Roger Keeran: Review of ‘Khrushchev and the Breakup of the USSR’ ( Fr.) by Mikhail Kilev

Left Turn :: Virage à Gauche: Roger Keeran: Review of ‘Khrushchev and the Breaku…:

A star of freedom Dennis Brutus (2008) 


There will come a time we believe when the shape of the planet and the divisions of the land will be less important. We will be caught in a glow of friendship A red star of hope will illuminate our lives A star of hope A star of joy


December 24, 2015

Roger Keeran: Review of ‘Khrushchev and the Breakup of the USSR’ ( Fr.) by Mikhail Kilev

Khrouchtchev Et La Desagregation De L’URSS: Essai d’analyse du rapport de Nikita S. Khrouchtchev, présenté à la session secrete du Comité Central du PCUS, le 25 février 1956
By Mikhail Kilev
Sofia, Bulgaria: Editions Niks Print, 2005. Pp. 176.
Reviewed by Roger Keeran
November 27, 2015
For many Marxist-Leninists, no question is more difficult than the question of Joseph Stalin.  It is easy to understand why this is so.  For nearly ninety years the political discourse in the West has been saturated by attacks on Stalin.  The attacks more or less began with Leon Trotsky’s many books accusing Stalin of having betrayed the revolution.  Then after World War II came the Cold War anti-Stalinism intellectually led by Hanna Arendt and the idea that Stalin and Hitler were the evil twins who built totalitarian empires. 
The most devastating attack of all, of course, came from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, when in his so-called secret speech to the XXth Congress in 1956, its leader Nikita Khrushchev accused Stalin of establishing a cult of personality and unjustly persecuting thousands of innocent Communists.  Aside from the Chinese Communist Party as well as the Albanian, Greek, and Portuguese Communist Parties , almost every other Communist Party in the world accepted and adopted Khrushchev’s views.
In the 1960s and 1970s, such writers as Robert Conquest, Roy Medvedev and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and others too numerous to mention embellished Khrushchev’s indictment and claimed that the number of Stalin’s victims reached upwards of 60 millions, and that no part of Soviet life from ideology, to science and the arts escaped the corrosive impact of Stalinism.  Anti-Stalinism thus passed seamlessly into anti-Sovietism.           


