International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Letter from a worker in Vorkuta, and a reply

Dear Peter,

Thank you very much for the material from the Fourth International. I immediately distributed it to members of our independent trade union so that they could acquaint themselves with it. Right now people are studying this material. I should, however, tell you that communist and socialist ideas in our country at the present time are very unpopular. I think that you understand the reasons for the unpopularity of these ideas. One of the main reasons is the genocide of the Communist Party against its people during the period from Lenin to Chernenko, and the inhuman suppression of any dissident thought. Personally my family and I in the recent past experienced for ourselves all the “delights” of the class struggle.

Proceeding from the platform of our trade union, and more precisely the principle of universal human values, we are prepared to collaborate with you on many problems. But you must understand us, in that we cannot solidarize with you on a platform of class struggle. We are convinced that people and organizations must show solidarity in the peaceful resolution of many problems in the world. I am sending you the program of our union, and I hope that you yourselves will work out and make proposals to us about the lines along which we could collaborate with you.

Dear Peter, in conclusion let me send greetings through you to David North. I wish you all the best and good luck.



November 24, 1990

Dear Comrade:

Thank you for your letter of last August 14. Permit me to reply candidly to the points which you raised therein.

You state that the current unpopularity of communist and socialist ideas in the Soviet Union is the result of “the genocide of the Communist Party against its people during the period from Lenin to Chernenko, and the inhuman suppression of any dissident thought.”

It is indisputable that Stalinism has inflicted incalculable damage to the cause of socialism. For decades it cynically utilized Marxist-sounding phrases to justify the crimes of the bureaucracy. To the extent that workers and intellectuals have come to believe, based on the claims of the Stalinists themselves, that Marxism consists essentially of an ideological defense of bureaucratic parasitism and totalitarianism, the cause of socialism has been severely undermined.

But historical truth, which is inseparable from the interests of the working class, cannot be served by blaming Marxism for the crimes of its worst enemies. And here I must express my sharp disagreement with the approach taken by your letter. Your reference to “the period from Lenin to Chernenko” suggests that the entire history of the Soviet Union should be viewed as a single and undifferentiated political epoch, in which the transition from Lenin to Stalin and his successors saw no fundamental change in program and policy.

This conception, however, is untenable. It ignores the struggles which raged within the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state in the 1920s. Those who have had the opportunity to study the documents of the conflict between Trotsky and Stalin will not be persuaded by the simplistic and unserious claim that it was merely a fight for power between two ambitious men. The struggle between Trotsky and the Left Opposition on the one side against Stalin and the growing bureaucratic apparatus on the other side represented a conflict between irreconcilable programs and social forces. Ultimately this conflict had the most profound consequences for the fate of not only the Soviet proletariat but also the international working class. Indeed, the Stalinist program of “socialism in one country”—which represented a complete break with the socialist internationalism upon which the program of Bolshevism had been based between 1903 and 1924—led to catastrophic defeats of the working class all over the world. These defeats, in turn, strengthened the bureaucratic regime.

You speak of the “inhuman suppression of any dissident thought.” But there is a vast difference between the conditions which existed prior to 1924 and those which developed during the subsequent period when the bureaucracy was consolidating power and erecting its totalitarian regime. That Lenin and the Bolsheviks waged a ruthless struggle against the counterrevolution between 1917 and 1921 is a historical fact for which, to be frank, no Marxist need apologize. The methods employed by the Whites, who, as is well known, enjoyed the financial and military backing of every imperialist power, were hardly a model of civil restraint. It is not difficult to imagine what would have happened had the armies of Denikin, Kolchak, Wrangel and Yudenich entered Moscow and Petrograd. The history of the 20th century—from Germany in 1919 and 1933 to Indonesia in 1965 and Chile in 1973—provides us with ample illustrations of the horrifying social consequences of defeated or aborted proletarian revolutions.

In the heat of the civil war, the Bolsheviks defended their policies before the international proletariat. Exposing the hypocrisy of their bourgeois critics—who railed against Bolshevik “immorality” while mercilessly suppressing the workers in their own countries and shooting down their colonial slaves—works such as Lenin’s Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky and Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism were translated into countless languages and read by hundreds of thousands of workers and intellectuals all over the world. And it was the support of the international working class which ensured the survival of the Bolshevik regime.

The severe measures to which the young Bolshevik regime resorted were those of an isolated workers state, fighting for its right to exist against counter-revolutionary armies and imperialist invaders. It is, of course, possible to condemn all revolutionary violence as morally impermissible. But those who do so should not single out Lenin for special condemnation. There are other outstanding historic personages who must, under such abstract and ahistorical moral criteria, be placed in the dock. In order to defend the existence of the United States against the rebellion of the slave owners, the great democrat Abraham Lincoln, one of the noblest figures in history, violated the US constitution, ordered the seizure of hostages, and sanctioned the burning of entire cities. But who would condemn his actions, so essential to the preservation of the Union and the destruction of chattel slavery?

These general historical considerations aside, it is impossible to equate the regime of Lenin with that of Stalin. Lenin was the leader of a revolutionary regime that was the product of the most massive and genuinely democratic mass movement in world history. The regime of Stalin was, in essence, the product of a conservative “Thermidorean” reaction on the part of a privileged bureaucracy against the world revolutionary aspirations of Bolshevism. Stalin’s dictatorship consolidated the bureaucracy’s usurpation of political power and the first victims of state repression were its Marxist, i.e., Trotskyist, opponents.

