I’m going to further develop the ideas expressed in this article and write about this topic in greater detail with more sources, once I have more time to research.
Among self-described anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists, one often hears two basic explanations: one view is that Khrushchev came to power in a plot. Another view is that there were serious mistakes in Soviet policy, which gave rise to Khrushchevite revisionism.
While admitting that Khrushchev came to power in an undemocratic coup, some characterize the “plot theory” as naïve and superficial. They say that it is wrong to believe “everything was fine” in the USSR until Stalin died, and ‘evil revisionists’ simply ‘suddenly came to power’. As marxists, they seek the answer in material conditions of society (and the ideological conditions arising therefrom). However, in my opinion they go too far in one extreme, they over analyze every ideological position in the Stalin era USSR (especially in its later period) to try to find the roots of Khrushchevism.
Some of them blame the Soviet Union for being too patriotic, such as this particularly bad ultra-leftist article:
“During the war there was, understandably, an upsurge of national feeling against the Nazi aggressors, but Stalin encouraged this far beyond a point compatible with the proletarian internationalist principles on which the Soviet state was based… Although the process of degeneration was not completed in the Soviet Union until sometime after the war, it was already well advanced in 1939.” (“The Origin and Development of Revisionism in the Soviet Union” by M. F.)
The article also claims that “thousands of innocents” were killed on Stalin’s orders, because he was “isolated from the masses”, “had no mass line” and that the trials of titoists in Eastern Europe were “frame-ups”. The article makes countless other false statements.
Others, such as the Russian Communist Workers’ Party (which recently adopted a position, uniting with blatant Russian revisionists and defending Russia in the inter-imperialist war), have claimed that the Stalin Constitution of 1936 was one of the reasons for the rise of Khrushchevite revisionism. They write that the election rules of the Stalin Constitution
“were prerequisites for a parliamentary system divorced from labor collectives… contributed to… bureaucratization of the whole system of state power.” (100 years since the Great October Socialist Revolution and the lessons for contemporary сommunists – REPORT OF THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE RUSSIAN COMMUNIST WORKERS’ PARTY (RCWP-CPSU))
Was everything fine in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin? Things are never “absolutely” correct or “absolutely” fine. But the party and state generally followed a correct policy. I do not accept the suggestion that the line of Stalin was so seriously flawed that it “gave rise to revisionism”. Some people seem to believe it is necessary to blame Khrushchev on Stalin era mistakes, or else we don’t have a materialist explanation for Soviet revisionism. That is false.
It is fundamentally wrong to attribute revisionism to Stalin, as it would mean attributing revisionism to the opponents of revisionism, equating revisionism and anti-revisionism. In reality there were two opposing tendencies: the correct line of Stalin, and the revisionist line of Khrushchev. Those who blame Stalin, accuse him of falling into right-deviationism, which gave rise to Khrushchev, but that’s wrong. In reality, Malenkov and his supporters (possibly also Beria) were the ones who represented right-deviation. Khrushchev also supported Malenkov’s foreign policy and even Molotov and Kaganovich went along with it. But Malenkov’s position of lessening tensions and lessening ideological struggle, was totally the opposite of Stalin. In reality it seems that Malenkov was the one who paved way for Khrushchev.
We can find certain elements in Stalin era (and Lenin era) policy which were later distorted, re-interpreted and re-used by Khrushchevite revisionism, but that doesn’t mean the roots of Khrushchevite theories are actually in Lenin or Stalin era policies. All revisionism is distortion of marxism, and as a result it always takes certain elements from marxism and twists them.
People often claim “Stalin must have been wrong, because he failed to prevent revisionism”. In a sense that is true, but as long as capitalism exists, it will always create revisionism. There was nothing Stalin could’ve done to prevent revisionism from ever appearing. Stalin’s only failure was that revisionists actually captured state power after Stalin had already died. Stalin was not able to predict and create a theory about Modern Revisionism, Soviet Revisionism, but that is not a mistake in any typical sense. We wouldn’t say Marx was wrong and made “rightist mistakes”, or whatever, because he didn’t have a theory of Imperialism.
