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As the social democrats associate themselves ever more openly with capitalism, what of the “Communists”? Will the mounting resistance breathe life into them again?

These parties grew like wildfire all over the world in the aftermath of the twentieth century’s most seismic event, the Russian Revolution. Yet, far from applying the lessons of 1917 and spreading social revolution across the globe, the Communist Parties instead put into practice theories devised by Soviet leaders after 1923 in the long years of the USSR’s degeneration and decline.

The distinctive feature of the Communist Parties was their support for the policies of the Soviet bureaucracy as it established its dictatorship in the Soviet Union. The Stalin faction reversed the Bolshevik programme of working class democracy, democratic planning and the spread of socialist revolution across the world.

The new policy of “Socialism in One Country” was imposed on the Communist Parties in the Soviet Union and abroad by a series of purges and assassinations.

Within the Soviet Union, the utopian attempt to build “Socialism in One Country” justified the use of terror to industrialise and collectivise agriculture. Abroad, it subordinated the domestic policies of national parties to the foreign policy of the Great Russian bureaucracy and its relations with the imperialist powers – even where this led to the defeat of the Communist Parties themselves, like in China, Germany and Spain.

Liberation movements in colonial and backward countries were counselled to advance only to the “stage” of democratic capitalism, disorganising and disarming the forces of the working class and leaving power in the hands of the local agents of imperialism.

In the west, the Communist Parties evolved into carbon copies of the social democrats, advocating the utopia of reform, not the necessity of revolution, and proposing “broad” alliances with “patriotic” sections of the national capitalist class. The only thing that marked out the Communist Parties was their support for the Soviet Union.

Where Communist Parties took power in Eastern Europe after World War Two and in China in 1949 after a long peasant war, they imposed on their nations a replica of Stalin’s USSR. The capitalists were dispossessed, but the Stalinists preserved the institutions of the bourgeois state – standing army, permanent bureaucracy and police.

The programme of working class democracy – a planned economy under the control of elected workers’ councils, defended by the armed people itself – was abandoned in favour of bureaucratic planning by a brutal dictatorship that crushed all working class opposition. Even where their seizure of power was supported by the working class and peasant masses, as in Cuba and Vietnam, the Stalinists repaid their proletarian supporters by excluding them from any control over social, political and economic life.

Internationalism was replaced by a sickening national chauvinism as rival bureaucratic castes pursued their own fratricidal interests. In the USSR, national minorities were persecuted and transported; in Cambodia and the Balkans they were subjected to genocide.

These were not socialist policies. These were not socialist countries. Under the dead weight of the bureaucratic caste, the Communist Parties led these degenerated workers’ states away from the socialist goals and methods of the Russian Revolution and, step by step, moved back towards capitalism.

Under the pressure of imperialist encirclement, the arms race and the stagnation of bureaucratic planning, the bureaucracy could not go on. While centralised planning, together with working class self-sacrifice, was able to produce dramatic initial economic advances, the rate of growth could not be sustained without a democratic plan and the spread of the revolution. But this would have meant an end to the rule of the Stalinists. So instead they led “the socialist bloc” into stagnation and decline. This prompted the ruling bureaucracies to experiment with “economic reforms” which inevitably tended to strengthen market forces and to disintegrate the planned economy.

While in the Soviet Union this led to a creeping paralysis within the bureaucracy, in China, Deng Xiaoping created a social base for pro-capitalist reforms by re-establishing private agriculture and creating capitalist enclaves in the coastal provinces. By 1989, the tensions this generated throughout society had created the “democracy movement” which was finally crushed under the army’s tank tracks in Tiananmen Square.

In the USSR, market reforms were introduced to stimulate production and moderate political reforms aimed to win back popular legitimacy. But it was too late to save the Party’s rule. Under Gorbachev the Soviet bureaucracy recognised that it could not risk Tiananmen-style repression and withdrew its support for the East European regimes, signing their death warrants.

Mass popular uprisings against bureaucratic dictatorship brought Stalinism crashing down across Eastern Europe in 1989. The terrified rulers of the USSR were divided, preparing the way for Gorbachev’s own demise in 1991, the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of a capitalist state.

In China, the Communist Party vowed to avoid this fate; they resolved to restore capitalism themselves. Newly admitted to the WTO, open again to the multinationals, China today is wracked by mass layoffs, factory closures and bitter struggles of the workers and peasants. Of “Communism”, nothing is left but the mocking symbols of one-party dictatorship.

Leon Trotsky’s famous prognosis that the bureaucracy would either be overthrown by the working class or would drag the USSR back to capitalism has been proven correct, with tragic consequences for workers in eastern Europe, Russia, central and South East Asia and China. Stalinism has completed its historic mission.

Outside of the former workers’ states, the Communist Parties have completed their transformation into social democratic parties. Their strength and significance is entirely dependent on national circumstances and the fortunes of rival reformist parties.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the largest and most significant party of the vast and powerful Indian workers’ movement. But the CPI(M) has long since made its peace with the bourgeoisie, governing West Bengal on behalf of the capitalists and scarcely bothering to dress up its neo-liberal policies in the language of Marxism.

In Italy, the Communist Refoundation Party organises powerful working class forces against the neo-liberal policies of the capitalists and global institutions. It has however been unable to break from the fundamentally left reformist electoralism of the old Italian Communist Party. It vacillates – forming class collaborationist governmental coalitions with bourgeois parties and walking out of them when the pressure from its militant base and electorate gets too strong. Its leaders are “part of the problem” of the crisis of working class leadership, but its rank and file are potentially “part of its solution”.

Revolutionaries demand that the leaders of these parties break with the bourgeoisie and take the road of struggle, while striving to organise their supporters among the working class and the youth independently of their leaders, around a programme of revolutionary struggle.

By contrast, in Russia, the Communist Party has managed to concentrate within itself all the putrefaction of decaying Stalinism. Divorced from any movement of workers fighting for freedom and socialism, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation supports the market, opposes re-nationalisation of industry and talks of the need to unite “the Red tradition of social concern with the White tradition of nationality, great statehood, imperialism and spirituality.”

The party is infamous for its resort to anti-semitic demagogy. In the second Chechen war it condemns all talk of peace as surrender to “Chechen terrorism” and supports racist policies against Caucasians in Russia’s major cities. Many factory directors belong to the party; most have transformed themselves into “crony capitalists” and have ransacked or taken ownership of their own plants.

Today, only Cuba and North Korea remain bureaucratically degenerated workers’ states under the rule of Stalinist parties. Despite the striking differences between them- the Castro regime showing many features of its populist origin in the 1959 anti-imperialist revolution, the Kim “dynasty” heading an ultra-Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship imposed by Stalin and Mao Zedong – there is no workers’ democracy in either.

Nevertheless their ruling bureaucratic castes for the time being keep capitalism at bay within their borders and resist the US drive for the restoration of the “free” market. Revolutionaries must deliver active solidarity with these states against capitalist restoration, counter-revolution and imperialist economic and military aggression.

Here too, however, time is running out for the parasitic bureaucracy. Either the workers will overthrow this caste and establish the rule of democratic workers’ councils, or it will lead them into the hands of imperialism. Every restriction on the democratic rights of the workers and popular masses must be resisted, and the rights of women, and lesbians and gays must be championed. Every secret deal with the imperialists and their corporations must be exposed, the failures of bureaucratic planning stigmatised. Only along this path can we save these states from joining the ranks of the restorationists.

The defeat of Stalinism and its lasting influence over the working class remains a burning necessity. Once again, socialism must become a byword not for the cul de sac of bureaucratism, but for the rule of workers’ councils, democratic planning, internationalism and human emancipation.