In the name of the working class. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956


Rehosted from Leftwrites

It’s a dismal commentary on the rather impoverished political culture of the far left that the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and of Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin, have received almost no historical commemoration by leftists in Australia and, judging by Marxmail, not much in the US.

A certain brainless nostalgia for Stalinism seems to be a strong undercurrent among leftists, even among people who should know better.

For instance, on the Green Left Weekly list the only mention of the Hungarian events has been from the cyber-busybodies Michael Berrell and Max Watts, both of whom seem to retrospectively support the Soviet intervention for reasons that I find historically incomprehensible.

What’s even worse is that no one has argued with them on the GLW site, many of whose participants should know better.

Khrushchev’s detailed denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956 and the crushing of the Hungarian workers’ revolution by Russian tanks in November 1956 opened a process of disintegration of the Stalinist model, which culminated in the collapse of Stalinism and capitalist restoration in most Stalinist countries in the early 1990s.

The massive corruption of the Stalinist apparatus, which became apparent over time, was the major factor leading to the capitalist restoration.

Had the workers’ revolutions in 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia not been crushed in the brutal way they were by the Soviet bureaucrats’ tanks, it’s an open question whether a more humane bottom-up, worker-influenced model of socialism might have emerged in the Stalinist countries.

All the assorted Stalinist parties in the world are due to meet early next year. Many of these organisations now participate in bourgeois or right-wing Social Democratic governments, or in the case of the Iraqi Communist Party, in the puppet government installed by US imperialism.

They still look back to events such as the crushing of the Hungarian revolution and the crushing of the Tienanmen Square uprising as their golden days.

The Stalinist government in China, which preserves a centralised Stalinist apparatus presiding over a brutal 19th century comprador capitalist development, even prohibits superexploited Chinese workers, who are sold like cattle on the world labour market, from joining trade unions in a country such as Australia, to which their labour is traded.

Yet someone like Michael Berrell praises Stalinism in Asia because in Bengal the trains run on time, so to speak.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a decisive event for many socialists of my generation. Khrushchev’s speech and the crushing of the Hungarian soviet by the Russian tanks shook me and hundreds of thousands of others around the world, free of Stalinism.

That was a very liberating experience. Michael Berrell in his prejudiced ignorance, baldly, without any analysis, asserts that because some right-wingers in Hungary now claim the 1956 revolution for themselves that somehow justifies the USSR’s intervention.

I recommend that Berrell dent his invincible ignorance in these matters a bit and read some of the eyewitness accounts.

The Hungarian Tragedy, a little book by English socialist Peter Fryer, is available on the web. The most interesting and moving book is by Sandor Kopacsi, In the Name of the Working Class, which Graham Green said was a remarkable book.

Kopacsi was a Hungarian partisan activist, who along with his Social Democratic father joined the fusion with the Communist Party in 1946. They were both metalworkers in one of the biggest Hungarian factories and cut their teeth in the underground struggle against the fascist Arrow Cross government of Miklos Horthy.

Kopacsi had become chief of police in Budapest by the time of the Hungarian uprising and on the basis of his experience of Hungarian Stalinism, which he saw from inside the apparatus, he unhesitatingly threw in his lot with the insurgents.

He wasn’t executed or murdered like reform communists such as Imre Nagy, Pal Maleter and others, but he was kept in solitary confinement for many years and amnestied in 1963.

Eventually, after agitation by relatives in Canada, he was allowed to emigrate, and worked for many years in low-paid jobs in Toronto.

I’ve run out of copies of this extraordinary book, having sold them and given them away for many years, but there are plenty available at reasonable prices through Abebooks, on the web.

I find it utterly repellant that someone like Berrell should piss on the graves of the courageous reform communists of 1956 who were killed and the workers of Red Csepel, the Budapest steelworks that were a communist stronghold for many years, who were at the centre of the proletarian insurrection in 1956.

People like Berrell and Max Watts who pontificate on such matters might improve their minds if they studied the literature.

The capitalist restoration that has taken place throughout eastern Europe is a direct result of the Stalinist degeneration of those states, and the crushing of independent working class activity by Stalinism laid the historical foundation for capitalist restoration.

For socialism to arise in future, it will have to arm itself with a thorough analysis and investigation of what Stalinism actually was.

Kopacsi and Peter Fryer are an excellent place to start. A public lecture and symposium on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution will be held at the University of NSW on November 3-4.

Discussion from Leftwrites

Chris M, October 31, 2006, 11:18pm

The latest issue of the British SWP’s International Socialism Journal has a selection of articles on 1956, including one on Hungary.

Michael Karadjis, November 1, 2006, 12:01am

“What’s even worse is that no one has argued with them on the GLW site, many of whose participants should know better.”

Well, it may not be much, but for the record Bob, I did have a go. And while I don’t agree with Bob’s polemical excesses here against MB and MW, I do agree overall with his view, and moreover consider it fundamental that as socialists we do not give any BS excuses for a tyrannical regime using tanks to bloodily crush workers.

If that really is the way to “save socialism” − by non-working-class tyrants crushing workers – then there’s either gonna be not much worth saving, or in any case simply no way to save it.

It is precisely that the crushing of the workers further “liberated” the pettty-bourgeois bureaucracy from the working masses it pretended to speak for that enabled it later to revert so easily to becoming Hungary’s capitalist class.

Mark, November 1, 2006, 1:01am

What does Bob mean by “Stalinism” here? It seems highly generalised to mean both Stalin’s Soviet Union and states which Stalin would have criticised and/or which criticise Stalin.

Stalinism led to capitalist restoration in the USSR? Surely it’s de-Stalinisation, reform of the Kruschevite and Gorbachevite varities that led to it, even if we can and should recognise that Stalinism led, dialectically as it were, to de-Stalinisation.

Putting so much under this pejorative sign is lazy, something which is certainly pervasive in current discourse about “communist” states, but not something one should hear from a self-described Marxist.

Mark P, November 1, 2006, 4:47am

The Australian Socialist Party website is carrying a lengthy article on Hungary 1956.

