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The Stalin myths after the Soviet Union 
Roger Keeran & Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers Inc., New York, 2004. 

An Economy for the Common Good: Strategy for a New Direction, Communist Party of Ireland, Dublin 2009.

Reviewed by by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

4 December 2009

Since the Soviet Union imploded, it is natural that those who term themselves Marxists should examine the causes for this event.  Arguably, those, like this writer, who belong to the tradition represented by Leon Trotsky have been less energetic than they should have been in pursuing this investigation. This is partly because they knew that the system perfected by J.V. Stalin could not last, though they disagreed how it would end: in political revolution against the bureaucratic state regime or in that regime restoring full-blown capitalism. Both seemed possible; indeed, both were possible before 1991, though the events of that year and immediately before make it clear that the bureaucratic-liquidationist solution was from an early time always more probable. What is certain is that whether from complacency, or just lack of resources, the heirs of Trotsky seem to be failing to explain the implosion effectively enough to negate the faith in the methods that led to the crash. 

This space has to be filled for two reasons. Firstly, the event concerned is of major importance: indeed, for Marxists, the most important event of the last twenty years. Secondly, if it is not investigated in depth by Bolshevik-Leninists, the space will be, and is being filled by others, most obviously by avowed enemies of Marxism and of the working class, but also by apologists for the fallen regime intent on creating a Stalin legend in imitation of the post-1815 Napoleonic one.

It is not necessary to examine the first of these investigations. It can be said that the line is all too predictable: socialism means Stalinism, a nation state or a collection thereof governed by a single party dictatorship that runs everything by fiat in the name of the proletariat and which is bound to fail because of the nature of economic life and of humanity, no other possibilities being entertained. Of course, once such an alternative model is entertained, (a world-wide socialist society, for example) the argument collapses. Accordingly, the books under consideration are examples of the second school, that of the heirs of those who accepted and defended the stalinised Soviet union, not as a major victory in the workers struggle towards socialism but as ‘Socialism actually achieved.’

Each of the works are very different in scope. The first must be regarded as a contribution to a Stalin legend, since it explains the implosion within boundaries set by the man’s political actions. The second is less dogmatic, indeed the authors of the first might consider it Bukharinite, but it is clear that it tries to apply the eclectic policies of Popular Front Stalinism to resolve the major problems posed by the current crisis in modern Ireland. It is more digestible than the first book, mainly because it is more eclectic. Nonetheless, its selection of facts and policies is made within a fuzzy context that clears occasionally to show the familiar features of single country ‘socialism’.

Kenny and Keeran are not above such evasions themselves. It is not always clear whether they consider the USSR a fully socialist society or whether they regard it as merely building socialism. What is clear is that they believe that such a society was and is possible within the borders of a single state: that within these limits ‘the producers [could regain] control over the product of their own labour’.(196)  What is interesting is that the authors do not ask how far the producers were able to go in achieving this desirable aim. Stalin is praised for limiting commodity production as the first step. However, there is none of the talk common among Stalinite circles before 1991 of the whole people of the USSR intervening decisively in drafting the economic plans. For that matter, no evidence is presented to show that Stalin was doing more than maintain an holding operation on suppressing the market. No mention is made of Stalin’s original alliance with Bukharin (against Lenin and Trotsky) to open the soviet economy to imperialist forces by ending the state monopoly of foreign trade. Above all, Trotsky’s case against Socialism in One Country, his warning against  isolating a socialised but backward economy in the midst of better developed capitalist economies, is ignored. The only substantial reference to him in this work is a single paragraph of ten lines giving a digest of his position and ending  ‘Trotsky and the Left Opposition were decisively defeated at the 14th Party Congress in 1925, which adopted a course of rapid industrialisation and self-sufficiency’ (P.17).

