Revelations of dictatorship and corruption in the Soviet Union raise the question: why did the SA Communist Party lie?

Originally published in Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No.27 (November 1988)

by Sean Kelly

Developments in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev have come as a shock to many workers and youth in South Africa.

It is now openly acknowledged in the official Soviet press that there is economic stagnation, massive corruption among millions of officials, and a caricature of democracy. At the same time, there are massive demonstrations in different parts of the country of national minorities, protesting against bureaucratic rule from Moscow.

How is all this possible in a country long proclaimed to be socialist – in which all the basic problems and conflicts were said to have been solved? This, after all, has been the picture of the Soviet Union presented for decades by the SA Communist Party and all the CPs of the world.

Now Gorbachev’s glasnost is lifting the lid to reveal that this image was completely false. How is all this to be explained?

The Russian Revolution in 1917 was the greatest step forward yet for the world working class. In it, the working class took state power in its own hands, and overthrew not only feudal oppression, but capitalism too. On the basis of a state-owned and planned economy, the Soviet Union has leapt from being more backward than India to become an industrial superpower.

Immense Impact

The Russian Revolution had an immense impact on the oppressed and exploited around the world, which echoes to this day. Workers’ parties in many countries seeking to follow the Russian example – including the Communist Party of South Africa, formed in 1921 – came together to form the Third (Communist) International from 1919.

The revolution aroused the furious hatred of the capitalist class and reactionaries, who have striven to this day to reverse or disparage what the revolution has achieved in Russia.

Around the world, the bosses have poured out a torrent of propaganda through their newspapers, TV, and radio against the Soviet Union – to try to turn workers away from following the example of 1917.

Now criticism of past and present shortcomings of Russian society is coming from the mouths of its own leaders. What does it signify?

At the special conference of the Communist Party this June Gorbachev admitted that the rule of Stalin from the 1930s to 1953 was characterised by “a wave of repressions and lawlessness”, and that the years of Brezhnev’s rule – from 1964 to the 1980s – were “years of stagnation”.

“The principle of democratic centralism”, said Gorbachev, “was at a certain stage largely replaced by bureaucratic centralism”.

At this conference another Soviet leader, Ulyanov, said that there has been “a period of monstrous flourishing of corruption, bribery, ignorance, and just simply barbarism”.

Many trials have been taking place exposing the vast scale and pervasiveness of this corruption among officials.

Some Soviet leaders are even casting doubts on the superiority of state-ownership and planned economy over capitalist market relations.

All this is being served-up in the capitalist press to discredit socialism. Many workers and youth are finding themselves ill-equipped to counter this attack. Some may even succumb to the idea that socialism offers no way out of hardship.

What is going on? How could all these deformations be so deep-rooted in a supposedly “socialist” society?

Why have they never been identified or explained by the South African Communist Party? Why has the SACP, instead, always falsely presented a picture of the Soviet Union as an unblemished model of socialism?

The working class has nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from facing the truth. Learning honestly the lessons not only of victories, but of setbacks, is vital to the victory of socialism.

In fact the Soviet Union is not a socialist society, but a deformed workers’ state. But it is only genuine Marxism which has consistently explained this. Marxism has been second-to-none in defending the gains of the 1917 revolution – but it has also identified, explained, and criticised every step taken by Soviet leaders in abandoning the ideals of 1917.


Socialism means a society of increasing abundance and sharing to the point where everybody is equal, and classes and the state wither away. Yet in the Soviet Union now there are at least 25 million privileged officials involved in running the state. Top officials live at the level of millionaires in the West. How could this be “socialism”?

The point is that the level of abundance required to achieve socialism could not have been secured in industrially backward post-1917 Russia, or indeed in any single country.

This is why Bolshevism was always international in its outlook, recognising that socialism depends on an international economy which has broken free from the limits of capitalism.

Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution, always insisted on the need to spread the revolution to more industrially advanced countries, particularly Germany at the time. This was the aim of the Third International under their leadership.

But workers’ revolutions did not succeed in taking and holding power. The revolution was left isolated in backward Russia.

These were among the conditions that allowed power to be stolen from the Russian working class in the 1920s by a bureaucracy of state officials headed by Stalin – a bureaucracy which rules to this day as a parasitic caste, by essentially totalitarian means. Every form of state apparatus lives off the surplus produced in the national economy. The capitalist class having been overthrown by the revolution in Russia, the new ruling bureaucracy based itself on state-ownership and the planned economy.


