The "Great Purges" Reconsidered: The Soviet Communist Party 1933-1939, by J. Arch Getty
[First published in PL Magazine, Vol 14, No. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 70-73]
This very readable thesis attempts to examine the major struggles within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during the crucial years of the 1930s. It deals in great detail with two things: The Party "purges," or reviews of Party member- ship; and the arrests, imprisonment, expulsions from the party, executions, etc., which were related to the so-called "Purge Trials" of 1936 to 1938 and to allegations of sabotage and spying leveled against many high-level members of the Party in those years.
As such, it attacks the leading, most "expert" anti-Communist accounts of this period and shows them to be nothing but crude lies. The hysterical accounts of the "Stalinist Terror" by such as the Menshevik Boris Nikolaevsky, the Rockefeller-KKKarter imperialist spokesman Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Harvard Russian Research Center's Merle Fainsod, and the British secret service agent Robert Conquest, among others, are show to go exactly contrary to the substantial evidence available. Even the most so- called "scholarly" and "responsible" bourgeois studies are shown to be based entirely upon anti-Communist preconceptions, and to completely ignore the facts. The myths of the "totalitarian" nature of the Soviet Union, "horrible suppression" of the work- ers, and of the "Great Terror" (Conquest's term), with its "holocaust" of "millions of innocent victims" to "Stalin's mania- cal thirst for power" -- in fact, all the most sacred anti- Communist, Khrushchevite, Trotskyite, etc. lies -- are exploded, on the basis of a thorough study of primary documents available to anybody.
These documents include, most importantly, the "Smolensk Archive." Tens of thousands of pages of files from the archives of the Western Oblast (province) of the USSR -- the part center- ing on the ancient city of Smolensk, and bordering on Poland, the Ukraine, and Latvia -- were captured by the fascist German armies in 1941 and sent back to Germany. They were later seized by the American troops and microfilmed and they are available for study in the West. Using these archives, and coordinating them with Soviet publications during the period, Getty draws a completely different picture of the Soviet Communist Party during the 1930s.
Getty is not a revisionist "Marxist" or phony socialist, but a conventional bourgeois scholar. This is good, as far as it goes -- for example, he insists upon studying and using the historical documentation and evidence available, and not on following some anti-Communist myth or other. It is his thoroughness in documenting his conclusions by examining the primary sources which makes his study exciting and valuable.
On the other hand, Getty is basically trying to write an academic history. He does not look at the USSR and CPSU with a view to studying their successes and failures in fighting revisionism and building a workers' state. He does not focus on the political line of the Party, and on the concept of socialism it embodied, until the end of his work and even there only superficially. As a result he is, if anything, too uncritical of the line and prac- tice of the CPSU domestically during this period.
Nonetheless, Getty's work should be read widely by members of PLP, and should be shown to people in our base, especially intel- lectuals, who are the special target of the hysterical, anti- Communist lies about "Stalin's purge of the 'Thirties" (Con- quest's phrase). Here are some of the points of great interest which Getty establishes:
The "purges" (in Russian, chistki or "cleansings") were periodic attempts by the central CPSU leadership, the Central Committee and the Politburo, to find out who was in the Party, and to strengthen it organizationally. they never included im- prisonment (much less executions), and only rarely resulted in many expulsions; the "purges" of the 1930s resulted in even fewer expulsions than those of the 1920s had. They were not aimed at rooting out oppositionists (supporters of Trotsky, Bukharin, or any of the other ex-opposition groupings of the 1920s), but rather at getting rid of the dissolute, drunks, careerists, and others who clearly had no place in a disciplined Communist party.
Although they began basically as accounting mechanisms, to find out who was and who wasn't in the Party, this confusion itself quickly made it apparent to the central Party leadership that the middle levels of the Party leadership were basically functioning in a bureaucratic way, ruling over the members and the areas entrusted to them with autocratic power, and often never bothering to even get to know the party members they were "lead- ing." The successive "purges" up to 1936 were basically meant to force the middle-level Party leaders to get to know the members under them, to stop "ruling" by means of "family cliques" of friends, which undermined the respect and authority of the Party among its rank-and-file and among the non-Party population as a whole, and made it impossible for Party decisions to be implemented.
As Getty proves, the Central Committee, and Stalin specifically, went out of their way to stimulate and encourage rank-and-file criticism of the leadership, and to foster criticism and self- criticism at Party meetings, in an effort to correct what they recognized was a serious problem of bureaucracy. Getty says, with evident admiration:
... the Central Committee sincerely wanted to encourage criticism "from below" ... this practice had never been advocated as strongly and relentlessly as in 1935. The C.C. had never before stopped a Party operation and denounced the local administrators before the rank and file. The Central Committee had never seemed to turn to the party activists to complete an operation which had been bungled by the regular administrators.As Getty points out, this went far beyond the kind of criticism allowed in bourgeois democratic countries:
Obviously, talk of mass participation and Party democracy didn't mean that major policy initiatives or changes originated "from below." It didn't mean that members could expect to remain in the Party if they stood up and advocated (oppositionist) sentiments to the effect that the party was on a wholly wrong track, that the top leadership was totally wrong and should be removed, or that the party's policy was a disaster for the country. It is doubtful that many political parties committed to any particular ideology would tolerate such antithetical behavior for long. It is even more doubtful that many of them made a point of encouraging grassroots criticism of the leadership at all. (pp. 252-253, emphasis added)The "purges" culminated in the Party elections of 1936 and 1937, which resulted in a great turnover of lower and middle-level Party leadership by democratic vote of the Party membership. The new Party leaders thus elected were, on the whole, both younger, and closer to the working class in that they had more recently been workers, than the older generation of Party leaders.
