Georg Lukács 1968
Democratisation Today and Tomorrow: Part II.
The Pure Alternative: Stalinism or Socialist Democracy

5. Stalin’s Victory Over His Rivals

In the period immediately following Lenin’s death the struggle among various leaders to become his successor was intensely politico-ideological. In the entire history of socialism this is the era that is the least investigated by the standards of exhaustive historical research. Much of the evidence has been destroyed. During the time of the Great Purges and in the following years the majority of the theoretic-political documents, above all those opposing Stalin, were withdrawn from public circulation. Since these documents were no longer accessible to the public, their authors were effectively rendered invisible, became non-people. Because of this lack of evidence, objective-historical descriptions and well-documented theoretic discussions concerning the transition from Lenin to Stalin became almost impossible. What has been published by the opponents of Stalin suffers from the same flaws as the official Stalinist version. Often supported by documents, the anti-Stalinist thesis for the most part proceeds from prejudicial political grounds. Even the noteworthy work of 1. Deutscher is not free from a tendentious and biased distortion of the facts. The remarks we make below do not claim to fill this gap of exhaustive, objective research. However, the author of these lines followed those debates with great interest at the time, and so he may take the liberty of commenting in the most general terms on the fundamental methodological problems of this sea-change in the Soviet thought, while conceding their impressionistic character.

The so-called Last Will of Lenin that comprises his assessment of his major Bolshevik colleagues is among the most pessimistic historic documents ever known. In his Last Will, Lenin evaluated six of the leading communists upon whose collective leadership, he — with great skepticism — thought the future development of the transition to socialism depended. Owing to the fact that Lenin did not think Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s false assessment of the October Revolution to be a mere accidental mistake, but an inherent flaw in their analytical abilities, his doubts concerning their capacity for historical interpretation were reaffirmed. With the three other elected numbers, definitely in the cases of Trotsky and Pyatakov, and somewhat indirectly in the case of Stalin, he saw them as representing a serious danger to the future evolution of Russia. All three tended to treat matters of principle in administrative terms (even willing to solve them by the use of force, an approach most strongly represented by Stalin). With Bukharin, the only one who demonstrated the abilities of a theoretician, Lenin expressed his reservations over the accuracy of Bukharin’s interpretation of Marx. Since Lenin looked upon these six political personalities as forming the collective center of Bolshevik leadership, who could and should ensure the continuation of his life’s work for the construction of socialism, the Last Will must be judged as an expression of an extremely far-reaching despair.

This pessimism soon proved itself as justified. In the years immediately following Lenin’s death, the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state were flooded with a multiplicity of views concerning the course of the future development of Russia. But all these views displayed a deep-rooted similarity between their fundamental theoretical and methodological principles. No one remained dedicated to Lenin’s burning desire to construct a socialist democracy through the extension and strengthening of the foundations already in place. The centrality of socialist democracy in Lenin was superseded by the pure economic question, although each of the successors of Lenin had different views on the industrialization process in Russia. These differences between the epigone of Lenin also had important consequences in questions of foreign affairs. This shift of emphasis in terms of goals and the shift from the process of democratization to rapid economic industrialization had important consequences for the tactics used by those who desired to be Lenin’s successor. Especially in the bourgeois world and among the social democrats, if he was recognized at all, Lenin was seen as a shrewd tactician. Although inspired by a sense of fairness, this was a continuous misinterpretation of the man. Tactical decisions were never primary for Lenin. He was indeed an extraordinarily insightful analyst of prevailing circumstances and of the resulting alternative possibilities. For good reasons he continually demanded a concrete analysis of a concrete situation and for equally good reasons spoke often and forcibly about the significance of Marx’s law of uneven development. In his eyes, tactical decisions were only transient moments in the universal historic development of the human species. Lenin drew a distinction between the general march of human development and the tactical needs of the moment. Only by understanding the universal movement of human history was it possible to arrive at the appropriate tactical decision in relation to human praxis. Tactics could only be effective if they corresponded to the general historic strategy. Lenin referred to the general historical tendencies as strategy, and to the concrete moment as tactics. Only within a historical, scientific-theoretical, and strategic framework could one advance to the formulation of a realistic tactic, i.e. to a concrete analysis of a concrete situation leading to a concrete praxis.