It took over the mantle of the revolution, claiming to follow in the footsteps of Lenin after his death. But it destroyed all elements of workers’ democracy, without which advance towards socialism is inconceivable.

The rule of the bureaucracy is in complete contrast to everything Lenin stood for.

Stalin, the architect of this political counter-revolution, proclaimed – in absolute contradiction to Bolshevik internationalism – that “socialism” could be built in “one country”!

Stalin’s “repressions and lawlessness” (admitted by Gorbachev), which cost the lives of tens-of-millions, were not the work merely of a deformed personality.

They were the means necessary for the consolidation of the bureaucracy, the extension of its privilege, and the remorseless elimination of all opposition – above all the opposition of those genuine Marxists led by Leon Trotsky who held firm to the traditions of Bolshevism, and combatted the degeneration of the first workers’ state.

Of the 24 members of the Bolshevik Central Committee which led the revolution in 1917, 22 had been executed, imprisoned, or disappeared in mysterious circumstances by 1940. Many were branded as “agents of fascism” – a scandalous slander which Gorbachev now admits was false.

The bureaucracy banished Trotsky – leader of the Red Army which beat off invasion by 21 imperialist armies between 1917 and 1920 – into exile and organised his assassination in Mexico in 1940.

All this in the name of socialism!

Retreating within the confines of so-called “Russian socialism”, the bureaucracy ultimately abandoned the idea of supporting workers’ revolution in other countries. Increasingly they feared that such revolutions anywhere in the world would enable the Russian working class to overthrow bureaucratic privilege.

Instead, trying to conceal its usurpation of power, its crimes, and its anti-revolutionary foreign policy, the Stalinist bureaucracy has for generations fabricated a vast web of lying propaganda which it has fed to the working class in Russia and abroad.

Communist Parties

From the time of Stalin, the bureaucracy has sought to turn the leadership of Communist Parties in every country into unquestioning promoters of its own narrow interests, and loudspeakers for its lies.

The Communist Party of SA, now called the SACP, has unfortunately been no exception.

As we illustrate in the following pages, the leaders of the CPSA/SACP have propagated, in their time, the lies of Stalin, then the lies of Khrushchev, then the lies of Brezhnev and his successors – denying facts and realities which are now admitted even by Gorbachev.

They must explain why they have lied.

The capitalists would like the working class to believe that dictatorship, corruption, etc. are inherent in socialism. To combat this slander, it is necessary to recognise that the Soviet Union is not a socialist society, and to explain why this is the case.

Previously, Stalinist apologists replied to the bosses’ propaganda by baldly denying any “problems” in the Soviet Union. But that lie can no longer be sustained. Nowadays they admit at least some of the facts and yet continue to maintain that the Soviet Union is socialist. In that way they assist the bosses to discredit the idea of socialism.

Marxism has never been afraid to look the facts of dictatorship and corruption in the Soviet Union in the face, and to explain that the way forward for the Russian working class is a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy and restore workers’ democracy.

But the CP leaders are just as determined as they ever were to defend the bureaucratic system in Russia. They merely alter their propaganda in accordance with the latest line emanating from Moscow.

Comrade Joe Slovo, general secretary of the SACP, has declared his “enthusiasm for the Gorbachev reforms”. These, he believes “will at last release the true creative energy that is inherent in the communist system”.[1]

But hold on a minute! How about explaining to us what has been the problem with the “communist system” up until now. And why did you never tell us that all its “true creative energy” was previously being suppressed?

A fundamental explanation of the crisis of the Soviet bureaucracy, and why this has necessitated Gorbachev’s reforms, has never been presented by the SACP. But the Marxist tendency has long provided the explanation.

Through preserving nationalisation and planning, the bureaucracy has been able to develop a modern economy in Russia. But, bungling, wastage, and corruption – the features which Gorbachev attributes to the Brezhnev years – are in reality inherent to bureaucratic rule. Increasingly they are impeding further economic advance, further embittering the Soviet people – thus posing a threat to the rule of the bureaucracy itself.

Hold-off Revolution

Reform from above, to try to hold-off revolution from below, is what Gorbachev is really engaged in.

