the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jan 31, 1983
The new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is Yuri Andropov. Andropov is a man of the state apparatus, and especially of its repressive forces. He was at the head of the KGB, the secret police, for fifteen years. Before that, he was the representative of the Soviet bureaucracy in Hungary when Russian tanks crushed the workers’ uprising of 1956. Current reports in the bourgeois press make it seem that he is on easy terms with the Soviet Army.
If only symbolically, Andropov’s installation demonstrates clearly the armed force on which the Russian bureaucracy leans. Whether it will be Andropov who permanently occupies the dictator’s chair isn’t so clear. It would appear that the Russian bureaucracy cannot – or does not want to – settle on one man to replace Brezhnev, as of now. While Andropov has been
appointed to head the CP, the post at the head of the government has been left vacant so far.
Maybe there is a dispute going on inside the bureaucracy, which opposes Andropov to someone else – Konstantin Chernenko, for example. Maybe Andropov is nothing more than a caretaker with strong ties to the police apparatus, while other contenders fight it out between themselves. Maybe the bureaucracy is in no hurry to confer all of Brezhnev’s authority on a single person. If someone really does take Brezhnev’s place, assumes the dictators’ full mantle, the bureaucracy will have to submit itself to him, in much the same way it had submitted itself to Brezhnev, Khrushchev and Stalin before him. And it’s quite likely that they don’t want to do that.
Whatever the reasons, Andropov’s appointment doesn’t fully resolve the problem created by the death of Brezhnev. Moreover, no matter how the problem was regulated, it was done so behind closed doors by only a tiny handful of people at the very top of the regime.
What is the regime of the Soviet Union, that it can act only in such a fashion?
There can be no doubt that the regime in the USSR is a regime that needs a dictator. This is not simply a question of what happened at Brezhnev’s death. It is also demonstrated by the history of the rule of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union for more than fifty years now.
From the time when Josef Stalin expelled and eliminated all opposition within the Bolshevik Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s, up until today, one of the striking characteristics of the regime of the USSR has been the fact that it has always needed the arbitrary rule of one man over not only the whole of Soviet society, but also over the rest of the bureaucrats.
Stalin did not take all the power in his hands easily, nor rapidly. The process by which he established his own personal dictatorship was a bloody one, for not only was Stalin fighting inside the bureaucracy to impose himself over the other bureaucrats, that fight was a reflection and a part of the fight which the bureaucracy itself was carrying on to impose itself over the
remnants of the workers revolution of 1917.
Stalin had to wage a real fight against all opposition. And it was not only the Left Opposition of Trotsky, nor the Right Opposition of Bukharin, nor those groupings around people like Kamenev or Zinoviev, which had to be crushed for Stalin to assume the dictator’s chair. The real mark of what Stalin had to do was that he had to suppress even his own faction with in the bureaucracy itself. The 1934 Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was completely Stalin’s Congress. All opposition had been driven out. And yet of the 2000 delegates to that Congress sixty percent were eventually arrested in Stalin’s purges. And of the 139 members ratified by that Congress for Stalin’s Central Committee, seventy percent were eventually shot.
The purge was so complete that there was virtually no one left able to make an opposition, even when the opportunity presented itself. We know now that the rest of the bureaucrats did not even try to remove Stalin several times when they probably could have: in 1932, during the upheavals over collectivization of the land; and in 194l, with the early defeats suffered by the Red Army in the war against Germany. In both of those periods Stalin for all practical purposes collapsed, only to be dragged back and propped up by the rest of the bureaucrats, whose own existence was, to say the least, precarious under his rule. Precarious or not, those who had managed to survive the blood-letting apparently were so cowed they could not find the way to take the opportunity Stalin’s collapse gave them.
