Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism

2. Stalinism



The dream of and the hope for a classless and truly free society is very old. In Europe it is well documented from the fourteenth century onwards in the fragments that survive of the ideas of many rebels and heretics. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” went the rhyme popular during the great English peasant revolt of 1381. And, of course, similar sentiments can be identified (however over- laden with ruling class ideology) in early Christianity and early Islam and, in varying degrees, in societies very much older than these.

Marx introduced a fundamentally new idea. It can be summarised as follows: the aspirations of the most advanced thinkers and activists of past (pre-industrial) generations, however admirable and inspiring for the future, were utopian in their own time in the simple sense that they were unrealisable. Class society, exploitation and oppression are inevitable so long as the development of the productive forces and the productivity of labour (related but not identical concepts) are at a comparatively low level. With the growth of industrial capitalism such things are no longer inevitable, provided capitalism is overthrown. A classless society, based on (relative) plenty is now possible. Moreover, the instrument for achieving such a society – the industrial proletariat – has been brought into existence by the development of capitalism itself.

These ideas were, of course; the common coin of pre-1914 marxism. All revolutionaries in the marxist tradition took them for granted. But the society that came out of the Russian October revolution was not a free and classless society. Even at an early stage, it deviated a long way from Marx’s view of a workers’ state (as explained in The Civil War in France) or Lenin’s development of Marx (as expounded in State and Revolution). Later, it grew into a monstrous despotism.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of these facts. The existence, first of one state, and now a whole series of states, claiming to be “socialist” but which are repulsive caricatures of socialism, must be reckoned as a major factor in the survival of “Western capitalism”.

Right-wing propagandists argue that Stalinism, or something like it, is the inevitable result of expropriating the capitalist class. Social-democratic propagandists, on the other hand, argue that Stalinism is the inevitable consequence of “Bolshevik centralism”, and that Stalin was “Lenin’s natural heir”.

Trotsky made the first sustained attempt at a historical materialist analysis of Stalinism – of the actual outcome of the Russian revolution. Whatever criticisms can be made of it – and some will be made here – it has been the starting point for all subsequent serious analysis from a marxist point of view.

What was the social reality of the Russia of 1921, when Lenin was still chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and Trotsky still the People’s Commissar for War?

Speaking in support of the New Economic Policy in the USSR in late 1921, Lenin argued that:

if capitalism gains by it, industrial production will grow, and the proletariat will grow too. The capitalists will gain from our policy and will create an industrial proletariat, which in our country, owing to the war and to the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to exist as a proletariat. The proletariat is the class which is engaged in the production of material values in large-scale capitalist industry. Since large-scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared. It has sometimes figured in statistics, but it has not been held together economically. [1]

The proletariat “has ceased to exist as a proletariat”! What then becomes of the proletarian dictatorship, the proletariat as ruling class?

War and civil war wrecked Russian industry – already very weak by Western standards. From the October revolution till March 1918, when the “monstrous robber treaty” of Brest Litovsk was signed with Germany, revolutionary Russia remained at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The following month the first of the “allied” armies of intervention – the Japanese – landed at Vladivostok and began to push on into Siberia. It was not to withdraw finally until November 1922. In those years detachments of fourteen foreign armies (including those of the United States, Britain and France) invaded the territory of the revolutionary republic. “White” generals were armed, supplied and supported. At the height of the intervention, in the summer of 1919, the Soviet republic was reduced to a rump state in central European Russia around Moscow with a few outlying bastions precariously held. Even in the following summer, when the “white” armies had been decisively beaten, one quarter of the entire available grain supply of the Soviet republic had to be sent to the western army group fighting the Polish invaders.

This at a time when the cities were depopulated and starving. More than half the total population of Petrograd (Leningrad) and nearly half that of Moscow had fled to the countryside. Such industry as could be kept going was devoted almost entirely to war – and this was made possible only by “cannibalisation”, the steady sacrifice of the productive base as a whole in order to keep a fraction of it working. These were the circumstances in which the Russian proletariat, a small minority to start with, disintegrated.

