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60 years ago...
Khrushchev: the Stalinist who denounced Stalin
At the 20th conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 25 February 1956, first secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced the dictatorial crimes of Joseph Stalin (who had died in 1953). However, as the revolutionary events of that year showed, in denouncing Stalin, Khrushchev hadn't rejected Stalinism.
Following the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two the Soviet Red Army occupied eastern Europe. Gradually, through a series of 'popular front' governments and by an iron grip on the army, police and judiciary, Stalinist regimes - mirror images of the Soviet Union - were installed.
Living conditions were severe. War reparations saw factories stripped of machinery and removed to the Soviet Union. A harsh labour system involving piece-work and high production targets under a dictatorial management (known as 'Stakhanovism') was rigidly enforced. Thousands of worker-militants were expelled from Communist Parties (CP) as Stalin's police apparatus purged society of any potential political opponents.
The followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (an implacable opponent of Stalinism) explained that although the occupation of eastern Europe had temporarily strengthened Stalin's regime, the dead hand of the bureaucracy would inevitably conflict with the functioning of the planned economy - which required the 'oxygen' of workers' democracy.
This contradiction would provoke a clash between the working class and the bureaucracy. So, the demand for workers' democracy could only be realised through a 'political revolution'.
Within 40 years of Khrushchev's speech Stalinism in eastern Europe collapsed. But in the absence of genuine mass revolutionary parties this resulted in the restoration of capitalism instead of workers' democracy.
The first workers' uprising had already occurred in East Germany in June 1953 but was brutally crushed by Russian tanks.
The next expression of a political revolution occurred in Hungary in October-November 1956 (although a brief strike wave in Poland had earlier that year taken on the character of an uprising). The Hungarian events derived from the perceived political thaw in relations between the Soviet leaders and the Hungarian CP leaders following Khruschev's speech.
Starting with the stirrings of dissent among intellectuals (the 'Petofi circle') and students, splits in the ruling Communist Party opened up channels for working class opposition to move along. By October a political revolution was in full swing. Quickly, the workers embraced Lenin's 1919 democratic programme against bureaucratisation.
In the capital, Budapest, workers' councils ie soviets, were established which included the election of officials with the right of recall. Maximums were placed on wages, the standing army was replaced by workers' militias and freedom of expression, except for capitalist counter-revolutionaries, was established. To implement this, two general strikes and two uprisings were conducted by the working class throughout Hungary.
The occupying Soviet troops became infected with this revolutionary mood and were hastily withdrawn, only for more reliable troops to return later.
Khrushchev, having earlier denounced Stalin, resorted to the same brutal methods to crush the revolution. This resulted in splits and defections from the mass Communist Parties in the West.
Khrushchev had survived and the repressive system staggered on for several more decades but the workers' revolution of 1956 showed that the writing was on the wall for Stalinism.
A version of this article previously appeared in the Socialist, see www.socialistparty.org.uk