Gorbachev hopes that economic and political “reconstruction” (glasnost) – i.e. reform – can overcome these problems. Together with this, he is encouraging “openness” (perestroika) to defeat the resistance of the conservative bureaucrats. For these purposes, he accepts that it is necessary to expose some of the “problems” of the past.

But his measures cannot solve the problems, because they do not tackle the root cause.

A modern planned economy, requiring the inter-connected production and distribution of millions of different products, cannot be efficiently organised – or reorganised – simply “from the top”.

It requires the full participation and control of the working class, using its own best knowledge to check and regulate production to serve the needs of all.

This cannot be achieved by any amount of reshuffling, trials, or purges of sections of the bureaucracy – but only by the bureaucracy getting off the back of the Russian working class, the one thing it will not and cannot do!

Gorbachev is the leader of the bureaucracy in crisis. He does not intend that the bureaucracy should dissolve itself – but rather seeks new ways to stabilise its bankrupt rule and preserve its privileges.

Glasnost and perestroika will ultimately fail, giving way to renewed stagnation, corruption, and repression. The real significance of glasnost and perestroika is in revealing the crisis of the bureaucratic system, unintentionally clarifying for the working class what it must do to overcome it – rise-up to overthrow the bureaucracy, restore workers’ democratic rule, and open the way to socialism.

This is what comrade Slovo and the SACP leaders should be using their authority to explain within our movement. If the SACP was a genuine Marxist party, and not an apologist for Stalinism in its changing guises, this is what the leadership would do, rather than spreading illusions in the deceptions and falsehoods now poured out by the bureaucracy under Gorbachev.

If we are to “release the true creative energy that is inherent in the communist system” both capitalism and bureaucratic rule must be ended worldwide.

Our struggle for national liberation, democracy and socialism is inseparably linked with the social revolution against capitalism in the West, and the political revolution in the East.

To achieve this, the apologetics and falsifications which are the essential method of Stalinism must be eradicated from our movement, and replaced by the fearless and honest clarity which has always been the hallmark of Marxism and Bolshevism.

His masters voice?

How the SACP has Echoed Moscows Line

Joseph Stalin consolidated his power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) after the death of Lenin, emerging as an absolute dictator at the head of the bureaucracy through a series of purges, ‘trials’ and murders of his opponents in the late 1920s and 1930s. He ruled until his death in 1953.

During this period backward Russia was transformed into the second most powerful industrial nation in the world. By 1963 total industrial output had risen to 52 times the 1913 level.

The basis for this was state-ownership and planned production, made possible by the Revolution of 1917. But under the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, progress was achieved only at huge cost to the working class and peasantry.

Ruthlessly compelling the peasantry to produce on collective farms, employing armies of virtual slave labour, and repressing all opposition, Stalin and the bureaucracy were responsible for millions of deaths.

Serious deformations

In June this year, at a conference of the CPSU, Gorbachev coyly admitted that under Stalin, “the political system underwent serious deformations. This made possible the omnipotence of Stalin and his entourage and the wave of repressions and lawlessness.” However, one looks in vain for an explanation of how this monstrous development came about.

An article by I. Bestuzev-Lada in Nedelya,[2] says Stalin’s campaign against kulaks (better-off peasants) during collectivisation from 1929-1933 turned at least nineteen million into “half-alive or dead people”.

“An atmosphere of terror” was created to break the opposition of the peasantry. Mass deportations and famine left fifteen million homeless and an estimated ten million dead, according to Vladimir Tikhonov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences.[3]

Soviet agriculture still suffers the consequences.

But South African workers, reading the newspapers of the Communist Party of SA in the 1930s, would have believed everything was paradise in the Soviet Union. On 7 November 1936 the Party’s paper, SA Worker, dismissed critics of Stalin’s collectivisation with these words: “The workers did not listen to them and today the land of the Soviets is independent of weather conditions in its agriculture.”

Anyone who took the SACP’s word as the truth in the 1930s would also have believed that Stalin’s regime, far from being a totalitarian dictatorship, was the very model of a socialist democracy. Any claim to the contrary was “anti-Soviet” and “anti-socialist” propaganda, to be denounced as the work of “Trotskyists” and “fascist agents”.