Keeran and Kenny could argue that they are dealing with the events leading immediately to the Soviet collapse in 1991 and that in this period Trotsky’s ideas played little part in the struggle between Stalinites and Bukharinites. On this, they are accurate, but they should recognise that this absence was both a collateral result of the policies that ensured the ultimate catastrophe and a factor in producing it. In the first place, it was, after all, not Stalin or Bukharin, but Trotsky, in February 1935, who anticipated that ‘the inevitable collapse of the Stalinist political regime will lead to the establishment of Soviet democracy only in the event that the removal of Bonapartism comes as the conscious act of the proletarian vanguard. In all other cases, in place of Stalinism there could only come the fascist-capitalist counter-revolution.’ Secondly, quite apart from the correctness of Trotsky’s ideas as against those of his rivals, their absence in the debate meant that its centre of gravity was placed firmly to the right: the Stalinite centrists against the neo-Bukharinite rightists.

That this could be so can be traced to the terrible war of 1918-22, a conflict longer, wider in scope and, above all, more bitter than the civil war waged subsequently in Ireland’s twenty-six counties. Though not united, all other parties in the country were agreed in opposing the new Communist regime, most of them allied with the victorious Entente and Americans. To protect itself, the Soviet power became a single party state. Then, as the war approached its end, a turn had to be made from War Communism to the controlled commodity production of the NEP. To prevent splits over this turn, which had created a bitter faction fight already, in 1921, the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party, in 1921, banned party factions and tendencies as a temporary measure.  Lenin and Trotsky agreed to this; Trotsky lived to regret it  A cynic could argue that this was the result of his defeat, but he had a valid case. The natural result of the ban was to handicap open factionalism and inhibit debate. Trotsky’s defeat at the Fourteenth Party Congress was caused by an illegal undeclared faction of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Having achieved power aided by temporary measures that curtailed open discussion, Stalin set them in stone. The party was not merely to lead the Soviet state, it was to be identical with it.

Of course, as the authors insist, there was some ‘persistence of ideological diversity and debate in the Party’ (P.21). However, their chosen example is the post-war Zhdanov-Malenkov debate, which shows its limits very clearly. Their account of it is deficient; Stalin’s Economic Problems shows distinct signs of a new Zhdanov-ism. More importantly, their statement that, at the end of the debate ‘Zhdanov died, his closest allies were demoted, and two of them were tried for treason and executed’ (P.22: this writer’s italics) does not present the idea that conditions for ‘diversity and debate’ were exactly healthy.

Nor do they address seriously the suppression of dissent outside the Politburo. They make it clear that they approve the suppression of literature critical of the Soviet Union and see Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ as an error. The name of Trofim Lysenko is not mentioned, so there is no investigation of the results of the enforcement of his erroneous genetic theories in the name of Marxism. The open letter of Medvedev, Sakharov and Turchin is mentioned but dismissed as containing ‘no criticism of the capitalist west’ (P.157), yet their exposure of soviet industrial growth as quantitative (large-scale production of basic resources) rather than qualitative (initiation of new techniques) is relevant to that state’s developing problems, not least two of the three objective problems mentioned by Keeran and Kenny (P.36) as facing the USSR: ‘the relative exhaustion of natural resources’ and ‘the challenge of adopting new computer technology.’ In any case, the authors prefer to concentrate on Brezhnev’s policy defects as recognised by Yuri Andropov, who did not live long enough to tackle them successfully, and in ‘making the reform process deeper and broader’ (P.186). would have been likely to have resorted to old Stalinite methods that could provoke Bukharinite reaction.

Above all, suppression of discussion meant a steady deterioration in political life. On major state matters, the working people were objects rather than subjects for the process. Keeran and Kenny insist that ‘the empowerment of working people’ in the Soviet Union had features that ‘surpassed any capitalist society’ (P.191). They do not examine the features therein that prevented this empowerment reaching to the top. The restorers of capitalism were able to get support for their calls for bourgeois ‘democracy’ because proletarian democracy was restricted, to say the least.

