Khrushchev Had a Little-Known Trotskyist Past
By Gwydion M. Williams
The return to prominence of Trotskyism from the 1960s coincides very nicely with the decline of socialism in Western Europe and the USA. The socialist movement undoubtedly needed to re-think what it was, after its successes in the 1940s and 1950s. But Trotskyism pointed everyone in just the wrong direction. The broad outlook should have been that both Leninism and the existing blends of Moderate Socialism had been grand successes, but were now outdated. The Trotskyist message was that these had all been betrayals and disasters, with the Trotskyists the only True Faith. Vast numbers who had been influenced by Trotskyism hung onto the notion that socialism had failed, and turned readily to the New Right. (Which also has renegades from Trotskyism among its leading thinkers.)
But the biggest damage of all was done by a man who’d been briefly a Trotskyist before switching to make a grand career supporting Stalin. That was Nikita Khrushchev, and his Trotskyist links get overlooked. So I’ll briefly digress from China and Smedley to document them.
Khrushchev’s early Trotskyism is mentioned in passing in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books on Stalin. He makes little of it: I was keen to know more. Via the Wikipedia, I got to an informative biography of Khrushchev by William Taubman:
“It is all too easy to imagine Khrushchev’s falling for Stalin’s simplified, primer-level Marxism during these years. In fact, however, he briefly joined Trotskyite oppositionists in rejecting the Stalinist line, a grave political error that later placed his career, and even his life, at risk.
“‘In 1923,’, Khrushchev said in his memoirs, ‘when I was studying at the workers’ training program, I was guilty of Trotskyite wavering… I was distracted by Kharechko, who was a rather well-known Trotskyite… I didn’t stop to analyze various tendencies in the … party; all I knew was this was a man who had fought for the people before the revolution, fought for workers and peasants.’
“Trofim Kharechko was a prominent Bolshevik who had signed the Declaration of Forty-six. Since the issue of internal part democracy (or rather the lack thereof) was hotly contested, Khrushchev must have known what he was doing. He certainly couldn’t admit that while Stalin lived, however, and he never did afterwards either.”[A]
Looking for more details, I asked around and got an interesting reply on a highly-useful question-and-answer forum called Quora:
“Alexander Bunn: ‘Dear Mr. Williams. In your article about Leo Trotsky, you ask to let you know about any information regarding Nikita Khrushchev links to Trotsky. In Russian version of Wikipedia Khrushchev article there is direct quote from Lazar Kaganovich memoirs indicating that Nikita Sergeyevich was a Trotskyist. The English version has just a narrative stating same…
“‘Translation is mine:
“‘L.M. Kaganovich recalled: “I’ve been moving him up since I found him capable. But he was a Trotskyist. And I reported to Stalin that he was a Trotskyist. I said that, when he was elected head of Moscow Committee. Stalin asked: “How is he now?”. I said, “He is fighting the Trotskyists. Actively acts against them. He is fighting sincerely”. Stalin, then: “you will speak at the Conference on behalf of the CENTRAL COMMITTEE, saying that the CENTRAL COMMITTEE trust him”.'”[B]
Stalin gets denounced for being too suspicious. In the case of Khrushchev, he turned out to have been nothing like suspicious enough. The man would have remained insignificant if Stalin had not chosen to raise him.
Stalin’s ‘simplified, primer-level Marxism’ was something that could be taught quickly to large numbers of ordinary people. Something which made them highly effective. It allowed for brilliantly successful mass politics. The sophisticated ramblings of post-Khrushchev Marxism have had a blighting effect on every movement that took them seriously. What were once huge Communist Parties in Western Europe have withered and are in terminal decline. Likewise various pro-Moscow nationalist regimes in Africa and the Arab world.
Taubman’s book is also inaccurate about the ‘Declaration of Forty-six’. It began:
“The extreme seriousness of the situation forces us (in the interests of our party, in the interests of the working class) to tell you openly that continuation of the policy of the majority of the Politburo threatens the entire party with grave misfortune. The economic and financial crisis beginning at the end of July this year, with all the political consequences flowing from it, including those within the party, has mercilessly revealed the inadequacy of the party leadership, both in the economic realm, and especially in the area of inner-party relations.”[C]
It was directed against the party majority led then by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin. It led on to the formation of the United Opposition, with Trotsky as its leader. But this Opposition failed to win over the majority of the party. Everyone agreed that there were problems, but did the Opposition have any idea how to fix them? Their heirs in Global Trotskyism are always unsuccessful and always blame someone else.