It is well known that Stalin predicted capitalist restoration would only succeed if there was a foreign invasion of the USSR. Obviously that did not happen, largely because Stalin was able to prevent any such invasion by strengthening the defensive capacity of the USSR. However, Stalin actually predicted that revisionists would try to come to power through a trotskyite-bukharinite plot. He did not fully foresee Modern Revisionism, but he closely predicted certain aspects of it.
People look for the roots of Khrushchevism in the Soviet economic base and structure of the state. But in my opinion, they will not find Khrushchevism there. The truth is that Khrushchevism can be seemingly “discovered” within the Soviet economy and superstructure only because socialism still suffers from remnants of capitalism both in “bourgeois right” and “in the minds of the people”. Khrushchevite revisionism is not a product of Stalin’s mistakes, Khrushchevite revisionism is a product of capitalist influence, capitalist remnants.
So how should we understand the Khrushchevite coup? It is not entirely naïve or superficial to claim Khrushchevites primarily came to power in a conspiracy and not as a result of any slow degeneration or rightward deviation. The Trotsky-Bukharin group tried to come to power through a conspiracy. The roots of trotskyism and bukharinism do not lay in “Stalin’s flaws” or “Lenin’s flaws” but in capitalist remnants and capitalist influences which are inevitable until socialism achieves final and complete victory.
Similarly, the group of Khrushchev and Mikoyan came to power in basically a conspiracy, and there are many similarities between them and the Trotsky-Bukharin group. Khrushchev advocated a rightist line basically akin to Bukharin (which was supported by the entire Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites). Khrushchev’s accusations against Stalin are basically fundamentally trotskyist, and it is quite possible Khrushchev would have even rehabilitated Trotsky if it hadn’t been prevented by other members of the Central Committee (mainly Molotov and Kaganovich). As a result of resistance by genuine marxists, Khrushchev was able to only condemn the criminal prosecution of bukharinists and trotskyists, but not their ideological annihilation by Stalin.
Based on their actions, it is entirely possible (and even likely) that Khrushchev and Mikoyan belonged to the Right Opposition or the Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites in the 1930s (in fact, sources have claimed as much). In the 1930s Khrushchev and Mikoyan tried to hypocritically give completely boundless praise to Stalin and to foster a cult around Stalin, which was actually a common bukharinist-trotskyist tactic practiced e.g. by Bukharin and Radek.
“The links between Trotsky and Khrushchev were not merely political, theoretical and ideological. The memoirs of Kaganovich reveal that in 1923 and 1924, Khrushchev had been a member of the Trotskyist opposition. At the end of 1924 he ‘realised’ his error and admitted it. He requested Kaganovich to shift his area of work so that he could make a break from his earlier political links. After consulting Stalin, Kaganovich had transferred him to new areas of work. Khrushchev, argues Kaganovich, later conducted good work against the deviation of the right opposition. He was later promoted as the secretary of the Moscow Committee… Commenting on the activities of Khrushchev in his years of power based on his experiences, and after reading the memoirs of the former Soviet leader, Kaganovich argued that: it turned out that Khrushchev did not prove to be a simple chameleon, but a ‘recidivist’ of Trotskyism.” (Vijay Singh, Some Reflections on ‘Khrushchev Lied’ by Grover Furr)
We can see from history that the bourgeoisie will use spies and traitors against socialism. We have seen this not only from the case of the Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites, the case of the All-Union Menshevik Bureau, and from the Rajk, Slansky, Kostov and Xoxe cases. We also have the example of Yugoslavia, where a gang of capitalist agents actually successfully took power already in the Stalin era. Why should we approach Khrushchev fundamentally differently from Rajk and Tito? Of course there are differences, but not fundamental ones. Tito came to power in a state which was not a leading super power. As a result Yugoslavia became a US puppet against the Socialist Camp. However, Khrushchev came to power in a world super power, and as a result the USSR developed to an independent imperialist state.
There is nothing inherently naive or superficial in the view that Khrushchev was basically a secret member of the Trotsky-gang, who succeeded in the criminal plot attempted by Trotsky.