The CPSU could not change matters because it was part of the problem. While the authors try to play it down, they cannot avoid revealing some telling facts: ‘Rank and file Communists were not inert, but they were accustomed to acting in response to Party [Leadership-DRO’CL] initiative, not to initiating action against a Party leader.’ (P.155) ‘The Party lacked the vigilance and will to suppress the second economy and attendant Party and government corruption. The party became too lax about its membership, opening its door too widely, particularly to non-workers. Democratic centralism had deteriorated. Ties between the Party and the working class through the trade unions, soviets and other mechanisms (sic) ossified. Criticism and self-criticism withered Party unity and defending the leader’s line evidently became the supreme virtues. Ideological development waned.’ (P.187)  On page 64, the reader is told how Konstantin Chernenko, Party General Secretary between Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, kept ‘desk draws stuffed with bank notes. Bank notes also filled half of the General Secretary’s personal secret office safe.’ Possibly, as the authors believe, had Andropov lived, he would have reversed matters (not least by blocking Chernenko from succeeding him), but he would have found the party a very blunted instrument in aiding him, and, in any case, his inheritance from Stalin deprived him of certain ideological aids while placing a premium on brute force. The Party had become a one-way street closed to the entrance of proletarian revolutionary theory but more open to ideas from imperialism, particularly when filtered through and reinforced by the Soviet Union’s secret, growing, commodity-based Second Economy. Such links cushioned the effects of Gorbachev’s initial cuts in the bureaucracy. Meanwhile those who wished to protect the gains of what they believed to be ‘actually achieved socialism’ tried to stem the flood from parked vehicles. It had been comparatively easy to suppress working class resistance to Stalinism, but this resulted in any resistance being concentrated around petit bourgeois currents, the dissident intellectuals and, increasingly, the Second Economy.  Bukharinism could draw strength from that economy; as Trotsky himself recognised (see above); Trotskyism needs a strong conscious working class at home and internationally. A state formed by proletarian revolution needs such revolutions elsewhere to survive. In the end, it cannot be said honestly that Gorbachev was more than the occasion rather than the cause of the implosion. 

Keeran and Kenny cannot admit this, probably because they would have to face the major contribution to it of Stalin, the CPSU’s longest serving General Secretary. Indeed, their work is full of examples of whitewash of the man. On occasion, they denounce his successors for actions that had their Stalinite precedents. Khrushchev is attacked for proposing to unite the central Asian Soviet Republics (P.30), yet Stalin had tried to create a united republic of the three transcaucasian nations.  Khrushchev expanded Party membership (P.33); Stalin had done so before him (the Lenin levy). Gorbachev’s allies are accused of stuffing the media with letters supporting his line (PP.119 120, 126); Stalin’s allies did the same. Keeran and Kenny may reply that Stalin’s tactics were applied in defence of socialism, whereas his successors used them to destroy it. Nonetheless, in the long run, Stalin’s use of such tactics contributed only less than his reign of terror and curtailment of proletarian democracy to the train of events leading to 1991.

Yes, Stalin did industrialise Russia, and, yes, he did lead Russia successfully to defeat Nazism. Yet his policies had contributed to the rise of the Nazis in the first place, while his methods of industrialising the USSR helped negate his expectations that such industrialisation would lead to socialism in a single country.
It must be said that there are times when Keeran and Kenny seem to recognise something of this. This writer cannot disagree in principle with their statement that ‘there was no problem with a multi-party socialist state, provided that the working-class party had the leading role and the other parties accepted working-class state-power and socialism, that is, they were not counter-revolutionary’ (P.150). It should be added that the devil is in the detail; a multi-party state in which the non-Communist parties have been created by the Communist Parties (as in the old German Democratic Republic) is a farce. Moreover, what the authors seem, from other references, to mean by the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ might be delegated to a Communist State Control Commission/Supreme Court that would interpret the necessary socialist constitution. 

More definitely, this book has certain uses. This is not least in its list of the now mostly vanished positive aspects of soviet society (See Appendix: it is worth repeating that it wasn’t all secret police and concentration camps, let alone slave labour) and in its second chapter that reveals the extent of ‘The Second Economy’, though it underestimates the direct influence of imperialism in creating it.

Despite these virtues, it is a relief to turn to the pamphlet produced by the Communist Party of Ireland. Although shorter than Keeran and Kenny, it contains a larger proportion with which it is possible to agree. The basic history and economics show that the CPI has still cause to claim that it is a Marxist body.