Khrushchev dropped overt Trotskyism, but it seems the ideas never left him. His sudden unbalanced denunciation of Stalin left the whole global Communist movement baffled and confused. It never did resolve the matter before its final collapse, simply because there was no logic to Khrushchev’s view of Stalin. It was Lenin supported by Trotsky and the other leading Bolsheviks who decided that they should take complete power and criminalise all opposition. Only when he personally found his powers reduced did Trotsky start talking the language of Open Democracy – but without showing any doubts about the earlier creation of a One-Party State.
I’m not saying things should have stayed unchanged. Khrushchev might usefully have got it agreed that Stalin had made errors, as was done for Mao by the post-Mao leadership under Deng. But Deng never doubted that Mao had made Chinese Communism a grand success, after taking over during the Long March at a time when it risked being marginalised. Lenin’s work was just as much at risk in the 1920s, and the consequences of failure would have been even more serious. Without Mao, China today would probably be as big a mess as Burma or most of Africa. Without Stalin showing that Leninism could make the Soviet Union vastly richer and more powerful than Tsarist Russia had been, left-wing politics might have been discredited and Fascism would have been the new model.
Up until they found themselves attacked by Fascist governments and reliant on the Soviet Union, the ‘capitalist democracies’ were friendlier to Fascism than to Moderate Socialism, never mind Communism:
- Britain had a ‘National Government’ in which the Tories ruled along with ‘National Liberal’ and ‘National Labour’, bringing Britain closer to being a one-party state than it had been since Cromwell’s time.
- In the USA, Roosevelt’s New Deal was dependent on the votes of Southern Democrats dedicated to White Racism and Segregation. The US armed forces were strictly segregated and had clashes with the British over this during World War Two. Britons would mostly accept small number of famous, useful or well-off non-whites.
- Poland as restored to sovereignty by Pilsudski had a lot in common with Fascist Italy and Fascist Spain. It was also hostile to Jews, pressurising them to covert or emigrate.
There were many other cases: home-grown fascisms or movements with similar ideas and values, like Salazar in Portugal. It was Soviet success that caused the rest of the world to copy ideas that were previous held by only the Soviets and by a scattering of left-wing groups with no real power.[D] It was Soviet influence that purged the left of racism and also marginalised left-wing versions of eugenics (which need not be racist, though it quite often is).
The standard anti-Stalin Leninist argument is that Soviet achievements somehow happened despite Stalin than because of him. This isn’t how real-world organisations work. In almost any big organisation, it is the top hundred or so managers who give a shape and coherence to everything, for better or worse. Sometimes the official Top Man (or occasionally Top Woman) is a figurehead. Sometimes there can be a genuine Collective Leadership, as was true of the classical Roman Republic before its decay. This is also sometimes true in Britain and the USA, but there the system can be shaped or left incoherent by the strength or lack of it of individual Prime Ministers or Presidents.
In the Soviet Union, there was initial collective leadership after Lenin’s death. But Stalin had the skills and vision to switch from alliance with Zinoviev & Kamenev to alliance with Bukharin. He then gained supremacy after he and Bukharin split over how to handle a crisis with the peasantry and over the largely-stagnant state of the economy.
Embarrassingly for anti-Stalin Leninism, the Soviet Union before the first Five Year Plan hadn’t improved overall on Tsarist achievements. It impressed Chinese, whose country was vastly poorer than Russia and where the country was split between warlords. It didn’t impress many non-Marxist West Europeans or US citizens until Stalin took over and ran the system with great ruthlessness and enormous dynamism. Stalin’s system worked, and that made all the difference.
Khrushchev was heir to a system that had maybe 50% of the power of the USA. And he made a complete hash of things. He approached reform with a muddled and demoralising ideology. A notion that sin only entered Leninism with Stalin, who played something like the role of the serpent in the Book of Genesis.
(There’s a book called Khrushchev Lied by US professor Grover Furr. It claims that almost all of Khrushchev’s accusations in his ‘Secret Speech’ are half-truths or falsehoods. That the Great Purge involved the entire party leadership, including Khrushchev. I find this very believable.)
Khrushchev’s reversal of the verdicts at the 1930s Moscow Trials left the Soviet view of history as an incoherent mess – a mess they never clarified before the final collapse. Half of the oppositionists were re-defined as innocent victims, but the other half were still defined as traitors. Subsequent enemies might also be classed as traitors: Khrushchev used tanks to crush a popular uprising in Hungary, whereas Stalin had been willing to let Yugoslavia go its own way.