Bob Gould, November 1, 2006, 6:31am

Did Stalinism end in the 1950s? “… there has been a controversy in US labour movement historiography between a group of revisionist historians who retrospectively idealise the US Communist Party, in conflict with other US historians, such as Theodore Draper and Nelson Lichtenstein, who have a much more critical view of US Stalinism.

The truth of the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement, is that it was not a seamless, or even a painful, transition from one thing to a variant of the same thing.

It was a counter-revolution, through and through. It represented a dramatic break with the main features of the Bolshevik Party and a break with the revolutionary perspectives of the Russian Revolution.

It created, in the Soviet Union, a new political culture that can quite properly be described as Stalinism, that remained dominant for many years. This Stalinist political culture came to dominate the Communist movement throughout the world.

It was modified a bit in the Krushchev period between 1956-64 and was also modified a bit during the last two or three years of Gorbachev’s rule.

For the rest of the period between about 1926 and 1990 the political culture of the Soviet Union was Stalinist.

In the Western Communist Parties, this high-Stalinist political culture was inculcated ruthlessly.

I have described this for the Australian Communist Party, in my piece, The Communist Party of Australia in Australian Life and in my review of Stuart Macintyre’s book, Reds.

Michael Berrell, November 1, 2006, 8:34am

I note that Bob refers to myself and Max Watts as “Cyber busybodies”. That would have to be one of the best ever examples of the pot calling the kettle black that I think I’ve ever seen.

I also raised an eyebrow when Bob listed among the crimes of Stalinism the sin of supporting right wing Social-Democratic governments.

Bob would have to be one of the most fervent supporters of right wing social democratic governments that there is.

I am on record as a supporter of the Left Front Government in West Bengal and also currently in Kerala. I’m certainly not ahamed of that.

Bob refers to the trains running on time in Bengal. By this I presume that Bob is inferring that there is some similarity between the Left Front Government in West Bengal and Mussolini’s Fascists.

I think Bob should withdraw that imputation because I find it offensive, not to mention inaccurate.

As to the events in Hungary. I did argue on the Green Left Discussion List last week that the events in Hungary in 1956  are not as black and white as some would have us believe.

Certainly there was considerable discussion on Marxmail last week, with opinion divided.  Radio National’s Hindsight did a series of programs to commemorate 50 years of television in Australia in which they focussed on the news events of 1956 including the rise of Elvis Presley, the Suez Crisis and the events in Hungary.

The program on Hungary gave an entirely different version of events in Hungary to the one Bob is putting forward. The program mentioned nothing about workers councils or socialism and instead concentrated on reactionary elements centred around the catholic church who made it clear they were struggling against “Bolshevism”.

Certainly right wing neo-fascist elements in Hungary have claimed the legacy of the 1956 uprising and the argument that the events were concerned with establishing some form of democratic socialism have received no official recognition whatsoever.

I certainly carry no brief for the Stalinist regime in Hungary in 1956. It was unquestionably brutal, unpopular and had no support from the working class.

In all probability, its association with Socialism served to discredit that noble ideal among Hungarian workers. There is now considerable opposition in Hungary to the imposition of Neo-Liberalism.

Where I differ from Bob is on this. Bob appears to argue that the former Soviet Union and the eastern bloc were essentially no different from some kind of fascist state. I argue on the other hand that there were elements of the former Soviet Union and the former eastern bloc that were worth defending by Socialists.

Free Healthcare and Education,  an emphasis on the rights of women, an extensive welfare state, etc. All of this has been pissed away since 1989.

I continue to argue along these lines in relation to Cuba. I’m not sure exactly what Bob’s position is in relation to Cuba. On the Green Left Discussion List I believe Bob gives qualified support to Cuba.

Perhaps he should spell out how and why Cuba differs from the former Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc.

Bob celebrated the events of 1989, whereas I at the time saw those events as leading inevitably to the restoration of capitalism. Certainly nothing progressive has emerged in the former Soviet Union  and Eastern Europe since 1989.

In the Soviet Union, the overthrow of Stalinism led to appropriation of all of the worst and most reactionary symbols of pre-1917 Russia.

Something similar appears to have occurred across Eastern Europe.

There is little for Socialists to celebrate in any of this.

Parkos, November 1, 2006, 9:19 am

Bob, you seem to be somewhat unclear about some of the political origins of the 1956 uprising.  Have you lived in Hungary Bob?  Do you speak Hungarian? Did your father in law go bushwalking with Lukacs? Yeah, well this has all happened to me.

Do you know that the Pesti (as opposed to Buda) boys who are now rebelling against the current socialist government are working and underclass fascists that include trianon skinheads amongst their number.

Ferenc Varos (Frank Town) the nazi football club from working class Pest were involved in 1956, as they are now.

The situation was  partially the same in 1956. Many Magyars want to re-expand their empire in Europe in a right wing nationalist sense.

The wealthy elite are now less remote than the soviets, but they are socialists. Agnes Heller went on to America to praise junk food capitalism, as an example of just how socialist the Budapest school were.

Just thought you should know before you have a collective delusion meeting at the university de “nuovo galle del sud” as they call it Rome.

Too much bias clouds true intellect.  I am not for cancelling the Trianon treaty, for the record.

Chris M, November 1, 2006, 12:52pm

Some interesting (somewhat on topic) reading over at Lenin’s Tomb. On the legacy of Stalinism, rather than Hungary 1956. There is one on Hungary too.

Mark, November 1, 2006, 7,18pm

Thanks for your response Bob, but let me make my criticism sharper: you simultaneously cite Krushchev and Hungary as being anti-Stalin moments and totally overlook the fact that it was Krushchev himself who sent in the tanks in 1956, not Stalin.