Stalin could come to power only through the decimation of the Communist Party. But once that struggle was over, and the dictatorship solidly entrenched, it was virtually impossible for the man at the head of the dictatorship to be removed. Since then, the dictator’s chair has been vacant only three times: at Stalin’s death, when Khrushchev was removed and at Brezhnev’s
death. After the first two times, the bureaucracy was forced into along, painful struggle to re-establish a new equilibrium – only to end up by putting a new man in the dictator’s chair. During the struggles, the contending members of the bureaucracy spoke of “collective leadership". In each case, the monolithic rule of the predecessor was denounced – Stalin’s crime was to have built the "personality cult"; Khrushchev’s to have aspired to be "another Stalin". And yet, the "collective leadership" which Khrushchev supposedly stood for was laid to rest by Khrushchev himself when he eliminated the last of his rivals. When Kosygin, Brezhnev and Podgorny replaced Khrushchev in the name of the fight against his one-man rule, it was only to lead to the final triumph of one man, Brezhnev, in 1973. We can expect to see something similar before the current situation is finally resolved.
In fact, all those claims to a "collective leadership" were nothing more than an indication that there was an as-yet-unresolved struggle going on inside the bureaucracy, or at least within the top layers of the bureaucracy.
The domination over the who1e bureaucracy by one man has never been easy for the rest of the bureaucrats, even if their existence hasn’t always been so harshly restricted as it was under Stalin. We sometimes have indications that a section of the bureaucracy would like to find an opening for itself in the political life and certain guarantees of political liberties – or at least, guarantees against the arbitrary actions of the dictator.
But if the bureaucracy would like more liberty for itself, it has not yet been able to find it. During the early 1960s, we know that the regime encouraged in a number of indirect ways the dissidents; it even published some of their books. Sections of that bureaucracy probably hoped that the regime’s acceptance of the dissidents’ activity promised a kind of democratization, if not of the regime, at least within the bureaucracy. The difficulty, however, was that the dissidents could not be kept on the bureaucrats’ leash, and they began to get a certain hearing in the population. Even those bureaucrats who most wanted an open regime retreated behind the dictatorship of Khrushchev.
This history shows that the dictatorship is not dependent on one set of circumstance, nor on one man. Such a long-standing dictatorship which spans many different political and socia1 realities is not made just by the dictator himself. More than fifty years of history have demonstrated that the Russian bureaucracy cannot exist in a political framework other than that of a personal dictatorship, even when it wants to.
Of course, in many respects, the dictatorship in the USSR is no different than any of the dictatorial regimes in the world, no matter if those dictatorships rest on a different class basis.
Any difference of opinion which can’t be resolved within a dictatorial regime brings on a crisis: for the simple reason that it threatens to spill outside the regime, into the broad daylight where it can be seen and picked up by the population. We know that in 1953 and again in 1956, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin was not intended for the people of the USSR, but only
for the bureaucracy. The news of his XXth Congress speech, for example, did not appear in the Soviet Union until much after it appeared in the Western press. Moreover, if Khrushchev promised certain things to the bureaucracy as far as a liberalization for itself, his main intention was only to fortify his own position by denouncing his predecessor. Yet the very fact that Khrushchev denounced Stalin indicated that there might be differences within the current regime, and it was an encouragement to the masses – if not in the USSR itself, then, at least, in its satellites. Khrushchev’s attempt to fortify himself at the expense of the other bureaucrats in fact appeared like an opening in the regime, a crack through which the masses might begin to intervene in the political life of their own countries. It finally took Soviet tanks to disabuse them of that notion.
If there could have been any doubt that the dictatorship could democratize its own regime, 1953 and especially 1956 laid that doubt to rest. The events of those years showed why the dictatorial regime has need of a personal dictator, set above the rest of the regime. Such a man has the possibility, the only real one, to prevent disputes within the regime from spilling outside. A regime like this has need of someone who can impose by fist all decisions on the regime itself; such a personal dictator gives the regime the possibility to impose itself monolithically on the population.
In all of this, the regime in the USSR is not different than that in any number of bourgeois states, under the grip of dictatorial regimes: in countries like the Spain of Franco or the Portugal of Salazar, or in most of the underdeveloped countries of the world today.