Those who would indict Bolshevism for the crimes of the Stalinists are obligated to explain why it was not possible for Stalin to consolidate his dictatorship without first expelling and then physically exterminating virtually the entire Bolshevik cadre which played the decisive role in the victory of October 1917. The fact is that the defeat of the Left Opposition and the liquidation of the revolutionary cadre created by Lenin signified the destruction of the Bolshevik Party. If one proceeds beyond the formal title of the ruling party and examines its program and the social interests which it defended, then it is indisputable that Stalin’s “Communist Party” had nothing in common with that of Lenin. Rather, the “Communist Party” which emerged from the destruction of Bolshevism was merely the political instrument through which the ruling bureaucracy exercised its monopoly of political power and defended its material interests against the working class. Allow me to add that the destruction of the Bolshevik Party was accompanied by the suffocation of the exhilarating cultural life which had existed in Soviet Russia during the 1920s. In fact, it was Trotsky who had led the theoretical struggle against the “proletcult” movement, endorsed by Stalin, which sought to place upon artistic inspiration the straitjacket of narrow-minded political criteria. One indication of the profound difference between the Leninist period and its Stalinist antithesis is the tragic fate of a wide layer of artists who flourished in the 1920s but who were silenced during the next decade—Babel, Mandelshtam, Voronsky, Meyerhold, to name only the most outstanding.

The blanket condemnation of the entire history of the Soviet Union not only distorts and falsifies the historical record; it actually diminishes the enormity of the treachery and crimes of the Stalinists. It assigns the principal responsibility for the crimes of the bureaucracy to the socialist revolution itself. Stalinism, it argues, is merely the inevitable outcome of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. If I may speak bluntly, this conclusion amounts to little more than an apology for capitalism and the ongoing attempts of Gorbachev to restore it in the Soviet Union.

In reply to the latter half of your letter, we welcome, of course, any opportunity to strengthen the bond between Soviet and American workers. But we regret to learn that you reject solidarity “on a platform of class struggle.” Instead, you advise us “that people and organizations must show solidarity in the peaceful resolution of many problems in the world.”

If the class struggle is rejected, then on what basis does one justify the existence of trade unions? From the standpoint of history, the emergence of trade unions is the product of the class struggle itself. Unions originally came into existence because workers recognized the need to collectively resist capitalist exploitation. In the United States, the formation of trade unions proceeded through bitter social conflicts which cost thousands of lives.

The workers movement thrives to the extent that it bases its activity on a conscious recognition of the class struggle and its laws. Conversely, the rejection of the class struggle signifies the demise of the workers movement. Thus, within the United States and, for that matter, all the imperialist countries, the terrible degeneration of the trade unions during the recent decades is bound up with the attempts of their reformist leaders to substitute class collaboration for class struggle. Naturally, the bourgeoisie, supremely conscious of its own social interests and the requirements of its economic order, wages the class struggle more ruthlessly than ever. Do not take offense if I call to your attention the “delights” of the class struggle as it is practiced by the bourgeoisie in the United States.

The 1980s has witnessed an enormous intensification of state-sponsored violence against the trade unions. The firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan in 1981 marked the beginning of a wave of strike breaking and union busting that continues to this day. In the course of the past year, four workers have been killed by police, scabs or hired gunmen in what the bourgeois press euphemistically refers to as “strike-related violence.” Not one individual has been punished for any of these murders. But dozens of workers have been arrested, framed up and jailed for attempting to defend their unions.

The day-to-day realities of social life in any capitalist country vindicate the essential Marxist proposition that in a society divided into classes, all morality is class morality. The “morality” of capitalist society is based on private ownership of the productive forces and the exploitation of the working class.

I do not doubt the sincerity of your faith in “universal human values.” But all those human values which possess universal significance—justice, equality, the liberation of man from all forms of oppression—are absolutely incompatible with capitalist society. The creation of a society in which these values are honored in deeds, and not merely in fine-sounding words, requires a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist order. It would indeed be tragic if Soviet workers were to forget this fundamental truth, which has been verified by the entire historical experience of the class struggle.

You hope for the “peaceful resolution of many problems in the world.” But you have only to look at the situation in the Persian Gulf to judge the validity of such hopes in a world dominated by imperialism. With the assistance of Gorbachev—who, by the way, has often waxed eloquent on the theme of “universal human values”—the Bush administration has deployed 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia for the purpose of defending the economic interests of the US oil companies. These soldiers have been largely recruited from among the poorest sections of the American working class. They have “volunteered” for military service only because it was impossible for them to pay for their education or find a job by any other means. What a shining example of the morality of American capitalism!

If I may be permitted to make a prediction, it will not be long before Gorbachev—his ringing tributes to “universal human values” notwithstanding—resorts to violence in order to suppress working class opposition to the catastrophic social consequences of his drive to restore capitalism in the USSR. And allow me to warn you and your comrades in advance: do not expect the American and European bourgeoisie to protest against state violence which has as its aim the transformation of the Soviet Union into a vast “free enterprise zone” for capitalist exploitation.

We well understand and fully sympathize with the bitterness and hatred which Soviet workers feel toward the Stalinist gangsters. But a program for the working class cannot be based on hatred and bitterness alone. It requires a scientific insight into the nature of contemporary society and the economic and political relations that underlie the oppression of the working class. The answer to the problems confronting the Soviet working class lies not in the replacement of the Stalinist oligarchy with a new Soviet bourgeoisie, but in the unity of the Soviet and international working class in struggle against imperialism and its Stalinist lackeys. That is the program advanced by the International Committee of the Fourth International.

In closing, I would like to recall one historical fact with which you are perhaps familiar. In 1937, hundreds of Trotskyists who had been arrested and consigned to slave labor staged a hunger strike at Vorkuta. They were all brutally murdered on Stalin’s orders. They were martyrs to the cause of international socialism. We are confident that the example of these martyrs will contribute to the renaissance of communist ideals in the hearts and minds of the Soviet working class.

With fraternal greetings,

David North