On the other hand, there are gaps, even in these passages, that could be filled with little trouble. The passage on the ‘trickle-down’ effect  (P.14) is particularly inadequate. Though it is, indeed, ‘a fundamental feature of capitalism that wealth will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and not distributed to all classes’ this does not mean simply that ‘wealth cannot ‘trickle down’. In fact, many did benefit from real wage and salary rises when the celtic tiger was on its prowl and they know it. It should be explained that A, wealth does trickle down, literally, from the overflow of the profits that grow at a greater rate than wages; as Socialist Democracy has noted (A Capitalist Crisis: a Workers’ Solution!, P.5) wages’ share of the national income ‘has fallen from 71.2% to 54% between the periods 1980 and 2001-2007’and, B, The said ‘trickle’ does little more than compensate on an individualist basis for the share of wealth reduced in spheres benefitting individuals as members of the community; as the above publication has noted '(Ibid, P.18), ‘between 1995 and 2005 the proportion of GDP invested in education dropped significantly from 5.2% [even then lower than the OECD average - DROCL] to 4.6%.’ The financial weakness of the Irish education system is mentioned in the second, programmatic, chapter, but not in relation to this decline. Between 1985 and 2007, the proportion of total housing in local authority schemes fell from 27% to 6%.(Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times, 30 June 2009) As for transport, the Government has contributed to massive gridlocking (not to mention global warming) by continuing its predecessors’ reluctance to spend more on public transport to encourage people not to rely on private cars. 

Another gap applies to the problem posed by the trade union leaders. The work has some very pertinent and precise criticisms about the way these people have contributed to the weakening of class consciousness through partnership agreements and the Industrial Relations Act. Then, having made it clear that they are part of the problem, it offers no proposals as to how to deal with this part, not even any demand for greater control by union members over their officials. Instead, it states ‘the experience of generations led the collective trade union movement to the belief that it needs to go beyond the mere defence of workers’ rights on the shop floor and that it must develop a more comprehensive approach to the needs of working people, requiring it to take a much broader view of the nature of our society and to engage in political education leading to action. Experience has also shown that, without constant, struggle, sustaining and defending advances is harder than the actual winning of these advances’ (P.37).  True enough, but that the ordinary class-conscious rank and file workers learn lessons very different from that of their leaders is carefully forgotten. 

The weaknesses of this work are more obvious when it makes its programmatic proposals. There is too much fuzziness about too many of them. They do not provide what the Third Congress of the Comintern defined in 1921 as ‘a system of demands which in their totality disintegrate the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, represent stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and each of which expresses in itself the need of the broadest masses.’
On the one hand, it seems as if the party is not just appealing to the workers of the twenty-six counties but was uncertain whether it is trying to forget that it is an all-Ireland entity. It makes proposals for ‘a national all-Ireland development corporation’ and ‘the repatriation of all powers and the control of fishing resources to an all-Ireland democratic body’ (PP.44-45) Just what does this mean? If the demand is for a democratically-elected all-Ireland council or assembly, it is quite good, but why is it not posed as such ? Is it because the party fears to alienate its precarious base among the Northern Irish Protestant workers? At all events, what it demands instead is too convoluted to be agitational.

On the other hand, this programme is not internationalist. At the very beginning of the second chapter, it is asserted that ‘as in many other countries, the realisation is dawning that for now protection is needed’ (P.40). The qualification ‘for now’ is the only acknowledgement that protection cannot be an answer for the long term. The trouble is that there is no suggestion what the long term answer might be. Perhaps wisely after the last referendum, the party does not propose directly Ireland’s withdrawal from the EU, but it makes proposals that would lead logically to such a withdrawal. What is more they are not balanced by any suggestion as to making links with class-conscious workers elsewhere in the EU, even for comradely support of their policies, let alone for any extension of common policies across the European sub-continent. Cuba is given as a model, but, apart from the fact that it is not certain that many Irish would want to live in a society like Cuba, save for the weather, it is true that the Cuban leaders themselves made a serious attempt to spread their revolution across the semi-colonial world and are having to settle for second best. 

