Feb 25, 1956: Khrushchev gives “Secret Speech” to 20th Congress of the CPSU

In his autobiography Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm wrote:

There are two ‘ten days that shook the world’ in the history of the revolutionary movement of the last century: the days of the October Revolution,… and the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (14-25 February 1956). Both divide it suddenly and irrevocably into a ‘before’ and ‘after’… To put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.

khrushchev

On the final day of the CPSU’s 20th Congress, Nikita Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ which outlined the crimes of the Stalin era and the ‘cult of personality’ that allowed these crimes to occur. You can read the text of the speech here. Although it was viewed by many anti-revisionists retrospectively as an attack upon Stalin, Khrushchev was actually quite tempered in his criticisms of Stalin and his legacy. This passage near the end of the speech is an example of Khrushchev mealy-mouthedness:

We consider that Stalin was extolled to excess. However, in the past Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the Party, to the working class and to the international workers’ movement.

This question is complicated by the fact that all this which we have just discussed was done during Stalin’s life under his leadership and with his concurrence; here Stalin was convinced that this was necessary for the defense of the interests of the working classes against the plotting of enemies and against the attack of the imperialist camp.

He saw this from the position of the interest of the working class, of the interest of the laboring people, of the interest of the victory of socialism and communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot. He considered that this should be done in the interest of the Party, of the working masses, in the name of the defense of the revolution’s gains. In this lies the whole tragedy!

As word of the speech spread around the world, most Communist Parties became divided over the issue. I have written in an earlier post about how the CPGB dealt with the revelations of the ‘secret speech’, but I thought people might be interested in what R. Palme Dutt wrote about the character of the Stalin regime in the midst of the CPGB’s debates over the topic. In June 1956, Dutt wrote:

dutt

Was Stalin a ‘dictator’, a ‘tyrant’ or… a ‘scoundrel’?… There was here no parallel with the traditional forms of one-man rule, Bonapartism or the Fuehrerprinzip or fascist dictatorship. There was here no question of a proclamation of a constitution placing all power in the hands of one man, of an Emperor or a Leader, as the sole repository of power, from whom all authority is declared to spring (the authoritarian principle). On the contrary. The unique and peculiar character of the situation which arose during this period. was that nothing changed in the basis of class power… The party continued to lead the people. Nor was the main basic policy incorrect… The evils that arose affected primarily the functioning of the apparatus rather than the essence of the class power of the working people… Throughout this period, the masses of the people were continuing to enjoy and exercise self-rule in running their affairs to a degree unknown in any capitalist democracy, and continuing to justify Lenin’s description of Soviet democracy as the highest form of democracy yet known.

What, then, went wrong? What happened was that in a period of heavy strain after the rise of fascism, of continual war of threat-of-war conditions, the practice of leadership began to depart from the correct constitutional forms. During this period after fascism… Stalin, on the basis of the unique and well-earned theoretical and practical authority and mass influence he had won through his previous record of wise and successful Marxist leadership in the battle against disruption and for the victorious construction of socialism, began to operate new methods of working which departed from the methods of Lenin and the previous practice of the Communist Party… With close lines of direct contact with the masses…, and with the widest party and non-party masses looking to him as the wisest and ablest revolutionary leader in whom they felt full confidence, Stalin entered on the dangerous path of beginning increasingly to take major decisions in his personal capacity, without waiting for the endorsement of committee consultations. 

Hobsbawm may be right that Khrushchev’s ‘deStalinisation’ campaign irrevocably split the international communist movement, but it might be argued that other developments, such as the Sino-Soviet split and the rise of the new left (which further divided the movement), would have taken place sooner or later and were only hastened by the events of 1956.

So there’s $64,000 question: what would have happened to the international communist movement if Khrushcehv had not made his ‘secret speech’?

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2 comments

  1. Interesting, but a typical approach at an overview of Stalinism which is fundamentally an incorrect one. It fails to take the correct analytical approach which is this, the economic and social conditions of the people of Russia and Europe, and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy which emerged within it – emerging partly out of exhaustion among the working classes and confusion caused by the zig zagging the Stalinist regime presented to the world. This is not a criticism of your interesting article by the way, but of the quotes contained within it. Very interesting in themselves.

  2. I’m a bit of a secret speech sceptic, at least as regards its wider effect. I’ve seen it argued (I forget where, unfortunately) that the *public* part of Khrushchev’s speech actually had the most influence on the subsequent development of world Communism, because it acknowledged for the first time the possibility of distinct national roads to socialism and hence ultimately made Eurocommunism possible.

    I suppose we could say this was an effect *within* world Communism, whereas losing the image of unity & invincibility, and consequently undermining Communism’s appeal to the workers of the world more generally, was very much an effect *on* it. I wonder, though. The decisive turn away from what we’d now call ‘Stalinism’ didn’t come until much later, for one thing. For another, any demoralising effect the secret speech did have was surely swamped by the effects of Hungary a few months later.

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