Bob Gould November 1, 2006, 11:15pm

Michael Berrell’s unambiguous pro-Stalinism

Michael Berrell infers that I’ve verballed him, but this is what he said in a post on Green Left Weekly:

The nature of the right wing protests including the incorporation of fascist flags and symbols does raise legitimate questions about the nature of the uprising in 1956. There certainly has been a lot of mythologising about the events of 1956 from all sides. I’m sceptical of the claim that that the uprising as claimed by Trotskyists such as the WSWS was aimed at bringing in genuine socialism. There was a programme broadcast a couple of weeks ago on Radio National which examined the events in Hungary in great depth and there seems no doubt to me that the uprising was aimed at the overthrow of Communism and revolved around reactionary institutions such as the Catholic Church. The programme claimed that the singing of the Internationale was banned at the time and demonstrators deliberately removed Communist symbols from flags and buildings etc. This is what occurred in 1989 and my personal view is that the 1956 uprising was an attempted bourgeois revolution similar to what eventually did happen in 1989.

Berrell’s support for the USSR’s intervention against what he slanders as counter-revolution couldn’t be clearer. In his recent post he also hangs his hat on what he calls “official” accounts. Whose official accounts?

Berrell relies on a scissors-and-paste job from the ABC’s Lateline that conflates 1956 and 1989 in Hungary, which is clearly aimed peddling the story that reform socialism and reform communism had no chance in 1956.

This is essentially the same line that the Russians used to justify their invasion of Hungary, their smashing of the Bupapest workers’ council and their murders of Nagy, Maleter and hundreds of others.

The difficulty with this is that eyewitness accounts by socialists such as Peter Fryer, and by surviving reform communists such as Kopacsi, contradict that story completely.

As the post on Lenin’s Tomb points out, many Western commentators at the time, other than the most right wing, were forced by events to describe the reform socialist character of the uprising.

Lenin’s Tomb quotes Western sources to that effect. Berrell’s eccentric latter-day conversion to Stalinism mystifies me, given the enormous literature, including tens of thousands of eyewitness accounts, as to what actually existing Stalinism was like from the point of view of its victims, who were largely the proletarian and peasant masses, and the intelligentsia, in the Stalinist countries.

Berrell prattles about healthcare and free education in Stalinist states. Well, healthcare and free education are certainly good things, and to be defended, but to imply that they were dependent on the political superstructure of Stalinism is nonsense.

Even states influenced by Social Democracy, such as Sweden, Britain and Australia, had reasonable healthcare and public education at times, but it didn’t make them socialist countries.

Berrell’s latter-day Stalinist nostalgia is political poison from the point of view of reconstructing the socialist project. The overwhelming majority of the working masses, in former Stalinist countries and elsewhere, know that the Stalinist regimes were bureaucratised, centralised dictatorships.

Berrell hasn’t a clue about what is required for the construction of a modern socialist movement. One of these things, in my view, is a deep-rooted commitment to socialism from below, as the IS-tradition groups call it, and substantial proletarian democracy and democratic checks and balances to prevent the development of bureaucratic dictatorships.

If such arrangements aren’t clear, there’s no way in the world that the working class in most advanced countries will have a bar of a socialist development.

For about 50 years of my political life I’ve had the general view that the Stalinist countries were deformed workers states that required political revolution to sweep away the bureaucratic dictatorships. I still believe that view is correct, as far as it goes, as against the state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist views held by most supporters of the IS tradition.

The weakness, however, in the general analysis, which was common to both workers statists and state capitalists, was that we underestimated the enormous damage that Stalinism had done to the cultural level of the masses, to the self-identity and consciousness of the working class, and ultimately to the productive forces, which are the basis on which progressive socialist developments must be based.

Both the workers statist and state capitalist currents had similar agitational slogans in 1989, calling for a self-managed kind of proletarian socialism. The problem was that the masses in the Stalinist countries wanted, at least for a time, to get as far away as they could from the Stalinist dictatorship that had been inflicted on them.

The upheavals in 1989 were unquestionably social revolutions, and no power on earth, including the Stalinists, had the slightest chance of crushing those upheavals because those regimes, and their social base, had become so corrupt that their overthrow was inevitable.

I recommend to Berrell that he see if he can find some old footage of the scene in the square in Bucharest when the massive crowd turned on Ceaucescu, and the angry incomprehension on the Maximum Leader’s face when he could no longer crush the masses.

The overthrow of Stalinism in 1989 in many countries was unquestionably a popular revolt, which socialists had to support, presenting the notion of reform socialism rather than capitalist restoration.

The capitalist restoration that took place was an almost inevitable outcome of the decay of Stalinism and the hostility of the massses to it on the basis of their own experience. The socialist movement and the socialist program can be revived, but it’s highly unlikely to take the form of Berrell’s politically senile Stalinist fantasies.

That chapter, the chapter of identifying Stalinist party-states with the socialist movement, is well and truly closed.

Some Stalinist parties still hold power, in China and North Korea, for example. To take the Chinese example, a Stalinist political regime of the most brutal sort is presiding over 19th-century-style capitalist development, and in constant conflict with the Chinese masses to the point that the regime bans the labour that it trades overseas from joining unions in the country they are sold to.

Berrell has no political strategy for reviving the socialist movement, and his romantic cyberspace neo-Stalinism bears no relation at all to the tasks facing serious socialists in the 21st century.

On Mark’s point about my definition of Stalinism, I believe it is clearly explained in the article I cited, the whole article in context, not just the extract presented on Leftwrites.

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 12:19pm

It’s rather ironic that Bob should accuse me of having no idea how to revive the Socialist project.

Bob doesn’t seem to have much of an idea himself. His strategy these days seems to supporting the very right wing Australian Labor Party. Which once again highlights  the irony of Bob’s criticising Stalinism for supporting right wing social democratic governments.

Bob has a rather unfortunate habit of playing the man rather than the ball. In my reply to Bob, I made no attempt to evade what I had said. In light of the evidence regarding the 1956 uprising I reluctantly concluded that the Soviet intervention could be justified.

All I’ve said about the 1956 uprising is that the truth isn’t as black and white as Bob has attempted to present it. There’s plenty of evidence to support that view.

The program I cited was a Radio National Hindsight program not Lateline.

Bob seems to suggest that what I have said about the matter is some kind of heresy on the left. There has been plenty of discussion on various left lists over the past week, including Marxmail, and I would say opinion is divided about 50:50 on the matter.

