MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



Twentieth Congress of the CPSU

Nikita Khrushchev was appointed First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in September 1953, six months after Stalin’s death. At the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, February 24-25 1956, he delivered a report in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes and the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding Stalin, Stalin’s crimes, particularly his murder of the leaders of the October Revolution, and his catastrophic leadership during the Second World War:

See an abstract of Khrushchev’s Speech in the History Archive.

Khrushchev’s break from Stalin’s practices should not be exaggerated however. In public, Khrushchev continued to praise Stalin and minimise his ‘mistakes'; he criticised the ‘methods’, but not the policy itself. Khrushchev set definite limits within which criticism of Stalin was allowed, and beyond which it would be crushed.

The underlying cause for Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin lay in the deepening crisis of the Soviet economy. The fact was that bureaucratic “command economy” was incapable of surpassing the quantitative expansion of industry except in a narrow range of highly specialised projects. An enormous expenditure of energy and expertise was required to maintain the USSR’s military might against the USA. Together with the isolation of the Soviet bloc from the world market, it was proving impossible to make any real qualitative development in the economy.

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in his secret speech had profound consequences on the international movement of which Stalin had been the absolute leader for thirty years. The speech was secret because its contents were so painful for the Communist movement, and it was believed that it should not be let out to the capitalist media. The effect of the secrecy was quite the opposite of what was intended. The loyal members of the Communist Parties for whom the speech was intended were the last to know the truth.

In Australia, for example, the CPA response was “Don’t fall for press stories of attacks on the late J V Stalin at the 20th Congress” (Guardian, 23 February 1956). But eventually the CPA had to come to terms with what the rest of the world knew and was talking about. The ‘cult of personality’ and some ‘errors’ Stalin may have made provided the formula to accommodate the most unspeakable crimes against the working class.

The Twentieth Congress opened the process in which Khrushchev would enunciate the policy of “Peaceful Co-existence” and would ultimately lead to the Sino-Soviet Split and the rise of “Euro-communism” among the Communist Parties in the capitalist world.