The Russian Revolution stands as the greatest event in history, because for the first time the working class not only overthrew the regime, but established its own power and began the socialist transformation of society. This was justified in turn by the fact that the nationalised planned economy succeeded in a remarkably short time in transforming an economy more backward than Pakistan is today into the second most powerful nation on earth.
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However, the backwardness of Russia and the revolution’s isolation meant that Lenin’s four conditions for a healthy regime of workers’ democracy in the transition from capitalism to socialism, could not be met.
This gave rise to Stalinism, which is a phenomenon that Marx and Engels did not expect. That is why this work of Trotsky’s is so important – it is the only serious Marxist analysis of Stalinism.
The Stalinist bureaucracy did play a relatively progressive role in the early period of the USSR, because it defended the planned economy which developed the means of production. However, as a bureaucracy they carried this out at massive human and economic cost.
Ultimately, the bureaucracy’s mishandling of the economy and stifling of society made inevitable Russia’s return to capitalism. The bureaucracy went down this path not because of economic necessity, but because they were afraid of giving democratic control to the working class, as well as desire to safeguard their own privileges and get rich through privatisation.
Although Trotsky did predict this eventuality – if the working class failed to overthrow the bureaucracy that is – he thought the restoration of capitalism would require a civil war, due to the working class being opposed to it, especially in its more conscious layers, and the impasse of capitalism globally.
But by the time of the counterrevolution, memories and traditions of the revolution in the working class had largely been erased. Those bureaucrats who went over to capitalism were the grandchildren of privileged bureaucrats, with nothing at all in common with socialism. The Communist Party was not a party but a bureaucratic club and a wing of the state.
Out of the 20 million members that were in the Communist Party before the counterrevolution, only a mere 500,000 remained to form the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. But even their leaders had nothing really to do with communism, and they put up no real resistance to restoration of capitalism.
The collapse in the productive forces and in living standards since the restoration of capitalism is another proof of the progressive role and a justification for the Russian Revolution. Russian capitalism cannot justify itself, in fact it is dragging society backwards, and all the vices of capitalism are rearing their head.
Questions for discussion
- Why has the revolution been justified?
- What is the prior condition for the participation of the working class in the democratic control and administration of society?
- Why was Stalinism not expected or explained by Marx and Engels?
- Did the bureaucracy ever play a progressive role?
- What caused the return to capitalism?
- How do the contradictions of the USSR express themselves?
Chapter 1: What has been achieved
In this chapter, Trotsky puts the astonishing achievements of the Russian Revolution in perspective. He explains how after the revolution, the Soviet Union had the great task of “catching up with and outstripping” Europe and America – that is, to increase productivity to the level achieved by capitalism in the advanced countries.
Through the planned economy, the Soviet economy managed to grow faster than any capitalist nation. Socialism demonstrated its right to victory. But the situation in Russia also contained certain peculiarities. Because of the backwardness they had huge challenges compared to advanced nations, such as illiteracy, lack of skilled workers (low productivity), and a smaller working class.
Questions for discussion
- What was the main task after the overthrow of the old ruling class
- How did the Soviet Union grow its economy faster than capitalist nations?
- What was a strong indicator of the cultural level of the Soviet Union in comparison to the West?
Chapter 2: Economic Growth and the Zigzags of the Leadership
The first three years after the revolution was a period of civil war – the period of so-called “military communism”. The aim of it however was to gradually move to genuine socialism. But many challenges blocked the path. Production continually declined, the city demanded more grain and raw material from the rural districts than it could give in exchange, there was terrible hunger and foreign trade plummeted. This all resulted in a huge collapse in the productive forces.
Trotsky explains that the Bolsheviks’ calculations were based on the hope of an early victory of the revolution in the West, particularly in Germany, which unfortunately was betrayed. To recover the economic relations between the rural districts and the cities was the most critical and urgent task of the New Economic Policy (NEP) to solve. By 1926 production had grown more than five times its size in 1921, and managed to reach pre-war level.
But there were disagreements brewing on the relation between industry and agriculture, especially on the question of denationalising the land, and the policies with regards to the kulaks. The zigzags of the bureaucracy on these questions led to huge mistakes as they did not understand the contradictions that existed in society.
Questions for discussion
- What caused the tension between the peasantry and industry in 1923?
- What conflict arose within the Communist Party on the question of denationalising the land?
- Why did the bureaucracy suddenly have a program of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” ?
Chapter 3: Socialism and the State
In chapter 3, we look at the announcement from the bureaucracy that socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union. To provide an answer to whether this is true, Trotsky reminds us of the Marxist analysis of the state and socialism.