Above all it was Lenin’s successors who abandoned the priority of historic-strategic considerations. They all considered themselves as facing situations that required immediate decisions and in which theoretic-historical perspectives had no place. In so far as tactical decisions were connected with a long-term perspective, these also remained without a genuine Marxist theoretic-historical grounding in most cases. The movement of events ran in the direction of the absolute priority of existent concrete circumstances. A theory of total revolutionary development was later added to these tactics of immediacy because a supplementary and secondary theory could be easily amended. Because theory was not taken seriously as a guideline, new tactical decisions could be improvised or even turned into their opposite. Stalin and his generation had lost contact with the true message of Marx and Lenin. Such a shift of theoretic procedures after the death of Lenin amounted to an ideological-structural revision that took place earlier within European social democracy. Just as the debate over Bernstein marked off one era of socialist history, so the rigidification of Marxism after the death of Lenin was the historical divide for another era in the history of socialism. But in drawing comparisons between European socialism and Russian communism two crucial points must be alluded to: the moment when revolutionary Bolshevism separated itself from the pacification of European socialism and the moment when the priority of tactics calcified both post-Leninist Bolshevism and European socialism. The pactification of European social democracy was associated with Bernstein. In later party programs, this social democratic distortion of Marx led to an open break with the revolutionary theories of Marx, to a spiritual-practical adaptation of the techniques of social accommodation as employed by bourgeois parties. In contradistinction to social democracy, Leninism was oriented to a conception of revolutionary praxis and strategy in the sense of Marx even before the Congress of 1903. On the other hand, the retreat from Leninism by his successors did for that reason represent a non-Marxist and non-Leninist revision that resembled tendencies within European social democracy, the priority of tactics was raised to the level of real Marxist theory. In contrast to Marx and Lenin, theory was no longer the spiritual foundation of tactical decisions, but rather its belated, rationally contrived, frequently sophisticated “justification.” But it was necessary for Stalin and those of his era to establish their legitimacy by demonstrating that they represented the heritage of Marx and Lenin. Even though in truth they were the deformation of Marxism and Leninism, these opinions were intended to show Stalin and his contenders for succession as the lineal continuation, application, and extension of Marxist theory.

This peculiar “further development” of Marx’s method was not simply invention or contrivance. It sprang immediately out of the real situation in which the revolutionary workers movement found itself at that time and was always mired in the immediate. It was characteristic of the first phase of the founding and organizational consolidation of the workers movement that Marx was considered its undisputed international head in whose personality theoretic and practico-tactical leadership were organically united. After Marx’s death these functions were delegated to Engels, but no qualitative change of theory occurred. Problems began to surface in social democratic parties only after Engels death such as how can Marxist theory and daily organizational praxis be brought into unity? For a long time it appeared as if the combination of Kautsky-Bebel could solve this problem. However, at the time of the first great crisis (the Bernstein debate) the party leadership proved to be wedded to the supremacy of the tactical: theory seemed only as a supplementary justification of what had independently turned into praxis. (Theorists like Mehring and Luxemburg basically remained without influence.) Viktor Adler, a pure tactician, still controlled the leadership of Austrian social democracy in spite of the great number of theoretically more capable comrades in the party. Initially, Plekhanov’s position in Russian social democracy appeared to be completely different, but the “european line” asserted itself even here, although with many variations. Gradually, Lenin won a position in the Bolshevik movement which was reminiscent of that obtained by Marx and Engels, and Lenin’s fame rose to an international peak as a consequence of the Revolution of 1917.

The struggle over the leadership of Russian communism centered on finding a successor to Lenin who could combine the function of providing the communist movement with an encompassing theoretic as well as practical-tactical stewardship in the sense of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Trotsky, the powerful tribune of the period of revolutionary ascendancy, was totally unsuited for this role due to his complete ineptitude regarding correct tactical action which even his admirer and biographer 1. Deutscher admits. Except for some concrete factors which we will come to speak about later on, Stalin’s victory over Trotsky was that of a clever, calculating and superior tactician. It was also part of Stalin’s tactics to paint his victory as representing the correct doctrine of Lenin over the distorters of Lenin. But it belonged to the essence of Stalin’s personality that after his victory over his rivals as he did not merely intend to function as Lenin’s loyal disciple. Gradually — often with ingenious tactical skills — he created situations in which he presented himself to public consciousness as the true epigone of his great predecessor but with superior leadership skills. In the struggle over the inheritance of Marx and Lenin, Stalin stepped forth as the victor for he managed to establish a Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin line of descent for the revolutionary workers movement. Even though Stalin actually deformed Marxism, during the historical age of Stalin he was accepted as the true perpetuator of this tradition equal to Lenin.

Yet Stalin himself was nothing more than an extremely adroit and subtle tactician. (We will see that his political career reveals both the positive and negative features of this kind of one-sided talent.) Even in the immediate period after Lenin’s death, he always understood how to maneuver ingeniously. Often without taking a decisive stand himself he knew how to disguise his tactical caution as an example of the highest political principle. Stalin allowed the contending tendencies and personalities that stepped into the foreground at that time to mutually annihilate each other. He also skillfully stole from his opponents any ideas of programs that could be useful to him. The most important practical accomplishment of his tactical adroitness was the gradual concentration into his hands of every instrument of political domination (party, state and the mass media of public opinion). It was the crowning moment of his entire mode of governance that he put himself in the position to declare any of his decisions as commensurate with Leninist democratism. At the same time as he destroyed Leninism, Stalin was able to exploit the Leninist heritage to consolidate his own power.