The difference lies in the fact that while the bourgeoisie has deep social roots and property relations which protect its existence, the Russian bureaucracy does not have its own social roots. It is the product of the antagonism between two contending class forces. As such it is incomparably weaker than is the bourgeoisie. If the bourgeoisie has recourse to dictatorial means sometimes, it is strong enough that it does not absolutely and at all moments have to rely on a dictatorial regime. The bourgeoisie, given the appropriate mix of political, social and economic circumstances, can open its regime to a more democratic functioning, for both the regime and the population. This is most true, of course, in the wealthy imperialist countries, where a democratic regime is the ordinary state of affairs. But even in the underdeveloped countries we can see the bourgeoisie prefer, for a period, the advantages that a democratic regime gives it to regulate its own affairs.
We have never yet seen such an opening in the Soviet Union, since the time that the Stalinist bureaucracy took power out of the hands of the working class. And if we haven’t it’s because the bureaucracy is a parasitical growth on the body of the Russian workers’ state, one which has no social roots of its own. Any real opening to the popular masses of the Soviet Union would spell the end of the bureaucracy.
The bureaucracy of the USSR is a historical product, the political expression of irreconcilable class antagonisms, unique in the sense that it is between the working class and the bourgeoisie, that it balances.
The 1917 workers’ revolution destroyed the old bourgeois state of the Czar and replaced it with a workers’ state; it abolished private property in the means of production; and it carried out an open war against the international bourgeoisie, hoping to spread the workers’ revolution, opening up the only possible road to socialism. However, that revolution was isolated, when it
was not able to expand on the international arena. Stalin’s claims to be building socialism in one country were nothing more than the acknowledgment that the revolution was being strangled within national borders. The revolution found itself not able to move to the construction of socialism. Moreover, given the capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union, and the effects of war, it wasn’t able, for many long years, even to grant a standard of living on a par with what had existed in Czarist Russia before the revolution.
The Russian proletariat, which had constructed its own state, was decimated. Its strength was sapped by the civil war and the disappearance of industry; it confronted famine, and the destruction, both human and material, which resulted from World War I and the civil war. Its best militants had either been killed in the wars, or drawn into the state apparatus in the desperate attempt to organize the defense of the soviet power or to reconstruct the economy. This decimation of the working class was the mirror image of the fact that a growing bureaucracy was pushing at the workers’ power. The bureaucracy which emerged as the result of these factors was the expression of the fact that the working class had lost the political control over its own state, while at the same time the bourgeoisie had not been able to lay its hands back on the workers’ state.
Nothing which has happened in the intervening years has challenged that basic ambiguity. If the situation has lasted this long, in part it is a measure of what the European working class did – and did not do – in the 1920s and 1930s. The European workers did not spread the revolution, but their combativity gave the Russian workers a breathing space. The European bourgeoisie was occupied in its own territory, and less willing to push a decisive fight against the Soviet Union in those years. In all the years since, the Soviet Union has been a kind of provocation to all the imperialist bourgeoisie, a problem that sooner or later they will try to eliminate.
In the meantime, the Russian bureaucracy continues to be the expression of the weight of imperialism on the social conquests of the workers’ revolution of 1917.
For all the fact that this bureaucracy has constructed an absolute dictatorship; for all its armed strength and police powers; for all its ability to impose its will absolutely on the population, just as the one man is able to impose his will on the rest of the regime; for all that, the Russian bureaucracy is nonetheless unstable. The very fact that it balances between two contending forces means that, in fact, it bases itself finally on nothing.
The mark of its weakness is seen once again in how quickly the bureaucracy moved to plug up the hole left by Brezhnev’s death. The fact that Andropov is now standing in for Brezhnev will change nothing about what this bureaucracy must do to defend its own interests against the workers of the Soviet Union. To prevent the workers from intervening it their own state, the bureaucracy must count on a dictatorial regime. Whether it is Andropov or someone else who finally moves to the top of this bureaucracy, the form of the regime will remain the same. To try to prevent the wakening of the working class, the bureaucracy can do nothing else finally but suppress all liberty for itself, to submit itself to the dictatorship of one of
their fellow bureaucrats.