The facts are known well enough and are set out in some detail in, for example, the second volume of E.H. Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution. [2] By 1921 total industrial output stood at roughly one eighth of the 1913 figure, itself a wretchedly low figure by German, British or US standards.

The revolution survived by means of enormous exertions, directed by a revolutionary dictatorship which far surpassed the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793 in its mobilising capacity. But it survived at the cost of a ruined economy. And it remained isolated. By 1921 the European revolutionary movement was clearly at an ebb.

What concerns us here are the social consequences of these facts. The so-called “war communism” of 1918-21 had been, in reality, a siege economy of the most brutal and brutalising kind. In essence it consisted of forced requisitioning of grain from the peasantry, the cannibalisation of industry, universal conscription and massive coercion to win the war for survival.

Before the revolution a substantial part of the peasants’ grain production had been diverted to the cities (directly or via exports) in the form of rents, interest payments, taxes, compensation payments and so on, to the old ruling classes. Tsarist Russia had been a major grain exporter. Now, with the destruction of the old order, that link was cut. The peasants produced for consumption – or for exchange. But the ruin of industry meant that there was nothing, or nearly nothing, to exchange. Hence forced requisitioning.

The revolution had survived in an overwhelmingly peasant country because of the support – usually passive but sometimes active – of the peasant masses who had gained from it. With the end of the civil war they had no more to gain and the revolts in 1921, in Kronstadt and Tambov, showed that the peasantry and sections of the remnants of the working class were turning against the regime.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921 onwards recognised this fact above all and introduced a fixed tax (levied in grain, since money had become worthless under war communism) in place of the arbitrary requisitioning of that era. Secondly, it allowed the revival of private trade and private small-scale production (retaining the “commanding heights” for the state). Thirdly, it opened the gates (pretty unsuccessfully) for foreign capital to exploit “concessions”. Fourthly, and this was vitally important, the NEP introduced the strict enforcement of the principle of profitability in most of the nationalised industries, along with a strict financial orthodoxy, based on a gold standard, to produce a stable currency and to impose the discipline of the market on public and private enterprises alike.

These measures, introduced between 1921 and 1928, did indeed produce an economic revival. It went slowly at first, and then more quickly, until by 1926-27 the levels of industrial output of 1913 were reached and, in a few cases, exceeded. In the case of disposable foodstuffs (mainly grain) the growth was much slower. Output grew but the peasantry, no longer exploited as in 1913, consumed much more of their output than before the revolution, so the cities continued to exist on short rations.

Achieved by capitalist or quasi-capitalist measures, this economic recovery had corresponding social consequences.

And now the cities we ruled over assumed a foreign aspect; we felt ourselves sinking into the mire – paralysed, corrupted... Money lubricated the entire machine just as under capitalism. A million and a half unemployed received relief – inadequate relief – in the big towns ... Classes were reborn under our very eyes; at the bottom of the scale the unemployed received 24 roubles a month, at the top the engineer (i.e., the technical specialist) receiving 800, and between the two the party functionary with 222 but obtaining a good many things free of charge. There was a growing chasm between the prosperity of the few and the misery of the many. [3]

As a result of the NEP the working class did undergo a numerical revival from the low point of 1921 but it did not revive politically – or not on a scale sufficient to shake the power of the bureaucrat, the “Nepman” and the kulak. The whip of mass unemployment – much more severe proportionately in the Russia of the twenties than in the Britain of the thirties – was a major factor.



A Distorted Workers’ State

The disintegration of the working class had reached an advanced stage when, towards the end of 1920, the so-called “trade union debate” broke out in the Russian CP.

The issue at stake was, on the surface, whether or not workers needed trade union organisation to defend themselves against “their own” state. At a deeper level the conflict was about much more fundamental questions.