Bob’s depiction of myself as a defender of “Stalinism” is a deliberate crude personal vilification. A standard tactic that Bob uses in his polemics. I’ve written extensively about this question on the Green Left Discussion List. My understanding of Stalinism and the reasons the Socialist project failed in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere are similar to those put forward by professor David Christian in his book Power and Privilege.

The views presented in that book are certainly not an apologia for Stalinism but they do offer a more complex and thoughtful analysis of what went wrong in the former Soviet Union than offered by day Bob’s crude personal ad hominem attacks.

Of course there was much more to the Soviet Union than free healthcare and education. There was also the nationalised means of production and this was the principal reason why Trotsky argued that socialists should defend the Soviet Union. There was also the way the Soviet Union effectively combatted colonialism and US Imperialism.

Of ourse the concessions made to the working class in the western democracies have been under assault since the demise of the  Soviet Union, most notably in Germany.

Finally Bob ignored my question about Cuba. Bob said that Marxists should defend Cuba on the Green Left Discussion List. So I ask Bob again, in his estimation why is Cuba different to to the former Soviet Union and the eastern bloc?

If Bob thinks I am misrepresenting his views on Cuba then I give him the opportunity here to clarify his views.  The reality is Bob doesn’t have much of an idea how to revive the socialist project and he’s had a lot more experience than me!

Chav, November 2, 2006, 12:48pm

There was also the way the Soviet Union effectively combatted colonialism and US Imperialism. By colonising Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Afghanistan and parts of Africa?

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 12:54pm

I note in passing the way Bob blithely dismisses the free Healthcare and Education systems in the socialist countries. He then goes on to say something like well we have those things here in Australia so big deal!

Well as Bob well knows that’s nonsense. We have a major crisis here in Australia in our public healthcare systems and this can be largely attributed to the economic rationalist policies pursued by state Labor governments. The Labor governments that Bob demands that socialists support.

That’s Bob’s Socialist project in case you missed it. We have a major crisis in relation to mental health and the provision of dental services. For most poor people here in Australia basic dental treatment is unaffordable. People in such circumstances have no choice but to let their teeth rot and then have them all extracted.

In an affluent industrialised country like Australia it’s nothing less than a scandal.

Free Healthcare and Education in somewhere like Cuba is not to be lightly dismissed. It has given Cuba the lowest infant mortality rate in the Americas, lower than in even the United States of America. Cuba has treated over 20,000 children who suffered detrimental effects following Chernobyl completely free of charge. Many of these children had nowherelse to go following the collapse of the public health systems in both Russia and the Ukraine following the restoration of capitalism there.

I have no problem defending those achievements. I shout them from the rooftops at every opportunity I get.

As for Education. Well we certainly don’t have free education here in Australia. Certainly not at the tertiary level. The federal Labor government introduced HECS fees. Many young Australian are in debt. Many degrees in Australia now cost in excess of $100,000, well beyond the capacity of all but the wealthiest and most privileged Australians.  I don’t think free health and education and should be so lightly dismissed.

Finally, Bob says I quote selectively from various programs to give a biased account of what went on Hungary in 1956. But that’s exactly what Bob does himself.

Chav, November 2, 2006, 1:18pm

Free Healthcare and Education systems. I stand to be corrected but as far as I am aware these were also the goals of, if not the realities in their host nations, of the various Western social democratic parties. If a nation is run by a left-leaning social democratic party is that nation then socialist?

Ed Lewis, November 2, 2006, 1:22pm

Don’t get too carried away with the eastern bloc medical systems, Michael. I had some direct experience of those, and spoke to others who had as well. By the mid-1980s the Eastern bloc health systems probably made even Australia’s system today look pretty good, let alone Australia’ system at an earlier time before a couple of decades of cutbacks, which Bob Gould is talking about if you care to treat his argument fairly.

People in eastern bloc countries were very pessimistic about getting good treatment in the health system. The hospitals and health clinics were pervaded by the same bureaucratic arrogance and a general air of decrepitude that characterised the whole state machinery.

As for education, a major reason people joined the Communist Party was that they could get privileged treatment. It was much easier for the sons and daughters of party members to get into university, for example.

Jill Sparrow, November 2, 2006, 1:23pm

Chav, November 2, 2006, 1:23pm

There was also the nationalised means of production and this was the principle reason why Trotsky argued that socialists should defend the Soviet Union.

Trotsky was wrong.  Nationalisation  without workers’ control is not socialism.  In fact if not in workers’ control it can be wielded more effectively against them.

Ed Lewis, November 2, 2006, 2:58pm

Chav, I’m not very interested in the state capitalist vs workers statist argument (or are you an anarchist?), largely because these days it has no practical consequences for democratic socialists.

To be accurate about Trotsky’s views, though, he didn’t say that the workers states were socialist. His view was that they were societies in transition from capitalism to socialism and that the transition couldn’t be completed without further development of the productive resources, which would require socialist revolution in at least some of the advanced capitalist countries.

He did support the defence of the workers states as transitional societies. Socialism couldn’t be built in conditions of scarcity, as distributing scarce resources required a bureaucracy, which would inevitably become privileged because of its power to decide who got what.

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 4:23pm

Ed,   I am interested in your last comments in relation to material scarcity. Are you coming around to David Christian’s view that the Socialist project floundered in the former Soviet Union for lack of material abubdance?

Extrapolating from this, and this is what I have been arguing all along, then Stalinism arises not from the personality of any one individual but rather from the objective circumstances in which the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917.

And further if the question of material scarcity is the central problem. Then how important is capitalism in providing the necessary material foundation for the successful completion of the socialist project.?

Do you believe that a society can make the successful transition to socialism without some period of capitalist development?

Chav, November 2, 2006, 4:26pm

He didn’t say that the workers states were socialist.

Ed, yeah I know but it was a statement directed at the Cyber-Stalinist as I find it difficult to work out whether he thinks those societies were socialist or not.

Btw, I don’t agree that the debate has no relevance for today.  If take the Ortho-Trot position you end up defending states like North Korea against their own population, should they ever rise up against them.

I think the debate is worth having in that we need to clear in what we are fighting for and against.