What would Trotsky have done if his plot had succeeded? He would’ve killed Stalin, and would’ve claimed he saved Soviet democracy “from bureaucracy”. Possibly the assassination of Stalin would’ve been hidden or obscured somehow. Khrushchev also claimed he saved the USSR from Stalinist “despotism” and characterized Stalin as an anti-democratic bureaucrat. Khrushchev was required to mask his revisionism better than anyone else had done up to that point, and that is a special feature of Soviet Revisionism. However, the other revisionist traitors (Trotsky, Bukharin, Tito) rationalized and justified their policies by claiming that they represented genuine Leninism, and perhaps only special conditions resulted in them not covering up their views even better. What special conditions?
The Trotsky-Bukharin opposition had an established tradition, established views and supporters. They adopted those views openly which supported their political goals. Those views were noticeably different from the line of the Bolshevik party, which made their revisionism easily recognizable, but that is because they were competing with the party line. Tito based himself on chauvinism and also competed against the Bolshevik line. Khrushchev achieved power inside the Bolshevik party, and did not lead a movement outside it. He also worked at a time when the opposition movements were already long dead. As a result, he had definite reasons to choose the tactic he did, i.e. posing as an “orthodox” Marxist-Leninist, only making “corrections”.
That being said, were there any particular ideological or economic factors which actually contributed to the rise of Khrushchev? Of course there were. After WWII there was a noticeable rightist danger. Dimitrov stated at the 7th comintern congress that popular front tactics are correct, but lead to an increased rightist danger (“We must increase our vigilance…bearing in mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion as the wide united front develops more and more”.). The same goes for People’s Democracy which was being built in Eastern Europe, and similar tactics which were being used by western communist parties, as well as the broad Peace Movement which was a key focus of the USSR. It would be wrong to conclude that any of these tactics (People’s Democracy, Popular & United Front, Peace Movement) were mistaken or false, but they obviously contained risks, just like every tactic.
The coalition between the USSR and the Western Allies during WWII also led to deviations, which are best exemplified by Browderism. Khrushchev and Malenkov adopted certain similar positions with Browder related to “Peaceful Coexistence”. There was also a spontaneous and legitimately harmful tendency towards right-deviation caused by the objective economic and ideological conditions in the post-WWII period in the USSR. There had been a coalition with the West, an increased influence of Western culture, emphasis on anti-fascist unity, national unity and a lessening of struggle between certain sections of the Soviet intelligentsia etc. This was combated already in the Stalin era in the increased vigilance campaigns in art, science and culture starting in 1947, in the campaigns against “servility towards the West” (cosmopolitanism). Stalin and his comrades understood the problem and acted correctly. These policies were reversed by Malenkov and Khrushchev and were never restored, though Brezhnevites adopted a relatively more anti-Western position from the standpoint of Russian chauvinism.
In my opinion there was a spontaneous tendency towards the Right in the post-war environment because people were exhausted by war. They wanted consumer goods, relaxation and entertainment. However, there was also the opposite tendency, which was by no means bound to fail. This opposite tendency was the class conscious socialist tendency, which understood the necessity for increased industrialization, increased vigilance, re-equipping of the defense forces, and was enthusiastic for the post-war reconstruction and the march towards construction of Communism. The difference is that the Rightist tendency was spontaneous while the correct tendency was conscious. When the leadership of the party was decapitated, by the death of Stalin, but also of Zhdanov and others, the new leaders did not continue providing class conscious leadership but instead introduced muddled and confused views that fed spontaneity and were fed by spontaneity.
Malenkov, Beria and Khrushchev all had similarly muddled views, which (apparently) Molotov and Kaganovich also were fooled into tolerating. I am talking about individual leaders here, and marxists often times think individuals don’t matter at all, and that only economic factors and classes have influence. But actually the position of Marxism-Leninism is that individual political leaders represent classes. It is not meaningless who is the leader. It was never meaningless whether Trotsky or Lenin became leader, or whether Trotsky or Stalin became leader. It was a very important question. In the exact same way, it was not an insignificant fact that the most powerful post-Stalin figures were muddleheaded and made rightist mistakes (e.g. Malenkov), or were outright traitors (Khrushchev in particular).
Someone might ask, how did Malenkov end up making such mistakes, or how did he end up holding so much power if his grasp on theory was so poor. The fact is, as Lenin says in “Marxism and Revisionism”, new conditions always create new possibilities for revisionism and mistakes. Bukharin was not an idiot either, far from it, and yet he was completely misguided and wrong, which turned him into an enemy of the working class. Everyone makes mistakes, but as Lenin says in “Left-wing communism, it only matters how quickly one realizes and corrects those mistakes. The only way to remain on the correct path is to have a firm basis in Marxism-Leninism, and the most important principle of Marxism-Leninism is class struggle. Malenkov clearly forgot that principle and Khrushchev hired his “theoreticians” to try to theoretically justify abandoning it.
Molotov and Kaganovich were not stupid either, nor were they disloyal to Marxism-Leninism. And yet they did not fully understand the shift towards the Right, nor the nature of Khrushchevite revisionism. It is clear from Molotov’s memoirs he did not understand it clearly. Other brave and honest fighters, very intelligent and even ingenious people such as M. Rakosi also did not fully understand it. He considered Khrushchevite revisionism in Hungary (Kadarism) to be a social-democratic restoration, and did not clearly see it as a qualitatively new kind of revisionism, Modern Revisionism. Stalin was only a person, but still an exceptional person, whose theoretical leadership allowed the party to follow the correct path. It is not an exaggeration to say that many smart people fell into mistakes when they no longer had Stalin to instruct them.
However, Marxist-Leninists, such as Molotov, Rakosi, Revai, Bierut, Chervenkov and many others (not to mention Zhdanov, Dimitrov, Gottwald etc., had they been still alive*) understood that Malenkov was a Right-deviationist who was forgetting class struggle, and that something similar was true of Khrushchev. Their class instinct warned them about Khrushchev, even though they did not have a theory of Modern Revisionism yet. I do not want to characterize them as hopelessly inadequate to understand the situation. They were only temporarily shaken and fooled, which cost them everything.
*I wonder if it is a coincidence that Stalin, Zhdanov, Scherbakov and Dimitrov died under suspicious conditions while in the USSR. Vyshinsky died mysteriously in New York in 1954. Gottwald died at Stalin’s funeral while Bierut died at the 20th congress of the CPSU. Despite probably not even being marxist-leninists, but only his rivals, even Abakumov and Beria were executed secretly by Khrushchev.
Why did they lose the struggle? They did not have the special theoretical genius needed in a situation like that. None of them was Lenin. None of them was Stalin. Of course they also had many other problems. Molotov, Kaganovich and Rakosi were forced to maneuver under revisionist pressure. They were also caught off guard. The escalating world situation scared many people into accepting Malenkovist appeasement of the West. There were many factors, but the simple generalization is that every new situation creates new possibilities for mistakes. There were both objective necessary conditions, as well as accidental conditions which helped Khrushchev. They coincided with the death of Stalin and Zhdanov, which weakened the party’s theoretical level severely. This was not something inevitable, nor was it rooted in mistakes.
However, Khrushchevite revisionism necessarily was a qualitatively new kind of revisionism, much more refined, much more dangerous than any previous revisionism. As Lenin said in “Marxism and Revisionism” the struggle between revisionism and genuine Marxism only increases as the revolutionary process proceeds. Trotskyite revisionism was a new and more dangerous vanguard of world reaction. That role was later taken up by Tito. But conditions to defeat those existed, and Marxism-Leninism triumphed. Khrushchevite revisionism was a new and even more dangerous, higher form of anti-marxism posing as Marxism. It would’ve taken exceptional skill (subjective factor) and certain conditions (objective factor) to prevent it. Those were lacking, and Marxist-Leninists were defeated.
In the future the same will not be repeated, because we now understand what Modern Revisionism is. We now understand revisionism much better then ever before. Mistakes are still inevitable, but every time Marxism and the revolutionary process advances further. The victory of Marxism is actually inevitable, although it requires intense sacrifice, devotion and hard work.