Did the workers’ state of 1918 still exist? Soviet democracy had, in practice, been destroyed in the civil war. The Communist Party had “emancipated” itself from the need for majority working class support. The soviets had become rubber stamps for party decisions. Moreover, the process of “militarisation” and “commandism” within the Communist Party had grown apace, and for the same reasons.

Against these developments, the “Workers’ Opposition” in the party revolted. They called for “autonomy” for the unions, denouncing party control and appealing to a tradition of “workers’ control of production” (a party demand in an earlier period). If adopted, these measures would have meant the end of the regime – for the bulk of what remained of the working class was by now decidedly indifferent, if not anti-Bolshevik. So, too, increasingly, was the mass of the peasantry, which was the great majority of the population. “Democracy” under these conditions could only mean counter-revolution – and a right wing dictatorship.

The party had been driven to substitute itself for a vanishing working class and, within the party, the leading bodies had increasingly asserted their authority over a growing but ill-assorted membership. (The RCP had in round figures 115,000 members in early 1918, 313,000 by early 1919, 650,000 by the summer of 1921 – a shrinking minority of them, workers at the bench).

The party had become the trustee for a working class that, temporarily it was hoped, had become incapable of managing its affairs. But the party itself was not immune from the immensely powerful social forces generated by industrial decline, low (and falling) productivity of labour, cultural backwardness and barbarism. Indeed, for the party to act as “trustee” it was necessary to deprive the mass of its membership of any effective say in the direction of events – for they too had come to reflect the backwardness of Russia and the decline of the working class.

Trotsky’s solution to this dilemma was, at first, to persist resolutely along the substitutionalist course.

It is necessary to create amongst us the awareness of the revolutionary historical birthright of the party. The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses, regardless of the temporary vacillations even in the working class. This awareness is for us the indispensable unifying element.[4]

This attitude led him to argue that the unions ought to be absorbed into the state machine (as later happened under Stalin, in fact though not in form). There was no need or justification for even relative union autonomy; it merely served as a focus for discontent rather than a means of exerting party control.

Lenin’s arguments against this position in December 1920 and January 1921 are important for the later development of Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR. They were, belatedly, to become its foundation.

Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. It is natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say “Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected and for what purpose?” The whole point is that this is not quite a workers’ state. That is where comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes ... [5]

And a month later he wrote:

What I should have said is: “A workers’ state is an abstraction. What we actually have is a workers’ state with this peculiarity, firstly, that it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates in the country, and, secondly, that it is a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions.” [6]

A bureaucratically distorted workers’ state in a predominantly- peasant country. In the next stage, the NEP, Trotsky was to adopt this view and to deepen its content. It is not relevant here to describe in detail the fate of the Left Opposition (1923) and the United Opposition (1926-27) [7], in both of which Trotsky played the leading role. Suffice it to present some of their major views.

The left and united oppositions had pressed for the democratisation of the party, the curbing of its apparatus and a planned programme of industrialisation, financed by squeezing the kulak and the Nepman, to combat unemployment, revive the working class economically and politically and so recreate the basis of soviet democracy.

The material position of the proletariat within the country must be strengthened both absolutely and relatively (growth in the number of employed workers, reduction in the number of unemployed, improvement in the material level of the working class) ...

declared the platform of the Opposition.

The chronic lagging of industry, and also of transport, electrification and building, behind the demands and needs of the population, of public economy and the social system as a whole, holds as in a vice the entire economic turnover of the country. [8]

The inner contradiction of this position was that, on the one hand, to democratise the party would allow both peasant and proletarian discontent to find an organised expression; on the other hand, to increase state pressure on the new rich (especially the richer peasants) would reproduce some of the extreme tensions of war communism that had driven the party, first to suppress all legal extra-party opposition and then to eliminate inner party opposition and establish the dictatorship of the apparatus.

In the event, the matter was not put to the test.

It was not simply the economy that was held “as in a vice”. The opposition was in like case. Its programme challenged the material interests of all three classes which principally benefit- ted from the NEP; bureaucrats, Nepmen and kulaks. The opposition could not prevail without that revival of working class activity which was its sole possible basis of support. But that, in turn, was made enormously difficult by the social and economic conditions of the NEP, so long as the revolution remained isolated.

