The Speech of Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU: Socialism rendered defenceless

Kemal Okuyan, TKP General Secretary

On February 25, 1956, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union convened. Congresses have always been important turning points in the history of real communist parties, while the 20th Congress gained importance as it was a historical blow to the communist character of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Without a doubt, the Soviet Union did not lose its socialist character with this congress, but we can say that the 20th Congress should be examined specifically when it comes to the process that led to its dissolution (1991). In stating this, we do not mean to suggest that all the problems in the Soviet Union began in 1956 or with the death of Stalin (1953). Above all, this metaphysical approach fails to explain the deep crisis in the party leadership that immediately surfaced with the death of Yosif Visaryanovich Stalin. Stalin's unique role in the socialist founding process, in the strengthening of workers' power and in the fight against fascism is not open to discussion in any shape or form. However, it is clear that the root causes of the impotence that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fell into after Stalin's death should be sought in the years before 1953.

Instead of seeking an answer to the question of why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union entered a leadership crisis, this article will focus on the impact of the speech delivered by the CPSU Central Committee First Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev in a closed session, on the world communist movement and the Soviet Union. This speech, which we will describe as "destructive" without hesitation, was prepared to eliminate or paralyze the obstacles standing in the way of the strategic direction that had crystallized at the 20th Congress.

Khrushchev achieved his goal. In 1964, when he was dismissed, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had become a party that had lost its ability to discuss in a healthy fashion what had happened at the 20th Congress, and which, to put it most mildly, was doomed to stagnation. In official Soviet historiography, the subject began to be glossed over with the concept of a “personality cult”, and the name of Stalin, who led the country and the party for many years, was mentioned only with this concept. With Garbachev and the accompanying counter-revolutionary team taking over the leadership, the issue started to be discussed in more detail, but this time with an anti-communist hysteria that would make one yearn for Khrushchev...

But was this speech really that important and effective? Today, Khrushchev is featured in the imperialist media with his protest against the representative of the Philippines at the UN General Assembly by banging his shoes on the table in 1960, as well as with his speech at the 20th Congress. In more detailed analysis, he is considered a reformist who left his work unfinished.

Yes, Khrushchev did not lead the destruction of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Soviet Union made serious breakthroughs in some areas during his era, but if the Soviet Union radically lost steam in the international class struggle since 1956, that ominous speech by Khrushchev played an important role in this.

However, the content of this report-like speech was extremely weak. The fact that the Congress delegates of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not revolt against this eclectic and inconsistent speech, which was full of lies, distortions and confessions, is an indication of the serious stagnation in the party between 1953-56, let alone before.

On the other hand, the only condition for not objecting to Khrushchev's speech and for the speech to be effective was that it should be based on lies! It was obvious that Khrushchev's ideological-political abilities would not be enough to settle accounts with the Stalin era, and it would be absurd for him to initiate a process that would damage his own legitimacy. All he had to do was shock the already confused delegates. As if gossiping in a neighborhood cafe, he came up with one lie after the other, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which had passed many tests till then, almost completely broke with the Bolshevik tradition.

What was the objective here?

Some historians, especially Grover Furr, rightly claim that Khrushchev shifted responsibility to Stalin and Beria and falsified the facts in order to conceal his own role in the bloody purges of 1936-1938. Many documents that have emerged in recent years support this claim. But at the heart of what happened at the 20th Congress are elements that go far beyond this type of self-emancipation effort. As a matter of fact, the historians in question also emphasize this.

In order to understand the purpose of Khrushchev in preparing the report he read in the closed session of the 20th Congress, it is necessary to examine the results of the speech:

From the point of view of Imperialism

1. Khrushchev's speech quickly resonated in the imperialist world and was affirmed in many ways. The West seized the opportunity to claim that what they had been saying about communism for years had been confirmed by the First Secretary of the CPSU. To put it more clearly, anti-communism achieved a success that it could never have done on its own and gained an advantage in presenting communism as a criminal phenomenon.

2. The Khrushchev report became one of the most important pieces of evidence that the Soviet Union would take a step back in the face of the imperialist aggression called the Cold War. Pushing the policy of peaceful coexistence into a context that was completely outside the framework drawn by Lenin is a deviation that became evident at the 20th Congress and left its mark on the following period. Additionally, the closed session speech in which the “crimes committed during the Stalin era” were enumerated was taken as proof that the Soviet leadership was inclined towards a capitulationist line from other aspects as well. Although Khrushchev claimed the opposite, the destalinization overshadowed all the achievements of the Soviet Union in the foundation of socialism, and in this sense, it undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet Union. Today, even the bourgeois Russian government cannot dare to tarnish to that extent the legitimacy of its ideological and class enemy, the Soviet Union.

3. Khrushchev's portrayal of Stalin as an incompetent who doesn't listen anyone and who is responsible for the USSR's material losses during the Second World War not only discredited the Soviet Union, but also fell as a smokescreen over the crimes of the imperialist camp in relation to fascism and war. The propaganda of the Cold War to equate Hitler and Stalin and fascism with communism unfortunately became more persuasive after Khrushchev's speech.

4. It is clear that Khrushchev knew that his speech in the closed session would instantly reach the imperialist centres. It is even possible that this speech was leaked by the Soviet leadership, as some have suggested. However, while western countries did not hide their joy about the speech, they did not make the slightest effort to deescalate the severity of the Cold War. On the contrary, they increased their aggression towards the weak points of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

From the point of view of the World Communist Movement

5. It is not a secret that there were different tendencies in the international communist movement and within the individual parties of the Comintern during the period of the Third International. However, after the dissolution of the International in 1943, with the help of the authority of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the world communist movement managed to maintain its integrity until 1956 including the Cominform period. Even if this authority rendered some parties characterless from time to time, in the final analysis, the world communist movement managed to be an effective and unified force. Excluding the Yugoslavian example, the communist parties acted with the awareness that they were part of the same family. Khrushchev's speech in 1956 had a disintegrating effect on this family. Although China's break with the socialist camp cannot fully be attributed to Khrushchev, the inconsistency of the CPSU leadership both facilitated and solidified this break. Many communist parties split.

6. Of course, it would be unfair to say that Eurocommunism was the consequence of Khrushchev's policies. We can say that the roots of Eurocommunism, which was conceptually formulated in the later years, are found in the Second International, and similar tendencies can be observed in many parties during the Comintern period. Therefore, EuroCommunism in the European Workers' Movement is an uninterrupted phenomenon, independent of what one calls it. On the other hand, the Comintern period has been a period of struggle against these tendencies from the beginning. When looked at carefully, the issue of the infiltration of reformist elements into "communism" was brought up many times during the founding process of the Third International, and hence the conditions for joining the Communist International were kept as strict as possible. Afterwards, interventions were made from time to time to weed out the reformists from the European communist parties in order to avoid the inevitable risks of the policy of "defending socialism in one country". Undoubtedly, although the effect of these interventions decreased with the coming to power of fascism in Germany, it is obvious that the CPSU and the Comintern played a role in limiting the shift of parties to the right in Europe between 1919-1943. However, Khrushchev's speech had already comforted European Marxists who were not very happy with the authority of the Soviet Union, and certain elements who considered it creative to say “we will not do it like the Russians” gained legitimacy within the communist parties.

7. Additionally, Khrushchev's speech was more devastating for another reason. In the history of the world communist movement, there were very harsh internal struggles, arguments, splits and purges. However, the tradition of the Comintern somehow kept the revolutionary culture dominant, the people adhered to the ideal of communism and won a political, military, ideological, cultural as well as moral cause in the deadly struggle against fascism. Khruschev had shed seeds of suspicion to the very heart of this legacy. This would not have been unacceptable in case it stemmed from the truth. However, Khruschev, with his speech full of lies from top to bottom, has shaken the self-confidence of communists and paved the way for hypocrisy, mediocrity and sordidness within the world communist movement.

8. We should note here that "lie" also has another meaning. Communists can make mistakes, and sometimes they don't articulate all the elements of the truth. But communists do not lie to the party, the people and humanity. The CPSU First Secretary's resorting to cheap lies is a major breaking point in our tradition. As a matter of fact, Khrushchev did not stop here, he lied to the whole world in the Cuban crisis and got others to lie too, and he also did pull a fast one on the Cuban revolutionaries, so to speak. Although Khrushchev sometimes took a stand defending the interests of socialism in the international arena, he did great harm to the world communist movement as a whole.

9. The neutralization and liquidation of communist cadres in many parties who found Khrushchev's speech meaningless, incorrect and dangerous was another blow to the world communist movement. The fact that a large number of communists in both socialist and capitalist countries fell out of the political struggle using USSR's stature is another harm inflicted by Khrushchev, who in ordinary circumstances would not have been able to hold any significant position in any communist party.

10. Khrushchev's speech is a call to purify the party, the world communist movement and the USSR from Stalin, using the criticism of the "Stalin cult" as an excuse. However, the person mentioned here is a great leader who assumed primary responsibility in the foundation of socialism for exactly 30 years. The disregard of this leader in Soviet history also became a taboo in the world communist movement, and all kinds of assessments and discussions about Stalin in our common history are almost forbidden. We will consider the part of this foolishness related to the Soviet Union in the next section. However, the world communist movement's attempt to impose a blackout on perhaps the most critical phases of its own history had severe consequences, and the distortions and lies of anti-communists and new leftists regarding the period between 1924-1953 were left completely unanswered. It has also been known for a long time that the Soviet Union cannot be defended by ignoring Stalin, and that this foolishness, which continued after Khrushchev, was ineffective against bourgeois ideology. Even the rulers of today's bourgeois Russia do not repeat this foolishness, on the one hand, while they use every opportunity to break the influence of socialism, and on the other hand, they act more carefully on some topics because they know what it would mean for them to declare the Stalin era illegitimate in the international arena.

From the point of view of the Soviet Union

11. At the time Stalin died, the people of the Soviet Union had overcome difficult times and gained self-confidence. The fact that Stalin's death caused concern in society did not mean that this self-confidence vanished. The 1956 speech, which followed the weak appearance of the CPSU leadership in 1953, created a severe trauma in the Soviet people. It was obvious that a society whose faith in the Party, Soviet institutions and, most importantly, in itself was shaken would not have the same energy in the socialist construction process, would become passive, and most importantly, it would lose its fighting spirit. This is exactly what Khrushchev needed: a society that lost its defining characteristics.

12. Khrushchev's speech was a declaration that the top leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was full of hypocritical people. There were some who objected to the 20th Congress speech, but many congress delegates, especially Khrushchev, expressed completely different opinions when Stalin was alive. Moreover, they were the direct advocates and implementers of the practices they later criticized. With the 20th Congress, the whole party placed itself in a world dominated by palace intrigues and gossip.

13. Khrushchev's speech showed that the existing ideological and political language was replaced by a shallow and ugly language. Following that kind of speech one would find at a table of drunk people, not in the Congress, the most important organ of the party, the CPSU Congresses, lost all their weight. With the dismissal of Khrushchev, this frivolousness came to an end, but this time the congresses turned into spiritless, ideologically and politically dull, symbolic platforms.

14. From the moment that the role of Stalin, who was declared a "criminal" with Khrushchev's speech, was ignored in Soviet history, especially the younger generations became alienated from the socialist construction process. During the Stalin years, the Soviet people had learnt about the struggle, and a working class that had matured in these struggles had emerged. It is not surprising that Khrushchev's speech stripped the Soviet people of their historical references. Undoubtedly, the respect and love for Stalin continued for a large part of the society but it was clear that this appreciation that felt more like a myth and an emotional connection, would not be enough, moreover it would have a nostalgic character.

What paved the way for Khruschev?15. Khrushchev pressured a large number of civilian and military leaders in various ways to approve the distortions and lies he included in his speech. As a result of these pressures, many who had made valuable contributions to the struggle for socialism in the past went through a political deformation. Although some of them partially corrected the mistakes they made later, temporizing became legitimized in the CPSU. It was Khrushchev's intervention that paved the way for the low morality cadres seen in the example of the Marxist-Leninist ideologists of the past, who quickly turned anti-communist after the 1991 counter-revolution.

What paved the way for Khruschev?

In this article, only the direct results of Khrushchev's speech at the 20th Congress were mentioned, without going into the political and ideological mistakes that seriously affected the party and the world communist movement during the Khrushchev era. Our aim was to show how Khrushchev, with a single speech, intensified the impact of the attack on the revolutionary values of the CPSU, and how with this speech he was able to overcome the obstacles he was facing. However, at this point, it is also worth touching on the reasons that left the CPSU vulnerable against Khrushchev's attack.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost a significant part of its leading cadres during the Second World War. The loss of millions of fighting people who were dedicated to the struggle for socialism created a void that could not be compensated in the following years. We know that this gap benefited the pro-status quo, careerist and veiled anti-socialist elements, and the influence of many non-communist members in the party hierarchy increased.

However, the ideological and political weakness of the party cadres cannot be attributed only to the physical carnage that took place between 1941-45. The struggle against the enemies of socialism in the party and in the country from time to time caused staffing, intra-party discussion and education to take the backseat, and the Second World War knocked on the door before the party leadership could find time to solve this problem. It is known that Stalin made efforts to overcome the political, organizational and ideological inertia in the party after the war, but the necessary cadre resources could not be allocated for these efforts to come to fruition.

Leadership figures such as Molotov and Kaganovich, who were disturbed by Khrushchev's attempts, despite all their revolutionary attitude and experience, proved to be bereft of the necessary political and theoretical consistency for the emergence of a resistance within the party. Moreover, these and other similar figures who came from the struggles of the Bolshevik Party under very difficult conditions before the revolution, were helpless against Khrushchev's manoeuvres and left orphan a potential revolutionary energy in the society that could have been mobilized.

Here, it is necessary to take into account the counter-revolutionary elements that were waiting for the right moment in the party and state institutions. It is clear that those hypocrites, who were the remnants of the capitalist classes that were dispossessed during the socialist construction process and who somehow managed to hold on to the party or Soviet power, stood behind Khrushchev. In addition, it is also clear that those social segments, who benefited from various vacuums in the system or the commodity economy that still existed in some sectors, were objectively excited about Khrushchev. Of course, the existence of administrative cadres who lost their productivity, who were tired of the struggle and supported the status quo helped Khrushchev. Khrushchev tactfully benefited from the nationalist, religious and bourgeois elements who settled in the party in leadership positions especially in regions where the working class was weak. Again, especially in Moscow, academics, artists and writers, who were under the influence of bourgeois ideology, lent great support for the campaign, which was carried out under the banner of reckoning with Stalin.

What was Khruschev seeking for?

If we sum it up in a single sentence, Khrushchev wanted to put an end to the role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a party that was fighting for the victory of socialism both at home and abroad. He is not a counter-revolutionary, but he paved the way for the counter-revolution that took place years later.

So why did Khrushchev embark on a status quo path in domestic and foreign policy?

We do not know Khrushchev's real thoughts in the 1930s. However, when we look at the years after 1953, he exhibits the typical behaviour of cadres who did not believe in the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev is one of the most cunning examples of a period in which a managerial generation who avoided difficult struggles, adopted managerial privileges, who went for the average in the theoretical field and therefore was lazy, retreated from the field of class struggle by taking advantage of the prestige created by the achievements of socialism and the enormous sacrifice of the Soviet workers.

Behind the big words like "We are moving to the communist stage", "We are adopting a policy of peaceful competition with imperialism" stood a "leader" who had capitulated and renounced any revolutionary claims in the class struggle.

In order to make the Soviet people, the party and the international communist movement accept this submissive attitude, Khrushchev needed a great trauma. As historians such as Furr have pointed out, this would have given him an opportunity to break free his own past as well. But in any case, in order to completely weaken the party cadres who were tired of the war and the struggle, it was necessary to deal a big blow to their belief systems. In fact, the target was not Stalin, but the self-confidence of the party. With his speech, Khrushchev turned the CPSU into a party that did not believe in itself. He was shallow enough to think that by giving the imperialists the message “We got rid of the bad guy”, imperialism would leave his own leadership alone. Disregarding the "white flag" Khrushchev was waving, imperialism did the right thing from its point of view and continued the attack. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, could not escape the effects of the destruction caused by the 20th Congress. The upheavals observed between 1980-85 could not amass the necessary energy, and the bourgeois elements, which opened up more and more space for themselves in the midst of decaying socialism, dealt the fatal blow in 1991.

For this reason, Khrushchev is one of the figures who remain as a stain on Soviet history. The reasons that brought him to the highest responsibility in the party are the subject of another study.