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Germany, the overthrow of Stalinism and the left

By John Passant - posted Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Twenty years ago East and West Germany reunited after a mass movement in the East tore down the Wall and overthrew the Stalinist dictatorship.

It was a liberating moment for the left as the edifice of anti-revolutionary and anti-socialist Stalinism crumbled under the pressure from below. It was, as Trotsky presciently put it, the revenge of history.

The revolutions against the Stalinist monstrosities vindicated the stance of those on the left like me who argued that Stalinism had nothing in common with socialism, and in fact was a form of capitalism; what we in the international socialist tendency call state capitalism.


Yet the fall of Stalinism in its heartland confused many left wingers. They had imagined nationalised property relations as the essence of socialism and so the collapse of the regimes represented a defeat for socialism.

They misunderstand socialism. They see it as a top down process. They mistake property relations under capitalism for property relations under socialism. They put form over substance.

For these socialists the Red Army (or a de-classed guerrilla army, peasants or intellectuals in other contexts) rather than the working class is the bearer of socialism. And thus the nationalisation of the free market system in Eastern Europe under Russian bayonets was for them somehow socialist.

This abandons everything that the genuine Marxist tradition stands for. No need for a revolution, no need for working class self-activity, no need for democracy - just nationalisation and we magically have socialism.

There is no analysis of who controls the state and in whose interests the state rules.

It’s a mistaken view. For Marx the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class. Not the act of intellectuals or peasants or the Red Army but the working class. It is in the struggle to overthrow capitalism that the working class becomes fit to govern.


But it is more than just workers taking over the capitalist state and using it for its own purposes. The working class has to set up its own democratic organs of rule. Marx again, this time from the Civil War in France:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

Marx goes on to describe the new organs of rule the Communards set up - universal suffrage based on the wards of the commune; representatives and public servants paid the average wage and subject to immediate recall; the abolition of the standing army and the police as agents of repression. The commune became a working body, not a parliamentary one, where executive and legislative functions merged.
The Russian Revolution built on this, electing representatives from the workplace to workers’ councils (or Soviets in Russian). They too were subject to automatic recall, and paid the average wage. The revolution itself was the transfer of power from the old feudal regime (with a sudden new found democratic veneer) to this new beacon of democracy and working class rule.

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First published in En Passant with John Passant on October 4, 2010. Readers might also like to look at the two souls of socialism on that site.

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About the Author

John Passant is a Canberra writer ( and member of Socialist Alternative.

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