In the end, despite its many virtues, the basic assumptions of the CPI remain essentially as Stalinite as those of Keeran and Kenny: a perspective limited by the borders of the nation-state and leaning towards appeasing the class enemies. The party remains aloof not just from Leon Trotsky but from James Connolly who wrote of the need for Ireland to ‘set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord’ and who led his troops into the GPO in that spirit.


In fifty years, the country went from an industrial production that was only 12% of that in the United States to industrial production that was 80% and an agricultural output 85% of the US> Though Soviet per capita consumption remained lower than in the US, no society had ever increased living standards and consumption so rapidly in such a short period of time for all its people. Employment was guaranteed. Free education was available for all, from kindergarten through secondary schools (general, technical and vocational), universities, and after-work schools. Besides free tuition, post-secondary students received living stipends. free health care existed for all, with about twice as many doctors per person as in the United States Workers who were injured or ill had job guarantees and sick pay. In the mid-1970s, workers averaged 21.2 working days of vacation (a month’s vacation), and sanatoriums, resorts, and children’s camps were either free or subsidised....The state regulated all prices and subsidised the cost of basic food and housing. Rents constituted only 2-3% of the family budget; water and utilities only 4-5%. No segregated housing by income existed. Though some neighbourhoods were reserved for high officials, elsewhere plant mangers, nurses, professors and janitors lived side by side.

The government included cultural and intellectual growth as part of the effort to enhance living standards. State subsidies kept the price of books, periodicals and cultural events at a minimum. As a result, workers often owned their own libraries, and the average family subscribed to four periodicals. UNESCO reported that Soviet citizens read more books and saw more films than any other people in the world. Every year the number of people visiting museums equalled nearly half the entire population, and attendance at theatres, concerts, and other performances surpassed the total population. The government made a concerted effort to raise the literacy and living standards of the most backward areas and to encourage the cultural expression of the more than a hundred nationality groups that constituted the Soviet Union. In Kirghizia, for example, only one out of every five hundred people could read and write in 1917, but fifty years later nearly everyone could.

In 1983, American sociologist Albert Szymanski reviewed a variety of western studies of Soviet income distribution and living standards. He found that the highest paid people in the Soviet Union were prominent artists, writers, professors, administrators, and scientists, who earned as high as 1,200 to 1,500 roubles a month. Leading government officials earned about 600 roubles a month; enterprise directors from 190 to 400 roubles a month; and workers about 150 roubles a month. Consequently, the highest incomes amounted to only ten times the average worker’s wages, while in the United States the highest paid corporate heads made 115 times the wages of workers. Privileges that came with high office, such as special stores and official automobiles, remained small and limited and did not offset a continuous, forty year trend toward greater egalitarianism. (The opposite trend occurred in the United States, where, by the late 1990s, corporate heads were making 480 times the wages of the average worker.) The overall equalisation of living conditions in the Soviet Union represented an unprecedented feat in human history. The equalisation was furthered by a pricing policy that fixed the cost of luxuries above their value and of necessities below their value. It was also furthered by a steadily increasing ‘social wage’, that is, the provision of an increasing number of free or subsidised social benefits. Beside those already mentioned, the benefits included paid maternity leave, inexpensive child care and generous pensions. Szymanski concluded: ‘While the Soviet structure may not match the communist or socialist ideal, it is both qualitatively different from, and more equalitarian than that of western capitalist countries. Socialism has made a radical difference in favour of the working class.’

In the world context, the demise of the Soviet Union also meant an incalculable loss. It meant the disappearance of a counterweight to colonialism and imperialism. It meant the eclipse of a model of how newly freed nations could harmonise different ethnic constituents and develop themselves without mortgaging their futures to the United States or western Europe. By 1991, the leading non-capitalist country in the world, the main support of national liberation movements and socialist governments like Cuba, had fallen apart. No amount of rationalisation could escape this fact and the setback it represented for socialist and people’s struggles.


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