Like other studies made at the time, this article does not anticipate the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 to 1991.
Note that Yeltsin was not at the time an open rival to Gorbachev. This happened only later on in 1988, at the Congress of People’s Deputies. I then took him more seriously than he merited when he became Russia’s leader – see Yeltsin’s Final Election and the Near-Return of the Russian Communists.
Stalin and Gorbachev
by Gwydion M. Williams
Glasnost is supposed to mean openness. But the Soviet system is based upon secrecy and closedness. And when important matters are to be decided, closedness remains very much the rule. Boris Yeltsin lost his job as Moscow party boss, and people were left to guess at the reason. In public, everyone seemed to hold exactly the same opinion – including Mr Yeltsin himself, who apparently accepted his fall and has been compensated with a lesser but still fairly important post.
When I speak of “the Soviet system” I do not, of course, mean the system of rule by· councils of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ representatives that came into existence in 1917, and in the name of which Lenin took power. Formally speaking, this system still exists, and the “Supreme Soviet” is in principle the highest power in the land. In practice, this system was’ swallowed up and turned into a formality during Lenin’s time. Actual power was exercised by the Bolshevik party. No other party was allowed to exist, and opposition to the Bolshevik party was seen as the same as treason against the state.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks had been a strong minority faction within the Russian socialist movement. The Mensheviks were about equally popular and the Social Revolutionaries more popular than both put together. But Lenin knew what he wanted, whereas none of his rivals on the left were quite sure. He created the basic apparatus of the Soviet state, and it was during his time as ruler of Russia that “worker and peasant power” became identical with rule by the Communist Party.
From Lenin to Stalin
After Lenin’s death, things became more complex. Power passed to the “troika” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. Trotsky set up in opposition – adopting the policies of the “Workers’ Opposition”, which he had opposed during Lenin’s lifetime.
Bukharin started out as a half-hearted ally of Trotsky, but then changed his position drastically; from left to right, in the Bolshevik scheme of things. Stalin made an alliance with Bukharin, splitting with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who promptly teamed up with Trotsky. A bitter confrontation followed, which Bukharin and Stalin won decisively.
They remained joint rulers, until the Bolshevik policy of allowing private peasant agriculture ran into trouble. Bukharin wanted to stick with it; Stalin felt that private peasant agriculture and one-Party rule by the Bolshevik Party could not co-exist indefinitely; one of them would have to go. The majority of the party agreed with him, and supported him in the collectivisation drive that wiped out the independent power of the peasantry, and killed a great many of them in the process. This was the basis of the “Stalin dictatorship”, simply a logical continuation of the process that Lenin and the other Bolsheviks began.
Denouncing Stalin ?
Around the time that Boris Yeltsin fell from power, there was a widespread belief that Gorbachev was about to launch some violent denunciation of Stalin. I was in no way surprised when the “denunciation” failed to materialise. He cannot condemn Stalin, any more than the Pope can condemn St Peter and St Paul.
To condemn Stalin is to undermine the whole basis of the Soviet state. Even Khrushchev toned down his criticisms when he saw how far such things might be taken. Without Stalin, or someone like him, the Bolshevik Party would probably not have stayed in power. If the Communist Party condemns him for it, how can they justify their continuing monopoly of power? How could the Polish Communist Party justify their suppression of Solidarity, and of the recently re-created Polish Socialist Party? Unless Mr Gorbachev is a secret anti-Soviet subversive, one must expect his criticisms of Stalin to remain extremely muted.
In point of fact, Stalin’s dictatorship probably was justifiable by the circumstances of the time. During the 1920s and 1930s, capitalist democracies were tending to collapse, and fascism and other forms of right-wing dictatorship were growing. Without Stalin’s drastic and brutal industrialisation, it is very doubtful if the Soviet Union could have withstood the Nazi invasion. Had the Soviet Union been conquered, the likely result would have been a world ruled by fascists – or at best by a mixture of fascists and capitalist democracies, with none of the positive developments that have happened since 1945.
(Trotsky, of course, thought that “world revolution” would solve everything. He wanted to repeat the Bolshevik revolution on a world scale, in the hope that somehow the outcome would be something completely different. It probably wouldn’t have been. During his time as a Bolshevik leader, he was no less ruthless and authoritarian than Lenin or Stalin. Arguably, he was more so. Shortly before Lenin’s death, Trotsky proposed the abolition of Trade Unions and the militarisation of labour! In any case, neither Trotsky nor any of his followers have ever been able to organise a decent-sized revolution. They can produce splendid reasons why they should have been able to do so, or how they almost managed it at this time or that. But that is as far as it goes.)
As I said, what Stalin did may have been justified by the dangers of the times. Terrible things were done, but there were also great achievements. What is not justifiable is the bureaucratic oligarchy that has followed it. The misdeeds are much smaller, but then so are the achievements. Russia averaged 10% growth per annum under Stalin, and has been slowing down steadily under each of his successors.
There is no longer a personal dictatorship Khrushchev’s fall proved that. Instead there is a collective and self-appointing dictatorship by the Politburo, with one or two individuals dominant within the oligarchy. There is still no such thing as a legal and legitimate opposition. To disagree publicly with the Politburo is to be a criminal, just as it was under Stalin. Such “criminals” are now more likely to be jailed than shot – that is the only step forward!
It is time for a new beginning. Indeed, a new beginning is long overdue. But the Soviet system provides no lawful or practical method of getting rid of the oligarchy. Only the oligarchy could abolish the oligarchy, and there is no sign that it is about to do so. Gorbachev is shaking up the oligarchy, because the oligarchy sees that its long-term power and position is at risk without such a shake-up. It is doubtful if Mr Gorbachev wants any more than that. Nor, as far as we can tell, did Mr Yeltsin. He simply tried to push the shaking-up process rather faster than his colleagues in the oligarchy thought prudent.
This article appeared in January 1988, in Issue 5 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. One of many on the website. See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/magazine-005/.
 For a later and much fuller analysis see ‘Trotsky, the Performing Bolshevik’ – https://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/why-trotksys-politics-achieved-nothing-solid/.