This is the aspect of Party activity which Getty stresses, and in which we, as Communists in PLP, can take pride. The Communist movement always stood for the greatest possible democracy, and this s an important legacy of the "purges" of the 1930s. Nevertheless, Getty does not deal with the real heart of the matter: what had caused the estrangement of the Party leaders from the membership in the first place?
The Communist Party, in its attempt to industrialize the USSR, to prevent (as they thought) the defeat of the socialist state at the hands of the capitalist powers, largely identified this industrialization with socialism. Socialism was thought to mean, basically, political power in the hands of a Communist Party, plus an industrialized economy, provided that the Communist Party had close ties with the working class. In order to promote this last goal, the party recruited preferentially among workers up through the early and mid thirties, had mass recruitment drives among the workers during the collectivization period (1929-1932), and made sure that workers were preferentially sent to technical training schools, so they could head economic units, factories, etc.
This line of "relying on the working class" led to the great leaps in enthusiasm and production of the First and Second Five- Year Plans (1929-39), and built an industrialized economy. This was a feat absolutely unprecedented in the history of the world. Moreover, by 1939, the leadership of the CPSU was basically in the hands of men and women of working-class origin, who had only rather recently gotten some technical higher education and who now ran Soviet industry and the Party itself. On this basis Stalin declared that class struggle, and classes themselves, had ended by 1936. The new intelligentsia was "red," mainly recent ex-workers. Surely they could not be any closer to the working class?
But in fact the basis was laid for a new bourgeoisie to grow up out of the division between mental and manual labor, and the privileges for the former, which were retained. In fact, as many bourgeois economists partly recognized at the time, production was still organized in a capitalist manner, and thus would generate capitalist relations of production, habits, discipline, and ultimately, after several decades, a new capitalist class. The Khrushchevs and Brezhnevs, who led the Soviet Union away from socialism, and the thousands of middle and upper level managers and technocrats they represent, were precisely those one-time "bench-workers" who had surged forward during the 1930s to take over the Party and Soviet industry.
Getty shows that the Soviet Union was the antithesis of a "totalitarian" society. Indeed the working class did hold state power -- by the mid-'Thirties, the Communist Party was overwhelmingly composed of workers and very recent ex-workers, who were answerable to the rank-and-file in direct, secret elections. He also shows that the party was internally in disarray, almost in chaos, and that bureaucratic, anti- democratic, and ultimately anti-socialist ideas and cliques were continually generated by the very way in which socialism was organized. This conception of socialism, advanced for its time, was far to the left of the concepts of Trotsky, Bukharin, and other ex-leaders, who advocated a much more obviously capitalistic model of the economy. But in the long run, it resulted in much the same thing. Getty's work can help us in developing the new, more correct and revolutionary concept of socialism, by providing factual data from which we can learn of the successes and failures of Stalin and the CPSU; but Getty does not approach those problems himself.
Bourgeois historians -- and in this we include the whole band of Trots, Social-Democrats, and other phony socialists -- have had a field day with the (mainly) post-Khrushchev accounts of Stalin's horrors. Getty demolishes this capitalist portrait of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. A good part of his work is devoted to this question, and it is useful to review a few points he establishes:
Second, it helps us understand how such a state of affairs could have come about -- once again, due to what we must now recognize as a capitalist, bureaucratic conception of the Party. A Party membership card (literally,an ID card with a photo) was the key to promotion, advancement, trust, political reliability. The party literally had no idea who was, and who was not, a "member." A bureaucratic, complicated, and ultimately futile system of keeping files and records on Party members was relied upon to verify political decisions and promote Party policy. Time and again, the attempts during the "purges" (or "cleansings") to tighten up this record-keeping, and to force party officials to get to know Party members personally, fell afoul of the main job these officials were supposed to perform -- economic production and management. ultimately, a good Party member was one who produced economically. This concept led inexorably to a bureaucratic, hierarchical, and capitalist form of organization within the Party itself.
In addition, a system of privileges, originally set up only for bourgeois specialists, who could not be induced to work for Soviet power in any other way, was extended to specialists who had joined the party itself, and ultimately to the Party as a whole. This was in constant, sharp contradiction with the attempts of the leadership under Stalin to enforce an attitude of respect for the ran-and-file, and individual attention and close,comradely relations among Party members.
In this way, the uprooting of spies and saboteurs (who Getty thinks quite possibly did exist) could be relatively successful, the Party leadership be made relatively much more responsive for a time to the ran-and-file, and the average party leader could usually be a recent bench-worker -- and still socialism could be undermined in the long run, due to the capitalist practices embedded in the conception of how to build socialism, which came to be reflected in the party structure as well. In the short run, the Trials, arrests, imprisonments and/or executions of several tens of thousands of oppositionists -- including perhaps some who were innocent -- helped fend off external attack from Germany or a military coup. But they could at best only postpone the ultimately reversion to capitalism.
There are many other interesting points made in this dissertation. It is useful for its refutation of bourgeois historians' lies, and basically vindicates the portrait of the Soviet Union drawn by PLP in Road to Revolution III and elsewhere. Most important, it provides the raw material for a lot of serious thought about how we can build a socialist society on different, firmer foundations, thanks to a careful, Marxist study of the successes and, above all, the failures of the millions of workers and revolutionaries, led by Stalin, who made the October Revolution of 1917 and built the first workers' state in the Soviet Union.
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