But now, lo and behold, the Gorbachev bureaucracy itself reveals what vicious repression was meted out to any opposition. “The total number of repressed and dead in the years 1935-53 is scarcely any less than the number of those who were ‘dekulakised’ or starved to death in 1929-33[4] – i.e. at least ten million.

One paper, Ogonyok[5] published a photograph of a line of skeletons lying buried in shallow graves after they were shot – victims of the mass killings between the 1930s and 1941. “In the villages they didn’t sleep at night because they could hear the bang-bang-bang of the shootings.”

At the height of this slaughter, SA Worker,[6] declared “Socialism Victorious” in the USSR: “So a classless society comes into being, making class rule and state force unnecessary…”

The workers of South Africa have the right to demand an explanation from the SACP. Comrades, why did your party lie to us?


It was not only in the Soviet Union that workers paid bitterly for Stalinism. In Germany the Communist Party, on Stalin’s orders, opposed a united front of the workers’ organisations against the Nazis, thus allowing Hitler to come to power. In France, Spain and other countries, the Communist Parties, again on Stalin’s orders, swung over to a position of alliances with capitalist parties and held back the struggle of the workers to take power. In every case, defeat was the bloody outcome.

But were these errors honestly faced and analysed in the Communist press? On the contrary. A picture was presented of glorious advance under the wise leadership of Stalin.

For example, in South Africa Umsebenzi,[7] organ of the CPSA, wrote “Comrade Stalin stands at the head of the proletarian revolution and the construction of socialism in the whole world. His name is the banner of struggle and the victory of the proletariat and of Communism throughout the world.”

A report in SA Worker[8] of Stalin’s speech to a plenum of the CPSU in 1937, emphasised his “strong stress on democratic centralism” and praised his “masterly analysis”.

Today, the SACP obediently echoes Gorbachev’s criticisms of the Stalin era. But it keeps a terribly discrete silence about its own part in spreading Stalinist lies and misleading the working class of South Africa. If we shouldn’t have believed them then, why should we believe them now?

In an interview in a British capitalist newspaper, the Observer,[9] comrade Joe Slovo, general secretary of the SACP, speaks of his “anger and disgust” at “having once been a defender of Stalin”. (See SACP’s ‘Left Turn’ to the Right.)

In another interview[10] he admits that “For there to be a cult of the personality, there had to be worshippers, and I was a worshipper.”

It must indeed be embarrassing that all the truth about Stalinism is now coming out. But the CP leaders’ protestations of regret would be easier to swallow if they were combined with an honest explanation of what went wrong with the Russian Revolution, and why the CPSU and all the CPs of the world (including South Africa) degenerated and ceased to be Marxist parties.

But they will not do this. If we look closely, we’ll see that the SACP leadership is merely following the latest turn in the propaganda-line of the Kremlin. This is something they have done before and will do again.

This is shown by the way the SACP responded in the 1950s to the criticism of Stalin made by Nikita Khrushchev.

Under Nikita Khrushchev

After Stalin’s death in 1953 resistance by the workers against the bureaucratic system burst to the surface, notably in East Germany. Fearful of political revolution, a section of the bureaucracy moved in the direction of reform.

Nikita Khrushchev, previously a henchman of Stalin, became the leader of the Soviet bureaucracy in 1953 (until he was ousted in 1964).

At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 Khrushchev made his famous “anti-Stalin” speech – an attempt to rid the Soviet leadership of the dead dictator’s stink.

Khrushchev told the Congress: “Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation, and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept … was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation.”

This was not published for Soviet workers to read, but only became public after it was ‘leaked’ and printed abroad. CP leaders abroad hurriedly provided ‘explanations’ to their followers of this surprising turn. They hoped to slip the corpse of Stalin overboard without upsetting the boat of the Stalinist system.

Thus Michael Harmel, one of the leaders of the CPSA, wrote in New Age,[11] that although Stalin’s “place in history remains secure”, and although he rendered “services of incalculable value”, he also made mistakes. “It was essential to correct the false picture that, in his later years, was built-up of Stalin as an infallible miracle worker, standing above and separate from his party and his colleagues.”


No explanation here of how a dictatorship had come to power in a workers’ state. The monstrous crimes of Stalin were glossed over under the guise of heartfelt regrets about the cult of personality.

Stalin “erred” (apparently) in “disregarding specific warnings of the impending Nazi attack in 1941”. But no criticism of Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939! No admission of the unpreparedness of the Red Army because, as is now admitted, 35,000 officers had been killed on Stalin’s instructions!