For instance, bourgeois society cannot be immediately replaced with a classless, communist society. There is inevitably a transitional period starting from the existing level of economic development.
In the Soviet Union, this was of course very low at the start of the revolution and, even in the 1930s when there had been huge economic advancements, the level of production was still behind that of the advanced capitalist economies. Trotsky points out that socialism, let alone communism, requires the level of economic development to be higher than that of the most advanced capitalist economics.
Another indication of whether the Soviet Union was socialist at this time is the state. Again according to a Marxist understanding, in the initial transitional stage between capitalism and socialism there would exist a democratic workers’ state, which immediately sets out to dismantle the bourgeois state that consists of bureaucrats, a standing army and police force, and all of the other tools that exist to maintain class oppression.
Trotsky refers to Lenin’s State and Revolution to clarify this question of the state and its bureaucracy. The dual nature of a workers’ state is that, for a period, there will exist elements of the old bourgeois state and law but without the bourgeoisie, as the workers dismantle its apparatus and move towards a self-governing society. But in Russia, thanks to the economic problems which massively limited the participation of the masses in the running of society, the old bureaucracy remained intact for a sustained period.
Questions for discussion
- What would the state look like under “the lowest stage of communism”?
- What does Trotsky mean by “the application of socialist methods for the solution of pre-socialist problems”?
- Why is the Communist International resolution on the “complete triumph of socialism” and “reinforcement of the state of the proletarian dictatorship” self-contradictory?
Chapter 4: The Struggle for Productivity of Labour
Trotsky deals here with the economic problems and in particular the struggle for the productivity of labour, which is the key to raising the level of economic development to catch up with the most advanced capitalist economies.
Trotsky draws parallels with the state and money as being inherited from class society. Of course, in a communist society neither the state nor money would exist, so in a socialist society you would expect that the state and money were in the process of dying away.
However, as we have seen with the state, money was very much alive and was being wielded by the state to deal with many economic problems, which was in turn creating further problems.
Trotsky identifies that in order to raise the productivity of labour and improve the quality of its products, there must exist a reliable method to measure this ie. a stable unit of currency based upon gold.
The Soviet Union lacked this gold to anchor and stabilise its currency. The bureaucracy imagined that possessing control of a planned economy meant that it could simply abolish inflation and fix prices at its will. What this really led to was speculation and a black market, since the fixed prices did not correspond to the real economic relations between commodities. This illusion hindered and distorted economic development. It meant it was impossible to account for the real relations between parts of the economy. Workers were further demoralised by the fact that their wages were fixed equally, but prices were fluctuating wildly.
The general point is that the low level of productivity in the economy necessitated a merciless stripping away of illusions, in favour of using bourgeois norms of distribution, i.e. money and wages, to stimulate growth so that these backwards conditions could be overcome, at which point socialist economic conditions can be realised. Illusions are of no use in getting to that point.
Questions for discussion
- Why did the ruling circles in the Soviet Union believe that inflation in a planned economy couldn’t occur?
- How does Trotsky explain the rehabilitation of the Rouble and introduction of piecework payment?
- What was the Stakhanov movement and why did it emerge?
- What does Lenin mean by the state being a “bourgeois state” under socialism?
- What is meant by “bourgeois methods of distribution paving the way to socialism”?
- What is meant by “bureaucracy”?
Chapter 5: The Soviet Thermidor
In this chapter, Trotsky explains how exactly Stalin was able to win power, despite all the weaknesses of his politics and the incorrect perspectives of the rising bureaucratic caste he represented, compared to the foresight and correctness of the ideas of Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
Trotsky explains that the rise of particular leaders is not always down to merit, but down to how well they represent specific interests and social forces. He makes a comparison to the French Revolution.
Trotsky also elaborates on how the degeneration of the worker’s state was coupled with, and exacerbated by, a degeneration of the Bolshevik Party. Particularly following Lenin’s death, the Party became infested with corrupt elements and was increasingly run in a bureaucratic centralist fashion, with party democracy snuffed out. He explains how and why certain measures implemented under the pressures of the Civil War came to be weaponised by the rising bureaucracy and turned on the left.
In the final part of the chapter, Trotsky delves further into the social roots of what he calls the Thermidor (i.e., the bureaucratic counter-revolution in the guise of the revolution). He also looks into the question of the State, and highlights how a healthy socialist revolution would result in its withering, but the process of Thermidor was actually seeing the strengthening of the state. He reveals how this was a result of the sharpening of social tensions and generalised scarcity, which essentially necessitated the existence of the bureaucracy.