Stalin, chief and spokesman of the conservatised layer of party and state officials who actually ruled the country, vigorously resisted both the demand for planned industrialisation and the demand for democratisation (as did his allies on the far right of the party, notably Bukharin and his supporters).

This was the social content of “Socialism in One Country” advocated by the ruling group from 1925. It was a declaration for the status quo against “upheavals” of any kind, against revolutionary expectations and an active policy abroad.

As late as April 1924 Stalin himself had summarised what was then still the accepted view.

For the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the efforts of one country are enough – to this the victory of our own revolution testifies. For the final victory of socialism, for the organisation of socialist production, the efforts of one country, especially a peasant country like ours, are not enough – for this we must have the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries. [9]

It was a paraphrase of Lenin and no more than a statement of the social and economic realities. But this orthodox view, once the common property of Russian marxists of all tendencies, had the disadvantage of emphasising the provisional character of the regime and its dependence, for a socialist development, on revolutions in the West. This was now profoundly unacceptable to the ruling layers. “Socialism in One Country” was their declaration of independence from the workers’ movement.

After the final defeat of the Opposition and his exile from Russia Trotsky summed up the experience in an article written in February 1929:

after the conquest of power, an independent bureaucracy differentiated itself out from the working class milieu and this differentiation ... [which] was at first only functional, then later became social. Naturally, the processes within the bureaucracy developed in relation to profound processes under way in the country. On the basis of the New Economic Policy a broad layer of petty bourgeoisie in the towns reappeared or newly came into being. The liberal professions revived. In the countryside, the rich peasant, the kulak, raised his head. Broad sections of officialdom, precisely because they had risen above the masses, drew close to the bourgeois strata and established family ties with them. Increasingly, initiative or criticism on the part of the masses was viewed as interference. . . The majority of this officialdom which has risen up over the masses is profoundly conservative... This conservative layer, which constitutes Stalin’s most powerful support in his struggle against the Opposition, is inclined to go much further to the right, in the direction of the new propertied elements, than Stalin himself or the main nucleus of his faction. [10]

The political conclusion drawn from this analysis was the danger of a “Soviet Thermidor”. On the 9th of Thermidor (27 July 1794) the Jacobin dictatorship was overthrown by the Convention and replaced by a rightist regime (the Directory from 1795) which presided over a political and social reaction in France and paved the way for Bonaparte’s dictatorship (from 1799). Thermidor marked the end of the Great French Revolution. A Russian Thermidor now threatened.

Elements of a Thermidorean process, to be sure one that is completely distinctive, may also be found in the land of the Soviets. They have become strikingly evident in recent years. Those who are in power today either played a secondary role in the decisive events of the first period of the revolution or were outright opponents of the revolution and only joined it after it was victorious. They now serve for the most part as camouflage for those layers and groupings which, while hostile to socialism, are too weak for a counterrevolutionary overturn and therefore seek a peaceful Thermidorean switching back onto the track leading to bourgeois society; they seek to roll downhill with the brakes on’, as one of their ideologists has put it. [11]

This, however, had not yet happened. Nor was it inevitable. The workers’ state was still intact, although eroded. The outcome, Trotsky believed,

will be decided by the course of the struggle itself as the living forces of society fight it out. There will be ebbs and flows, whose duration will depend to a great extent on the situation in Europe and throughout the world. [12]

To summarise, there were three basic forces at work in the USSR: the forces of the right – the neo-capitalist elements, kulaks, Nepmen, etc., for whom a big section of the apparatus “in power today” serve “for the most part as a camouflage”; the working class, represented politically by the now suppressed Opposition; and the “centrist bureaucracy”, Stalin’s faction at the top of the machine, which is not itself Thermidorean but which rests on the Thermidoreans and zigzags from left to right in its attempts to hold power.

