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Books in Review

A Studied Failure

(Fall 1955

From The New International, Vol. XXI No. 3, Fall 1955, pp. 197–198.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A Study of Bolshevism
by Nathan Leites
Published by the Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.

This book is an attempt to explain what the author calls the “operational code” of Bolshevism so that the Western world may know what to expect in the behavior of Russia and thus prepare to meet its challenge. In shrill exaggeration and pleading tone Sidney Hook has written of the book that “our future partly depends on how seriously the conclusions of this analysis are taken by statesmen of the Western world.”

It would seem from such a description that the book should have had some impact upon diplomacy in the West. That it hasn’t is caused not so much by the unwillingness of statesmen to receive a broad intelligence on a vexing problem, but by the fact that, despite its innumerable quotations of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Gogol, Chekhov, etc., nothing really certain can be learned from the book.

Understanding Russia is a great pastime today. Leites plays the game by quoting endlessly, beginning with 1930 and running to the Malenkov period. He sees a consistent pattern of Bolshevik behavior throughout. The analysis of the phenomenon of Bolshevism is unrewarding because the author has treated the movement of Lenin and the movement of Stalin as identical in all fundamental respects. The periods of 1903, 1917, 1926–7, 1934–36 and 1953 are all regarded as a continuous evolutionary stream of Bolshevism. Despite the near-ending internal struggle the main aspects of Bolshevism are assumed to carry through from Lenin to Stalin. A good historian would know that this is nonsense.

Actually, Leites deals only with matters of narrow party or practical state politics. Nothing is related to objective history, to the great changes in the party, to the alteration of its traditions and mores to the fact that the party and regime of 1917 are altogether different from the party and regime of Stalin.

Quoting Stalin or the other Stalinist leaders to show that there is a continuity between the two organizations or the two states has as much value as comparing the Republican Party of this century with the party of Lincoln and the Civil War.

The work is influenced by the political feud Social Democracy has carried on against the Russian Revolution. But Social Democracy has no consistent thoroughgoing view of the nature of Russian society, though it has much to say about the political regime. Its own lack of clarity on what kind of society Stalinism has created, assists the disorientation of the West.

The root source of the difficulty in accurately characterizing the Russian state is the failure to understand what kind of a society prevails in that country. If the bourgeoisie of the West considers the Stalinist world to be socialist, this is in accord with the propaganda of Stalinism and works in its behalf. Social Democracy merely muddies up the waters of its own puddle because, like the bourgeoisie, the Stalinists and Stalinoids, it is itself confused on the nature of the post-Lenin phenomenon.

The key to penetrating the Stalinist world lies not in lumping hundreds of quotations of the leaders of Russian socialism on the one hand and of the Stalinists on the other, in order to show similarities, but in establishing the historical background of the social orders.

The similarities of speech are in this case of little importance. The dissimilarities are decisive. The dissimilarities are profound, and spring from the fact that Stalinism is a new type of state power in which collective property is owned by a new type of ruling class: bureaucratic collectivists. It is a modern slave state, anti-socialist in its doctrine and practices, as it is anti-capitalist.

Leites seemingly understands nothing of this. Neither does the West. They think in terms of worn-out cliches about Bolshevism, the Revolution and socialism. That is one of the reasons why Stalinism bewilders them with strategies and tactics which are not understood, much less predicted.

Leites does not even pretend to write about Russia in terms of the class nature of its state. He deals with the politics of Stalinism as an independent phenomenon without any roots except a long tradition. Worst of all, he seems to have ignored some of the more important works of the critics of the Russian Revolution who have least understood that neither the Stalinist State nor the Stalinist Party can be spoken of in the same way as their predecessors.

Thus Hook, who never quite seems to know just exactly what his views are from year to year writes, in reviewing the book, that if the Stalinists gave up their dogma of fear of an attack from the West, they would “lose the chief justification for (their) internal dictatorship.” This ignores the internal driving forces of the Stalinist social order, wherein the totalitarian regime emerges from the peculiar class relations of the bureaucratic collectivist phenomenon. The regime evolved and hardened precisely in a period when foreign intervention was at its lowest ebb.

The Russian State and its counterparts in the satellite nations grow out of the constellation of class forces based on new property forms. These regimes strengthen their state power not merely against the foreign danger (in a sense that is secondary), but as much against the working class and peasantry they exploit. A slackening of the totalitarian regimes would result in their overthrow. If only few understand this, the Stalinists are constantly aware of the danger. The “fear of intervention” conveniently serves the national class interests of these regimes.

These are the reasons why the Leites book is a failure. If the West has not made much progress in the cold war against Stalinism, it is not because it has not adopted the lessons of A Study of Bolshevism, but because bourgeois obtuseness and class interest leave it the prey of Stalinist demagogy.

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