Another “mistake” of Stalin’s (apparently) was to allow the Security Services to become “a law unto themselves”, enabling them “to defy socialist law and procedure and to frame-up innocent people on false charges, for motives of their own.” But no explanation of why.

Indeed, Harmel compliments Stalin for “his stern struggle against the Trotskyites, Bukharinites, and other traitors and saboteurs.” In other words, the SACP still defended the bloody purges against Stalin’s Bolshevik opponents.

How was it possible under “socialism” for “collective leadership” to he so grotesquely violated? Instead of an explanation, just an assurance “that steps have been taken to set right injustice” followed by a statement of loyalty to the “strength, self-confidence, and firmness of principle” of “Mr Khrushchev and his colleagues”.

How hollow all this rings now, when Gorbachev is obliged to denounce not only Stalin, but his successors Khrushchev and Brezhnev as well!

Under Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev was the chief engineer in the bureaucratic coup to oust Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1964. Like Khrushchev, Brezhnev had been a faithful agent of Stalinism all his political life.

During the Brezhnev years, the SACP continued to echo the policy positions of the Soviet regime. Not a word of criticism of Brezhnev was ever raised.

When Brezhnev died in 1983, the Central Committee of the SACP sent a letter to the CPSU lamenting the untimely passing of “a fighter for the best interests of humanity who devoted his whole life wholeheartedly to the task of strengthening the Soviet Union, raising the living standards of his people, and advancing the cause of socialism at home and abroad.”[12] But was that the truth?

Gorbachev now refers to the Brezhnev years as “years of stagnation”. By the time of Brezhnev’s death, the economy had almost ground to a halt. Yet, under Brezhnev, these were referred to as the “years of developed socialism”. The lies of the bureaucracy know no limits.

The festering national question in the Soviet Union is now plain for all to see – in the movements in the Baltic states, Armenia, etc. Yet only a few years ago the African Communist[13] was explaining with a straight face how the Soviet Union had “solved the nationalities question”.

The cult of the individual was rebuilt around Brezhnev, who awarded himself the highest military awards. “His brilliant and inspired military record during World War Two made a significant contribution to the defeat of Hitlerism”, wrote the African Communist.[14] But Pravda[15] now reports that the role Brezhnev claimed to play in decisive wartime victories was untenable because “In his post he could not have carried out such operations.”

Reformists led by Gorbachev now use illustrations of the stagnation as a whip to try and awake the bureaucracy from its dangerous stupor. V. Syelivanov, a senior official in the Ministry of Aviation Industry, wrote in Pravda,[16] that these were years of “planned unanimity of choice from above and an unchangeability of leaders… [when] careers, rewards, privileges, special services, the right connections, getting into the governing and distributive elite became the aim of a series of party members and their families.”


What a contrast with the report given in the African Communist[17] of the 26th Congress of the CPSU, by the late Yusuf Dadoo and Moses Mabhida, that “the core of the party remains working class” and that the “inner life of the party is governed by Leninist norms”.

On the contrary! Corruption, it is now officially reported, infested the very summits of officialdom. Brezhnev’s Interior Minister and police chief, Nickolai Shcholokov, committed suicide rather than face trial for looting 700,000 roubles (R2.3 million). Now his deputy, and Brezhnev’s son in law Yuri Churbanov, is also on trial for gross corruption.

Here too the SACP did its best to ensure that all these facts remained hidden from the SA working class during the Brezhnev years. What claim does this Party have to be trusted now?

It is not in the SACP, but in the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC, that the workers of South Africa will find the political tradition of Lenin and the Russian Revolution honestly carried forward.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2020).

Continue to Part Six

[1] Observer, 1 March 1987

[2] April 1988, supplement to the Russian government daily Izvestia

[3] Argumenty i Fakty, August 1988

[4] Nedelya, April 1988

[5] 25 September 1988

[6] 7 November 1936

[7] 3 November 1934

[8] 10 April 1937

[9] 1 March 1987

[10] Independent, 4 November 1988

[11]  5 April 1956

[12] African Communist No. 92, 1983

[13] No. 91, 1982

[14] No. 92, 1983

[15] 3 April 1988

[16] 2 May 1988

[17] No. 81, 1976