It had zigged rightwards from 1923 to 1928; then came the left zag. “The course of 1928-31”, Trotsky wrote in the latter year,

if we again leave aside the inevitable waverings and backslidings – represents an attempt of the bureaucracy to adapt itself to the proletariat, but without abandoning the principled basis of its policy or, what is most important, its omnipotence. The zigzags of Stalinism show that the bureaucracy is not a class, not an independent historical factor, but an instrument, an executive organ of the classes. The left zigzag is proof that no matter how far the preceding right course has gone, it nevertheless developed on the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. [13]

Therefore, the working class still, in some sense, held power – or at least had the possibility of recovering power without a fundamental upheaval.

The recognition of the present Soviet state as a workers’ state not only signifies that the bourgeoisie can conquer power only by means of an armed uprising but also that the proletariat of the USSR has not forfeited the possibility of subordinating the bureaucracy to it, of reviving the party again, and of regenerating the regime of the dictatorship – without a new revolution, with the methods and on the road of reform. [14]

By the time this was written it was, factually, without any foundation. The “three forces” analysis was hopelessly outdated. In the twenties it had been a realistic (if provisional) attempt at a marxist analysis of the course of development in the USSR.

The neo-capitalist classes, and their influence on the right wing of the ruling party, were real enough in 1924-27. The vacillating role of Stalin’s ruling faction was, at that time, as described. But there had been a fundamental change in 1928-29.

By 1928 the NEP was entering its final crisis. Nepmen and kulaks had a vital interest in maintaining it and expanding yet further the concession to petty capitalism, urban and rural. The leading members of the bureaucracy, and their vast clientele in the lower ranks of the bureaucratic hierarchy, had no such vital interest. They had a vital interest only in resisting democratisation in party and state. They had allied themselves with the forces of petty capitalism (and the Bukharinist right wing of the party) against the Opposition, against the danger of working class revival.

But when, with the Opposition crushed, the bureaucracy was faced with a kulak offensive, the “grain strike” of 1927-28, it demonstrated that its essential basis was state property and the state machine, neither of which had any organic connection with the NEP. It vigorously defended its interests against its allies of yesterday.

The kulaks controlled practically all the marketable grain, the surplus over and above peasant consumption (the most generally accepted estimate is that one fifth of peasant farmers produced four-fifths of the grain sold on the market). Their attempt to force up prices by withholding their stocks from the market forced the bureaucracy to resort to requisitioning. And once started on this course, which undermined the fundamental basis of the NEP, they were driven to take over the Opposition’s industrialisation programme, which they did in a most extravagantly exaggerated form, and to undertake the forced collectivisation of agriculture, the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. The first “five year plan” was launched.

Trotsky interpreted this as a (temporary) lurch to the left by the Stalinist bureaucracy; as an attempt “to adapt itself to the proletariat”. He was profoundly mistaken. These were the very years in which the proletariat in the USSR was atomised and subjected, for the first time, to a truly totalitarian despotism. Real wages fell sharply. Although money wages rose considerably, prices rose much faster. In general, meaningful statistics ceased to be published after 1929 (itself a significant fact) but one calculation, published in the USSR long after the event (1966), showed real wages as 88.6 in 1932 (1928 = 100). “The correct real wage index, if only we knew it, would ... be well below 88.6”, comments Alex Nove, the source of this information. [15]

The five year plan ushered in a period of directing the economy according to an overall plan, of rapid industrial growth, the forcible collectivisation of agriculture, the destruction of the remaining, political and trade union rights of the working class, the rapid growth of social inequality, extreme social tension and forced labour on a mass scale. It also heralded Stalin’s personal dictatorship and his regime of police terror and, a little later, the murder by shooting or by slow death in the labour camps of the vast majority of the original cadres of the Communist Party and, indeed, of the majority of Stalin’s own faction of the twenties, together with an uncertain but very large number of other citizens of the USSR and of many foreign communists. In short, it ushered in the high tide of Stalinism.