Earlier, we tried to point out that for Lenin the central strategic question was the preservation and continuation of the popular revolution (the alliance of proletariat and peasantry). The reconstruction of industrial production, the immediate crucial question of NEP — politics, above all was for him an indispensable instrument for the rebuilding of this alliance which, in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, formed the axis of his politics. He always looked upon the expected lengthy and contradictory process of the building of an industrial base from this political perspective. It is generally known that he was even prepared to grant concessions to foreign capitalists to participate on a temporary basis in the economic restoration of Russian industry. It was not his fault that this plan remained an unfulfilled dream. After his death, the central question became: who should be the beneficiary of this process of economic restoration and who should pay the price for its practical realization? The left wing (Trotsky and Preobrashensky) demanded a policy of “original socialist accumulation,” i.e. a single-minded and rapid construction of large-scale industry at the expense of the peasantry. The right wing (Bukharin) perceived the central economic question of the restoration and higher development of industry as the ability of industry to supply the countryside with the necessary commodities (Slogan: “Enrich yourself.”) Essentially both wings reduced the problem to a purely economic category, which had extremely far-reaching political consequences. For both wings the perspective that Lenin viewed as crucial, the political alliance of proletariat and peasantry, was partially and theoretically excluded. For that reason also, the struggle over the course of the development of Russia was concentrated solely on tactical alternatives, which in most cases — again in contrast to Lenin — conformed to the contours of the party leader’s personality. Stalin did not distinguish himself from his opponents by the theoretic level of his arguments but he was superior to them only in terms of tactics. Stalin approached the tactical question from the perspective of blocking Trotsky from becoming the leader of the party. He maneuvered ingeniously between both left and right, allowing each of them to wear down the other so that after the political destruction of both wings he could usurp the program of “original socialist accumulation” and develop it with greater energy and with extremely brutal means.

The struggle over the course of Russian development was complicated by a problem which stepped to the forefront only after Lenin’s death. It was the problem of socialism in one country. After 1921, proceeding from the theory of uneven development, Lenin was firmly convinced that the socialist revolution would not spread beyond Russia and achieve global victory. However, before 1921, like many of his contemporaries, he was initially committed to the idea that the Russian Revolution only formed the beginning of that wave which, as a solution to the crisis of the war, would soon overwhelm the most important capitalist countries. Only in the last years of his life, and above all after his death, did events demonstrate that in spite of objectively revolutionary conditions and sporadic short-lived revolutionary successes in individual countries the worldwide victory of socialism was rendered impossible by the failure of subjective factors. In addition to overcoming the nonclassical nature of the Russian Revolution, there was now added an additional question: how could the revolution preserve itself in one country and work its way, unassisted by any external source, through to the construction of a socialist society? Within the objective social-historical reality, both of these problem complexes formed an inseparable unity. Due to the isolated position of Russia, the surmounting of its economic underdevelopment became the central focus of political considerations. As far as the solution of this problem of underdevelopment was concerned, the Russian Soviet Republic was now left exclusively to its own economic resources. However, the Soviet Republic did receive moral-psychological support on a global scale. The ideological influence of the working people in the capitalist lands, their sympathy for the Russian Revolution, indeed, were highly important attitudinal factors. These moral-psychological elements could not only be spiritually effective, but often, especially in moments of danger, could rise to actual physical support. While the Soviets received moral support, they did not receive economic aid. The ideological commitment of the international proletariat did not offer any practical solutions to the central, inner economic problem of Russia. The historic destiny that confronted Russia assumed the following form: thrown back completely upon itself, was it possible for Russia to both retain the victory of socialism in one country and to produce by itself the industrial base necessary for the construction of socialism?