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 4:30 pm

It would seem to me that the essential difference in this debate between Bob Gould and myself about the nature of Stalinism goes back beyond Hungary in 1956 to Russia in 1917.

I presume Bob would argue that there was nothing wrong with the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia in 1917 but that the Revolution was destroyed when Stalin acquired power and bureaucratised the regime from 1924? Whereas David Christian and myself would argue that the socialist project was in serious difficulty once the revolution had failed to spread to the more advanced societies of Western Europe.

The essential difference is this. Bob Gould attributes Stalinism to the malevolence of an individual while David Christian and myself look to objective conditions.

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 4:51pm

Just further on Trotsky,  That’s right. Trotsky regarded the workers states as societies in transition they could either advance forward to Socialism or they could return to Capitalism. Trotsky did predict that the Stalinist bureaucracy would eventually seek to restore capitalism. But I would argue that its not quite as simple as this.  I think in Eastern Europe that a considerable proportion of the working class was under the impression that capitalism offered a higher standard of living if not in 1956 then certainly in 1989.

So the popular revolutions when they came were not about returning to some form of democratic socialism but unfortunately were very much about the restoration of capitalism.

Trotsky argued that socialists should defend the workers states because of the revolution in property relations that had been carried out in the Soviet Union. It should be noted that Trotsky died before either the establishing of the Peoples Republic of China or the people’s democracies in 1949.

For Trotsky the bringing of the means of production under public ownership was the crucial thing. Trotskyist organisations have differing views on this question.

During the Korean War the foreerunners of the ISO declared that the Soviet Union was in fact state capitalist, essentially no different to imperialist powers such as the United States or Britain and so socialists were under no obligation to defend either the Soviet Union or the other workers states.

The Spartacists are quite gung-ho about defending the remaining workers states. The WSWS admits having offered very reluctant support to trhe workers states. It offers no support whatsoever to China, Vietnam or North Korea but I would argue that its position in regards Cuba has softened considerably over the past few years.

Ed Lewis, November 2, 2006, 5:48pm

Michael, the scarcity position has been orthodox Trotskyism since the year dot. I’ve got no idea who David Christian is, but if he nicked Trotsky’s position he’s welcome.

Rose, November 2, 2006, 6:41pm

When socialism is prefigured or actualised in such a way that devalues or negates human relations and elevates economic development as the fundmental and primary objective, then the result will always be just a new form of alienation.

The two must go hand in hand from the start; not that one, the second will somehow be the precursor of the other. As Trotsky said in a speech to women in 1925, in this my favourite quote from all of Marxism:

The development of the productive forces is not needed for its own sake. In the last analysis the development of the productive forces is needed because it provides the basis for a new human personality, conscious, without a lord over him on earth … a human personality which absorbs into itself all the best of what was created by thought and creativity of past ages, which in solidarity with all others goes forward, creates new cultural values, constructs new personal and family attitudes, higher and nobler than those which were born on the basis of class slavery. The development of the productive forces is dear to us, as the material presupposition of a higher human personality, not shut up in itself, but cooperative, associative. From this point of view it may be said that probably for many decades to come it will be possible to evaluate a human society by the attitude it has toward woman … and this is true not only for evaluating society, but also the individual person.”

Chris M, November 2, 2006, 8:06pm

Michael – you say some strange things: I am interested in your last comments in relation to material scarcity. Are you coming around to David Christian’s view that the Socialist project floundered in the former Soviet Union for lack of material abundance?

Extrapolating from this, and this is what I have been arguing all along, then Stalinism arises not from the personality of any one individual but rather from the objective circumstances in which the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917.

Ed is quite correct. There is nothing new in this view. I repeat NOTHING. It is common to orthodox Trotskyism. It is also quite central to the explanation of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution put forward by the IS tendency.

The Bolsheviks were pretty clear in the revolutionary period that the fate of their revolution depended on the Revolution in Europe. They were acutely aware of Russia’s underdevelopment and scarcity. By the mid-twenties they had moved away from this and by the late twenites they were locked into military competition with the west.

After the victory of Hitler it was pretty clear another major world war would likely develop. Stalin’s foreign policy was geared towards trying to shore up the position of the USSR for this, rather than forwarding socialist revolution.

Domestic policy was brutally directed at extracting as much as possible from the working class and smashing them as an organisational force. This is why it is rightly known by many as a COUNTER REVOLUTION. There is much worth reading about all of this – and I suspect you have read some of this stuff.

I’m pretty sure that Bob would have read a whole lot more – and would not see Stalinism as the aberration of one nasty personality. Whatever his faults might be, give him a little credit!

Anyhow various things that I have read and think that are worth reading are: Trotsky’s Lessons of October, Trotsky’s My Life, Isaac Deuscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, Tony Cliff’s four-volume  biography of Trotsky, Victor Serge’s Year One, From Lenin to Stalin, Destiny of A Revolution (aka Russia 20 years after), and Memoirs of a Revolutionary, as well as the biography of Trotsky that he wrote along with Natalia Trotsky, Duncan Hallas’s book on the Commintern, Donny Gluckstein’s The Tragedy of Bukharin, Russia from Worker’s State to State Capitalism, Cliff’s State Capitalism In Russia, Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution by John Molyneux, Trotsky’s Marxism by Duncan Hallas, Trotskyism by Alex Callinicos, Harman’s Bureaucracy & Revolution in Eastern Europe, Callinicos’s Revenge of History and various articles in the ISJ (some debates with Ernest Mandel, debates in Defence of October, about Market Socialism, Cuba China etc. etc.)

No doubt there’s plenty of other great stuff too, perhaps getting further away from the British SWP than I have managed – the point been that these debates have well and truly been fleshed out and can be researched.

This whole thread has made me want to read a secondhand book on Hungary that I picked up last year. Published in 1957 it is called The 19 Days, by George Urban. Has anyone read it?

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 9:35pm

Thanks for the reading list. That’s almost good enough for a university course. Do I get a credit at the end of it?

I think Bob does tend to view this question very much in terms of personality. Not only in terms of Stalin but also those he debates against.