That Trotsky could initially see all this as a turn to the left (although he was not aware of the full facts until some years later) indicates that he had relapsed into substitutionism so far as looking at the USSR was concerned. It was a mistake which he was never able to correct fully. The argument that the bureaucracy was not an independent historical factor but an instrument, an executive organ of other classes, had been decisively refuted when that same bureaucracy simultaneously crushed the kulaks and atomised the workers.

In the early thirties it was still possible to argue about the facts. The newly-born totalitarian regime imposed a blackout of real news and substituted its own monolithic propaganda machine. Trotsky was less deceived by this than almost anyone else. It was his theoretical concept and framework that led him to advocate the prospect of reform in the USSR at this time. A famous, and profoundly misleading, analogy of the USSR with a bureaucratised trade union originated in this period. It was, at least, logically coherent so long as the reform strategy persisted.



The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism

In October 1933 Trotsky abruptly changed his position, arguing now that the regime could not be reformed. It had to be overthrown. The path of “reform” was no longer feasible. Only revolution could destroy the bureaucracy:

After the experiences of the last few years it would be childish to suppose that the Stalinist bureaucracy can be removed by means of a party or soviet congress. In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the Twelfth Party Congress. All subsequent congresses were bureaucratic parades. Today, even such congresses have been discarded. No normal “constitutional” ways remain to remove the ruling clique. The bureaucracy can be compelled to yield power into the hands of the proletarian vanguard only by force. [16]

The “bureaucratised trade union” had to be smashed, not reformed. It is true that this article contains the statement: “Today the rupture of the bureaucratic equilibrium in the USSR would almost surely serve in favour of the counterrevolutionary forces”, but this equivocal position soon gave way to a revolutionary one.

With characteristic honesty, Trotsky went on to criticise and revise his own earlier “reformist” perspective, writing in 1935 that:

The question of “Thermidor” is closely bound up with the history of the Left Opposition in the USSR ... In any case the positions on this issue in 1926 were approximately as follows: the group of “Democratic Centralism” (V.M. Smirnov, Sapronov and others who were hounded to death in exile by Stalin) declared “Thermidor is an accomplished fact.” The adherents of the platform of the Left Opposition ... categorically denied this assertion ... Who has proved to be correct?...

The late V.M. Smirnov – one of the finest representatives of the Old Bolshevik school – held that the lag in industrialisation, the growth of the kulak and of the Nepman (the new bourgeois), the liaison between the bureaucracy and the latter and, finally, the degeneration of the party, had progressed so far as to render impossible a return to the socialist road wiihout a new revolution. The proletariat had already lost power ... The fundamental conquests of the October revolution had been liquidated. [17]

Trotsky’s conclusion was:

The Thermidor of the Great Russian Revolution is not before us but already far behind. The Thermidoreans can celebrate, approximately, the tenth anniversary of their victory. [That is, it had occurred around 1925.] [18]

So had the democratic centralists been right in 1926? Yes and no, Trotsky now said. Right about the Thermidor, wrong about its significance. “The present political regime in the USSR is a regime of ‘Soviet’ (or anti-Soviet) Bonapartism, closer in type to the empire rather than the Consulate.” But, he continued, “In its social foundations and economic tendencies the USSR remains a workers’ state.” [18]

In terms of formal analogies all this was plausible enough. As Trotsky pointed out, both the Thermidoreans and Bonaparte represented a reaction on the basis of the bourgeois revolution, not a return to the ancien regime. The fact remains that Trotsky, no less than Smirnov, had previously considered the “Soviet Thermidor” in a fundamentally different light. “The proletariat had already lost power” was the essence of Smirnov’s thesis, and that Trotsky strongly denied at the time. For him, the party, however bureaucratised, still represented the working class. The working class, unlike the bourgeoisie, could only hold power through its organisations.