Once called into existence, he explains how this bureaucracy then begins to seek their own self-preservation more and more. At the same time, Trotsky posits that the same tensions in society that allow it to emerge, and the growing anger of the masses at their dire situation, also ultimately posed a threat to the bureaucracy.
Questions for discussion
- Given the correctness of its arguments and positions, why was the Left Opposition unsuccessful?
- How and why did the Bolshevik Party degenerate?
- Was the rise of the bureaucracy inevitable?
Chapter 6: The Growth of Inequality and Social Antagonisms
This chapter sees Trotsky begin to explain the roots, and intensification, of inequality within Soviet society. He begins by explaining the zig-zags that were pursued when it came to the question of distribution within the economy. He explains and shows how distribution actually depends more on the level of the productive forces, and that you cannot just dictate a desired state of distribution.
He then goes onto how and why piecework was introduced, and how on the basis of commodity production it tends to deepen social stratification. He explains also how production increasingly became geared towards the wants of the Soviet bureaucracy including luxury goods. He illustrates the differentiation that was taking place also within the working class as a result of deepening wage differentials, especially between the specialists and those in the Stakhanov ‘movement’, whom the bureaucracy heaped privileges on. This was provoking sharp social antagonisms and Trotsky rebukes the bureaucracy for introducing methods of capitalist competition among the working class.
In this chapter, Trotsky also brings out the ongoing conflict between the bureaucracy and sections of the peasantry. As a result of such tensions the bureaucracy was moving towards providing “eternal leases” for farmer’s collectives which, although just a legal trick, is a step-back from socialisation of the land.
There was also the development of larger, wealthier collective farms hiring those running poorer farms as wage labourers, deepening social differentiation as the bureaucracy turned a blind eye. In general, Trotsky shows that in agriculture more than industry the low level of production and social stratification this was producing was engendering conflict with socialised forms of property. The bureaucracy’s mismanagement of such problems only deepened this.
Finally, Trotsky explains the social character of the bureaucracy itself, and how it tried to mask its own existence, similar to how a ruling class might (though he continually stresses it is not a ruling class). He describes its enormous size but also how it varies internally, from the lowest rung to the highest. He explains its characteristics, such as its self-interest and need for self-preservation; its hierarchical and authoritarian nature; its defence of its privileges and powers; and its worship of trivial forms of bourgeois culture. He also explains how the whole advance of social wellbeing is entirely to suit this upper stratum.
Questions for discussion
- What kind of stratification took place in Soviet society as a whole in the 1930s, between classes and within them?
- Describe the social character of the Soviet bureaucracy. How is it similar and different to other forms of bureaucracy?
Chapter 7: Family, Youth and Culture
The October revolution marked a watershed for women and the family. Women were granted the right to abortion; divorce was legalised; and the difficult task of socialising housework in order for women to participate fully in political life and the economy begun. At the time of writing Revolution Betrayed, the gains made for women were under mortal threat. Trotsky writes that “society proved too poor and little cultured” for the liberation of women to be achieved.
The role of women in society is used as a barometer by Trotsky for the fact that societal values were not moving forward, but backwards. Soviet apparatchiks began praising ‘the joys of motherhood’ and incentives were given for women to have more children. Trotsky wryly comments that “the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity” in this instance, as well as many others.
Regarding youth, Trotsky criticises the Soviet Union’s emphasis on discipline and conformity, arguing that it has led to a stifling of creativity and innovation. Moreover, he comments that the rise of prostitution and homelessness amongst the youth is a sign of the moral degeneration of the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy feared the youth, and so aimed to keep them cowed.
Trotsky criticises the Soviet Union’s policies regarding culture, arguing that they have led to a decline in artistic quality and innovation. He asserts that the Soviet Union’s emphasis on propaganda and ideological conformity has stifled artistic freedom and led to a lack of creativity and innovation. Those that had something to say about the real state of affairs either left the country or took their own lifes. As Trotsky writes: “The dictatorship reflects the past barbarism and not the future culture”.
In everyday life, we see a revival of ‘all the old crap’ that weighed down on society before. Marriage is conditioned by people’s rank and significance; idol worship and conformity is pressed onto the youth; and art is subordinated to the interests of the bureaucracy.
For those that had illusions in the Stalinist bureaucracy, not understanding that the gains made were in spite of it, Trotsky ripostes: “Socialism, if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculations”. By opening a window onto life in the Soviet Union, Trotsky cuts through the Stalinist propaganda and offers illuminating insights into the real relations between people.
Questions for discussion
- What were the key tasks in liberating women from the household? Why was this not achieved in the Soviet Union?
- Trotsky comments that a considerable section of the youth have a “contempt for politics”. In what way was this symptomatic of the degeneration of the Soviet Union?
- What is the impact of state repression on creativity and culture?
- Why does Trotsky argue that: “…the development of art is the highest test of the viability and significance of every epoch”?
- What makes art ‘revolutionary art’?
Chapter 8: Foreign Policy and the Army
The foreign policy in the early years of the Russian Revolution was based upon proletarian internationalism. This was not sentimental, but out of the necessity to defend the revolution from the meddling of imperialism.
Internationalist appeals were made to the workers of other European states to frustrate the attempts at intervention. The Comintern was formed with the express purpose of spreading the revolution.
As the revolution degenerated, this internationalism was replaced with the narrow nationalism of the bureaucracy. The Comintern was transformed into a tool to achieve the diplomatic interests of the bureaucracy. The interests of workers in other countries were relegated to second place.
The goal of the bureaucracy was to neutralise the threat of the imperialists rather than to overthrow them. Soviet diplomats began to develop cosy relations with their counterparts in the imperialist nations.
Stalin explicitly repudiated the USSR’s aim for world revolution. As Trotsky observes, “from the theory of socialism in a single country, it is a natural transition to that of revolution in a single country.”
In the early years, the Red Army had to be built from scratch. It was a radically different type of army, and considered itself a part of the international army of the proletariat.
Fundamentally, the army is a mirror of society. The degeneration of the revolution dredged up all of the ‘old crap’ of the Tsarist military bureaucracy – above all the re-emergence of the officer caste.
This, and the purges of the military commanders, left the USSR woefully underprepared for the approaching war. But despite all of the inefficiencies in the army, the USSR had the significant advantages of a planned economy, and a population willing to defend it.
Questions for discussion
- What was the essential character of Soviet foreign policy before the degeneration took place?
- Why was the Soviet bureaucracy incapable of “revolutionary daring on the world arena”?
- Why does Trotsky state that the strength of the bureaucracy is in an inverse relation to the strength of the USSR?
- Is it permissible in any case for a workers’ state to pursue pacts with imperialist powers?
- In what sense was the Red Army a ‘necessary compromise between the two systems’ of a militia and a regular army?
Chapter 9: Social Relations in the Soviet Union
In this chapter, Trotsky investigates the social relations in the Soviet Union. Through his dialectical method, he understands the Soviet Union to be a transitional, intermediate regime: neither capitalist or socialist. But he adds it is not sufficient to define the Soviet Union as such and then call it a day. There are many dangers of a restoration of capitalism that are hypothesised with the growth of the bureaucracy.
The chapter begins by pointing out that the new constitution sees the bureaucracy identified with the state, and the state with the people. This was a deliberate attempt on the part of Stalin to mask the real social relations that existed and were widening within the Soviet Union; the differentiation that still existed between city and countryside, intellectual and physical labour.
Behind the bragging in Pravda of the “free workman”, Trotsky explains the super-bureaucratic set up of factory life, which saw workers lose all influence over the management of production. There were no organs of workers’ power left. Trotsky predicts that “The contrast between forms of property and norms of distribution cannot grow indefinitely,” shining a light on the parasitic nature of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Trotsky argues against the crude view that the bureaucracy has become a ‘new ruling class’ by explaining the relationship of the bureaucracy to the means of production. True, Stalin and co. were the commanding stratum of society, but they rested on the nationalised planned economy and had merely usurped political power from the workers. If, however, these relations were to solidify, Trotsky writes that this could mark the ‘complete liquidation of the social conquests’ of the revolution – but it was too ‘premature’ to say such a thing for sure in 1936.
In fact, Trotsky argues that history has not yet decided which way the Soviet Union will develop. He argues that a political revolution would be necessary to see the bureaucracy swept to one side, and for revolution to be spread across the world. Without this, the risk of the restoration of capitalism – a gigantic setback for the working class – would continue to rear its head. This was crushingly confirmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Questions for discussion
- What did the growth of ‘bourgeois tendencies’ in the socialist sectors of industry and agriculture signify?
- In what ways did the bureaucracy conceal their privileges from the masses?
- Trotsky writes that the “contrast between forms of property and norms of distribution cannot grow indefinitely”. Why is this his prognosis?
- What are the dangers in thinking that the ruling bureaucracy are in fact a ruling class? How would this have changed our position in relation to the second world war?
- Trotsky writes that “Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena had always a finished character” when criticising the doctrinaires. What does this tell us about the limits of definitions, or readymade categories?
