolution overthrew the Stalinist version of capitalism and moved sideways economically to the misnamed neoliberal or free market version.

The inefficiency of State capitalism compared to its Western cousin saw it become uncompetitive and the seemingly strong state collapse.

While it was a sideways step economically in terms of the essential nature of the capitalism and wage slavery remaining, it showed the power of ordinary people in confronting and overthrowing the seemingly invincible dictatorships that ruled their lives.

The Western bourgeoisie saw in the East a reflection of the weakness of its own rule. The propaganda barrage that followed  was a pack of lies about the superiority of Western capitalism, but it resonated strongly with people who had suffered the political and economic privations of the Stalinist dictatorship.

There was no organised working class movement with enough political clarity to lead a workers’ revolution against either form of capitalism. In Hungary in 1956 the Stalinists sent in their troops to defeat a workers’ revolution against Stalinism, and the West cheered them on, silently.

In Poland the magnificent Solidarity movement shook the dictatorship to its core but did not go that further step and set up its own system of rule over capitalism. It tipped into the dustbin of history the Stalinist regime only to see many of the apparatchiks take over the mantel of the new state and industry and continue the expropriation of social surplus for the purpose of accumulation in its private rather than nationalised guise.

The Stalinists in China, shaken by the working class and student movement of 1989 in their own country and the mass movements in Europe, opened up the economy to the market in a bid (to date successful) to maintain their own power and privilege.

In Cuba the Castro clique have now begun the same process with a further reaching out to the market and double speak about ‘socialist efficiency’ which like all lies under exploitative regimes is really about making the working class and poor peasantry pay for the crises that flow from the capitalist accumulation process.

We on the left should celebrate the overthrow of stalinism in Eastern Europe and Russia as laying the groundwork for the next stage in the liberation of humanity – genuine democratic socialism where workers themselves decide what is to be produced to satisfy human need and where the  idea and practice of profit – statised or private – becomes a curio in the museum of history.

In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Those on the left who argue for a return to the good ole days of stalinism or imagine a state capitalist nirvana in the East or the West are stuck in the vice of history as farce.

Socialism from above is dead. Long live socialism from below. 

The idea that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class is knocking on the door of history. We on the left should not be deaf to it. 

The first step on the road to the  liberation of humanity is the abolition of both versions of capitalism – individual and state capitalism.  That is the world historic task of the international working class and should be the goal of the revolutionary left.

Readers might also like to look at the two souls of socialism on this site.



Comment from Shane H
Time October 4, 2010 at 11:54 pm

I don’t think Stalinism collapsed due to pressure from below. Its complicated but basically the mafia that ran the soviet union decided its interests were best served by selling the state assets to each other and looting the country.

Of more interest though as you quote Hal Draper who wrote the key text on ‘Two Souls’ – what do you make of his other work? ‘Towards a new beginning’

Comment from John
Time October 5, 2010 at 1:26 am

Thanks Shane. I think it was a combination of factors – especially the inefficiency of state capitalism by the early 70s and the push from below. Solidarity fr example made the ongoing successful and cost effective exploitation of workers in Poland more difficult.

I agree with Draper when he says:

The process of formation of the Bolshevik tendency –

1.created a body of doctrine, a body of political literature expressing a unified kind of revolutionary socialism;
2.formed cadres of party workers and militants around this political core;
3.established its “kind of socialism” as a presence in left politics, with its own physiognomy and name.

It seems to me there is something going on in countries like Australia that has that process of formation as its goal, not yet its reality. We are to use Draper’s terms building the political centre. That involves applying a body of doctrine like socialism from below, state capitalism and the like, (see for example our magazine socialist alternative at and the links there to our new review Marxist left review as well, plus our study groups, meetings, interventions in struggles and the like), establishing our presence on the left and building cadre…

Now I am sure you would agree that the Bolsheviks’ relationship with the rest of the left was much more nuanced and dialectical than Draper gives credit for, perhaps because his real target in the article was his own circumstances. Part of those circumstances stemmed for ‘the end of capitalism is nigh’ approach, the majority view of Stalinised Russia as a degenerated workers’ state (although Draper himself was a bureaucratic collectivist) and the dominance of stalinism as a current within the developed countries’ labour movements.

I quite like Lars Lih’s Lenin rediscovered: what is to be done? It is worth a read for a deeper understanding of Leninist party building. So too I think is Mick Armstrong’s from little Things Big Things Grow…Available from Socialist Alternative – see the link above for details.

Comment from John
Time October 5, 2010 at 6:36 pm

The CCCP coup attempt smashed on the streets? The hundreds of thousands who turned out in Berlin to tear down the wall? The civil war in Romania? The rise and survival of Solidarity in Poland and a situation approaching dual power. I think Shane we need to be careful not to dismiss the role of working people in the overthrow of Stalinism.

Comment from Marco
Time October 6, 2010 at 11:26 am


Sorry to come up with yet another off topic comment, but my blood is just boiling.

When a journalist finally decides to do an investigative piece on poverty in Sydney (unlike some of her colleagues at SMH, who can’t bother themselves with reading the information made freely available by ABS), the reception she receives is simply disgusting.

Have a look at the comments to

The big divide: the super rich versus struggle street, by Jessica Irvine and Damien Murphy
October 6, 2010

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