When there is no legal opposition, which there had not been since Lenin consolidated the Soviet regime, the distinction between opposition and treason is always hazy. Trotsky himself in the final years before he was murdered was writing fierce denunciations of Stalin for a right-wing British newspaper called the Daily Express. You might excuse a left-winger for maybe writing for the Daily Telegraph, maybe – it is a serious newspaper with a real concern for hard facts. Writing for the Daily Express or Daily Mail is something that even a serious right-winger would probably not do.
The Moscow Trials culminated in the official denunciation of Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a leading figure in the Soviet army. He was one of the few people who might plausibly have overthrown Stalin after Stalin had consolidated his power and popularity in the Party. Tukhachevsky didn’t have a public Show Trial: he was tried in secret and shot before most Soviet citizens knew anything about it. He was treated as much too dangerous to be dealt with by normal methods.
Curiously, the same people who think Stalin should have been overthrown and replaced are also dogmatically insistent that Tukhachevsky couldn’t possibly have been thinking of doing this. They say a lot about the possible creation of false material by the Nazi secret services, but refrain from looking at the man’s own views. Don’t ask whether he had his own world-vision that was at odds with Stalin’s, and much less to modern tastes.
From pro-Soviet sources from the 1930s, I’ve seen claims that Tukhachevsky’s views had quite a lot in common with Fascism – which was something very different from the reactionary values of the White Guards that Tukhachevsky had valiantly fought against in Russia’s Civil War. It’s quite possible that he had a vision for Russia that he assumed would be compatible with Nazism. That he and others made contacts and got assurances that Germany would keep the peace if Russia fell into turmoil. This would probably have proved a false belief in the long run: but it’s an undisputed fact that many people in the ‘Capitalist Democracies’ took just this view of Hitler before he went to war against them. Where politics was open, there were former leftist who became Fascists, the invention of ex-socialist Mussolini.
I find it significant that there is no English-language biography of Tukhachevsky. Very little except about his military views, where he was undeniably gifted.
Even if Stalin’s fears were groundless or excessive, he definitely put the Soviet Union on a footing that allowed for its later triumphs. Suddenly re-casting him as a villain in history made no sense. It has naturally been enormously useful to right-wingers who use it against all socialists, including those who’d been hostile to Stalin.
What Khrushchev should have done would have been to have opened up the question of history, rather than inventing a totally new history and demanding that everyone accepted it. This blunder was compounded by Brezhnev trying to close down the whole matter and leave everything vague.
It’s a curious fact that books seeking to justify Stalin could not be published in Russia until after the fall of the system that Stalin had made a grand success. When free debate was finally allowed, the pro-Stalin camp won decisively among ordinary Russians. This bothers the Western experts, whose enthusiasm for free debate and popular choice has a way of wilting when the outcome doesn’t suit them.
Things went differently in China. Mao’s status was diminished, but he remains honoured. When I first visited China back in 1997, the highest-value banknotes in circulation had him as just the first of four men defined as the ‘first generation of leadership’. Other banknotes had other images. This didn’t last: currently he stands alone on all notes of the current issue.[E] And China is securely ruled by a managerial elite that is broadly popular, but does not allow opposition parties. A government that cracks down on criticism that is deems excessive. An elite that has also been doing an excellent job in delivering to the people what the vast majority of them actually want. H. G. Wells would probably have approved of them, just as he said of Stalin’s Russia, ‘I have seen the future and it works‘.
Wishing for something better than the past or current working systems of socialism is reasonable enough. Hysterical denials of the power and success of such systems is futile and self-defeating. Denunciation of alternative socialisms as betrayers hurts everyone. (Note that I have called the Trotskyists ineffective rather than insincere.)
This is an extract from an article mostly about Agnes Smedley and China in the 1930s and 1940s[F]. I have also done a wider analysis of Trotsky himself.[G]
[A] Taubman, William. Khrushchev : The Man and His Era, The Free Press, Simon & Schuster 2003. Page 57.
[B] https://www.quora.com/Did-Stalin-try-to-implement-a-totalitarianism-government/answer/Gwydion-Madawc-Williams/comment/21959174. My article is on-line as https://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/why-trotksys-politics-achieved-nothing-solid/
[E] You can see them at http://www.liuzhou.co.uk/china/Chinese%20Currency/.