The Kronstadt uprising underlined the explosive resentment that had built up among the peasantry at the sacrifices, shortages and forced requisitions imposed on them during the war years. There was no prospect of an immediate breakthrough by the working class in the west. Clearly, it was impossible to continue the regime of war communism without risking a generalised insurrection.
Lenin, in a simple example, summed up the situation:
If we could tomorrow give 100,000 first-class tractors, supply them with benzine, supply them with mechanics… the middle peasant would say: ‘I am for Communism.’ But in order to do this, it is first necessary to conquer the international bourgeoisie, to compel it to give us these tractors.Eighth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), March 18-23, 1919. “6. Report on Work in the Countryside”, Collected Works, Vol. XXIV
The tenth party congress of March 1921 could see no alternative to abandoning war communism (first advocated by Trotsky the previous year) and adopting what was called the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) – a series of concessions to the capitalists and richer peasants who dominated agricultural production. It provided them with profit incentives to step-up production for the market, as a means of feeding the towns and reviving industry.
NEP undoubtedly succeeded in restoring a measure of life to the economy. By 1922 industrial output had risen to 25% of the 1913 level, though mainly in the branches of light industry supplying the peasants’ demand.
On the other hand, NEP marked a serious retreat in the workers’ fundamental drive to collectivisation and central planning of the economy. It greatly strengthened the so-called “NEP-men” – a breed of middlemen who took advantage of the continuing shortages to speculate and line their own pockets.
The balance of forces in Russian society was tilting further and further against the working class. The kulaks and NEP-men shared a position of privilege with the state bureaucracy. These layers were becoming more confident and determined to consolidate their position. Their pressure on the workers’ leaders was increasing.
Victor Serge describes the distortions that were coming into existence:
Classes were reborn under our very eyes: at the bottom of the scale, the unemployed receiving 24 rubles a month; at the top, the engineer receiving 800; and in between the two, the party functionary with 222, but obtaining a good many things free of charge… There was squalid, heart-breaking poverty… while wealth was arrogant and self-satisfied… The young people drank, old people drank, drunkenness became a plague. And the worst of it was that we could no longer recognise the old party of the revolution.From Lenin to Stalin
The bureaucracy did not form a class in the Marxist sense (i.e., a social grouping with a necessary function in the productive system). Already it was degenerating into a layer of parasites, exploiting the shortage of skills to extort privileges as of right.
Inevitably, tensions were increasing between the “arrogant, self-satisfied bureaucracy”, entrenched in the state apparatus, and the surviving Bolshevik cadre. The bureaucracy could not rest easy while power remained in the hands of the revolutionary Marxists. A struggle for control over the Communist Party was inherent in the situation.
In the party, the Marxist cadre was stretched to breaking point by the demands of public duties, while the ranks of the party were swelled by a massive influx of new members. Membership increased from 23,600 in February 1917 to 115,000 at the beginning of 1918, 313,000 a year later, and 650,000 in March 1922.
Many of those who joined, especially during the dark days of the civil war, were militant workers and youth attracted to the party of the revolution. But, increasingly, ex-Mensheviks, bureaucrats, NEP-men and other hostile elements, seeking a new vehicle for their political ambitions, began to turn their attention to the Communist Party.
As early as March 1919 the eighth party congress recognised the danger:
Elements which are not sufficiently communist or even directly parasitic are flowing into the party in a broad stream. The Russian Communist Party is in power, and this inevitably attracts to it, together with the better elements, careerist elements as well…
A serious purge is indispensable in the Soviet and party organisations.Quoted by Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution
The inner-party struggle was pushed into the background during the war years. The purge was eventually carried out in 1921-22. Unlike the ruthless bureaucratic attacks on opposition of later years, also known as “purges”, it consisted of a careful examination by local party organisations of their members, to decide which of them, through their commitment and activity, could in fact be counted as Communists.
A further decision by the eighth congress resulted in the establishment of a People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection (“Rabkrin”) in February 1920, with the task of fighting “bureaucratism and corruption in Soviet institutions”.
As People’s Commissar in charge of the new department the congress had appointed Joseph Stalin – a party member of long standing, no theoretician but a good organiser, who was hardly known outside of the party itself. In 1922 Stalin was appointed to another important administrative position: that of general secretary.
Rabkrin failed totally in its task. In practice its members consisted, as Trotsky put it, of “workers who have come to grief in other fields”. Or as Lenin commented: “the best workers have been taken for the front.” (Quoted by Carr.)
But there were more fundamental reasons why the tide of bureaucratic encroachment could not be halted.
Russia’s backwardness was reflected, politically, in the weakness of the proletariat in relation to the peasantry and the reactionary classes, nationally and internationally. As Lenin put it: “While we continue to be a country of small peasants, there is a more solid basis for capitalism in Russia than for communism.” (Quoted in The Platform of the Joint Opposition.)
The social weakness of the Soviet working class could not be overcome by administrative measures; bourgeois pressures within the state apparatus could not be eliminated through the creation of new bureaucratic structures. The solution lay in the political regeneration of the working class through the advance of the revolution internationally.
The influence of the bureaucracy increasingly pervaded the party. Many Communists, absorbed in complicated administrative work, were already being “led” by the bureaucracy.
Even the party leaders were coming under pressure to adapt to the “practical” demands of the bureaucracy, to concentrate on creating stability in Russia through organisational measures, and relegate the international revolution to the background.
Lenin, in his last period of active life, became increasingly aware of the dangers posed by the power of the bureaucracy. At the eleventh party congress in 1922 (the last he attended) he sounded this warning:
The [state] machine refused to obey the hand that guided it. It was like a car that was going not in the way the driver desired but in a direction someone else desired: as if it were being driven by some lawless, mysterious hand… perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.Collected Works, Volume 33
Stalin came to the fore in this period. It was not his own personality or abilities, or even his conscious intentions, that transformed this colourless individual into the tyrant of later years. Stalin’s rise to power was entirely a consequence of the changing balance of forces in society and the state.
The bureaucracy of the workers’ state was beginning to isolate the “socialist tendency”, and to corrupt elements in the workers’ leadership that were politically weak. Stalin was a key official who proved “most consistent and reliable” to the bureaucracy. As Trotsky explains:
[Stalin] brought [the bureaucracy] all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine… The petty bourgeois outlook of the new ruling stratum was his own outlook. He profoundly believed that the task of creating socialism was national and administrative in its nature.The Revolution Betrayed
The exceptional centralisation of power brought about by the civil war was, to the bureaucracy, the natural method of government. It provided the means of protecting their privileges against the threat of future working class control.
Stalin played a central role in the consolidation of the bureaucracy’s position within the party apparatus. From 1922, he systematically installed his own followers as branch, district and provincial secretaries. This gave him effective control over the day-to-day implementation of policy, the organisation of meetings, the election of congress delegates, etc.
These manoeuvres paved the way for a head-on collision with Lenin, Trotsky and the remainder of the Bolshevik leadership.