The David Christian position on why the Socialist project faltered in the former Soviet Union is a little different to Trotsky’s I suspect.

Christian’s argument is probably similar to that put forward by the Mensheviks at the time. David Christian and the Mensheviks (good name for a pop group!) argue/argued that the Bolsheviks were taking an enormous risk in launching the socialist revolution in a backward impoverished largely agricultural society like Russia.

They warned that the attempt to build Socialism in such circumstances would only lead to tyranny.  This had always been the orthodox Marxist position in relation to Russia. Russia would have to undergo many years of capitalist development before Socialism was possible.

Interestingly, 60 years or more later Deng Xiaoping revived the same arguments in relation to China.

Consequently, Marx had expected the first Socialist revolutions to occur in the advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe and the United States. Trotsky had been in agreement with this orthodox Msrxist position right up until the First World War.

Then Trotsky hit upon the idea of Permanent Revolution. This held that in backward societies with belated development of capitalism the bourgeoisie was not strong enough to carry through the first stage democratic revolution and so in these circumstances the revolution would be compelled to follow through immediately to the Proletarian stage. So the immediate circumstances of the revolution would be socialist in character regardless of the level of material development in that society.

Also at around this time, Lenin and Trotsky argued that the First World War had come about as a result of a crisis in the global capitalist system. The capitalist system was now a global one and so any revolution aimed at overthrowing it would have to be global in character.

Lenin and Trotsky argued that Russia was now a part of this global capitalist system and was in fact its weakest link. A socialist revolution in Russia could be used to detonate a wider global revolution encompassing the more advanced economies of Western Europe.

On this basis they elected to launch the Socialist revolution in Russia. This decision was predicated on the expectation or almost certainty that the revolution would then spread to Western Europe. The expectation was that the First World War had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the capitalist system, on a global basis had exhausted its capacity to advance humankind.

The Bolsheviks really didn’t have a back-up plan once the revolution failed to spread to Western Europe and instead found itself isolated in backward impoverished Russia. They had to find a way to kickstart Russia’s moribund economy and they had to find it fast. After several false starts they hit upon what Christian describes as the Stalinist engine of growth.

To cut a very long story short, Christian goes into chapter and verse on this subject in his book, the Stalinist engine of growth proved a very effective if brutal means of industrialising and modernising a backward society like Russia, it did it at enormous human cost, was tremendously wasteful of resources and eventually after over fifty years of solid economic growth began to run out of steam and began to contract plunging the Soviet Union and other societies that had adopted the Soviet Union as a model into a major economic crisis.

Christian argues that the fundamental economic problems experienced by the Soviet Union and the workers states of Eastern Europe in the 1980s culminating in the popular revolutions of 1989-91 can be traced back to the circumstances of economic backwardness and material impoverishment which characterised the original bolshevik revolution way back in 1917.

Christian argues that once the socialist revolution found itself isolated in Russia from 1923 the Socialist project was in great difficulty. There’s no coincidence that the emergence of Stalinism co incides with this period.

Socialism requires a high degree of material abundance. Marx envisaged the Communist society as standing very much on the achievements of capitalism. The explosive development of the productive forces under capitalism made the realisation of a socialist society possible. In fact Marx argued that only under Communism would the full potential of the productive forces developed under capitalism be realised.

Things didn’t quite work out as Marx had envisaged. The Socialist revolutions occurred not in the most advanced societies but rather in the most backward, where Capitalism was emerging from Feudalism. Often these revolutions were led not by the working class but by the peasantry. In nearly all cases the Socialist project was embarked upon not from the platform of the most advanced level of the productive forces developed under capitalism but from a much more elementary level where Capitalism had only begun to develop or in societies where the productive forces had been smashed by war.

Christian argues that in these circumstances, Stalinism or something very much like it would inevitably emerge as a means of rapidly industrialising and modernising such societies.

OK so I think we can agree that the Soviet Union was shaped by material scarcity. Perhaps we can even agree that Stalinism was the outcome of this.

So the point of difference lies in the interpretation of the events in Hungary in 1956. I’ve agreed that there  is truth in Bob’s version of events, all I’ve argued is that they don’t represent the complete picture. The uprising of 1956 was more complicated than the simple black and white picture he seeks to depict.

And that’s not an uncommon opinion on the left in fact I would argue that it is the majority opinion.

Michael Berrell, November 2, 2006, 9:46pm

Anyway, the point of all that was to demonstrate that I think its unfair to depict me as the crude Stalinist as Bob would have it.  But I think David Christian’s understanding and explanation of Stalinism is slightly different to Trotsky’s.

Phil Kimby, November 2, 2006 @ 10:27pm

“Whereas David Christian and myself would argue that the socialist project was in serious difficulty once the revolution had failed to spread to the more advanced societies of Western Europe.”

The socialist project was in strife from the moment the Bolsheviks siezed power and abolished the Constituent Assembly.

Ablokeimet, November 2, 2006, 10:29pm

Some of the criticisms of Comrade Berrell are a bit ad hominem, but it’s a bit hard for me to remain totally detached when he takes a “more in sorrow than in anger” tankie approach to history. When the Stalinists crush a workers’ uprising and massacre the workers, I know which side I’m on. I have a few comments to make about Comrade Berrell’s theses: It’s revealing that the source for the Rightist leanings of the Hungarian Revolution is a contemporary establishment capitalist one. I’ve read a few pieces, some of them from around the time of the events. All of them give a quite convincing picture of a workers’ revolution, complete with soviets. Perhaps the most damning evidence against the Stalinists, however, is the fact that the Daily Worker, the newspaper at the time of the British “C”P, had a correspondent stationed in Budapest, sending back daily accounts of the Revolution. Did the Daily Worker print them? No – it binned them.

Think about what that means. The orthodox Trotskyist line of “unconditional defence of the Soviet Union” was, at least in theory, supposed to be about defending a “degenerated workers’ State” against imperialism, on the basis that only the workers could legitimately overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Comrade Berrell has demonstrated the inner logic of holding this principle tightly since, in the name of defending the Soviet Union against imperialism, he has been compelled to defend it against a workers’ revolution. At the time, the Trotskyists sided with the workers, but by 1989, most had either capitulated to US imperialism or to Stalinism.