“Comrades”, he had declared in 1924,

none of us wishes to be or can be right against the party. In the last instance the party is always right, because it is the only historic instrument which the working class possesses for the solution of its fundamental tasks ... One can be right only with the party and through the party because history has not created any other way for the realisation of one’s rightness ... The English have the saying “My country right or wrong”. With much greater justification we can say: My party, right or wrong – wrong on certain specific issues or at certain moments. [19]

But the party – the Russian party – had become the instrument first of Thermidor and now Bonapartism; that was Trotsky’s position at the end of 1933. Since the party had ceased to be an instrument of the working class – its regime had to be overthrown “by force” – and since, admittedly, the Russian workers had no other instrument (were in fact atomised and terrorised) what could be left of the workers’ state?

Nothing. That was the only possible conclusion if the terms were to retain the meaning everyone had taken for granted till then. A new revolution, “a victorious revolutionary uprising”, was necessary for the working class to regain power in the USSR. The working class had lost power and there was no peaceful, constitutional way for it to capture power again. Therefore the workers’ state no longer existed. A counterrevolution had taken place.

Trotsky firmly rejected these conclusions. He was therefore forced to make a fundamental shift in his definition of a workers’ state.

The social domination of a class (its dictatorship) may find extremely diverse political forms. This is attested by the entire history of the bourgeoisie from the Middle Ages to the present day. The experience of the Soviet Union is already adequate for the extension of this sociological law – with all the necessary changes – to the dictatorship of the proletariat as well ... Thus the present day domination of Stalin in no way resembles the Soviet rule during the initial years of the revolution ... But this usurpation was made possible only because the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is determined by those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution. In this sense we may say with complete justification that the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. [20]

Trotsky held this position in essence, for the last half decade of his life. His book The Revolution Betrayed (1937) elaborates it with a wealth of detail and vivid illustration.

The fundamental nature of the break with his own earlier views can hardly be overstated. It was one thing to argue (as Lenin had done) that a workers’ state could be bureaucratically distorted, deformed, degenerated or whatever. Now what was being asserted was that the dictatorship of the proletariat had no necessary connection with any actual workers’ power at all. The dictatorship of the proletariat now came to mean, first and foremost, state ownership of industry and economic planning (although planning hardly existed under the NEP); it could remain extant even if the working class was atomised and subjected to a totalitarian despotism.

It must be said in Trotsky’s favour that he was dealing with an entirely new phenomenon. He, like all the oppositionists in the twenties, had seen the danger of a collapse of the regime due to pressure from the growing forces of petty capitalism. That was what Thermidor had meant to all of them. The actual outcome was quite unexpected. State property not only survived but expanded rapidly. The bureaucracy did in fact play an independent role, a fact Trotsky would never fully admit. The resulting regime was, at that time, unique.

No restoration of the bourgeoisie had taken place. Moreover, at a time of profound industrial depression in the West, rapid economic growth occurred in the USSR, a point Trotsky repeatedly emphasised in support of his contention that the regime was not capitalist.




In his 1938 Transitional Programme Trotsky wrote:

The Soviet Union emerged from the October revolution as a workers’ state. State ownership of the means of production, a necessary prerequisite to socialist development, opened up the possibility of rapid growth of the productive forces. But the apparatus of the workers’ state underwent a complete degeneration at the same time: it was transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class, and more and more a weapon for the sabotage of the country’s economy. The bureaucratisation of a backward and isolated workers’ state and the transformation of the bureaucracy into an all-powerful privileged caste constitute the most convincing refutation – not only theoretically but this time practically – of the theory of socialism in one country.

The USSR thus embodied terrific contradictions. But it still remained a degenerated workers’ state. Such is the social diagnosis. The political prognosis has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie within the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism. [21]

Why should this be so? Trotsky was convinced that the bureaucracy was highly unstable and politically heterogeneous. All sorts of tendencies “from genuine Bolshevism to complete fascism” existed within it, he claimed in 1938. These tendencies were related to social forces, including

conscious capitalist tendencies ... mainly the prosperous part of the collective farms ... [which] provides itself with a wide base for petty bourgeois tendencies of accumulating personal wealth at the expense of general poverty, and are consciously encouraged by the bureaucracy. [22]

Within the bureaucracy,

fascist, counterrevolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with ever greater consistency, the interests of world imperialism. These candidates for the role of compradores consider, not without reason, that the new ruling layer can ensure their positions of privilege only through rejection of nationalisation, collectivisation and monopoly of foreign trade in the name of the assimilation of “Western civilisation”, i.e., capitalism ... Atop this system of mounting antagonism, trespassing ever more on the social equilibrium, the Thermidorean oligarchy, today reduced mainly to Stalin’s Bonapartist clique, hangs on by terroristic methods ... The extermination of the generation of Old Bolsheviks and of the revolutionary representatives of the middle and young generations has acted to disrupt the political equilibrium still more in favour of the right, bourgeois, wing of the bureaucracy, and of its allies throughout the land. From them, i.e., from the right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer to the pattern of “Western civilisation” in its fascist form.[23]

It is interesting that Trotsky at this time should draw attention to the similarities between fascism and Stalinism, when the Popular Front was still at its height. “Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundation, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity,” he wrote in The Revolution Betrayed. [24] And again “As in the fascist countries, from which Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ save in more unbridled savagery ...” [25] What they have in common – the destruction of each and every independent workers’ organisation and the atomisation of the working class – is very striking. But, on the assumption that there was a “deep difference in social foundations”, had a fascist workers’ state come into being?

Most important, however, is the question of the “restorationist” tendencies of the bureaucracy. There is no substantial argument in Trotsky’s writings at this period, other than that on the right of inheritance:

Privileges are only half their worth if they cannot be transmitted to one’s children. But the right of testament is inseparable from the right of property. It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder [26]

thus demonstrating the pressure on the bureaucracy to abandon its own control of the USSR in favour of becoming junior partners (compradores) of the various imperialist powers.

In Trotsky’s view, the Soviet Union, was still “a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism ... In the last analysis, the question [forward to socialism or back to capitalism] will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both in the national and the world arena.” [27]

That struggle had already developed in such a way as to strain Trotsky’s analysis to the very limits in the last years before his death.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House 1960, Vol.33, pp.65-6.

2. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1963, Vol.2, pp.194-200.

3. V. Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, New York: Monad 1973, p.39.

4. Trotsky, in I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, London: Oxford University Press 1954, p.509.

5. Lenin, op.cit., Vol.32, p.24.

6. ibid., p.48.

7. A detailed account is given in I. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, London: Oxford University Press 1959, especially chapters 2 and 5.

8. Platform of the Opposition, London: New Park 1973, pp.35-6.

9. Stalin, in Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London: New Park 1967, p.291.

10. Trotsky, Where is the Soviet Republic going?, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1929, New York: Pathfinder Press 1975, pp.47-8.

11. Ibid., p.50.

12. Ibid., p.51.

13. Trotsky, Problems of the development of the USSR, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.215.

14. Ibid., p.225. Emphasis in original.

15. A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1965, p.206.

16. Trotsky, The class nature of the Soviet State, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, New York: Pathfinder Press 1972, pp.117-8. Emphasis in original.

17. Trotsky, The workers’ state, Thermidor and Bonapartism, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1934-35, New York: Pathfinder Press 1971, pp.166-7.

18. Ibid., p.182.

19. I. Deutscher, op.cit., p.139.

20. Trotsky, The workers’ state, Thermidor and Bonapartism, op.cit., pp.172-73. Emphasis in original.

21. Trotsky, The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International, Documents of the Fourth International, New York: Pathfinder Press 1973, p.210. Emphasis in original.

22. Ibid., p.211.

23. Ibid., p.211-12.

24. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London: New Park 1967, p.278.

25. Trotsky, The death agony..., op.cit., p.213. Emphasis in original.

26. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, op.cit., p.254.

27. Ibid., p.255.


Last updated on 6.10.2003