Chapter 10: The Soviet Union in the Mirror of the New Constitution
Chapter 10 begins with a discussion of the Soviet Constitution of 1936, which Stalin used to consolidate the position of the bureaucracy whilst outwardly presenting the Soviet Union as the most democratic country in the world. Trotsky points out the contradictions present in the constitution, which claimed to have already achieved its ‘Principle of Socialism’ despite bourgeois norms of distribution and labour still being dominant in the Soviet Union. In the name of protecting the personal property of the least wealthy, the constitution actually provided a front to protect the absurd luxuries and privileges of the bureaucracy.
Similarly, the democratic rights guaranteed by the constitution, such as freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly, were in reality simply a front to cover up the bureaucratic domination of the press and the ostensibly ‘democratic’ institutions available to the masses. The mere announcing of formal rights did not change the stranglehold that the bureaucracy exercised over the masses in all areas of their lives.
Trotsky then points out that this stage-management of democracy was most present in party politics, as the Stalinists were forced to invent all kinds of theoretical justifications for the one-party state, as well as the ban on factions within the party. Since the bureaucracy dominated and manipulated all electable candidates at every level of society, the appeals to democratic values and the introduction of the secret ballot in the constitution were entirely worthless.
Questions for discussion
- What was the purpose of the slogan “From each according to his abilities to each according to his work”, and how does it differ from the formulation used in the Communist Manifesto?
- What is the role of the secret ballot under capitalism and what was intended by its introduction in the Soviet Constitution?
- Why was it initially right for the Bolshevik party to have a monopoly on politics during the civil war? How did this become a problem during Stalinism?
Chapter 11: Whither the Soviet Union?
Chapter 11 begins with a discussion of Bonapartism and highlights how the Soviet bureaucracy in turn moved against the working class by leaning on the peasantry, and then used the workers to help destroy the kulaks (rich peasants). While this cemented Stalin’s position and power and entrenched the wealth of the bureaucracy, it also showed the fragile, Bonapartism nature of Stalinism.
Trotsky points out the raising of Stalin as a god-like figure, so that he seemingly carried the responsibilities of the entire state in his single person, was necessary for the bureaucracy, due to its inherently unstable character.
Trotsky then explains the importance of the hysterical political repression against the Left Opposition and any remnants of revolutionary forces in society. There was no greater threat to the power and privileges of the bureaucracy than the genuinely revolutionary forces that had carried through the revolution in 1917.
Trotsky then finishes the chapter with his prediction of the two possibilities facing the Soviet Union. Either the workers carry out a political revolution to throw out the bureaucracy whilst maintaining the planned economy, or the bureaucracy consolidate their position of privilege by carrying their counter-revolution to its logical conclusions.
Questions for discussion
- What does Trotsky mean by: “What is a sin for one class or stratum is a virtue for another”?
- In what ways are Stalinism and Fascism “symmetrical phenomena”? How does the Marxist analysis of their connection differ from the bourgeois idea that they are effectively the same?
- “Will the bureaucrat devour the workers’ state, or will the working class clean up the bureaucrat?” How does Trotsky answer this question he poses? How does Trotsky’s analysis of the inevitable collapse of Stalinism relate to the historical collapse of the Soviet Union?
Appendix: Socialism in One Country
The appendix discusses two questions that relate to the Soviet Union in this period, the first being the so-called theory of Socialism in One Country. Trotsky shows this theory as a complete departure from Marxism, highlighting that even Stalin himself opposed the concept as late as 1924.
The appendix traces the development of Socialism in One Country as a slogan intended firstly to justify in a backward manner the failures and unwillingness of the bureaucracy to spread the revolution beyond their borders, but it was also supposed to present the illusion to the Soviet masses that socialism had already been achieved in the country.
Ultimately, Trotsky shows correctly that the inevitable collapse of the bureaucratic system in the Soviet Union would prove conclusively the impossibility of building socialism in an isolated country.
Trotsky discusses the role that petty-bourgeois ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union were playing by mindlessly parroting Stalinist propaganda in capitalist countries. These figures, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were in reality opportunists who had previously opposed the Russian Revolution and socialist revolution generally. Rather than defending the revolution as a sign of the power of the working class, the self-proclaimed ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union simply promoted the state machinery uncritically and defended the administrative aspects alone.
Finally, Trotsky explains that a genuine workers’ state should not be afraid of criticism and, if anything, should welcome well-meaning critiques from genuine sympathisers. In reality however, these figures were not genuine, and simply sought to defend the bureaucracy for opportunistic reasons.
Questions for discussion
- Why did the Stalinist bureaucracy adopt “Socialism in One Country” and break with internationalism?
- In what ways were many of the petty-bourgeois ‘Friends of the Soviet Union’ simply opportunists?