Definition of Stalinism taken from the Encyclopedia of Marxism


In contemporary parlance, the word “Stalinism” has come to embody a range of ideologies, specific political positions, forms of societal organization, and political tendencies. That makes getting at the core definition of “Stalinism” difficult, but not impossible.

First and foremost, Stalinism must be understood as the politics of a political stratum. Specifically, Stalinism is the politics of the bureaucracy that hovers over a workers' state. Its first manifestation was in the Soviet Union, where Stalinism arose when sections of the bureaucracy began to express their own interests against those of the working class, which had created the workers' state through revolution to serve its class interests.

Soviet Russia was an isolated workers' state, and its developmental problems were profound. The socialist movement–including the Bolshevik leaders in Russia–had never confronted such problems. Chief among these was that Russia was a backward, peasant-dominated country, the “weakest link in the capitalist chain,” and had to fight for its survival within an imperialist world. This challenge was compounded by the defeat of the revolution in Europe, particularly in Germany, and the isolation of the Soviet workers' state from the material aid that could have been provided by a stronger workers' state. But the pressures of imperialism were too great.

From a social point of view, then, Stalinism is the expression of these pressures of imperialism within the workers' state. The politics of Stalinism flow from these pressures.

The political tenets of Stalinism revolve around the theory of socialism in one country–developed by Stalin to counter the Bolshevik theory that the survival of the Russian Revolution depended on proletarian revolutions in Europe. In contradistinction, the Stalinist theory stipulates that a socialist society can be achieved within a single country.

In April 1924, in the first edition of his book Foundations of Leninism, Stalin had explicitly rejected the idea that socialism could be constructed in one country. He wrote: “Is it possible to attain the final victory of socialism in one country, without the combined efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries? No, it is not. The efforts of one country are enough for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. This is what the history of our revolution tells us. For the final victory of socialism, for the organization of socialist production, the efforts of one country, especially a peasant country like ours, are not enough. For this we must have the efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries. Such, on the whole, are the characteristic features of the Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution.”

In August 1924, as Stalin was consolidating his power in the Soviet Union, a second edition of the same book was published. The text just quoted had been replaced with, in part, the following: “Having consolidated its power, and taking the lead of the peasantry, the proletariat of the victorious country can and must build a socialist society.” And by November 1926, Stalin had completely revised history, stating: “The party always took as its starting point the idea that the victory of socialism ... can be accomplished with the forces of a single country.”

Leon Trotsky, in The Third International After Lenin, called the Stalinist concept of “socialism one country” a “reactionary theory” and characterized its “basis” as one that“sums up to sophistic interpretations of several lines from Lenin on the one hand, and to a scholastic interpretation of the 'law of uneven development' on the other. By giving a correct interpretation of the historic law as well as of the quotations [from Lenin] in question,” Trotsky continued, “we arrive at a directly opposite conclusion, that is, the conclusion that was reached by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and all of us, including Stalin and Bukharin, up to 1925."

Stalinism had uprooted the very foundations of Marxism and Leninism.

From “socialism in one country” flow the two other main tenets of Stalinist politics. First is that the workers' movement–given the focus on building socialism in one country (i.e., the Soviet Union)–must adapt itself to whatever is in the best interests of that focus at any given moment. Hence we find the Stalinists engaged in “a series of contradictory zigzags” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed), from confrontation with imperialism to détente and from seeming support for the working-class struggle to outright betrayal of the workers. In other words, Russia's own economic development comes first, above an international policy of revolution–which was the Bolshevik perspective. The second is the idea of revolution in “stages” –that the “national-democratic revolution” must be completed before the socialist revolution takes place. This, too, runs contrary to Marxism. But because of this theory and as the expression of imperialism within the workers' state–and, by extension, within the world workers' movement–we find the Stalinists assigning to the national bourgeoisie a revolutionary role.

The case of Indonesia in 1965 affords an ideal illustration of the bankruptcy and treachery of the “two-stage theory.” As class tensions mounted among the workers and the peasantry, and the masses began to rise up against the shaky regime of President Sukarno, the Stalinist leadership in Beijing told the Indonesian masses and their mass organization the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) to tie their fate to the national bourgeoisie. In October, as many as 1 million workers and peasants were slaughtered in a CIA-organized coup led by General Suharto, which swept aside the Sukarno, crushed the rising mass movements, and installed a brutal military dictatorship.

The “two-stage theory” has also propelled the Stalinists into “popular fronts” with so-called“progressive”elements of the bourgeois class to “advance” the first revolutionary stage. Examples include Stalinist support (through the Communist Party, USA) to President Roosevelt 1930s. And, taking this orientation to its logical conclusion, the Communist Party in the United States consistently supports Democratic Party candidates for office, including the presidency.

The theory of “socialism in one country” and the policies that flowed from it propelled a transformation of Soviet foreign policy under Stalin. The Bolshevik revolutionary strategy, based on support for the working classes of all countries and an effort through the Communist International to construct Communist Parties as revolutionary leaderships throughout the world, gave way to deal-making and maneuvers with bourgeois governments, colonial “democrats” like Chiang Kai-shek in China, and the trade union bureaucracies.

In his 1937 essay “Stalinism and Bolshevism,” Trotsky wrote: “The experience of Stalinism does not refute the teaching of Marxism but confirms it by inversion. The revolutionary doctrine which teaches the proletariat to orient itself correctly in situations and to profit actively by them, contains of course no automatic guarantee of victory. But victory is possible only through the application of this doctrine.” At best, one can say that the Stalinist orientation has not been one of orienting “correctly."

In terms of the organization of a state, Stalinist policies are quite clear: democratic rights threaten the position of the bureaucracy, and hence democracy is incompatible with Stalinism. In basic terms on a world scale, the forces of Stalinism have done everything in their power to prevent socialist revolution.