For an example of the former, one Trotskyist group (I forget which one) had members on the same barricade as Boris Yeltsin during a crucial stage of the Russian events, while the Spartacists supported martial law in Poland in 1981 and, in 1991, they criticised the last ditch stand of the Stalinists in kidnapping Gorbachev as “the gang of eight who couldn’t shoot straight” – ie they criticised them for ineffective repression.

It’s quite correct for Comrade Berrell to state that the isolation of the Soviet Union killed the Russian Revolution and that, once isolated by the failure of the Revolution to spread, the USSR has no choice to develop like it did.

As Ed & Chris M say, however, this is stock in trade of the Trotskyists. Trotsky himself said it frequently. The issue is, however, how to judge the regime. Do we say “The Revolution has been defeated, Comrades, so we have to regroup and build for the day when we can do it again, but properly”?

Or do we say “The Revolution has been defeated, Comrades, so we have to defend the regime that defeated us because it had no other option that would preserve its power”?

Comrade Berrell makes one choice, while most people on this site make the other. The Trotskyist position, however, is not viable.

While Trotsky certainly had the best critique of Stalinism that was going around, his position was weakened by the necessity to defend his own record in power. Crucially, Trotsky was forced to define the content of a “workers’ State” as being nationalised property rather than workers’ democracy because it was the regime of Lenin and Trotsky which abolished workers’ democracy.

The repressive acts of the Bolsheviks against the working class started before the first White army was raised, while the banning of factions inside the Party was done at the behest of Lenin and Trotsky in 1921.

The Kronstadt garrison, the pride of the Revolution, rose in 1921 against the regime. Their programme had two main planks to it – an economic compromise with the peasants and the re-establishment of Soviet democracy. The Bolsheviks crushed the uprising and then proceeded with a greater compromise with the peasants than the Kronstadters had been advocating.

The identification of nationalised property with a “workers’ State” has been the source of all subsequent Trotskyist capitulations to Stalinism. The problem is that the very concept of a “workers’ State” is an oxymoron. If, in the course of the Revolution, the working class establishes a State, the apparatus raises itself above society and the bureaucrats inhabiting the State apparatus necessarily rule over the working class.

Rather than the working class ruling, you get a radicalised petit-bourgeois intelligentsia ruling over the working class in the name of the working class. A mass Leninist Party actually embodies an alliance, where the working class membership is structurally subordinated to an elite of professional revolutionaries, an ambitious petit-bourgeois bureacracy in the making. In the time of Lenin and Trotsky, this petit-bourgeois intelligentsia was prepared to keep the alliance with the workers – provided the workers were rendered structurally subordinate. Under Stalin, however, the bureaucracy moved to assert its complete independence and waged pitiless war against the workers as it made its bid to be a global power. Lenin and Trotsky fought against the rise of Stalin.

That is true and should not be forgotten. What should also not be forgotten, however, is that Lenin and Trotsky subordinated the workers to the State that would, under Stalin’s direction, later act so murderously in its name.

Ed Lewis, November 2, 2006, 11:15 pm

Michael, David Christian’s book sounds like a pretty straightforward exposition of the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country, initially developed by Bukharin and taken up by Stalin, and your uncritical acceptance of it places you well and truly in the Stalinist camp.

There were struggles against the Stalinist bureaucratisation in the Soviet Union, which produced several oppositions: the right opposition of Bukharin, Rykov and others, the left opposition led by Trotsky and others, and the joint opposition led by Trotsky and Zinoviev.

There was considerable debate on economic and political options for the Soviet Union, all of which stopped rather suddenly when Stalin settled the argument by arresting people and having them murdered after show trials. In this way, the Stalinists eventually eliminated pretty well all the old Bolsheviks from the party and state apparatuses.

At this point it should be said that the discussion is not about whether Stalin was a bad man. By most accounts, he wasn’t a particularly good man (obsequious to superiors in the apparatus, rude to those below him, etc), but you can get most of that from Isaac Deutscher’s biography if you’re interested.

Whether Stalin was a good or bad man is irrelevant. He was a representative of the bureaucracy. That was the social layer he relied on for support. Some of the problems with this are laid out in Lenin’s Testament, which proposed that Stalin be removed from his positions in the party apparatus.

The Revolution Betrayed is a thorough analysis of the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the struggle against it. The New Course is also well worth reading, as is the Platform of the Joint Opposition, which contained alternative policy proposals for the time.

Whatever David Christian and other Menshevik-Stalinist apologists might say in retrospect, socialists at the time didn’t think their options were simple or limited to the Bukharin-Stalin theory of socialism in one country.

They debated them vigorously, even at the risk of their lives. I’ve seen you write somewhere that you recently finished a university course. Perhaps you should put David Christian and other bourgeois commentators on the shelf for a while and read some of the views of the participants in the events of the Russian Revolution. Their works are readily available.

Chris M, November 2, 2006, 11:18pm

Michael,  Sorry for the huge list. I highly recommend the Serge. I read his Memoirs in my early 20s and have remained convinced ever since that Stalinism was a counter-revolution that had only succeeded by physically liquidating much of the old Bolsheviks and the revolutionary generation associated with them and by brutalising and terorrising the rest of the population.

There might have been some adequate healthcare and education in the system later on, but it was dependent on mass murder. It could only be given in the period of post-WWII political stability and economic growth (much as it was in the west).

The British brutalised their peasantry and working class over a far longer period of time, and with less intensity for the same purpose – primitive capital accumulation. The Stalinists had the gulag and the British had the slave trade and plantations. There is little that I would disagree in the argument that you make above. The central point is that Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks saw themselves as part of the world revolution and this was not an unreasonable position to adopt at the time.

The alternative was probably to let Russia be engulfed by some form or reaction similar to fascism. There was not and could not be a back-up plan.

If the world revolution did not succeed then the Russian revolution would degenerate. This too was understood and Trotsky tried to analyse this and lead a fight against this degeneration.