The answers to these highly disputed questions illustrate the various forces that struggled for power in the Soviet Union. They also illustrate how these contentious forces abandoned the dynamic methodological principles of Marx and Lenin. After the death of Lenin, these combative camps were solely directed by tactical moves and countermoves. Above all, the problem of the nonclassical origin of the Russian Revolution disappeared from party discussions. The general theoretical principle of debate increasingly reduced itself to the belief that the nationalization of the means of production — the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat — provided all the essential answers to the complex questions facing Russia. For a long time, the overcoming of economic backwardness remained the central issue for the Soviet government. Since the question of backwardness was exclusively addressed from the standpoint of economics, precisely those questions that related to the problem of democracy, political questions were excluded from the debate. The Russian Communist Party became mired in economism and did not address the democratic aspects of the development of socialism in Russia. The issue of socialism in one country superseded the more important question of the nonclassical nature of the Russian Revolution, and so the Soviets debated the wrong issue. Even the question of socialism in one country was simplified to whether socialism could possibly develop with a single country. In answering this question priority was again given to purely tactical considerations. Everyone had to be aware that the development of socialism in one country necessarily entailed a lengthy historical process. If one, however, came to the conclusion that the development of socialism in one country could only be completed by means of a socialist revolution above all in the developed countries, then the tactical and ideological consequences that must follow took the following two forms: either the world revolution must be speeded by all means, or, since the world revolution was not developing the party must commit itself to build the industrial base of socialism with the greatest speed regardless of the human cost to the population and without certainty that even these draconian measures would produce the requisite industrial foundation. Trotsky, who believed in the international perspective, was certainly far from viewing the dilemma in such a brutally simplified alternative. In the absence of a genuine theory of revolutionary development, it was unavoidable that the false alternative played such an important role in public opinion.

A shrewd tactician, Stalin, by using abstract propagandistic expressions made these distorted alternatives into the central focus of the economic debate. He affirmed that the only possible Marxist answers to the issue of the Soviet course of growth was the complete construction of socialism in one country. Of course, years later he was misled by this exclusively tactical-propagandistic solution, which he seemingly mistook for a true theoretical one, to the blatant nonsense that not only socialism but also the transition to communism was possible in a single country. For that reason, and on account of the capitalist encirclement of Russia, he argued that the state and all its external and internal means of repression must continue to exist. In Stalin’s communism, as one contemporary wit explained, everyone would be locked up in the concentration camps according to their needs. We will not at this time draw the intellectual similarities between the content of this ironic remark and the priority of tactics within Stalinism, for we shall return to the point later on. It may in any case be useful to point out that the priority of tactics remained unassailed even up to the time of the assault on the “personality cult” at the twentieth Party Congress. Although he criticized Stalin frequently and passionately, Khrushchev remained an economist. He proposed that the introduction of communism was dependent upon the achievement of a certain level of economic productivity. When Russia reached that level of productivity, which would surpass that of the United States, communism would become an actuality. Khrushchev only considered the economic presuppositions, and the idea that communism also entailed political and democratic presuppositions lay beyond his intellectual horizons. Regardless of the criticism of Stalin, Khrushchev remained imprisoned within Stalinism, because he made socialism and communism synonymous with economic productivity and did not allow the theory of socialist democratization to enter the debate.

But let us return to our present subject. After Stalin, with the help of the Bukharin group, rendered the Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev faction powerless he appropriated the economic content of their program of “original socialist accumulation.” He disguised his ideological theft by never using the same terminology of the Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev faction. He then turned against his former Bukharinist allies and employed the ideas of the Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev camp as tactical slogans in his destruction of the Bukharin group. We cannot enter here upon the details of Stalin’s devious policies, although an exclusive Marxist analysis could be highly useful. We can only allude to those principles of action out of which the totalitarianism of Stalin emerged. As we have seen, Stalin’s methodological principles were the absolute priority of the tactical perspective, the complete subordination, even disregard of any Marxist theory of the totality of the process of socialist development. Stalin’s victory was objectively facilitated by the fact that his opponents were as far removed from establishing their tactics on Marxist-Leninist theory as Stalin himself. Even though his opponents committed the same methodological errors as Stalin, the difference was his superior political maneuverability as well as his more adept organization of the government apparatus of domination. Trotsky always proceeded from a universal revolutionary perspective which, given the waning of the worldwide proletarian revolution after 1921, remained rhetorical. Bukharin proceeded from dogmatically contrived semi-positivistic considerations that were never thought through in a dialectical manner. Because of these methodological flaws, the tactical abilities of Trotsky and Bukharin, already inferior to Stalin’s, were additionally weakened. Lacking any theoretic insight, they became rigid and inflexible which again diminished their essentially limited tactical abilities. Under such conditions, the victory of Stalin was not accidental. His triumph did not express the inherent talents of the individuals involved in the struggle, for Trotsky and Bukharin were certainly more gifted than he. His triumph came from his tactical sagacity. Some people cling to the illusion that Trotsky and Bukharin were better equipped than Stalin to lead Russia on the path of socialist construction But this is an illusion that overlooks the fact that none of Stalin’s rivals really had a fundamental Marxist-Leninist program which corresponded to the real circumstances. They also displayed massive theoretical differences. On the other hand, it is a supplementary reflection that Stalin was always able to represent himself as the only legitimate heir of Lenin. He presented himself as the true successor to Lenin, and this helped legalize his domination. For decades, this idea rooted itself in the communist movement and due to its continued survival after Stalin’s death has prevented an accurate historical description of the concrete genesis of this struggle for power between Stalin, Trotsky and Bukharin.