By the 1960’s as the left revived in the U.S. and elsewhere, the ideology of anti-Stalinism was so pervasive that few could even imagine challenging it.  Young people attracted to the struggles against racism, war and imperialism and attracted to the ideas of Marx and Lenin and socialism sought ways to accommodate their new ideals with the dominant anti-Stalinism.  This accounts for why so many embraced Trotskyism.  It was a ready-made socialist ideology that co-existed peacefully with ruling class anti-Stalinism.   
Others were attracted to the idea of a New Left,  an ideology that embraced the ideals of peace, anti-racism, and participatory democracy while rejecting the “old” ideologies of communism and capitalism.  
This also dovetailed perfectly with the anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism of the time.  Even those in the New Left who became sympathetic to Vietnam, China, Cuba and the Soviet Union did so without challenging the pervasive anti-Stalinism.  Pragmatism ruled.  Instead of thinking about Stalin, it was easier to conclude that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries had repudiated Stalin and moved beyond him.  The anti-Stalinist ideas were so pervasive in the general political discourse, that many simply thought where there was smoke there must be fire, something must have been wrong with Stalin, or that in any case, it was not worth the effort to figure out Stalin since the prejudice against him was so deep and widespread, if was useless to try to make headway against it. 
Then, when the Soviet Union and many of its socialist allies collapsed in the late 1980s, many, including those in the Communist Party U.S.A., attributed the collapse to the residual effects of Stalinism.
Consequently, in the seventy years since Stalin’s death, little effort has been made by Marxist-Leninists to evaluate the Stalin leadership and the Stalin years.  Notable, isolated exceptions exist.   Some Marxists-Leninists urge that Stalin be restored to a place of revolutionary honor next to Marx, Engels, and Lenin.   However well-meaning, such insistence is not the same as serious study and an all-sided evaluation. Domenico Losurdo, Staline:  Historie et Critique d’une Légende Noire is a worthy study, but it is not available in English. 
The serious examination by the American Communist, Kenneth Cameron, Stalin:  Man of Contradiction, was rejected by the American Communist Party and was published in Canada.   Grover Furr’s books, including Khrushchev Lied, make a valiant effort to expose some of the untruths surrounding Stalin, though he stopped short of trying to say what the truth about Stalin actually was. 
But for the most part, a Marxist-Leninist approach to Stalin remained a void.   Though Stalin was the leading theoretician of socialism after Lenin’s death, and led the Soviet Union during the time that it built socialism, industrialized, collectivized agriculture, defended itself from imperialism encirclement and fascist invasion, and rebuilt itself after the devastation of World War II, his leadership remained a gigantic black hole.   
This is where Mikhail Kilev’s book comes in.  Kilev, a doctor of military science of the Military Academy of Sofia, has produced an important study on Khrushchev’s secret speech on Joseph Stalin to the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.   Originally published in Bulgarian in 1999, Kilev’s essay appeared in a French translation in 2005.  It deserves an English translation, because it provides at least the beginning of  a treatment of Stalin from a Marxist-Leninist point of view. 
The book has two thrusts.  The first eight chapters provide an account of the circumstances around Khrushchev’s secret speech, a refutation of the main charges that Khrushchev made against Stalin, and an explanation of why Khrushchev made these charges.  The second thrust is an argument that Khrushchev’s revisionism, in conjunction with other factors such as the imperialist offensive against the Soviet Union, played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  
Not everything Kilev says is new.  Domenico Losurdo has explained the way that Khrushchev’s report dovetailed with the post-World War II campaign to demonize Stalin.  Kenneth Cameron recognized the positive evaluation of Stalin by many of his contemporaries, including Marshal Zhukov.  Grover Furr has pointed out the “lies” that permeated Khrushchev’s secret speech, and Bahman Azad has pointed to the role played by Khrushchev’s revisionism in the Soviet collapse.
Kilev writes as a Communist, and his arguments will be of most interest to other Marxist-Leninists.   He takes seriously the words of Marx, Lenin and Stalin and the testimony of such Communists as V.I. Molotov and Marshal Georgii K. Zhukov.  Consequently,  Kilev’s clear arguments and documentation will have little impact on intellectuals and activists who are so imbued with anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism that they cannot imagine Stalin or any Soviet Communists having anything intelligent or reliable to say about their own revolution or their own country.
Kilev not only refutes the major allegations that Khrushchev made against Stalin in the secret speech but also shows that that Stalin’s actual qualities and behavior as a leader as described by his contemporaries were completely at odds with Khrushchev’s caricature.  Moreover, Kilev demonstrates that the ideas underpinning Khrushchev’s speech as well as his policies departed sharply from the previously accepted ideology of Marxism-Leninism and departed as well from the reality.   Consequently, Khrushchev’s report fostered division, confusion, cynicism, demoralization and complacency.   It led to disasters for the world Communist movement and in the long run for Soviet socialism itself.
Khrushchev gave the greatest attention to the repression that occurred under Stalin.  By now Khrushchev’s litany is familiar: Driven by a suspicious nature and a desire for personal power, Stalin unleashed administrative violence, mass repression,  and terror mainly against the cadre of the party and that victimized thousands and thousands of innocent people, violated socialist legality and instilled fear throughout the land.    Kilev tries to sort through the fact and fiction of the repression and to put it in context.  He points out that Khrushchev himself never gave a figure for the number of victims beyond “thousands and thousands.” 
Khrushchev, however, opened the door for Roy Medvedev and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and others to make phantasmagorical claims of 40 to 60 million  and 60 million deaths.  Kilev says that if such figures were even remotely true, it would be impossible to account for the indisputable growth of the Soviet population from 154 million before the First World War to 190 million in 1941.  Kilev quotes Molotov  that the archives opened under Gorbachev showed that the total condemned persons numbered 600,000 or less than .5 percent of the population.
Kilev also points out that far from being the decision of Stalin alone,  the repression of the 1930’s was the result of decisions of the Central Committee and Soviet government.  Khrushchev himself as a member of the Central Committee and General Secretary of the Ukrainian party participated in making and executing these decisions. 
Moreover, Kilev argues that the repression did not flow from Stalin’s suspicious nature, paranoia or power hunger, but from real threats to socialism posed a variety of diverse but real threats  — Fifth Columnists, saboteurs, traitors, political opposition, incompetence, careerism, and disunity.  The case of General Vlasov, who deserted to the Germans and formed the so-called Army for the Liberation of Russia, was just one of example of the kind of threats Stalin and the Central Committee confronted and had to counter.
Kilev concedes that in the conduct of the purges, the Party made mistakes and removed and punished many innocent people. These mistakes caused terrible damage.  Nevertheless, under the circumstances,  Kilev says, mistakes were unavoidable.  Many victims who were rehabilitated and subsequently served in the army or party, recognized this.  Moreover, the injustices were not as widespread or as dire as Khrushchev portrayed them.  Many of those responsible for the injustices, like the onetime heads of State Security, Yezhov and Yagoda, were condemned and  punished.  Before World War II, the party and government reviewed thousands of cases  and reinstated many people who had unjustly lost their posts.   
Kilev argues that the most serious mistake of Khrushchev occurred on the nature of class struggle.   Khrushchev asserted in the XXth Congress Speech that after the seizure of power class struggle was passing away.   This was completely at variance with the historical experiences of bourgeois revolutions and the Paris Commune and with what Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin said about class struggles after the seizure of power.  Indeed, from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and other capitalist nations did everything in their power to increase the struggle against the Soviet Union and within the Soviet Union to promote its disintegration. 
This included promoting regional conflicts, fueling the arms race, building military alliances like NATO, and ceaseless economic, ideological, and psychological warfare against the Soviet Union.  Gus Hall, onetime leader of the Communist Party of the United States, estimated that the U.S. had spent $5 trillion to undermine the Soviet Union.  Under these circumstances, for Khrushchev to maintain that class struggle was passing away was, Kilev says, tantamount to treason.
 Kilev then takes up the main allegations against Stalin in Khrushchev’s report:  that Lenin’s testament had criticized Stalin, that Stalin lacked a  collective approach to work, that Stalin failed to prepare the country’s defenses before World War II, that Stalin bungled foreign relations (namely with Yugoslavia), that Stalin engaged in mass repression and terror against the Communist Party, and that Stalin promoted a cult of personality.  Using quotations from military leaders like Marshall Zhukov, party leaders like V. I. Molotov, and non-Communists like Winston Churchill, Kilev refutes these charges seriatim.
Then, based largely on the accounts of those who worked with Stalin, Kilev explains the basis of Stalin’s authority, a basis far removed from the ruthless exercise of power through fear, force, intimidation and threats.   First and foremost Stalin’s standing among his comrades was due to his deep understanding of Marxism-Leninism and his ability to apply it to the construction and defense of socialism. 
No one doubted his absolute devotion to the revolution, socialism and the interests of the working class.  His principles were unshakable and his person incorruptible.  He had a capacious and incisive intellect that was able to analyze complex situations and lay out courses of action clearly and comprehensively.  He was decisive, calm and firm even under great stress.   He had a colossal talent for organization.  He had a tremendous capacity for work.  In his life style, his manner of work and his relations with others, he exhibited great modesty and simplicity.  It was the combination of these characteristics as well as the undeniable achievements of the Soviet Union under his leadership that gave Stalin the towering authority and respect among his comrades, among the people generally, and even among many of his enemies.
In the last chapter, Kilev argues that Khrushchev’s revisionism—his denigration of Stalin, his abandonment of certain of Stalin’s ideas like the heightening of  class conflict, his establishment of a nomenklatura based on personal loyalty and often based on those previously repressed, and many of the ideas and practices associated with the so-called Khrushchev “thaw,”  undermined the foundations of Soviet socialism, led to attacks on Lenin and Marx, and prepared the eventual Soviet collapse. 
Even after Khrushchev was replaced by Brehnev, no rectification occurred.  Instead the attack on Stalin in the Soviet Union continued unabated for thirty years.  Because of the authority of the Soviet Union, most Communist Parties in the world joined this chorus, which of course dovetailed perfectly with the ideological tune promoted by the West.   Khrushchev’s ideas based on such lies and distortions weakened and disoriented the Soviet people ideologically,  caused a slackening of vigilance with regard to internal and external threats,  and demoralized that revolutionary spirit that had been so key to building and defending socialism in the 1930’s and 1940s.
Kilev describes his book as an essay, and it is more of an essay than a comprehensive history.   Moreover, he does not take up many difficult questions, such as why the mistakes occurred, or whether such extreme measures as the pre-emptive removal of members of certain ethnic groups and the punishment of the families of guilty parties were necessary and justified   Though he appreciates the positive role of democratic centralism and unity in building and protecting socialism, he does not explain how the abuse of democratic centralism occurred under Khrushchev that permitted Khrushchev to crush his opposition and establish hegemony for his revisionist ideas.  Still, Kilev has laid the foundation for a Marxist-Leninist understanding of Stalin and Khrushchev that is more solid than anything that has come before”.