Where I think he went wrong was to underestimate the degree to which the bureaucracy had transformed itself into a new ruling class in a world capaitalist context – and the way in which the Russian economy became a variant of capitalism. Trotsky wrongly believed that the coming world war would create a crisis similar to that caused by WWI and that genuine Marxists who had held to the principles of the Russian Revolution would be able to lead a new mass movement – in Russia and elsewhere.

Events panned out very differently and revolutionary Marxism has been at the fringes of the working class ever since. The important thing is to consider how this might be rebuilt.

Personally I think it can only be done by the process of workers moving into struggle when society is in some kind of crisis – be that in Hungary, Poland, Chile, Venezuela, Iran or wherever – and radicals attempting to relate to this, lead it and learn from it.

Of course when this happened in Hungary in 1956 the Russian ruling class sent the tanks in. It is now unclear to me how useful the models and organisational forms developed by the  Bolsheviks are to today’s context – given that the working class has moved on. But I’m quite sure that nostalgia (crude or otherwise) for Stalinism will only retard things, because it is predicated on a fascination with states, economic stages etc, rather than the possibilities of  working class self activity.

You also touch on another important point – the way in which the USSR formed a model for newly independent or post-colonial regimes who wished to develop their economies. That is, Stalinism provided a model for national capitalist development, precisely because it had seemed to work. Now it hasn’t and neither has neo-liberalism.

But the kind of revolutionary Marxism associated with the first part of the 20th Century also seems irrelevant to most people. This is the legacy of Stalinism, and it is a tragic one because it has left us all very disorientated in our attempts to find a way towards human liberation. So for a time we are very much stuck with the barbarism of capitalism, until the mass of people work out a new way to fight back against it.

November 2, 2006, 11:37pm

By the way social revolution did haunt the advanced capitalist counties at the end of WWI and this was the context in which the Bolsheviks were operating. People always approach it in retrospect as though this would never have happened and that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the development of Stalinism, and its associated brutal  model of economic development, were ineveitable. This is to run the film backward and argue that Socialism in One Country is all that was possible because that was what happened.

Stalinism collapsed Marxism back into a form of economic determinism and mechanical materialism. It removed a sense of dynamism and human agnecy. In this sense it was a negation of Bolshevism as well. In some ways I feel your approach, Michael,  is an attempt to do the same thing with the events of Hungary 1956.

Michael Berrell, November 3, 2006, 12:44am

I agree with your remarks Chris M. They seem very persuasive and touch on things that were beginning to develop in my own mind.  I would advise Ed to read Power and Privilege.

David Christian taught Russian History at Macquarie University. Power and Privilege is used as a standard text in secondary schools in NSW. I would dispute that David Christian is an apologist for Stalinism. He’s highly critical of Stalinism. I was attracted to his ideas because they attempt to provide a Marxist analysis of why the Socialist project failed in the former Soviet Union.

He concludes that Socialism ultimately failed in the Soviet Union because the Bolsheviks attempted to construct Socialism by by passing the historical necessary stage of capitalist development. Christian argues that Marx had warned that any such attempt would inevitably lead to the generalisation of want and to the intensification of class antagonisms. This generalisation of want characterised the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe. I think this generalisation of want is also present in Cuba.

David  Christian is rather pessimistic about the immediate revival of the socialist project. The last edition of the book was written in 1994. He does warn however that the capitalist system is dependent on continuous growth. However, the world’s resources are finite and continuous growth is impossible. When the world’s resources begin to run out the capitalist system will be in serious trouble.

When that time arrives Christian predicts that Marx’s ideas will assume a new relevance. Personally, I don’t think we can afford to wait that long.  I’ll admit that I’m no expert on the events in Hungary in 1956. As a result of this discussion I’ve resolved to learn as much as I can about that period of history. I’ve been googling Hungary 1956 and over the past hour or so have read dozens of articles and already I can see that its almost impossible to come to any kind of consensus.

One’s interpretation of those events will always be coloured by one’s ideological outlook. In my response to Bob Gould I outlined three myths about the Hungarian Revolution and you can find evidence to support each of these three myths.

Just on Bob. I am aware that these events were seminal to Bob’s political development and that its almost impossible to have a rational argument with him concerning them.

So I’m going to take a sabbatical, do some reading and bow out of this discussion bloodied but unbowed.  Cheers Everyone

Chav, November 3, 2006, 8:58am

The problem is that the very concept of a “workers’ State” is an oxymoron Historical fact doesn’t support that argument.  The worker’s states of the Paris Commune and the initial Soviet state were run by workers.

A worker’s state is a necessary stage on the path to socialism. To think otherwise is a utopian, anarchist pipedream.  A mass Leninist Party actually embodies an alliance, where the working class membership is structurally subordinated to an elite of professional revolutionaries, an ambitious petit-bourgeois bureacracy in the making of another anarchist myth.

Ed Lewis, November 3, 2006, 9:49am

I don’t want to participate in a rerun of the ritual anarchist vs “authoritarian socialist” debate. It’s aired on Indymedia often enough, to no useful purpose that I can see.

I’ve been on both sides of this one, initially as a student  sort-of anarchist, later as a Trotskyist (and now neither).

The Bloke makes some sensible contributions to discussion and seeking common ground is more useful than reworking old differences. Since Kronstadt has been mentioned, though, it’s reasonable to draw attention to Trotsky’s view, including his analysis of the social composition of the Kronstadt garrison by 1921 and the reasons for that.

Chris M, November 3, 2006, 10:52am

And people interested can also find an piece from Serge on Kronstadt. There is also a book on Serge and  Trotsky’s correspondence on this and other issues published by Pluto. No doubt the web is now full of historical research on this incident, but at work so not in a position to look up and read material, post links etc … Can understand the concerns about going down that whole line Ed.

Chav, November 3, 2006, 11:38am

Can understand the concerns about going down that whole line Ed. Yeah but should I have just let those anarchist falsities stand? But thanks Ed for the link to that Trotsky article.  Excellent article, except maybe for this… “completely demoralized elements, wearing showy bell-bottom pants and sporty haircuts”.


%d bloggers like this: