The Russian Revolution was the defining event of the modern era, but its defeat, sealed with Joseph Stalin’s rise to power, gave a new lease of life to capitalism. It destroyed the international communist movement and led to the triumph of German and Spanish fascism, to the Holocaust, and to the Second World War. It brought the Cold War and the attendant threat of a nuclear apocalypse. It influenced the trajectory of the anti-colonial rebellions, many of which looked to the Stalinised USSR for help and guidance. It burdened and delayed the emergence of new radical social movements in Western countries from the 1960s onwards.

In most of the world, the Stalinist states have since disintegrated. Many of the Communist parties that followed them have likewise collapsed or mutated into strange new forms. But even where organised Stalinism appears to have vanished, its ideological legacy lives on. As in every oppressive state, the Stalinist bureaucracy had to produce an ideology that justified its existence. We are used to the rulers of free market capitalist societies promoting some mixture of nationalism, “democratic” values and religious piety to convince their victims that we’re all on the same team. Stalinism had its own versions of those tricks. But they were almost all expressed in the language of Marxism. And that has left a poisonous legacy that holds back social movements to this day.

The Stalinist machines spent decades producing a version of “Marxism” that met their own institutional needs. The theory of international working class revolution was rewritten to meet the needs of nationalist politicians, tyrannical factory managers and military generals. The only theory that could help humanity escape the endless cycle of war, oppression, inequality and environmental destruction came to be seen as part of the problem. 

Many newcomers to the left don’t immediately realise that many arguments they encounter are influenced by the fraud of Stalinist “Marxism”. To recover Marxism as a revolutionary strategy that can explain and transform the world, we must identify and discard the distortions imposed on it by the experience of Stalinism.

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“Stalinism” is a complex word with many meanings. Stalin the individual left no notable theoretical or strategic contributions. “Stalinism” doesn’t mean the doctrine and worldview of Joseph Stalin: there’s no such thing.

The concept emerged as the Russian Revolution went down to defeat. Workers seized power in Russia at the end of 1917, but everyone knew there was no hope of building a socialist society in that poverty-stricken, mostly rural economy. The revolutionary movement had to spread through Europe. It did, but it was ultimately defeated by better organised capitalists and their political supporters. Russia was isolated, besieged and starved. As the Russian working class dwindled, state officials – including many former revolutionaries – took more control of organising society. Their power rapidly grew, and Stalin became their figurehead and champion in the government.

“Stalinism” first meant a faction in Russian politics: the group of state bureaucrats, whose most prominent factional organiser was Stalin, favouring a cautious approach to ensure they maintained their power. That meant looking down on any revolutionary “adventures” that threatened political stability. They systematically cultivated allies in the international Communist parties, convincing them that their key task was to support the Russian government.

At the end of the 1920s, Stalinism took on a new meaning. The unstable Russian economy headed towards crisis, threatening the entire social fabric. Stalin’s bureaucratic group made a shocking move. Turning on their erstwhile allies, they launched a violent campaign to take charge of the Russian economy. Destroying traditional peasant life, assuming total control over agricultural and factory production and wiping out all political opposition, Stalin’s group transformed themselves into unchallenged rulers of a totalitarian system. The Russian revolutionary working class that had threatened world capitalism in 1917 was finally, comprehensively defeated. To bury the Russian revolutionary movement once and for all, Stalin framed its surviving leaders for imaginary crimes and exterminated them. Stalin’s bureaucrats combined economic and political power. They controlled both the state and the means of production. 

Now “Stalinism” meant something else: a particular way to organise the exploitation and oppression of the working class, with a one-party state in total control of the economic system, ruling through a combination of terroristic intimidation and “Marxist” ideology. And it meant the ideology those rulers promoted, which was spread throughout the world by Communist parties. Finally, it came to mean the tactics and methods of those Communist parties outside Russia, which were converted from revolutionary workers’ parties into bureaucratised shells, even when they retained large working class followings inspired by illusions that socialism existed in Russia.

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The rise of Stalinism ruined the vision of socialism. Socialism is a classless, cooperative, emancipated society that can be achieved only through the collective and democratic struggle of the working class. By the middle of the 1930s, Stalin proclaimed: “Our Soviet society is socialist society... Our society consists exclusively of free toilers of town and country”. That was an absurdity: socialism was impossible in a single country isolated in the capitalist world system. At that very moment, the Stalinist system of slave labour and political repression reached a peak in the madness of the “Great Terror”, in which hundreds of thousands of dissidents were executed, disappeared or imprisoned in labour camps, while workers were brutalised by Stalinist factory bosses.

Socialists then had three options. They could accept reality: the revolutionary project had been defeated in Russia, the powerful Russian government was now the enemy of socialist revolution, and they needed to begin again from scratch to build a society based on workers’ democracy. For many, already frightened and demoralised by the growing fascist threat and the recent Great Depression, that was simply too hard to accept. Instead, they refused to recognise the obvious reality of Russian life and trained themselves to accept whatever fantastic and nonsensical claims were put by the Russian government. Or they adjusted their vision of “socialism” to match the terrible reality of Russia, so that “socialism” came to simply mean government control of economic life, losing any real connection to the ideals of workers’ democracy or human freedom.

Most Stalinists combined the latter two options. And socialism was discredited by its most prominent advocates. Stalinists found political and psychological inspiration in the belief that socialism had won somewhere in the world. They built strong, confident political machines that marginalised authentic, anti-Stalinist visions of socialism. In hard times, communists outside Russia sang quasi-religious hymns like “Soviet Land”, one of the most popular communist songs of the 1930s:

Soviet land so dear to every toiler
Peace and progress build their hopes on thee.
There’s no other land the whole world over,
Where man walks the earth so proud and free.

This reassurance couldn’t last. It put “communists” on the side of exploiters and oppressors, against the working class. It made “socialism” a dirty word in the eyes of many who fought for workers’ rights and democracy. At Stalin’s death in 1953, workers’ uprisings and splits in the Russian bureaucracy meant that even hardened communists could no longer avoid the truth. That drove more and more Stalinist activists into despair as they realised they had been serving a lie. Only the most self-deluding hard core could still celebrate the “communist” states gunning down striking workers – a fringe tradition of hyper-authoritarianism that has, sadly, not yet died out.

“Stalinist” societies, with various national specificities, still exist: one-party states ruled by self-declared socialists who combine economic and political power and exploit their working class. Unlike socialism, which will require a conscious struggle of the international working class, such societies are relatively easy to create through sheer brute force. And the Stalinist logic still applies for some who feel a quasi-religious need to believe that workers rule in North Korea and that nobody would ever have any reason to protest against the Chinese government except CIA agents, and who slander the very name of “socialism” by saying socialists should aim to replicate those societies internationally. And the idea persists that socialism was tried and failed in Russia, making it harder for new radicals to encounter the liberating potential of Marxist theory.

The revolutionary Marxist movement criticised capitalist democracy because it wasn’t democratic enough. Liberal democracy leaves real social power in the hands of capitalists, who control us at work and put limits on our politics. But there is another kind of democracy: workers’ democracy, achieved through class struggle. That’s more democratic than anything achievable within capitalist politics. The incredible power of the Marxist critique of capitalist democracy was abused by Stalinists, who used it to justify destroying all forms of democracy and workers’ rights. They claimed that any critique of their totalitarian system was “liberalism” – and so, many who rejected the Stalinist system, for good reason, unsurprisingly came also to reject Marxism and embrace liberalism, or worse. That meant they could not come to a real strategy for challenging capitalism. Stalinist distortions had blocked the way.

Socialism is a society in which humanity collectively decides our fate, without the distortions imposed when an exploiting class controls the production process. It can’t be a state controlled by “communist” factory managers, army generals or any other overseer. That vision allows us to recover the core of Marxism, which is a strategy for achieving socialism through the international struggle of the working class.

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The authoritarian vision of “socialism” came to replicate itself in the Stalinist vision of a socialist political organisation. The Stalinised Communist parties couldn’t be democratic workers’ institutions, because such parties might act in opposition to the needs of the Russian rulers. They developed their own ultra-powerful bureaucracies that could impose sharp shifts in “line” and expect unswerving loyalty from their members. Communists were taught that “Leninism” meant blind obedience to leaders. History was rewritten and falsified to create a mythology that the Bolsheviks had always blindly obeyed Lenin, that Stalin was Lenin’s greatest pupil and that whoever was the leader of the local Communist Party was Stalin’s most beloved servant. Socialist revolution would be achieved only if party activists obediently obeyed all the latest edicts.

The Russian bureaucrats were interested in great power diplomacy, not socialist revolution. So the Communist parties often sought power and approval in official capitalist society. While defending state terror in Russia, Stalinists abroad cosied up to right wing liberals. They tried to participate in capitalist governments, sought high-up paid bureaucratic positions in trade unions and promoted a top-down, elitist, conservative politics that increasingly alienated radicals and militants, until Communist parties were the right wing of the workers’ movement in many countries.

Stalinist “revolutions” also took place around the world: more countries adopted state-led economies, aiming for rapid industrialisation by centralising all power in the state bureaucracy. Supporters of those countries came to think that, contrary to Marx’s core insight, “socialism” could be achieved by military invasion, coups or peaceful legal reform. Almost anything except an international workers’ revolution can end in a Stalinist-style society. For those who saw these societies as “socialist”, a socialist organisation came to mean anything except a group that fought for workers’ power internationally.

Stalinism created a mythical model of a “Leninist party” that shuts down debate and dissent and seeks power and influence by whatever crooked means are available in capitalist society. That repulsive model led many anti-Stalinist radicals to reject political organisation completely. Any effective Marxist revolutionary organisation – including the one led by Lenin himself – respects the democratic nature of workers’ struggle. It debates strategy internally and externally, criticising and correcting its own mistakes, and tries to lead the whole working class to power as part of a broad movement. Its goal is not to put its own leaders in positions of influence within capitalism, but to build up workers’ own revolutionary institutions that can supplant and destroy the oppressive structures of capitalism. That vision of revolution, and revolutionary organisation, was deliberately obscured by Stalinist leaders because it threatened them as much as it threatened any capitalist. That cover-up robbed radicals of their most effective weapon for fighting capitalism: a mass, democratic, revolutionary socialist workers’ party.

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As long as the Stalinist legacy clouds our understanding of Marxism, we are weakened in all our struggles against the capitalist system.

Consider the environment. Global capitalism is now in an accelerating environmental crisis thanks to its never-ending pollution. A society divided into economic classes, in which the majority have no say over the production process, has no capacity to readjust itself into a harmonious balance with the natural world. The ruling class must organise the economy to protect and augment its power and profit, even if it destroys the planet. Social inequality pushes the consequences of ecological disaster onto the working class and global poor. The solution should be obvious: a global revolution to create a socialist society in which humanity can adjust and recover our relationship with nature, free from the profit motive and class oppression.

But Stalinism has distorted even that. Russian leaders laid waste to the environment and poisoned the earth in their quest to rival the USA’s stockpiles of tanks and nuclear missiles. They buried politically inconvenient scientific facts, just like any fossil fuel company would, and held back humanity’s ability to understand and consciously control our impact on the natural world. And at every step, they produced a caricature of “Marxism” to justify it: their version of “Marxism” was all about accumulating more and more “productive forces”, separated from any semblance of human liberation. That seemed to justify the ecologists’ reproach that Marxism was only a mirror image of capitalism, and that socialist revolution would not help save the environment. Recent Marxist authors like John Bellamy Foster have recovered the intimate connection between Marxist revolutionary theory and ecological understanding. Only an international workers’ revolution can guarantee an end to environmental destruction; Marxism provides the most powerful strategy for any environmental movement. But Stalinist “productivism” has delayed for nearly a century the implementation of this strategy, when the problem grows more urgent by the day.

On sex, gender and sexuality, Marxism provided a theory that refuted any supposedly “natural” grounds for discrimination. Marxists were among the earliest activists for women’s rights and sexual freedom, and as those movements grew in the early 20th century, Marxists were among their best theorists, strategists and leaders. Even in Russia, a patriarchal society where much of the countryside was run by local village strongmen, the workers’ revolution of 1917 brought shocking, world-leading advances in women’s rights, understanding of homosexuality and other aspects of sexual liberation.

That all came crashing down with the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Like the Western capitalists, they wanted to save money reproducing their exploited workers. That meant bringing back traditional family life through harsh laws that punished non-traditional lifestyles and forced women back into traditional sex roles. Abortion and divorce were banned, and the family was even made into a unit of political discipline: anyone could be punished for crimes committed by a family member, so families had to police each other on behalf of the state. And around the world, Stalinist Communist parties had to justify and extol this as a natural state of affairs in a socialist society.

Unsurprisingly, women’s and LGBTI activists – even radicals drawn to militant, anti-capitalist politics – have been disturbed by the apparent persistence of terrible oppression in a “socialist” society. They’ve tried to amend or rewrite Marxism, or to ignore it completely. This tragedy has led to many courageous and pioneering activists abandoning revolutionary politics. But if we recognise that Stalinism was not “socialism”, but an expression of a defeated and crushed revolution, we can recover the liberating potential of Marxism as a strategy for achieving real freedom from all gender and sex-based oppression. That requires challenging the sexism, chauvinism, and homophobia that characterised Stalinist sexual politics – and challenging any association of Marxism with its Stalinist caricature.

On race, nationalism and imperialism, Stalinism has also come close to wrecking the revolutionary socialist approach: Stalin promoted bizarre Russian nationalist chauvinism, encouraged foreign Communist parties to embrace the most conservative flag-worshipping, warmongering patriotism, and betrayed anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles around the world (Stalin’s USSR was the first country to endorse the dispossession of the Palestinians, for example). Every crime of capitalism was provided with a “Marxist” justification by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

But it remains the case that this profit-driven system of capitalism is at the root of the world’s problems, and that Marxism – the fight for a global working-class revolution – is the only solution. As nationalism, racism, imperialist conflict, inequality and environmental catastrophe come to the forefront of world politics, social movements around the world need to rediscover the solution. We must discard the Stalinist lie and rediscover the Marxist method: internationalist, working class socialist organisations, organised democratically but fighting for revolution, taking up every struggle for justice and linking them to the final fight against the capitalist system for a socialist world.